In the morning, we unload the bikes and cycle up to the Skara Brae site. We stop halfway to admire the view. Compared to the Outer Hebrides, we are surprised at how green and lush the landscape is – fields of ripening barley interspersed with shimmering blue lochs and isolated farmhouses, the aroma of cow manure wherever we go, all give a feeling of plenty, of years of human cultivation. A landscape that may not have changed all that much since Neolithic times.

Orkney landscape.

“Did you see that lamb caught in the fence back there?”, the First Mate says, catching up.

I hadn’t.

“What do you think we ought to do?”, she asks. “Perhaps we should tell the farmer.”

There is no sign of anyone. We knock at the door of the next house. A woman answers. We tell her about the lamb.

“It’s not mine, but I will tell the farmer. He goes past here several times a day”, she says.

Feeling we have done as much as we can, we continue on, down a hill, round a small loch, and eventually reach the Visitor Centre, where we have a bite to eat at the café before starting to explore the excavations.

The old man crawls through the entrance tunnel and emerges into the outside world. Blinking his eyes in the bright sunshine and breathing deeply of the sea air, he sits on the stone slab and looks out over the bay. He is the last one now, the last of what once was a thriving community. All the others have gone, one by one. He remembers the laughter of the children as they played on the beach, the gossip of the women complaining about their menfolk as they did their daily chores, the young men arriving back with their catch of fish. He looks over to where the plots of barley and wheat once grew, plots that he had helped to cultivate, but all overgrown with weeds and bracken now. The cattle, the sheep, the pigs that had provided meat, milk, wool and companionship were no more. He feels sad at the loneliness; the world has moved on, but he has stayed here with only his memories for company.

Artist’s depiction of how Skara Brae might have looked in Neolithic times.

It had all started with the building of the Great Ring over in Brodgar, when the Powerful Ones had come looking for young men to help build it. They had gone, eager to be involved in creating something for the gods, promising to come back, but never doing so. His own two sons had gone, but had found wives in Stanness and settled down there. To be fair, they did come back from time to time, bringing him produce from their farms, telling him stories of their neighbours, the festivals at the Ring, trying to get him to come and live with them. He had been to the winter solstice festival once, and had watched the Holy Ones performing the rituals, the young ones making their vows to each other, but he hadn’t really enjoyed the singing, dancing and sacrifice of the animals. Did the gods really want all that sort of thing?

View out over the Bay of Skaill from Skara Brae.

We are inside a reconstruction of one of the houses of the village. I am trying to imagine what might have been running through the mind of the last inhabitant of the remarkable Neolithic village we are exploring. First constructed around 3100 BC, it was inhabited for 600 years until it was abandoned in 2500 BC. It had grown over that period, with new houses being added over the tops of the old ones, the numbers of inhabitants eventually reaching 100 people. Each house is remarkably similar to each other –  there is a large central room with a hearth at the centre, and beds demarcated by stone slabs to each side of the hearth. Opposite the doorway is a large stone dresser, and in the walls small shelves are set. Some houses even have tiny side rooms with drains which might have been lavatories. It reminds me somehow of the Fred Flintstone comics we had read as children.

Inside a reconstructed Neolithic house.

“It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?”, says the First Mate. “How do you think they slept in these beds? Were they were much shorter in those days?”

“Apparently they were pretty much the same size as us”, I say, recalling something I had read. “I guess they must have curled up somehow. There would probably have been grass or seaweed covered with furs to make it softer.”

“Well, I still think I would have problems sleeping”, she says.

Neolithic bedplace.

We follow the path around the tiny village, looking down at each house in turn. The thought crosses my mind as to whether I would be able to communicate with any of the inhabitants of these houses, even if we could speak in the same language. Would we have any common ground in our world views? Crops and livestock are probably much the same now as then, but even those may have been embedded in a spirit world that I don’t have.

Neolithic house seen from the top.

From Skara Brae, we walk up to the nearby Skaill House, a stately home built in 1620 and part of the Breckness Estate. It was one of the previous Lairds living here, William Graham Watt, who had discovered Skara Brae.

Skaill House.

It is interesting to see how the other half lived. The First Mate envies the dinner set, while I am impressed with the library.

