Off the northern tip of Scotland lie the Orkney Islands, a place that was for many centuries ruled by the Vikings, and is steeped in historical and archeological mystique, attracting visitors the world over who come to gaze upon the perfectly preserved Neolithic dwellings, Norse architecture and beautiful island landscapes.
Visitors and locals alike describe the islands’ ambiance as mysterious, due at least in part to the unexplained Stonehenge-like “Ring of Brogar” which dates from about 2,000 B.C. It is a circular configuration of 27 standing stones which are inscribed with ancient text, likely of druidic origin, and believed to have been used in secret, ritualistic magic. It is not known how or why the Ring of Brogar came to exist in its location on the Orkney Islands, but some believe it may have functioned as a calendar, while others hold that it fulfilled a more ominous purpose.
Thankfully, a couple Orcadians (as residents of the Orkney Islands are known) with no sinister intentions, Roger and Irene White, founded the Orkney Brewery in 1988. It is housed in the former Quoyloo Academy, a Victorian schoolhouse in Quoyloo, located on the west coast of the largest of the Orkney Islands. Since their opening they have produced a fine range beers noted throughout the UK for their quality and earning many prestigious awards. In 1995 the Brewery was extended and new equipment introduced in order to meet the demand for the Brewery’s line of beers.
In 2006, the brewery was bought by Orcadian restaurateur Norman Sinclair, whose interest in the brewery goes back to when he enjoyed their beers while studying for his degree at RGIT in Aberdeen. Additionally, Sinclair’s father actually attended the Quoyloo Academy, so there was quite a personal and local connection for the new owner. Under Sinclair’s leadership the brewery has grown, and plans are underway for an expansion and upgrade of the brewery and the establishment of a café – a natural fit for a brewery owned by a restaurateur, and a model that has worked well here in the States – we wish them luck!
The Orkney Brewery currently bottles seven beers, including this month’s feature, Skull Splitter. It’s worth noting that, in an episode that is at once comical and frightening, the brewery was forced to defend Skull Splitter back in 2009 when it came under investigation from a British drinks industry “watchdog” called the Portman Group (which has the power to issue a nationwide ban against the sale of any alcohol product that steps afoul of its guidelines), who commissioned a report that concluded the beer’s name and labels were too aggressive. Apparently they felt that drinkers would read the name and then enter into an uncontrolled primal enthusiasm for drunkenness leading to the loss of all faculties except fervent engagement in all manner of ribald, reckless, and destructive behavior. And some good ol’ medieval axe-swingin’ violence, of course. All this despite the fact that Skull Splitter had been on the market for upwards of twenty years without any reports of villages pillaged by crazed Scotch Ale drinkers. Thankfully, after a massive consumer response from Skull Splitter fans around the world (and there are many for this world-class brew), the Portman Group decided to leave the beer alone, and it remains on shelves across Britain to this day. Cheers to that!