Skara Brae, a stone built Neolithic village on the Orkney Mainland, had been on my must see list for nearly 20 years.
I first became aware of Skara Brae when I viewed Simon Schama’s “A History of Britain” in the early 1990’s. Part of the village had been unearthed in 1850 when a storm battered Orkney, causing the sand which had covered the village to be stripped.
Lolly girl was up for a trip, and was happy to increase her knowledge of Neolithic civilisation, and as it turned out we learnt a lot more about the Vikings as well.
Flying in to Kirkwell, the main town on the Mainland we could see the causeways built between the Main Island, Burray and South Ronaldsy Islands – white ribbons threading across the blue sea. Approaching Kirkwall the patchwork of fields and rolling hills provided a taste of the beauty of the Orkney Islands.
Locating our apartment in Finstown, 6 miles northwest of Kirkwell, was a challenge. We were looking out for “a narrow driveway on our right, white house on one side and grey house on the other, and if you get to the cemetery, you have gone too far”. We got to the cemetery. To describe the narrow alleyway between the two houses as a driveway was a leap of faith.
The apartment had a changing view across the Bay of Firth, depending on the weather. On calm sunny days, the bay was like a mirror reflecting the buildings and trees. Other days, it was moody grey and rough with whitecaps whipping across the surface.
The drive from Finstown to Skara Brae required great self discipline. There seemed to be something that must be explored around every corner.
Skara Brae was inhabited between around 3100BC and 2500BC.
There are nine surviving Neolithic houses, which were connected and consisted of one room. They still contain stone dressers and box-beds. These beds would possibly have been lined with fur, straw or maybe dried seaweed. One of the houses, house eight, is different to the others. It does not contain beds or dressers, and is not connected to other structures. Schaama suggested it may have been the equivalent of the local pub. This suggestion was met with scorn by a scholar friend, and refusal to watch any more of the Schaama series, on the basis he was trivialising history. I tended to the view that he was making it accessible and interesting to an audience other than scholars.
Archaeologists are unsure of the use to which this structure was put, but there is a view that it may have been a workshop. There is also speculation that it may have been a later addition.
There was a great deal more than Skara Brae to explore. The Orkney Islands have been inhabited for about 8,500 years, originally by Mesolithic and Neolithic tribes, then Picts. They were annexed by Norway in the early 8th and 9th centuries, and settled by the Vikings. The Orkneys became part of Scotland, when James III of Scotland received them from Christian I, King of Denmark, Norway and Sweden in lieu of a dowry.
Skara Brae was probably part of a group of Neolithic Monuments in the area. The Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, both ceremonial stone circles are within a few miles of Skara Brae and the Stones of Stenness can be seen from the chambered Cairn at Maeshowe. There are numerous standing stones between the sites, which suggest some kind of ceremonial walkway.
Standing stones can be found in numerous parts of the world. Gma and Lolly girl track them down with the tenacity of hounds on the scent (of standing stones). There is a lot of debate about their purpose. A place of rituals and other ceremonies is a prevalent theory. Another theory is that they could have been astronomical sites. I visited an ancient stelae field of carved standing stones in Tiya, Ethiopia. Those stones appear to be grave markers.
We were accompanied on our visit to the Stones of Stenness by a group of fat woolly sheep, one of whom used a stone as a back scratcher. There are only four stones still standing, on a flat grassy site overlooking the Loch of Stenness. The site dates from around 3100BC, and is one of the earliest stone circles in Britain.
The Ring of Brogdar is a candidate for the theory that stone circles were used as astronomical observatories. Another theory suggests that due to its size, it was built to accommodate a larger number of people than Stenness. The theories are almost as fascinating as the stones themselves.
