Do you have secrets? I do. There are some secrets that you want to bury deep within yourself and never let out, but other secrets – the good kind – make you feel special and privileged for being in on them, and leave you just bursting to share them with the wider world. That’s what Merksay feels like to me. Scotland is a desirable tourist destination, with millions of visitors from around the world each year. But those visitors too often overlook Orkney: a collection of over 70 islands just to the north of Scotland, and a region of outstanding natural beauty. And in the humble opinion of this writer, none of the Orkney Islands are more beautiful than the isle of Merksay, where I was born and raised.
The name “Merksay” is Old Norse in origin, and translates roughly to “shadow island.” This could be because of the iconic blackrock limestone cliff-face that greets visitors travelling in from the mainland. I always thought it an unfortunate name, as one would think it would refer to some overcast, dreary place, but in fact Merksay quite often enjoys glorious sunshine. With 457 residents, it has the fourth biggest population of any of the Orkney Islands. And it could be the island with the longest history of settlement. In general, Orkney is one of the great old places of the earth, with archaeological evidence of people living there as far back as the Neolithic era, 8500 years ago. But Merksay could boast a lineage that stretches even further, with the famous Merksay Ruins featuring ancient structures that scholars have claimed could date as far back as the Mesolithic era, though they cannot tell for sure, as the bizarre, idiosyncratic rock formations are so unlike anything else in Orkney, or indeed the rest of the world.
The Merksay Ruins are a highly recommended destination for the intrepid explorer – in the daytime, never go there at night – but there is enough fascinating scenery to keep a curious traveller enthralled for hours upon hours. Stunning cliffs, rolling hills, serene beaches, with the weight and majesty of enigmatic prehistory hanging thick in the air. It is a very peaceful place for those eager to escape the bustle of city life. It has been said by many that the quiet of Merksay brings a sense of deep, relaxing solitude. I myself hate the quiet. At night I fancy that I can still hear his screams.
Nowadays, Merksay is probably best known as the home of the McBain abattoir. With its highly fertile, unspoilt lands, agriculture remains Orkney’s primary industry, and livestock from across the region is regularly shipped to the McBain factory in Merksay, where the animals are processed and shipped out across the United Kingdom. Savvy meat enthusiasts have long claimed that Orcadian McBain beef far surpasses Scotland’s more famous worldwide export, Aberdeen Angus beef, but you should judge for yourself by stopping by at one of the island’s fine eateries, famed for using nothing but local produce.
The McBain abattoir employs the vast majority of the island’s working population, but Merksay is more than just a slaughterhouse. It is a treasure trove of scenic beauty and fascinating history, a delightful secret just waiting to be discovered. And that’s why I’ve formed this blog: to share my secret with the rest of the world. If you stop by over the coming days, weeks and months, you will be pleased to discover a regularly-updated resource providing intimate portraits of daily life on Merksay and thrilling accounts of local folklore, all intended to entice you and encourage you to come and see it for yourself. So please, visit Merksay. More people should enjoy this remarkable haven. Bring your whole family. Bring your children. Please, bring your children.