The seventy-odd islands that comprise the Orkneys are barely six kilometres off the north coast of Scotland, but their culture is more Norse than Gaelic, and despite their remote location and small size the Islands have played a disproportional role in the affairs of man ever since the first Celts settled there during the early Stone Age.
It was late morning when we pulled into Kirkwall, the capital and largest town on the Orkneys and joined local guide Ingrid for a tour of the Islands. Our first stop, the Ring of Brodgar, is a Neolithic stone circle consisting of towering sandstone slabs set into a circular ditch carved into solid bedrock. No one knows exactly how old the Ring is, but scientists estimate that it was built between 2500 and 2000 BC. Unlike Stonehenge the standing stones have not been reshaped, but considering the builders had no iron tools it is a remarkable feat of construction.
It would be a stretch to call the Ring of Brodgar a church, but it was certainly a gathering place for religious and cultural ceremonies for the people living in nearby Skara Brae, a Neolithic village dating back to about 3000 BC. The village is remarkably well preserved but the houses, if they can be called that, are little more than large holes that were originally covered by turf resting on driftwood beams and slabs of sandstone. Wood was a scarce commodity and almost everything inside the living space, from the peat-burning hearth to the cupboards; beds and boxes are fashioned from stone slabs. It must have been a harsh life but over the centuries the Orkney culture matured from stone to bronze and eventually to a modern iron-based technology.
Sometime during the 9th century the Vikings, better known for their pillaging than for their colonization, began settling the islands and for the next 300 years the Orkneys became part of a powerful and expansive Norse culture. The last of the ruling Norse earls was killed in 1231 but their language, architecture and traditions had a lasting impact on the Islands' culture. St Magnus Cathedral built by the Vikings in 1137 is still the very heart of Kirkwall. Built of red sandstone it is an awe-inspiring work of medieval architecture both outside and inside where the towering sandstone columns seem to reach for the sky. "The church gets used more and more" Ingrid told me as we walked in toward the alter, "attendance at church services is down but the building has become a sort of community centre where plays and concerts are held and gatherings of all sorts come together. It's truly the social centre of Kirkwall."
It was late in the day when we headed out to Scapa Flow the landlocked natural harbour in the centre of the Island Group that served as a British naval base during both World Wars. "We are going to the Italian church," Ingrid told us as she drove across one of the four Churchill corridors. We parked in a small gravel lot at the base of the hill below the tiny Italian Church.