Lolly Girl is a keen birdwatcher. While Gma is content to photograph the birds, Lolly Girl is more interested in identifying them. The Orkney Islands are an ornithologists heaven. There are hides around, which anyone can use. There is generally a list of birds recently spotted, and one we entered had numerous bird books. Although the puffins proved to be elusive when we visited the Brough of Birsay, we did see some Auks
One evening in Kirkwall, the peace was shattered by the most ear shattering din. A dilapidated old truck came careering down the street, carrying a very strange assortment of people on the tray, including a man wearing few clothes, tied up and with a gooey looking black paste on his face and body and feathers everywhere. Other people had feathers in their hair, or very weird wigs on their head. There was much shouting, screaming, jumping up and down, beating of drums, and whistle blowing. Several people were banging the side of the truck with sticks. Wine was involved – lots of it, generally drunk from the bottle.
The truck did several circuits of the town. I was expecting the police to arrive, to at least restrain people from jumping on and off the truck.
We later discovered this was a “Wedding Blackening”, and is a tradition. Hence the police don’t view it as a breach of the peace, and let them be. The man stripped, tied up and covered in black goo (treacle, flour and feathers) is the groom to be. He is then paraded about on the back of a truck, and can end up in the sea.
We had seen strange sign in the public toilets earlier in the day, saying no to lasses clarted in molasses. After witnessing the wedding blackening, we realised the sign was forbidding people from cleaning up in the public toilets after a blackening.
There are several sites of interest in Kirkwall. St Magnus Cathedral was founded in 1137 by the Viking Earl Rognvald, in honour of his Uncle, St Magnus who was martyred in the Orkneys. The stained glass windows are beautiful, and when the sun shines through them, they cast an intricate mosaic like pattern on the wall. The window’s are relatively new, having been installed between 1913 and 1930.
St Magnus Cathedral
I loved the numerous gravestones on the walls, a number featuring skulls and crossbones. The medieval collection of stones with the symbols of death – bones and coffins are among the best I have seen.
The gravestone of a merchant in Kirkwall, who died in 1673 was possibly my favourite. The detail below shows death dancing and piercing an urn with a dart. A cherub is blowing into a long trumpet.
In contrast to medieval stones was a modern painting commemorating the 900th anniversary of the Martyrdom of St Magnus by Norwegian artist Hakon Gullvag. I enjoyed this painting so much, it inspired me to search out more of his art. I loved his Biblical Cycle, particularly the Tower of Babel and Noahs Ark.
A little fortification was required before exploring the Bishop’s Palace and the Earl’s Palace. Lolly Girl is partial to a drop of fine whisky, and was keen to visit the Highland Park Whisky distillery. Gma wanted to compare a local gin to her current favourites. Highland Park was full of tourists, so Lolly Girl made do with a miniature bottle of 20 year whisky to take home. The gin distillery did not have any gin to taste. Neither did they have any small bottles. Fortification by way of a less than sublime coffee didn’t quite put us in a nice floaty place.
I prefer my Palaces to be in ruins. The Bishop’s Palace and the Earl’s Palace were entirely to my taste. The Bishop’s Palace is a medieval 12th Century palace, originally built for the first Bishop, William the Old. In the early 1600’s the Bishop’s Palace was incorporated into a Renaissance Palace – the Earl’s Palace. The buildings are no longer co-joined.
A lot of cruise ships spend a day at Kirkwell or Stromness. We chose a non cruise ship day to visit Stromness. Wise choice. We almost had the place to ourselves. Even so, driving through the village was a challenge. The streets are mainly only wide enough for one car, but are not one way. We had to back up to wider spots several times to allow another car through.
It was a grey damp day, but the boats and their reflections in the still harbour were far from grey.
Stromness, around the harbour, is very quaint and picturesque. After wandering around the narrow little streets, devoid of people we had a splendid lobster lunch at a pub on the waterfront. Seafood is exceptionally good in this part of the world.
