12 August 2015

Research: Orkney - Vast Skies & Standing Stones

Turning towards Kirkwall (courtesy Michael Clarke)
There's nothing quite like sighting skerries and ever-larger islands, and knowing that the wide bay of the capital, Kirkwall, will soon be opening before our ship's bows.

The 70-odd islands making up the Orkney archipelago off the north-east tip of Scotland are renowned for their green and gently rolling landscapes, lack of trees, and wind strong enough to knock you off your feet. So how did it become the centre of the western north-hemisphere during what is commonly referred to as the New Stone Age?

For its size, Orkney carries more prehistorical monuments than anywhere else in both Britain and Europe, and it's not just the well-known clusters: the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, Mor Stein, Quoyness Cairn, Maeshowe; single monoliths stand sentinel on low rises almost on every side. It made me wonder what lies beneath the foundations of medieval Norse Kirkwall.

We were on a half-day excursion on Mainland so our choices were decided, but our garrulous and informative guide - joy! an archaeologist - kept up a stream of enlightening facts and up-to-date conjecture to give context to what we were seeing.

Stones of Stenness
The Stones of Stenness, located at the junction of lochs Harray and Stenness, was our first stop. It is considered to be the oldest henge site in the British Isles, pre-dating Stonehenge in Wiltshire. The stones come from different parts of the islands and are believed to have been brought to the site by separate social groups who built a fire-pit in its centre and feasted together. 

A single shorter stone used to stand to one side. Known locally as Odin's Stone, it was remarkable in having a natural hole through which lovers held hands to swear their devotion, until in 1814 the landowner, fed up of trespassers, destroyed it. Even his own father was appalled. Thankfully, over the centuries when the Picts, the Scots, and the Norse claimed the land as their own, such desecration has been rare, or limited to graffiti. See HERE for the runic inscriptions left inside the Maeshowe chambered cairn by sheltering Viking Norse.

Map from the information board at the Stones of Stenness

Half a skip away lies the Barnhouse settlement, Maeshowe, and what has developed into the most fascinating archaeological dig in the entire UK. On the Ness of Brodgar a supposed simple Neolithic settlement has turned into what is believed to be a temple complex where, among others, the lower walls of a single building 82ft x 65ft (25 x 20metres) have been uncovered. Follow this LINK for spectacular images and a continuing 'Dig Diary'. A timeline for the building of all these monuments can be found HERE.

A very small part of the Ring of Brodgar
Half a skip from those - yes, these sites are all within easy walking distance - is the Ring of Brodgar which I had particularly wanted to see. 27 slim standstone megaliths remain, reaching 7-15 feet into a bright sky with hardly a breath of wind to ruffle the heather growing across its 340ft diameter centre. 

I've seen images of the Ring on television and in magazines, and each time I gained the impression of a flat landscape, much as my own photograph displays. In fact, the site stretches up and across the side of  hill, the stones enclosed by, even now, a deep ditch.

We couldn't explore the Barnhouse settlement, Maeshowe, or the excavation continuing on the Ness of Brodgar. Our visit had been designed to be a taster, and it certainly whet our appetites to return. 

Besides, we were boarding our coach to what will be my next post, another World Heritage site: Skara Brae. 

Other posts in this Northern Isles series:


  1. As ever, I left a fairly substantial comment but google told me I didn't exist. In brief, I liked this and enjoyed the links. Now lunch.

    1. Oh dear... but I'm honoured that you took the time to try. It worked the second time, obviously. Maybe it was your white rage that broke down its door - LOL! I must admit, when I'm commenting I now highlight and copy into the cache in case the internet eats it. Been caught too many times.

  2. Ditto me re copying the comments just in case. I can never recapture that first energy when repeating myself. Right, brilliant piece, very evocative and if that hasn't given you an immense amount of material for writing, I despair. Brilliant photos, too. In short, I now want to go!

    1. Thanks, April. And this was just a small area of one of the islands. I could easily have spent a week up there - and may well do at some future time. We didn't even touch the Norse segment of the islands' history, which was a great pity as opposite St Magnus' Cathedral in Kirkwall is the remains of the 13th century Bishop's Palace, and the later 17th century Earl's Palace (not a nice man, by all accounts). Then there's the WW1 & WW2 history around Scapa Flow. And we also missed visiting Highland Park [ahem... a distillery producing some exceedingly good malt].