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Orkney islands tour
Kirkwall, Stromness, Skara Brae

Thursday September 18th

We got away from Thurso after 8, and made it to John O'Groats just in time to buy tickets and board the Pentland Venture for the 9am departure. It was overcast but clear, with a light wind, and the crossing across to South Ronaldsay was a pleasant 35 minutes. We saw lots and lots of gannets, gulls, and skua, and possibly fulmar and razorbills.

The bus driver/guide was more into military history than birds. He also had a terrible line in jokes, but fortunately only occasionally indulged himself. We went across two of the Churchill Barriers, first to Burray and then to the "Mainland". Built to stop German submarines after one got past the blockships and sank the Royal Oak in 1939, the barriers have made communications much better, but have also completely altered the tides.

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one of the Churchill barriers

Forty minutes in Kirkwall gave us a chance to visit the lovely St Magnus cathedral and the two ruined "palaces" (the Bishops' and the Earls').

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St Magnus cathedral
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St Magnus cathedral
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a ruined palace

Driving around Scapa Flow, our driver told us stories about the famous ships that have sunk around Orkney -- most famously the Vanguard, the Royal Oak, and the Hampshire. Diving in the Flow is a popular attraction -- and the oil refinery in its middle is another a big income generator.

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Stromness
We stopped in Stromness for lunch. There were guillemots swimming around the wharf, which at first we thought were little auk. We bought a beremeal bread loaf and a local cheese, then walked a kilometre along the main road, which was just narrow enough to fit vehicles -- and we explored some of the steep side streets, which were even narrower! We ate lunch outside the museum, where we ended up having only ten minutes or so to look at the exhibits before having to head back.

Then it was off to Skara Brae, which is the biggest tourist attraction on the islands -- they claim it's the most visited tourist attraction in all Scotland, in fact. This is a Neolithic village preserved by sand dunes, which one can actually walk around, and touch the stone walls! There are shelves, and sleeping areas, and fireplaces.

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a four-horned sheep
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Skara Brae
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Skara Brae

Wandering onto the beach, we saw a seal on some rocks. It gave us the once over, swimming along the shore till it was just opposite us, watching us for a while, then swimming back to its rocks.

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