After coming up a little short on my goal of visiting many of Orkney’s historic sites on Day 6, I decided to regroup and dedicate some time to a planning session later that night. I was scheduled for the more extensive “Scapa Experience” tour at 2:30 on Day 7, which their website described as being 90 minutes long. That left me a decent amount of time before (and possibly a little time after) the tour for the sightseeing that I was hoping to do.
The Undiscovered Scotland website is a great resource for the type of information I was seeking, as it is essentially an online visitor’s guide of Scotland. Its maps, with links to pages about the individual sites, are especially helpful. There are also links to the pages on the Historic Environment Scotland website, which contains more information about the sites, such as hours of operation (something I only realized out after the fact). Using Google maps to figure out drive times, I was able to plot out a schedule for the day’s activities.
The owner of the B&B where I was staying had informed me that there was a bit of an issue / controversy with visiting cruise liners coming into the port at Kirkwall and flooding the island with huge numbers of tourists. Apparently they all flock to the well known historic sites and essentially overrun them; all while spending very little money during their time on the island. This was enough of a concern that he had a schedule of the planned dockings so his guests could avoid these tourist influxes. I had heard that the liners couldn’t dock in times of high winds and I think that may have been the case this day; in spite of one with 6000 passengers being on the schedule, the sites I went to were only moderately busy at best.
I got on the road around 10:00 and arrived at my first stop, the Broch of Gurness, about 30 minutes later. A broch is a circular defensive tower made of stone and the one at Gurness is encircled by a community of smaller buildings, which is not always the case. Of the roughly 500 brochs spread across northern Scotland, the Broch of Gurness is one of the prime examples.
The upper portion of the tower collapsed long ago, but is believed to have reached 30 feet in height. Amazing amounts of detail can still be seen in the lower portion of the structure, which is 60 feet in diameter. The broch and its surrounding smaller buildings are encircled by a ring of defensive ditches 150 feet in diameter
The entire site was constructed some time before 200 BC, in the middle of Britain’s Iron Age. 700 to 800 years later it was largely abandoned and had been filled in, allowing the site to remain undisturbed until it was rediscovered and excavated in 1929.
My original plan had been to make a counterclockwise circle around the north-west lobe of the island, staying close to the coast. That would have brought me to three more sites; the Brough of Birsay, Skara Brae and Maeshowe. The Brough of Birsay is an abandoned settlement that was inhabited by the Picts and the Norse at various times. The site is on a tidal island that is accessible by a small causeway, but only for two hours before and two hours after low tide. The tidal timing didn’t line up with my schedule and I really didn’t have time to explore four sites before my distillery tour anyway. I was just going to stop by the area near Birsay to check out the coast views.
That plan changed after a chat with the gentleman manning the visitor center at the Broch of Gurness. He explained that access to Maeshowe is tightly controlled, with guided tours leaving every hour, on the hour. I had driven through that area the day before and seen a sign saying the parking lot for the site was closed. A new visitor center for the site, which is a mile or so down the road from the original one, was built recently. Groups leave from the new facility and take a shuttle bus to the old parking lot before walking out to the site. Fortunately this was explained to me at the Broch of Gurness, because there is not good signage for this new arrangement at the old visitor center.
Getting in the car and checking the GPS, I saw that if I went straight to Maeshowe I would arrive five minutes before the noon tour. So off I went, circling back around to the south. Maeshowe (pronounced ‘maze-ow’) is a chambered cairn; essentially an earth covered stone-mound style of tomb.
This looks like a simple grassy mound (24 feet high and 115 feet in diameter) from the outside, but the inside reveals its astonishing stone construction. The entrance passage is only about four feet high and maybe three feet wide, making for a stooped walk down its 36 foot length. This leads to the central chamber which measures 15 feet by 15 feet. Smaller passages in the other three walls of the main room open into smaller side cells.
Exact dating here is difficult, but it is thought that the tomb was constructed around 2800 BC, making it about 200 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Consisting of sandstone slabs weighting up to 30 tons, this is an impressive monument. Estimates of its construction effort range from 40,000 to 100,000 man-hours. Large vertical stones buttress each corner of the central chamber and it is thought that these may have been free standing before the rest of the structure was built around them; they could even have been in the center of a larger circle of standing stones. The entrance passage is perfectly aligned with the profile of the Barnhouse stone, a 10 foot high standing stone located almost half a mile from Maeshowe. On the winter solstice, the last rays of the setting sun pass directly down the tomb’s narrow passage when the sun passes over the top of the Barnhouse stone.
