O is for Orkney

We’ve had a few weeks off from our alphabetical trip around the world for a few little distractions like Christmas and our family New York New Year’s adventure. But now we’re back home and settled back into our regular routines. Fortunately, we can still explore from home and for the letter “O” we chose to visit the Orkney Islands.

The Orkney Islands are a chain of islands just north of Scotland and south of the Shetland Islands with a population of about 26 000. This may seem like a bit of an odd choice, but the Orkney Islands are close to my heart. I’ve only had the chance to visit once back in my student days, but it is also the birthplace of my great great grandparents. My cousin has done quite a bit of work tracing the family roots over the years and one of the branches he’s had some success following is the Orkney branch on my father’s mother’s side. Part of his success is probably due to the small population of the islands. When I visited, I was able to go right to the public library in the largest town of Kirkwall and within 30 minutes I was reading a census from 1851 listing my great great grandfather as a teenager who lived with his mother, who was most likely widowed. They were both classified as “paupers”.

Today Orkney is a little more prosperous, with farming still important as well as fishing and tourism. The climate is very mild considering that it is at the same latitude as Oslo and Churchill Manitoba. Unfortunately, the lack of extremes also applies to summer, with July temperatures being only 5-10 degrees higher than January. One of my memories of my visit to the islands was being bundled up in all the clothes I brought and being able to see my breath in early July.

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The Orkney Islands also have a huge concentration of Neolithic sites. There is a Maeshowe  is a unique chambered passage grave, like a smaller version of Newgrange and several sets of standing stones. One of the most incredible sites is Skara Brae, the remains of a stone age village that was discovered after a storm washed away a large section of beach. It was occupied about 5000 years ago and looks like a combination of the Flintstone village and a hobbit settlement.

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We started our exploration of the Orkney Islands this week by learning about Skara Brae and attempting to make a model of the village out of Lego. My son got quite into it, making little tables and chairs for his stone age Lego people.

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Now you might think it would be hard to find an Orkney Island inspired menu, but with a bit of research I was able to find quite a few unique Orkney foods. They grow a unique form of barley called bere which is one of the oldest cultivated grains in the world. I wasn’t able to find any real bere on such short notice, but I made biscuits made with barley flour as a substitute. Orkney cheddar is also famous, so I served cheddar cheese along with an Orkney version of neeps and tatties called clapshot. We’ve had a bad cold going through the house, so for a main dish I made traditional Scottish cock-a-leekie soup, and I also served blueberries because a) they grow in Scotland and b) I needed something besides leeks to balance out all the carbs in the meal. To drink I even found a cocktail called the Orkney Chapel, made with scotch, vermouth, Grand Marnier and simple syrup. Yum.

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For dessert I made a recipe called Orkney ginger broonie. It was a dense loaf made with ginger, oatmeal and molasses. The name made me wonder if it shared roots with the brownie. I did a bit of research and although there was nothing linking the Orkney word “broonie” to the American word “brownie” a few sources did mention that the original brownie was a gingerbread type loaf, not a dense chocolate square. Very interesting. Also very tasty, especially with whipped cream.

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So that was Orkney week. It was a lot of fun to research a more obscure, off the beaten track location. I’m always amazed at how many interesting places there are to see in the world. It also makes me realize that a lifetime of travel will never be enough to see it all. But that doesn’t mean I can’t try!

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