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To the ends of the Earth

Updated: Jun 22, 2023


Every inch forward I moved from the Cromarty Firth took me further north than I’ve ever been before in my life. John O’Groats was one of those odd experiences. A place I’d heard and read about most of my life (forever twinned with England’s Land’s End, it’s ingrained in the brain of every Briton), it wasn’t really what I’d imagined. That said, I have no idea what it was I had actually expected. Let’s just say it was ‘unfussy’. It’s a place that wears its mantle in the collective UK psyche very lightly. Perhaps John O’Groats understands and accepts its role as a spot on the map that people urgently want to get to or get away from. There’s no need for any lingering in between.

And so it was I drove onto the catamaran in search of the next adventure. That made it a nap hand of bus, train, airplane, car, and boat as modes of transport on my recent travels. Oh, and a lot of ‘on foot’ stuff too I suppose. The jolt of disconnection as we pulled away from the jetty and the mainland was surprisingly unsettling but within minutes we were in open sea and there was no point in dwelling on it.

An hour later we cruised into Saint Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay, one of the 70 isles that make up the Orkneys. It was genuinely exciting to explore a whole new world and off I drove to make my way to Kirkwall, the capital town on these islands.

Saint Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

I was surprised how big Orkney is. Again, I’m not really sure what my expectations were, but there were plenty of long roads and rolling hills, and farmland seemed to stretch to the horizon line through my windscreen. Kirkwall is 15 miles from Saint Margaret’s Hope, connected by a series of causeways linking together the larger isles. Seeing the wrecks of old warships in the waters of Scapa Flow was a shock, particularly while trying to keep a straight line over the causeways.

Kirkwall is an unpretentious town. It has the feel of a northern English mill town, with its squat sandstone buildings and grey slate roofs. Dominating the centre of town is Saint Magnus Cathedral, a twelfth century construction built in the Roman style with striking alternating bands of red and yellow sandstone.

The tomb of explorer John Rae in Saint Magnus Cathedral. Rae was the true discoverer of the north-west passage, not Franklin as history books often misinform

It goes against my better judgement to acknowledge that I’ve grown to love visiting cathedrals. It’s something I’ve talked about previously in this blog. Having just toured Spain and visited several magnificent Spanish cathedrals I have to say that Kirkwall’s contribution to the field more than holds its own. It’s not large by any means. I wouldn’t say its exterior is particularly beautiful or ornate but there is something else here I never once felt in Spain. There’s a true warmth inside and it felt like, dare I say, a cozy place to me. There was no feeling of threat or of the supernatural. I suppose its relative smallness facilitates this but I didn’t feel any diminished sense of respect for it over that. Quite the opposite in fact. Maybe that cold sense of clinical power I feel in the larger cathedrals is an overrated quality. After all, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Saint Magnus was said to have been a good and kindly man. His bones are interred in one of the pillars inside the cathedral. I think somehow the place has taken on his persona.


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