When the site was abandoned after a few hundred years of use, its entrance passage was filled in and sealed off. In 1153 a group of marauding Norsemen broke into the tomb through a corner of its roof, seeking shelter from a winter storm. They carved runic graffiti in the walls, leaving behind the largest collection of such inscriptions known to exist outside of Scandinavia. The modern excavation of Maeshowe in 1861 was done rather poorly by today’s archeological standards. The upper portion of the roof collapsed and had to be replaced by modern construction in 1910. The inner walls rise vertically for four and a half feet before they gradually begin sloping inwards, eventually forming the beehive shaped ceiling. It may have originally been 15 feet or more in height, but the repaired top limits the height to 12.5 feet now.
The only downside to the tour of Maeshowe is that photography is not allowed inside the tomb. By the time the shuttle bus got us back to the visitor center, it was almost 1:00. I was only 15 minutes from Skara Brae, but that was in the opposite direction from the Scapa distillery, so it would take another 30 minutes to get back there. That left me just 45 minutes to see Orkney’s most famous Neolithic site; it would be a quick visit, but better than not seeing it at all.
Skara Brae is a Neolithic settlement that was occupied from roughly 3200 BC to 2500 BC. The site consists of eight clustered houses that were built of stone and sunk into the ground, which provided insulation and structural stability. Passing through the visitor center brings you outside, behind the building, where there’s a modern recreation of one of the Skara Brae houses. Visitors can enter this “model house”, which has a complete roof (unlike the excavated originals) and recreations of many household items that likely would have been in such a place.
From here it’s a walk of five minutes or so, toward the ocean and then along the coastline, to the actual site. The reasons for the abandonment of Skara Brae aren’t known for sure, but everything was covered in sand not long after it stopped being used. The buildings are so well preserved that the site is often referred to as Scotland’s Pompeii.
Each house is a little larger than 400 square feet, on average. Stone furnishings, including hearths, cupboards, dressers, beds and seats remain to this day. The village also has a drainage system which connects to a primitive toilet in each of the houses.
Skara Brae was discovered in the winter of 1850, when a severe storm removed earth from the site and exposed the outline of the village. Partial excavations took place in the 1850’s and 1860’s. The site then laid undisturbed until it was partially plundered in 1913 and one of the houses was damaged by a storm in 1924. Finally the decision was made to protect and further study the site.
The visitor ticket to Skara Brae also includes access Skaill House. This is the 17th century mansion that was the home of William Graham Watt, the man who discovered Skara Brae. My expedited tour kept me from venturing into the mansion, but I had plenty of time to examine and photograph the Neolithic village. I probably wouldn’t have lingered much longer even if I could have, given the blustery weather that day. With a few minutes to spare back in the visitor center, I stopped to watch the short introductory video that I had skipped on the way in, before heading back to Kirkwall for the 2:30 tour of the Scapa distillery.
One of the greatest things about the visitor center at Scapa is that there is a visitor center at Scapa; this relatively new addition to the distillery went online in 2015. Tours were known to happen before that, but I don’t think there was any way to arrange them in advance or to guarantee one at all. From what I had read, the suggested protocol was to just show up and knock on the door. If the staff on-hand had some free time they would show you around. If they were too busy with the matters of making whisky, you’d be asked to leave (politely I presume).
When I arrived just in time for the 2:30 tour, I joined a small group. The other four people were family members who had toured many distilleries and were all quite knowledgeable of the whisky making process. One of the women actually worked as a consultant in the Alcohol sector and was studying energy efficiency and byproduct use in distilleries; finally, someone on a tour who was asking harder questions than I was. We all got along quite well and shared many of our past tour experiences. Eric, our tour guide (who I had met at the pub the night before), did a great job. He was relatively new to leading tours and still learning some of Scapa’s technical and historical details. A lot of tour guides would have been intimidated by a group that already knew so much and asked so many challenging questions. But Eric was happy to absorb some of our collective knowledge, share the interesting bits that he knew, and write down our more esoteric questions for his own research.
