How old do I like my travel guides to be? George Anderson and Peter Anderson of Inverness published their Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in 1850, and that does me fine. (I don't own the book, sadly, but you can read it online here.)
What exactly is meant by 'the Orkney islands'?
The Orkney Islands lie off the north coast of Scotland, and are separated from the county of Caithness by the Pentland Firth, which is 51 miles broad at the narrowest part.
Ah, but what constitutes an island?
If these are considered islands that are insulated every high water, and have flowering plants growing upon them, there are seventy-three, but seventeen of these become peninsulas at low water, so that they are reduced to fifty-six at that state of the tide. Of these, twenty-nine are inhabited, and nineteen more are probably capable of supporting a single family each; but these smaller islands, or, as they are here called, holms, are at present the abodes of innumerable sea-fowl, that hatch upon them with little molestation, while on some a few sheep or cattle are pastured; however, these Peerie [Peerie is a word in common use in Orkney, and means little; and it is curious, that on the return of Captain Cook's discovery vessels from the South Seas, the officers mentioned that the same word is used in the same sense in some islands there.]* islands used to be more valuable on account of the sea-weeds that grow on their rocky shores, than for the scanty herbage that clothes their soil.
And what is a storm? Well, if the Anderson boys are to be believed, it is a veritable tourist attraction, for ...
If the tourist has the good fortune to be in Orkney during a storm, he will cease to regret the absence of some of the softer and more common beauties of landscape, in the contemplation of the most sublime spectacle which he ever witnessed.
This is what you do:
By repairing at such a time to the weather shore, particularly if it be on the west side of the country, [the lucky tourist] will behold waves, of the magnitude and force of which he could not have previously formed any adequate conception, tumbling across the Atlantic like monsters of the deep, their heads erect, their manes streaming in the wind, roaring and foaming as with rage, till each discharges such a Niagara flood against the opposing precipices as makes the rocks tremble to their foundations, while the sheets of water that immediately ascend, as if from artillery, hundreds of feet above their summits, deluge the surrounding country, and fall like showers on the opposite side of the island.
Having visited the west crags some days after a recent storm, the writer found sea insects abundant on the hills near them, though about 100 feet high; and a solitary limpet, which is proverbial for its strong attachment to its native rock, but which also seemed on this occasion to have been thrown up, was discovered adhering to the top of the cliff, seventy feet above its usual position. We apprehend it is with limpets as with ourselves, that the highest, and particularly those who are thus suddenly elevated, are not the most happy.
I feel you apprehend correctly, sirs - I really do - and it has been a pleasure!
* It IS curious!
Joan Lennon's website.
(The photos are mine.)