Bere Meal Bannocks, Squeaky Cheese, Skullsplitter Beer and A Fine Welcome

Different people have different priorities when planning a few days or a week or two away from home to unwind and return refreshed with batteries re-charged to re-commence the 9 to 5.
Invariably if you tell anyone you are heading off to Orkney for a short break, for instance, the stock response might almost sympathetically be: “I hope you get the weather.”
It’s a reaction that reveals a lack of understanding about the nature of the place, or why folks head there again and again for all kinds of reasons other than “the weather.”
In reality, few will head to Orkney looking to top up the sun tan. If it turns fine, and some summers are sublime, it is a bonus. Can you imagine a beach barbecue at 3am with the sun still hovering just out of sight on the horizon?
But extreme winds – and occasionally snow in winter time – can make the place even more appealing and dramatic – and reward with bursts of exhilaration more thrilling than any rollercoaster ride.
Looking for an adrenalin rush? Then stand on the cliff top (not too close to the crumbling edge) at Yesnaby with a force eight or nine gale blowing great lumps of Atlantic crashing against the rocks below and you’ll see what I mean. After a bracing experience this good, breathtaking takes on a new meaning.
So, I suppose “the weather” – at the extreme end, might actually be precisely what some adventure seekers are hoping for, and in winter time, especially, they sure won’t be disappointed.
On the most easterly point of the Orkney mainland at Deerness, another spectacle is equally breathtaking, and again, best seen when conditions are at their wildest.
High above the waves which batter the cliffs of Mull Head relentlessly throughout the short winter days, you can stand and marvel at a famous landmark called The Gloup.

Sea Cave

Formed by the roof collapse of a sea cave, all that remains is short archway through which the high tide roars, echoing off the sheer 60-foot sides of the steep chasm as it rushes in and out again.
These cliffs too are home to razorbills, kittiwakes, puffins and guillemots all of which breed on the wind-hewn ledges.
Orkney is one of the few remaining destinations in Scotland where visitors can still be sure of a good old-fashioned taste of traditional ways. Spend a long weekend – or better still, a week – on any one of the welcoming islands, and it’s a cert you’ll fall in love with the place.
They’ve been hunting and fishing, living off the land and celebrating a strong sense of community here for thousands of years.
There can be few places in Britain with so many internationally-important sites of historical interest, found so tightly grouped in the same location. It’s a crazy statistic, but there’s an average of three archaeological sites per square mile! Organised digs continue to throw up clues about what life was like there five thousand-plus years ago.
Many of the very oldest traditions are still practised today, passed from generation to generation.
Take the annual midwinter clash between the Uppies and Doonies in Kirkwall, called The Ba’ Game for instance. It’s thought to date back to Viking times.
One year when we were visiting, and out for a stroll with friends along the shoreline at Shapinsay, a young lad who had just recently started school, told me how the fishermen had let him have his very own lobster pot which was put out with theirs.
He was allowed to keep any of the partens (crabs big enough for the pot) that were caught.
This was to help teach him the ways, get him used to the prospect of bringing fresh seafood home for the table, and instil in him a feeling of being one of them and belonging to that long-standing community tradition.


All over these islands you will meet families who have been working the same land for countless generations, baking from recipes handed down across the centuries, tending livestock or fishing. Many of them may even be proud to be using the same equipment that their forefathers toiled with.
Mystery may still shroud the exactly-what-for of impressive monuments such as the Maes Howe burial chamber or the Ring of Brodgar standing stones, but Skara Brae is so well preserved and set out for all to see and comprehend that the well-presented visitor centre can easily put it all into full perspective.
Yes, Orkney packs in so many attractions that it’s well and truly an all-year-round attraction.
A bit of homework in advance will pay handsome rewards, or you may choose to engage one of the very talented Orkney guides (see details at end) for very worthwhile dividends.
We always love to source the classic home-made oatcakes, some of which have been produced from ancient family recipes passed from generation to generation, and are the finest that money can buy. Team them up with crumbly Grimbister, known locally as “squeeky cheese”, or save some of that to enjoy with bere meal or ‘floory’ bannocks made respectively from treacle-dark barley and a kind of girdle scone mix, and you’ll savour a true Orkney delicacy.
The Ferry Loupers as the locals refer to us folks from “the sooth” have been heading this way, and invariably returning over and over for many, many years.
Morag Robertson who welcomes B&B guests to the exceptional Mill of Eyrland, near the Loch of Stenness, has a long list of people who have become more like friends after repeated visits. The fabulous property was lovingly created from a fully-restored grain mill dating back to 1862 and is something really special.

Wild Brown Trout

In the winter months there’s nothing like a brisk walk along the shore to build up a sharp appetite. If guests land lucky and anglers have been enjoying tight lines, you may be offered wild

brown or sea trout for breakfast, which are legendary with devilled kidneys and local black or white pudding all among the featured favourites.
The Mill’s success has been built simply on a determination to lay on the best that Orkney has to offer. During our last stay, a friendly fisherman from nearby Stromness called with a box of crabs and a selection of scallops, queenies and other assorted fruits of the sea. The resultant feast was a truly memorable affair, the shellfish served in a white wine and three-Orkney-cheeses sauce. Unfortunately, due to pressure of business, Morag is these days no longer able to offer guests an evening meal.
Elsewhere, you may get a chance to sample another tasty local delicacy at meal time. The North Ronaldsay sheep which are unique to these islands as they happily graze on seaweed, produce meat that is very different in flavour. The flocks which have a longer life than most of their mainland cousins, enjoy free-range roaming on the shoreline.
Some visitors like to island-hop, spending each night or two in different company. Most landladies love a good chinwag and will pass on useful local information, you otherwise might miss.
Kirkwall itself is a friendly, bustling hive of activity with a good selection of shops and visitor attractions including St Magnus Cathedral.
Wander the main thoroughfare and wynds, one known as The Khyber Pass, in Stromness, and you will sense a distinctly time-locked feel. Here, there’s a fabulous view out over the harbour and to the Orphir Hills beyond. The port also has a proud seafaring tradition and maritime heritage as this stone plaque below illustrates.


Stand beside the mighty Ring of Brodgar silhouetted against the sky at sundown, with wild geese and swans providing the only sound for miles around, for another haunting experience.
Heading south over the Churchill Barriers which link the smaller islands of Burray and South Ronaldsay to the Orkney mainland, on days when the wind is tossing great plumes of sea water over the causeway, you might encounter a queue of motorists waiting patiently for the right moment to cross without passing through the saltwater car wash.
Locals know to count the waves so as to miss the big ones, which come crashing alarmingly in at regular intervals. The big waves are normally every fifth of seventh, depending on conditions, and it’s wise to be sure and miss them when they strike.
A few years back, we drove down to Burwick to visit the fascinating 5000-year-old chambered Tomb of The Eagles, discovered by farmer Ronnie Simison by chance in the 1950s.
The man who made the remarkable find was not so long ago still on hand to give interested visitors a conducted tour and tell his fascinating story. He supplied wellies when it was wet.
Once at the entrance, rubber knee pads fashioned from old car tyres were handed out to be tied around the legs of those intent on going in through the narrow entrance tunnel kneeling on his home-made trolley. There was a light switch inside wired to car batteries which illuminated the inner chamber to show where he discovered the bones of over 300 Stone Age people, and mysteriously the remains too of white-tailed eagles which gave the place its name.
When visitors asked if it had been thrilling to discover the tomb, he would shrug off the suggestion dismissively saying: “We’re no’ exciteable folk up here”.
For me, another local hero was the man who showed us around the Corrigall Farm Museum near the village of Harray.


A friend insisted we must meet Harry Flett, saying: “I saw him on television and he is, well, magic!”
So off we trooped to call on the man himself, the uncrowned king of Orkney folklore, with tales of Trows and roasting barley to make beer. Magic is a word you hear used a lot when you are in Orkney. Sometimes, it’s the islanders themselves who are being referred to.  There are inexplicable things which are… just magic. And, Harry certainly fitted that description.
“Look at this,” he beamed as he greeted us cheerily, hands blackened from fighting to keep the peat fire burning in the grate of the little house which is the centrepiece of the working museum we’d be shown around.
He held out an envelope half smothered in charcoal thumbprints which had arrived that day all the way from Germany with his photo glued to the front and the words: “To The Man In This Photo, Orkney.”
“Imagine, that,” he said, flattered and filled with wonder all at the same time. “They couldna mind ma name but it got here just the same.”
I was happy to see that this real Orkney gem was given the credit he deserved when the latest Orkney Tourism brochure arrived in the mail a few weeks after our visit.
Where good guides are concerned (those with a rich seam of local expertise, that is), Harry was just phenomenal. You only needed to spend half an hour in his company, and you’d come away with a glow inside. He was a natural and his lilting Orcadian dialect all added to the charm.
I was subsequently told (and hoped it might a silly rumour) that some bright spark (most probably an incomer from further “sooth” than Birmingham) employed by Orkney Islands Council had come up with the idea to put people in places such as this who “could speak Queen’s English and be understood”.
If that turned out to be true, I hope the culprit was given a firm talking to – or banished for good!

* Call the Mill of Eyrland on: 01856-850136. Everything else you might want to know at (01856-872856). You’ll literally be spoiled for choice when it comes to looking for the very best Orkney-born tour guides to introduce you to the secrets and treasures of these isles. Our top three would be (in no particular order) Jean Ross (, Patricia Long ( and Lizzie Linklater (