We learned that the distillery is currently producing about 1 million liters per annum, with a crew of five still-men. Unpeated Concerto barley is used and 28 ton deliveries are made two to three times per week. Scapa normally operates seven days a week, but one of the five production workers had recently broken his wrist and was unable to work, so they were not running over the weekends at the time.
Unfortunately photography was not allowed on the tour, so I don’t have much to show. We soon learned that Scapa was closed from 1994 through 2004, but that extensive renovations had occurred in 2004 and 2005, increasing the distillery’s production capacity. During the closure period the crew from Highland Park came over and made whisky at Scapa for two months a year starting in 1997. We were told that this only went on for a few years, but looking online I’ve seen independent bottlings of Scapa that were distilled in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003, so I think it’s safe to say that there was limited production each year from 1997 through the reopening in 2004.
In spite of the changes made in 2004/2005, the distillery, which dates to 1885, still retains plenty of older equipment and the production processes have not been automated. There are no computers on site, and the Porteus mill is connected to an auger and a dresser which are both housed in wood. Cask filling on-site did stop in 2014 however, and the new spirit in now tankered to Keith for filling.
There are eight washbacks in total; four newer ones of stainless steel and four older ones of corten steel which date to the 1950’s. Each takes a charge of 13,500 liters of wash at 8% alcohol. Fermentation is a relatively lengthy 80 hours, but that figure had been over 100 hours before production was increased in 2005.
Up to the still room, we were presented with beautiful views of Scapa Flow through the area’s large windows. This is a body of water which is sheltered by half a dozen of Orkney’s islands that surround it. There’s a lot of fascinating history here, with Scapa Flow having been home to Britain’s naval fleet during WWI and WWII. The German fleet was scuttled by its own crews here at the end of WWI as the details of the Treaty of Versailles were being negotiated. Our tour guide also talked a bit about the HMS Royal Oak, a British battleship that was torpedoed and sunk in Scapa Flow by a German U-boat in 1939 with a loss of 833 lives.
The two stills at Scapa are quite interesting. The wash still is a Lomond Still. This was a design that came into use in the late 1950’s and these were only employed at a small number (four or five) of Hiram Walker owned distilleries. They look similar to traditional post stills, except that the part above the pot is a constant diameter cylinder which has three plates inside. The angle of the plates could be changed from horizontal to vertical, and they could also be cooled with cold water. This allowed variations in the distilling regimes to produce different types of spirit. Scapa is the only distillery making whisky with a Lomond Still today (Bruichladdich uses a repurposed one to make gin), but the plates were removed in 1978. The Lyne arm comes straight out of the side of the cylinder near its top. That then makes an “S” turn down and out before going into a purifier and on to the condenser. The spirit still has a more traditional tapering upper section and swan neck. The lyne arm is angled slightly up, but it too makes a downward “S” turn before it continues into the condenser.
We made our way out to the grassy area behind the still house for an even better view of Scapa Flow. There’s an old waterwheel out back which presumably once powered the works here. Today the distillery operates on electric motors and steam produced in a fuel oil boiler. It was also nice to see the distillery name in bold, black letters on the side of the whitewashed warehouse facing the sea. This is something that is most commonly associated with Islay’s distilleries.
We then entered one of the four newer warehouses on the site. These have casks in racks that go six high. Several older dunnage style warehouses still stand, but are no longer used because they contain asbestos. Cask filling on site stopped in 2014, and spirit is now tankered to Keith for filling. 30,000 casks from Scapa are stored in Speyside; the 15,000 casks at Scapa are from a variety of Pernod Ricard owned distilleries.
We did see several Scapa casks in the warehouse we toured and the oldest one was from 1993, so there is definitely still some pre-closure whisky yet to be bottled. The distillery does use a very small number of sherry casks, but most of the production goes into bourbon barrels. The majority of that is aged in first fill barrels and destined for single malt, but some goes into second fill barrels and is set aside for blends, primarily Ballantine’s 17 year.
