Sunday, July 27, 2008


The Orkney Islands, roughly twenty-five kilometers north of the Scottish coast between Thurso and John O'Groats, are a nice enough place in summer, especially when the weather is real good - like it was when we were there. The small archipel counts some 70 islands, of which 30 are inhabited, but the grand majority of the 24,000 plus Orcadians live on the biggest island, rather prosaically called Mainland. The photo shows Marwick Head, almost on Mainland's northwesternly corner. Almost, because that spot is taken in by a small islet with a heavy past, Brough of Birsay. I like to think of the Orkneys as a place with two faces, because as lovely as it is in summer, as rough and hard it seems to be in winter. And had I been able to take an aerial photograph of the scene, that duality would have been far better illustrated, because immediately behind the cruel beauty of the steep cliffs lie wide pastoral meadows, gently sloping downwards to a broad, fertile albeit treeless valley.

The strange 30 feet high structure on top of Marwick Head is the Kitchener Memorial. Lord Kitchener of Khartoum,
the UK's senior soldier in the first half of World War I, was a national hero, victor of the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 and other imperial conflicts. Therafter he showed himself to be a capable administrator of Sudan and Egypt, and in a later phase of India. In 1902 Kitchener succesfully terminated the Boer War in South Africa, and twelve years later his heavily mustachioed face became an icon because of the thousands of early-war recruiting posters exhorting the British to enlist. On June 5th, 1916 Kitchener departed from Scapa Flow, the UK's big naval base on the Orkneys, on board the cruiser HMS Hampshire. In a mission best described as a forerunner to WWII's Lend-Lease Act, his task was to look with the Czar and his staff into how Russia could best be helped against the Germans. The Hampshire set off for Russia in a heavy storm, rounding the Orkney's western coast because it was considered safer against U-boat attacks. The gales were so terrible that two accompanying destroyers quickly had to give up and return to base. Between Marwick Head and Brough of Birsay, barely a mile off the coast, the HMS Hampshire suddenly blew up, a fact witnessed by the Fraser family living at Birsay. In fifteen minutes the cruiser went under, and although an estimated 200 men were able to board three life-rafts, no more than twelve made it to the coast. They were the sole survivors of the 655 men on board the ship. Later it was determined that the cruiser in all likelihood had struck a contact mine laid days earlier by the U-75.

The islands abound with war stories, but their historical past is rife with enigmas from a far earlier era, for I have never before in my life come across a place with so many neolithic settlements, of which the ones on display possibly constitute but a small part. But more about that later.