It’s another new week, which I’m really excited about because I only have two days in work this week, then I’m off for nearly two weeks! Yay for that! Anyway, I thought it’d be nice to do another “my trip to…” blog, because I quite like these travelogue types of thing, and it gives me a chance to share two of my passions with you all: seeing cool new stuff, and taking photos of that stuff 🙂
So, Orkney. Yeah, I went there four years ago now, and only stayed for a couple of nights, which in retrospect was perhaps a bit of a foolish plan, but there we are. It was only the second time I’d flown anywhere, and I can now tell you all that I’m really not a fan of flying! But anyway, Orkney was awesome, especially for me as I love prehistory so much!
I flew to Kirkwall, which is like the main town of the islands. There’re a few interesting bits to see there, notably St Magnus’ Cathedral:
It’s a pretty huge thing, I have to say! Nearby there’s also the Earl’s Palace, which is a nice building with a lot of interesting bits to it:
From Kirkwall, to Stennes! As you may or may not know, Orkney is something of a prehistoric wonder, and the group of sites around the island has been listed by UNESCO as internationally important! There is a lot to see here, so I’ll start with the Standing Stones of Stennes, which are pretty impressive:
These stones have contributed to the theory that neolithic burial mounds were built directly on top of important peoples’ houses, as a hearth was discovered here at some point. Not entirely convinced by this, myself, but who am I to say otherwise?!
The Standing Stones are at the centre of a whole landscape of neolithic awesomeness. Nearby are the reconstructed remains of a neolithic village, Barnhouse:
Barnhouse, however, pales into significance next to possibly Orkney’s premier tourist attraction, Skara Brae:
The village here was uncovered during a violent storm in the 19th century, and has been of massive importance to our understanding of neolithic folks. Whole houses have been preserved here, each with a similar layout that makes the site something of the neolithic equivalent of a housing estate.
The houses were presumably once roofed with turf and peat, as timber is extremely scarce on the island. However, it’s that scarcity that has allowed so much to survive on the island that would perhaps otherwise have been lost.
The stone that was used to build the houses at Skara Brae occurs naturally on the island in easily-worked slabs, and at the Broch of Birsay further up the west coast, this is quite dramatically demonstrated:
The broch is a Scottish fortified settlement. Birsay has the additional protection of being separated from the mainland, with access via a causeway. There are a number of structures evident, including what I believe is an example of a Viking sauna…
The islands were invaded by the Vikinds in the ninth century, and only reverted to Scottish rule in the fifteenth century, when James III married Margaret of Denmark. Just in case you were wondering.
Birsay is one of two Brochs on Orkney, the other is a bit further along the northern coastline, the Broch of Gurness:
Gurness is something of a riot of stones at first, but better demonstrates the defensible idea of the broch. Analogous to the motte-and-bailey castle that the Normans brought to England, a strong central tower was surrounded by smaller domestic settlements, and in times of strife and warfare, the inhabitants would take refuge inside the tower.
It’s a really nice site, and like Barnhouse and Skara Brae, is a fantastic example of how our ancestors lived.
From the iron age brochs, we return to the neolithic, and two final sites that are pretty impressive! To start with, there’s Maes Howe. Another neolithic burial chamber, Maes Howe is justly famous for its imposing size as well as its colourful history. During the Viking raids that preceded the full-scale invasion, the tomb was broken into in the mistaken belief that it contained treasure, and also to provide shelter during a particularly harsh winter storm. While inside, the Vikings carved some runic graffiti, including the hilarious “Tholfr Kolbeinn’s son carved these runes high up” written – you guessed it – high on the south-west wall.
Maes Howe and the Standing Stones of Stennes form part of what has been described as a “ritual landscape” on mainland Orkney, with festivals of some description taking place here. I’ve written a blog that talks about this in more depth, but won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say, the Ring of Brodgar, the last monument on this whirlwind tour, is another star attraction.
The third-largest stone circle in Britain, Brodgar is pretty awesome to visit. It dominates the landscape in this part of Orkney, where the stones stand out against the horizon quite starkly!
The Ring is almost like a centrepiece in the whole landscape, with chambered tombs dotted around it as shown above. While we basically don’t know with any certainty anything about neolithic religion, it is easy to see how it can be thought the stone circles played a big part in ritual life here perhaps more than anywhere else.
So that’s my tour of Orkney! It was a fantastic trip, even if it was a bit rushed. Next time (and there will be a next time!), I hope to do more island-hopping and see some more of what’s on offer. Indeed, my trip to Orkney is also my only ever trip to Scotland, so I really ought to make more of an effort to get up there!
Until next time, I’ll leave you with a picture of me and the Watch Stone: