Land's End to John O'Groats Cycletouring Trip Part 2

Day 44 - John O'Groats to Kirkwall

As soon as the John O'Groats ferry office opened this morning, there was a queue outside. I joined and bought myself a return ticket to Burwick for myself and my bike. This was £26 plus £4 for the bike.

Image of my John O'Groats ferry ticket
John O'Groat's Ferry Ticket

The 10:30 sailing went quite smoothly as the weather was calm, but there were some interesting swirls in the sea about half way over from the conflicting water currents. The pilot had to keep correcting when the boat was turned by these swirls.

The landing point at Burwick is a pretty desolate place with just a small portacabin for people waiting for the ferry. There are large concrete blocks placed against the shoreline in the small bay. The winter weather must be pretty severe to warrant these. This makes me feel glad that we have had such as smooth crossing.

The landscape here on the Isle of South Ronaldsay is smooth with hardly any trees. Farming dominates and there are plenty of sheep and cows.

'The Churchill Barriers' link the Isles of South Ronaldsay, Burray, Glimps Holm and Lamb Holm to the Mainland and the main road runs over the top to give a transport link all the way from Burwick to the Mainland.

Before the second world war, there were no barriers here. The islands were all seperate and the sea freely flowed between them. The whole area of 'Scapa Flow' which is the natural bay to the west of these islands and also bordered by the Isles of Hoy and Flotta was used as the base of the British fleet because of its natural protection.

However, on the 14th October 1939, the German submarine U-47 daringly made its way through one of these passages and sunk the battleship HMS Royal Oak. A total of 833 lives were lost.

This was a heavy loss so early in the war, and Winston Churchill ordered the permanent closure of these 4 channels. A plan was devised to construct great barriers to bridge the gaps between the islands.

Balfour Beatty & Co. Ltd. started the work in 1940. They built work camps and piers on the uninhabited Islands on Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm.

Cableways were strung across the sea channels from one island to the next, and huge wire nets called 'bolsters', filled with stones were hoisted along the cable over the sea and tipped out. This process was repeated many thousands of times until a wall of rock was formed. Concrete blocks were then placed over this rock core to give protection from the action of the sea.

This project largely used the labour of Italian prisoners of war who were brought to Orkney in January 1942. They numbered about 1200 and were just some of those captured during the disasterous campaign in North Africa when Italy was brought in to the war. This followed the pact between Mussolinis fascist party, which came to power in Italy in 1922, and Hitler.

The Italians protested that they were being held against the terms of the Geneva convention in being forced to carry out this work on the barriers. However, a new Italian speaking camp commander managed to persuade them that the work was for the good of the local people in providing causeways which would allow them to cross from one island to the others.

The Italians wore bright red target disks on their clothing which covered holes to prevent their removal. After the capitulation of Italy, they were no longer classed as Prisoners of War, but they were still the responsibility of the war office. The target disks were removed and they were allowed to work on farms and to travel freely by bicycle. They were employed as workers and now paid in real money. Many made friendships with the local Orcadians.

By September 1944, the barriers were in an advanced stage and a large labour force was no longer required. Most of the Italians were moved to a camp at Skipton in Yorkshire where they carried out agricultural work. From here they were later repatriated back to Italy.

Still remaining on the island of Lamb Holm however, is a beautiful chapel which the Italians built whilst they were here.

I eventually get to Kirkwall, the largest town on the Orkneys, and I find the campsite at the Piquaquoy centre. Camping is £3.60 per night.

It seems that I have unknowingly timed my visit to Kirkwall to perfection as tomorrow is the Orkney County Show. Each island has its own show but once a year there is a large County show, and last year this had to be cancelled because of the foot and mouth precautions. Orkney was fortunate enough not to suffer an outbreak.

Lots of young people arrive at the campsite in readiness of the County Show and I wonder how much sleep I might get tonight and tomorrow! The County Show Dance is being held in the leisure centre that we are camped outside! 3 different people however remind me that this is the biggest event of the Orcadian calendar so I have to stay for the experience.

An open backed van runs by on the road outside the campsite and I hear its horn blowing and the shouts of the people on board. I can't see very well, but I later learn that this is the ceremony of Blacking, which is traditional on Orkney when somebody gets married. Usually it is for the men, but today it was a woman on board. The person being blacked is first covered in gunge - usually a mixture of eggs, flour and other things - perhaps rolled in the mud and then paraded around the town on the back of a truck or float. They usually end up in the street tied up with no clothes on somewhere at the end of the night. They are also given a number of tasks to complete before the wedding day, these being composed by their friends and family.

I meet Simon again, a biker I remember from the campsite in Thurso, and we agree to meet up in town in the evening. I find him in The Ayre Hotel playing pool and we move on to the Toravogue to see 'The Silver Penguins' who were signed up to play at the County Show dance tomorrow night.

As I come back out of the toilets I receive a full embrace from a beautiful woman who turns out to be working her way through her list of tasks before she gets married on Sunday! Perhaps this was the one on the truck earlier?

Lots of young people here having a good time and there is not a hint of trouble. Even Simon who is wearing his Rangers top in this very Celtic area receives fairly friendly banter from the locals. His celtic tatoos probably helped too.

At the end of the night, I follow the crowd and find a burger van with a huge queue lined up next to it. A chap I have been speaking to takes me right to the front of the queue and gets an order in for a couple of burgers.

I talk to the policewoman in the van over the road who thinks that many people stay on Orkney rather than moving away to University and never coming back.

Taking a short cut over a wooden fence I end up arse over tit making my way back to the tent.

Photograph of the Groat Inn at John O'Groats
The Groat Inn, John O'Groats

Photograph of some cows on the Orkney Islands
Cows on The Orkneys

Photograph of the Churchill Barriers on the Orkney Islands
The Churchill Barriers

Photograph of the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm
The Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm, The Orkneys

Photograph of the memorial next to the Italian Chapel
A memorial, next to the Italian Chapel

Photograph of St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall
St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall

© Copyright  Piers Pettman - This page last updated 08 July 2006
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