By Janice Hopper

When a teenage boy crawls out of the sea wearing the remains of his silver skin the Orcadians question if he’s possibly a ‘selkie’? Half man, half seal, selkies are part of the mythology of Orkney. 
In the novel, ‘Silver Skin’ author Joan Lennon taps into the storytelling of this northern archipelago. 
Part of Orkney’s appeal is the mythology and unique archaeological finds on the islands. 
The neolithic town of Skara Brae is of global significance, revealing how man lived thousands of years ago. This find alone would be staggering, but as a visitor to Orkney, you can also drop by the village of Braes of Rinyo on Rousay, explore the ceremonial Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, visit the burial chambers at The Tomb of the Eagles in South Ronaldsay, Maes Howe on the mainland, and Quoyness Cairn on Sanday, and discover the sacred side of Orkney at the Ness of Brodgar. Orkney 
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is a location where travellers can almost reach out and touch the past.
There’s also the staggering military and naval history to consider. The scuppering of the German fleet in Scapa Flow in WW1, the artwork of the prisoners of WW2 who created the Italian Chapel out of the most basic of materials. The past is omnipresence in Orkney. Add mythology and wildlife, seals and selkies, into the mix and these islands are truly atmospheric.
Our journey started aboard the NorthLink ferry, sailing direct from Aberdeen up to Kirkwall on a gloriously mild day. The North Sea was like a pond and we couldn’t have experienced a calmer crossing.
Our first morning on the islands we headed west from Kirkwall and pulled in at the Ness of Brodgar. An archaeological site in progress, we watched the professionals digging and brushing the stonework before our very eyes. Currently only 10% of the site is uncovered. There’s no visitor centre or toilets, just the past staring you in the face. Believed to be the sacred heart of Neolithic Orkney the Ness of Brodgar is home to a Cathedral that’s said to be one of the most significant buildings in Neolithic Britain, and a ‘Many Coloured Hall’ which was built around 2700 BC and once had a stone tiled roof, richly coloured slabs (painted red, yellow and brown) and ritual artefacts. We were standing at the forefront of British prehistory.
The next stop, the enigmatic Ring of Brodgar, with the peaceful seascape in the background seemed to tap into something innate in the children. Our toddler waddled from vast stone to vast stone placing the flat of his hand on each edifice. 
If ‘tree-hugging’ is an activity then our boy’s a ‘stone-hugger’. It’s free and unsupervised for guests to walk around these spiritual stones. Out of the sixty stones originally erected thirty-six stones are in place today. Built around 2500-2000 BC it makes most British archaeology appear positively youthful.
Less than ten miles away, at Skaill Bay, is the site of Skara Brae. Quite simply it’s the best preserved prehistoric village in Northern Europe, complete with furniture. 
Explore a complex of ten houses dating back to the early farming communities of around 5000 years ago. Visitors can easily spot hearths, dressers, beds, storage boxes, and small doorways to keep the Scottish elements at bay. The houses are practical and civilised, prehistoric Scotland somehow doesn’t feel that far removed.
Other highlights on the west coast include the renowned Orkney Brewery. Its famous Dark Island is a signature brew. The restaurant here offers a range of platters, including a vegan offering, and we had our first try of a local speciality, a Bere Bannock, ground from the native cereal crop of the islands. One of the attractions of Orkney Brewery is that children are welcome on the tour. Grabbing a wee notebook, complete with activities and questions, our kids accompanied us around the vats and tuns. 
Whilst the language of the tour is aimed at adults we appreciated bringing our tots along. The grand finale was the tasting session. Each adult can choose three generous glasses of beer to sample. Kids, meanwhile, were given three glasses of flavoured squash to ruminate over, which was a highlight of their day.
Back in Kirkwall itself we returned to 2017. Our self-catering apartment at Ayre Hotel was a great base for popping into local cafes like Judith Glue, eating Italian at the family friendly Lucano’s and window shopping at Sheila Fleet jewellers. But there was always the opportunity to reconnect with the past by stepping inside St Magnus Cathedral or browse the Orkney Museum.
The cathedral itself is full of tales of Orcadian characters who’ve made an impact on the world. 
One which caught our eye was Eliza Fraser. Shipwrecked off the coast of Australia she claimed to have been captured by Aborigines, though her version of events has been disputed, with other accounts stating that the local people took her in and treated her kindly. Fraser Island is said to have been named after her, and a blue plaque on a house in Stromness marks where she once lived. The truth of her story may never be known.
It’s impossible to visit Orkney without hitting the beach. We spent time playing in the sands adjacent to Skara Brae, and we also discovered a quiet beach next to the slither of land that connects Deerness with rest of mainland Orkney. 
As the sun split the sky we paddled, played with pebbles and got slightly sunburnt. Simple pleasures, and an unexpected heatwave.
Another easy Orcadian destination that’s worth exploring are the southern islands. We set up base at Wheem’s Organic Farm, on South Ronaldsay, which offers a range of camping, glamping pods, yurts and self-catering cottages. From there it was a short drive to Lambholm where we experienced one of the most inspiring sites on our trip, The Italian Chapel.
Created out of two Nissan huts in WW2 by Italian prisoners of war, it’s a beacon of faith, creativity and goodwill. Prisoner and artist Domenico Chiocchetti led the way in the chapel’s construction, and Giuseppe Palumbi was responsible for the outstanding wrought iron work. Rudimentary materials transformed with skill and passion have created a thing of beauty.
A few metres away from the chapel is the home of Orkney Wine. Specialising in handcrafted, sulphur free, vegan friendly, fruit wine and liqueurs it’s tempting to drop by to purchase their Orkney Red, Strubarb, Elderberry Borealis and Tattie. 
The latter is made from Orkney Barley and three varieties of potato (Shetland Black, Highland Burgundy and Fortyfold). Matured in Orkney bere barley whisky casks it’s something a little bit different.
Driving back over the causeways, and spotting the remains of the German fleet jutting out the water, it was time to head to Stromness to set sail to Scrabster on the Scottish mainland. From an enviable larder, to breathtaking beaches, and simply unbeatable history, Orkney is a destination that gets under the skin.
Janice Hopper was a guest of the Digital Media Orkney project at Ayre Hotel, and stayed on South Ronaldsay courtesy of Wheem’s Organic Farm. She sailed to Orkney as a guest of NorthLink Ferries.