Lolly Girl decided to compile an album of images of ruined cottages. There was no shortage of subjects, and she built up a most impressive collection. I tended to favour ruined palaces. The site of the Earl’s Palace at the Brough of Birsay contained excellent ruins. The Palace was built between 1569 and 1579 and was the residence of Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney, a half brother of Mary Queen of Scots. Robert was apparently a harsh earl, with royal pretensions who oppressed the people of Orkney. His son Patrick Stewart, the 2nd Earl of Orkney was apparently even less likeable than Robert.
Above – Earl’s Palace, Birsay.
We had been very keen to visit Maeshowe, a neolithic chambered cairn which had been built some 5000 years ago. The Cairn looks like a mound in the field until the entrance comes into view.
The low entrance passage is aligned with the setting of the midwinter sun, which allows light to illuminate the interior. Entering the tomb from the entry passage we emerged into the large central chamber. There were too many people in the group for us to really get a feel for the site, but the structure was most impressive.
Vikings broke into the Cairn through the roof in the mid 1100’s. They left graffiti, carved in runes. It was impossible for most people see this graffiti while the guide explained it. A quick single file view later was less than satisfactory.
The Tomb of the Eagles is on South Ronaldsay, and is another example of a stone age chambered cairn. The long entrance tunnel had to be negotiated by lying flat on what appeared to be a large skateboard, and pulling yourself along by a rope on the ceiling. A panic attack would have overwhelmed me if I tried to enter the cairn. Lolly Girl decided she would have a go. She lasted for all of 20 seconds.
The walk to the site more than made up for our cowardice. The sheer cliffs dropping to the sea below were inhabited by dozens of seabirds nesting. Wildflowers carpeted some areas, and all had identification tags. Coming across a field of pink, or white, or purple was a vision splendid.
We stopped off at a most extraordinary Chapel on Lamb Holm on our way back from South Ronaldsay. The Italian Chapel was constructed by Italian Prisoners of War during the Second World War. The Italian POWs had been sent to Lamb Holm to construct the causeways to protect the British fleet in the Skapa Flow. The Chapel was created with two nissen huts. Italians with the requisite skills created the interior. It was a most moving experience to stand in this Chapel, seeing that even the chaos of war, such beauty was created from very little.
We decided to spend a day visiting two more Viking sites. The archaeological remains of Earl’s Bu and Church at Ophir consist of the foundations of a large drinking hall, a romanesque round church and the remains of a horizontal water mill. The Orkneyinga Saga, which is the story of the Earls of Orkney, refers to a feast given by Earl Paul in Ophir – and describes a large drinking hall and a magnificent church. The Orkneyinga Saga Centre is situated alongside this site. A video, and paintings around the walls tell the story of the Norse Earls of Orkney. As there is so little left on the site, it was useful to visit this centre to gain a better understanding of what we were seeing.
The Brough of Birsay is an island, connected to the Orkney Mainland by a causeway. Access is limited to a couple of hours either side of low tide. The Picts were there before the Vikings, but there is little visible of the Picts settlement -600 -700AD.
The Norse settled on the Brough of Birsay during the ninth century AD. The archaeological site quite clearly identifies a church, with a rectangular nave, chancel and apse. The remains of long houses are also visible.
The art and craft scene in the Orkney Islands is very vibrant, innovative and creative. From exquisite, interesting jewellery, yarn crafts to art print and photography, and much more, there is so much to view.
Hoxta Tapestry Gallery at St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay was my favourite. A local Orkney artist, Leila Thomson creates unique large woven tapestries. Her work “is inspired by the rhythm of life and landscape of Orkney”. (https://hoxtatapestrygallery.co.uk) As well as tapestries, art prints are created. Printed images are photographic taken from the original art work and are hand signed.
I could have acquired numerous art prints. I finally chose “Ribbon of Life”. The tapestry itself is huge, and apparently hangs at the top of a stairway in a stately home. My art print brings the Orkneys into my less than stately home, and is much loved and commented on.
Lolly girl and I barely touched the surface of the Orkney Islands. We are planning another trip to explore other islands, and to learn more of the history of the Orkneys. We shall go in Puffin season.