Glass tastes a wee dram on the isle of Orkney

IF EINSTEIN, having showed how time is relative to its own frame of reference, had visited the Orkney archipelago he might have been tempted to extend his insight into the naming of places. The largest and most populous of the islands, separated from Scotland’s mainland by a 16-km stretch of water, is named – wait for this – Mainland.

This might make sense relative to those living on Orkney’s tiny island outposts but the name sounds odd when you arrive by air and see Mainland surrounded by sea. And the only town of any size, Kirkwall (population around 7,000), has a distinctly non-mainland identity: fishing boats bob in the harbour, the Atlantic Ocean beckons from the west and the North Sea and Norway (closer to Orkney than the distance to London) lie to the east.

There is no mistaking the fact that you are on a treeless, flat island off the north-east coast of Scotland. Coastlines are a constant presence. 

Scapa Distillery and, to its right, Scapa Noust

My destination is not open sea but the reassuring confines of Scapa Distillery and the Scapa Noust, its new whisky tasting room. Noust is a local word for a landing place on a shore where a boat can be safely moored and the unique design of the tasting room is inspired by the form of an inverted boat.

This imbues the interior space with a comfortable, hunkered-down feel while gazing out through floor-to-ceiling glass at green fields, stone walls, the sheltered waters of Scapa Flow and the small island of Flotta (population: 80).

The coastline at Yesnaby, Mainland, Orkney

Feeling safely hunkered-down inside Scapa Noust

The Orkney architect, Mark Freeson, has incorporated art-and-craft features — island-woven straw baskets and a large hand-carved table – alongside nautical items like a century-old diving helmet but the outstanding feature is the boat-themed roof. Mark worked with renowned experiental design studio, Florian Dussopt Design Studio (FDDS) to create Scapa Noust’s  interiors.

It all makes the perfect setting for a tasting experience that is best appreciated after a tour of the production process and the warehouse. The distillery is not the Heath Robinson affair you might imagine. Starting with weekly deliveries of 50 tons of barley and ending with 200-litre barrels filled with the dark magic of Scapa whisky, the streamlined process on show cannot explain the nuanced tastes that characterise the various whiskeys that tickle your tongue during the tastings.

The respect for tradition and culture that Scapa Noust embodies is emblematic of an island where a sense of the past is manifestly ever present. This strikes home after seeing the almost perfect stone circle, just over a hundred metres in diameter, of the prehistoric Ring of Brodgar.

Over half of the original sixty stones remain upright and in an area where other standing stones, cairns and mounds have been found — their possibly ritualistic origins lost in aeons of time. Even more visually stunning, just over a kilometre away, are the five megaliths known as The Stones of Stenness, thought to have been erected some five thousand years ago and thus a millennium older than Stonehenge and more ancient than the Pyramids.

As if this isn’t enough, a storm in 1850 tore away sand from a small mound called Skara Brae and revealed a remarkably intact Neolithic village of ten stone-built houses, their flagstone walls and undamaged hearths, beds and cupboards exposed to view. The site is as hauntingly evocative as Pompeii but three millennia older.

Scapa whiskeys are available wherever drinks are served, including The Storehouse where cocktails feature a fizz using the bespoke, Mainland-distilled Deerness vodka. It serves as a bonne bouche while considering the hand-dived Orkney scallops and artisan cheeses on the menu. Venturing across to the southwest of the island, Stromness is a tiny town (population of 1,800) with narrow, cobbled streets, flagstone pavements and The Hamnavoe.

This restaurant’s name is an Old Norse word meaning ‘safe harbour’, a reminder that the Orkney islands were under Norwegian rule for six centuries and only came under the Scottish crown in 1468. The Hamnavoe has a good claim to be the best restaurant on Mainland, making creative use of local seafood and meat with Asian touches – like lobster with ginger and spring onion noodles, shiitake and dashi butter sauce — courtesy of the chef’s Korean heritage.

Hand-dived scallops reappear, this time as one of the starters and enlivened with a Pedro Ximenez whisky that acquires its dark colour after maturing in casks which previously held Pedro Ximénez sherry. I know this because Scapa Distillery has just added a 19-year-old Pedro Ximénez hogshead finish to its repertoire.

There is also a restaurant at The Kirkwall, an illustrious, stone-built Victorian hotel on Mainland’s harbour front. An ancient lift, a guest register going back to 1948 and old black-and-white photographs pay homage to the island’s history while the bedrooms are pleasantly comfortable; some overlook the harbour.

The neolithic village of Skara Brae

Orcadian is the term for all things Orkney, including the people, and an Orcadian holiday will be easier than ever now that Logan Air has launched direct flights from London. Orkney is not a place easily forgotten, especially being there at night, under the luminous, silent spaciousness of star-filled skies (and, in autumn and winter, Auroras Borealis). Enormous bliss!

by Sean Sheehan

Scapa Distillery: St Ola, Kirkwall, KW15 1SE. Tel  01856 873269

The Storehouse: Bridge Street Wynd, Kirkwall, KW15 1JD. Tel 01856 252250

The Hamnavoe: 35 Graham Pl, Stromness KW16 3BY (entrance on Leslie’s Close). Tel 01856 850606