The tasting portion of the tour actually started in the warehouse. There was a tiny, separate room attached to the building that held a single duty-paid cask. Samples were drawn directly from it and deposited in our souvenir tasting glasses. This was a bourbon barrel that had been filled some time in 2004, making it at least 12 years old, and the alcohol level was between 56% and 57%. All of the Scapa expressions I had tasted previously had been chill filtered and bottled at 40%, so it was interesting to see the other side of the house style. This one was big and boisterous; a bit fiery but still with plenty of flavor development.
We then went back to the visitor center for the rest of the tasting, with samples of new make spirit, the flagship Skiren and Glansa, which is the newest bottling. There was a lot of conversation among the group as we tasted, so I neglected to make any tasting notes. Un-aged spirit is something that I wouldn’t want to drink on a regular basis, but it is always nice to have as a reference when exploring the aged expressions. I was kind of unimpressed by the Skiren (non-age stated, 40%) when I tried it on the ferry ride to Orkney two days before, but I found it a bit more appealing on the tour. Skiren does express the light, fruity and heathery house style, but it still comes across as somewhat youthful and lacking balance, especially compared to the 16 year old. Glansa is another NAS, 40% bottling, but it has been finished in casks that previously held heavily peated whisky. It was introduced in the fall of 2016. This expression still has the minor flaws seen in Skiren, but with the added complexity of some delicate peat smoke.
When I wrote about Scapa back in early 2014, I compare the 14 year to the 16 year and speculated about the makeup of each and the future of Scapa’s official bottlings. Our guide told us that there was no sherry cask whisky in the 16 year old, so I appear to have been wrong there (though I still suspect that there might have been a very small sherry cask influence in it). We were also told that it had whisky as old as 18 years in the mix. I had correctly speculated that there was older whisky in some of the batches, as its production years would have otherwise spanned the three years of total closure. My final bit of guesswork was that the 16 year would continue on and be joined by a 10 year old later in 2014 or a 14 year old in 2016. What actually happened was the mid-2015 discontinuation of the 16 year and introduction of Skiren.
Unfortunately, Skiren holds the same price point that the 16 year did, retailing between $70 and $80. I’m guessing that it’s a vatting of younger whiskies (maybe 6 to 9 years old), and I’m hopeful that this strategy will allow them to build stocks and reintroduce some age stated whiskies in the not-too-distant future. A modestly priced one aged in the low teens and a more expensive one aged to the high teens would be nice.
Keeping a close eye on the time, I realized that I would be able to visit one more historic site before the day was over. On the north side of Kirkwall, less than two miles from the Scapa distillery, are Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces, which are combined as one attraction with a shared visitor center. I got there about 45 minutes before closing time, so my tour was somewhat fast paced, but I did manage to see every part of each building and photograph them pretty extensively. These two buildings are across the street from the St. Magnus Cathedral, which was built over the course of three centuries, starting in 1137. The Cathedral is well light at night and looked quite impressive on my walk home from the pub the night before.
Bishop’s Palace was built in the 1150’s as a residence for Bishop William the Old, the first Bishop of the new Cathedral. The building started as a large, but relatively straight-forward two-story house, the ground floor of which is still largely intact. The building was remodeled with significant additions by subsequent occupants.
King Haakon IV of Norway took up residence there in 1263, shortly before his death. After falling into disrepair, the palace was renovated in the 1540’s by Bishop Robert Reid. This is when the large tower was added. Visitors can climb to its highest level for great views of the Cathedral and surrounding parts of Kirkwall. The palace was next taken over by Earl Robert Stewart in 1568 and further renovated by his son Patrick in 1600.
Earl Patrick Stewart then decided to have something more impressive built and acquired the land next door where slave labor was used to construct Earl’s Palace in 1607. This building remained in use in the death of Bishop Mackenzie in 1688, and then fell into disrepair.
Earl’s Palace is impressive in both scale and design, and is one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in Scotland. The upper floors are roofless, but the grandeur of the place is still exemplified by its, huge fireplaces, corbelled turrets, massive windows, and the grand hall.
I found myself back at Helgi’s latter that evening for dinner, and I had to finish with the Scapa 16 year again. I was hoping to taste as many different whiskies as possible during these two weeks, but I knew that I was unlikely to have an opportunity to enjoy this lovely malt again.