Heritage and Whisky in Scotland's Orkney Islands

by Frank Demain

I was very excited to discover that one branch of my family had its roots in the Orkney Islands, a handful of miles off the north coast of Scotland. It seems that my great grandfather was a master mariner, no less. As I had already acquired a taste for that magnificent Orkney malt whisky, Highland Park, it was not too big a step to decide that a trip to the Orkneys was required to investigate further my Orcadian roots and to visit the distillery just outside Kirkwall. My wife, essentially a gin-and-tonic drinker, does admit to liking the occasional wee dram and so it was not too difficult to persuade her to join me on my voyage of genealogical and sensory discovery.

Fortunately – and unusually for that part of the world - the sea was calm as we crossed on the ferry from Scrabster, a few miles west of John o’ Groats, the northernmost point on the Scottish mainland, towards the port of Stromness on the largest of the Orkney islands, confusingly called Mainland. Because of the flatness of the sea we were able to pass close to the Old Man of Hoy, a magnificent 449 feet red sandstone sea stack, perched on a plinth of basalt. From the sea it looks truly formidable and, despite its closeness to civilisation, it was not until 1966 that it was first climbed, by a team led by the famous British mountaineer Chris Bonnington. There and then I decided that my visit would have to include a trip to view the stack from the bottom on the landward side.

Old Man of Hoy sea stack, Orkney Islands, Scotland.

We enjoyed the warm, friendly welcome at the Highland Park distillery, and we had the joy of sampling rather older, finer bottlings than those to which our wallets normally extend. Smooth, peaty, rich, warming. 

A visit to the helpful people at the Orkney Family History Society, housed in the handsome Orkney Library in Kirkwall, provided some useful information. However, my ancestral investigations proved a little less definitive than I had hoped. Even now I have been unable to discover the origins of the elusive Betsy Birnie, maternal grandmother of my captain, Walter Weir Wilson. And sadly, I found that grannie’s highland home no longer exists on the narrow coastal plain on the east side of the island of Hoy. 

The rest of the small (55 square miles) island of Hoy is a mountainous plateau bordered by steep sea cliffs on its western and northern seaboards. The plateau is cut from east to west by Rackwick Glen, where we visited the Dwarfie Stane, reputedly a 5,000 year-old megalithic chambered tomb carved out of a giant block of Devonian Old Red Sandstone located in the steep-sided glaciated valley. On the west end of the glen is the beautiful Rackwick Bay, just north of which proudly and defiantly stands Old Man of Hoy.  

Naturally I was frustrated that my genealogical discoveries were limited. Maybe another visit, with more time for investigation, will reap greater rewards. But any disappointment was more than compensated for by the sheer pleasure of visiting Orkney. There is so much to see – an abundance of remains of Neolithic and Iron Age settlements; St. Magnus Cathedral, a fine example of Romanesque architecture whose construction began in 1137 when the islands were ruled by the Norse Earls of Orkney; and Scapa Flow, a sheltered body of water where, after the end of World War I, the German High Seas Fleet was scuttled and the remaining wrecks now provide a favoured haunt for recreational divers. Add to that the friendliness of the people, fresh seafood and not one but two malt whisky distilleries!

Find information and ideas on Orkney travel at VisitScotland.com


About the author: Frank Demain is the author of the Kindle eBook, “Off the Beaten Track”, a collection of Peter Sinclair adventures, featuring The Old Man of Hoy as the inspiration for the book's fourth and final adventure.

[Photography courtesy the author.] 



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