One of the first things that you notice on Orkney is the sheer age of many of the archaeological sites.
The intricate Neolithic chambered cairn at Maeshowe was probably constructed almost 5000 years ago, and 4,000 years later it was broken into by Vikings who left runic graffiti all over the stones.
Nearby is the ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Steness, just two of the hundreds of sites over the islands, predating the pyramids by maybe 1,000 years.
It’s not just ruins that date from prehistoric times. There is a type of barley called bere which is still grown commercially here. This six-row grain is adapted to a short growing season and will be ready for harvest in about 90 days.
Most of the 5-15 acre crop is milled at the Barony Water Mill, which as well as being a summer attraction, spends the winter as a working mil.
It is destined for bread, biscuits, bannocks and home brew, but some of the output finds its way to a nearby Orkney brewery, where it is made into an ale called Bere.
At least I think it does. I visited a pub in Kirkwall called Helgi’s and ordered a pint after seeing it on a hand pump at the bar. As the barman pulled it, he announced that the barrel was finished, but I could have the pint for free if it was OK. It was, and I did. It was different to a usual bitter and not unpleasant, but any further attempts at research, specifically the type of hops used has met with a blank as neither of the island breweries list it on their web pages.
It is not all ancient history on Orkney. During both the first and second world war, Scapa Flow in the middle of the islands was the home of the British fleet, and the scene of the sinking of the Royal Oak, hit by a torpedo from a German U-Boat that penetrated the defences.
Many people think that the first war ended in 1918, but that was the date of the armistice, or cease fire.
At this time, the German fleet was interned at Scapa Flow, still crewed by German sailors. The peace negotiations dragged on through 1919, and it seemed that in June they would break down. A four-day extension was agreed, but the message did not reach Orkney, and the 74 strong German fleet was scuttled by their crew on June 21st.
Not surprisingly, Scapa Flow lends its name to the most readily available beer found on the Islands. Whilst the Bar Wife was in the craft centre searching out work from the Harray Potter, I was exploring some of the pubs. Scapa Special seemed to be on every bar, and despite its questionable advertising which claims that it goes down better than the German Fleet, it soon became a firm favourite of mine, perhaps because in the Good Beer Guide it is described as a typical Lancashire-style bitter, and as such a bit more hoppy than the typical Scottish beer.
Last year we made a trip to Shetland, and this year Orkney. If you only go once, which one should you choose? For beer, it is definitely Orkney with every almost every pub offering cask ale, and some classic places to drink such as Robertson’s Coffeehoose and Bar, a converted coal merchants. For a feeling of remoteness and being at the end of the world, Shetland. Maybe next year we will try the Hebrides.