by Larry Smith
KIRKWALL, Orkney -- Visiting this remote group of islands off Scotland's northeast coast recently, I was struck by some remarkable similarities to the Bahamas.
Our small Loganair turboprop - similar to Bahamasair's inter-island aircraft - was delayed in Aberdeen for three hours, and several suitcases failed to arrive in Kirkwall until the following day. The Orcadians on their way home from Scotland took it all in stride, much as Bahamians are wont to do.
Loganair was founded in 1962 by a big construction company, and is the oldest airline in the UK continuously operated under the same name. It connects relatively isolated islands and communities in Scotland, Orkney and the Shetlands just as air taxi services link remote settlements in the Bahamas.
Kirkwall is Orkney's main town, an easy-going harbourside community of about 7,000 in a 70-island archipelago. With a total population of only 20,000, Orkney is similar in scale and character to Abaco and its cays, where some 15,000 people make a living from high-end tourism, fishing and farming.
Orkney welcomes somewhat more tourists - about 200,000 a year. But visitor satisfaction levels are just as high as they are in Abaco, which receives about 100,000 affluent tourists annually. The locals are as friendly and helpful as any Bahamian out islander.
Aside from the acclaimed Highland Park whiskey distillery (a popular visitor attraction that will soon be replicated here by the John Watling's rum bottling plant on East Hill Street), manufacturing in Orkney focuses on products for the tourist market such as textiles, jewelry, paintings and pottery. Cozy gift shops and atmospheric restaurants and bars dot the landscape just as they do on Abaco.
But the similarities between Bahamian and Orcadian tourism pretty much end there. Most visitors come to Orkney to experience the monuments and settlements left behind by 5,000 years of human history - beginning with the neolithic, or new stone age.
The ancient Greeks wrote that the edge of the world could be seen from Orkney, but according to the eloquent Scottish archaeologist Neil Oliver, Orkney was a centre of neolithic culture in the lands surrounding the North Sea - a special place, with an exceptional number of monuments and communities scattered over the timeless landscape.
"Whatever passions gripped this place 5,000 years ago have cooled; no tears are shed now beside the empty tombs and no hearts beat fast in the shadows of tall stones so earnestly raised," Oliver wrote in his recent book, A History of Ancient Britain, which is also a popular BBC television series.
"But something lingers just the same, the memory of a memory…The deepest marks cut into Orkney are those left by its most ardent trustees - neolithic farmers asking the sky above why they were alive at all…and what would come after."
You can feel this memory in the hairs on the back of your neck just by walking the treeless Ness of Brodgar, a narrow promontory between two lakes, where rings of stones and tomb mounds are the above-ground relics of a huge ritual complex centuries older than Stonehenge.
The Ness was first occupied in 3200 BC, and researchers now say it was the original model for Stonehenge (circa 2500 BC) and other better-known neolithic complexes in Britain. During our visit the dig had closed for the winter, with only 10 per cent of the site excavated so far, but archaeologists already know they are on to something huge.
The sheer sweep of history is impressive enough, but the other distinction that Orkney holds for scientists is the presence of well-preserved domestic houses and villages dating from neolithic times. Skara Brae is the best known - and a key part of what has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations .
Skara Brae was uncovered in 1850 by a storm that stripped away the sand dune that had long hidden it, exposing a community of eight semi-subterranean houses connected by passageways. Flagstone dressers, beds, drains, hearths, shelves and cupboards are all perfectly preserved after 5,000 years. And some of the original occupants were also found, buried beneath their beds.
Behind the dune that encircles the Bay of Skaill is a grey stone bishop's mansion built in the early 1600s and now operated as a visitor attraction by the current laird, Malcolm Macrae, who is a direct descendent. The manor house stands on an early Norse burial ground (there are Viking bones beneath the grand staircase) and Captain Cook's dinner service is on display in the drawing room (quite another story for another time).
Touring the house takes you to an upstairs bedroom fitted with the bishop's original furniture where you can gaze out across the purple heather towards an angry sea and the exposed skeleton of Skara Brae - a view from the 21st century AD through the prism of the 17th all the way back to the 30th century BC. A hundred thousand people come here every year to experience this amazing vista; one that is difficult to duplicate elsewhere.
But ancient standing stones are not the only impressive monuments rising from Orkney's windswept hills. While we were there, the local utility caused quite a flap by saying it had to suspend integration of new wind turbines until much-needed upgrades could be made to the distribution grid.
Currently, hundreds of wind turbines, and scores of solar panel arrays and ground-source heat pumps produce about 55 megawatts of power on the islands. And it is estimated that 85 per cent of Orkney's entire electricity demand will be met by its home-grown renewables industry by early next year.
The enthusiasm of local farmers and householders for micro renewables is outstripping the available grid capacity. But this issue is expected to be resolved by plans to export surplus power to Scotland via a new undersea cable that will be commissioned in 2015.
Orkney's main island is also home to the $50 million European Marine Energy Centre, the world’s only purpose-built, open sea test facilities for wave and tidal power devices. Orkney's exposed North Sea location means the islands are subjected to powerful six-foot waves and tidal currents that can reach 7.8 knots - which can be harnessed to produce large amounts of electricity.
Although there is little to see on land, the Centre operates five grid-connected test berths at a depth of some 2,000 feet off the port of Stromness on the main island, as well as a shallow water berth close to the onshore substation. And six wave energy devices are being tested at EMEC's wave test site.
The Centre also operates a tidal test site near the island of Eday, as well as two test sites for smaller scale devices just a few miles from Kirkwall. EMEC is a public-private sector partnership set up in 2003, which became financially self-sustaining last year.
In 2004, a wave power device at EMEC became the world's first to generate electricity for a national grid. And last year, the world's largest single-rotor tidal turbine here became the first in Scotland to be grid-connected.
In fact, Scotland aims to generate all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. And if Scotland is the envy of Europe when it comes to renewable energy, then Orkney is the envy of Scotland. In fact, the Orkney Islands Council is actually looking at ways to increase electricity demand.
This is all somewhat ironic, because when farm employment collapsed in the mid-20th century due to mechanisation, Orkney's economy was saved by the development of offshore oil and gas resources.
The 395-acre Flotta oil terminal commissioned in 1977 imports crude oil from several offshore installations via undersea pipeline, and the oil is then exported by tankers. But nowadays, the North Sea fields are increasingly irrelevant to Orcadians.
It is not inconceivable for the Bahamas - which has 575 megawatts of installed power capacity - to move in this direction. But it would require the government to focus on energy issues long enough and intelligently enough to actually implement policies that have been talked about for years.
The draft national energy policy calls for big improvements in energy efficiency and conservation in Bahamian households, businesses and government agencies. This would be achieved through energy audits and changes to the building code and tax system.
New Environment Minister Ken Dorsett is on record as saying that Bahamian consumers should be encouraged to generate their own renewable energy.
"In time we can become known as the islands in the sun for our tourism business as well as for power generation," he said recently. "The Bahamas can and will become a world leader in alternative energy, creating hundreds of good-paying jobs and economic opportunities for Bahamians."
In other words, we have the potential to emulate the advances that Orkney - a remote group of islands on the fringe of the British Isles - has already made.