Dining room in Skaill House.
The library in Skaill House.

On the cycle ride back, the First Mate notices that the lamb is still stuck in the fence. “Come on, let’s see if we can get it free”, she says.

“Fine with me. Off you go”, I say, seeing the thistles in the field and aware of my bare feet.

“I can’t do it. Please, go over and see if you can get it free. Please, please.”

Past experience has shown that I have no option except to do what I am told. I climb over the fence, nearly getting hooked in the barbed wire. Sure enough, on the other side I put my foot into a thistle. Somehow I didn’t see it. As I try to pull some of the thistles out, I notice that my other foot has just missed some sheep dung. I count to ten and walk along the fence line towards the lamb, but as soon as I get near, it deftly twists its head free and runs off to the rest of the flock. I retrace my steps, avoiding the thistle and dung.

“Well done”, says the First Mate. “My hero”.

The grass is greener …

The next day we cycle out to Stenness where more Neolithic monuments are located. We have had to book to see the Maeshowe chambered cairn as entry is only on a guided tour, with a bus taking is from the Visitor Centre in Stenness. The others on the bus are a large group of Swedish tourists who have just unloaded themselves from another bus. When we get to the cairn, we are escorted by young Italian tour guide who is really an archaeology student but is doing this as a summer job. I notice I am the only native English speaker, and ponder on the slight incongruity of learning British history from an Italian archaeology student. But why not after all? He has obviously read his textbooks, as he does quite a good job.

The Maeshowe chambered cairn, Stenness.

We stand inside the main chamber of the cairn while he tells us about the history of the cairn. The mound was built around 2500 BC, and consists of a main chamber with three little side chambers off the side walls. Entrance is through a small passageway constructed to be directly in line with the setting sun at the winter solstice so that the internal chamber is lit up by the sun’s rays. I remember back to the Barpa Langais chambered cairn on North Uist we had seen and remember that its entrance faced the east and sunrise. Perhaps there were sunrise and sunset sects even in Neolithic times?

Plan view of the Maeshowe burial chamber.

I think about the people who had built it. Why had they done so at this particular time in history? What spiritual significance did it have for them? What sort of rituals did they perform here? Did it somehow provide access into the Otherworld? Over the winter, I had read the book Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods by David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce. The idea they put forward is that in hunter-gatherer times, people conceived the cosmos as being in three tiers. Shamans were able to enter in to this cosmos through caves and holes in the ground, the lowest tier, and travel between tiers and influence the gods who inhabited them to bring success in hunting. Of course, this gave the shamans enormous power. With the advent of farming, and the cultivation of livestock, animals lost their mystique for the new farmers, and consequently the shamans lost much of their influence. In an attempt to maintain it, they coordinated the construction of giant monuments like Maeshowe as artificial caves acting as portals to the Otherworld. We’ll probably never know for sure if it is correct, but it is as good a theory as any.

The guide tells us that the little side rooms off the main chamber were used to store the bones of people who had died for a time. In some cases, they would take the flesh off first, other cases, the whole body would be placed there. Even when bodies were present, the main chamber would still be entered by the living. I wonder if the cairn somehow provided a link between the people, their ancestors and the land.

He shows us the Norse rune graffiti carved into the walls. The story goes that in the 12th century, a band of Norsemen lost in a snowstorm had broken into the cairn and taken shelter there overnight. While they were there, they had carved various messages in Runic script into the flagstones of the chamber. Once the tomb was open, probably other Norse went in there as well. The Swedish tourists guffaw loudly at the translations of some of the carvings of their Norse ancestors boasting of sexual conquests. Some leave nothing to the imagination.

Norse runes (in Kirkwall Museum).

The bus takes us back to the Visitor Centre and we collect our bikes. We turn left at the crossroads in Stenness and cycle for about a kilometre to the Stones of Stenness, a ring of stones constructed around 3000 BC with a ditch and an earth bank surrounding it. There were originally 12 stones, although now there are only four left. Apparently, in the 19th century the farmer who owned the land got fed up with people coming to see the ring and holding the odd neo-pagan festival within them, so he decided to dynamite them out of existence! Luckily (or unluckily, depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist), he managed to destroy only one before the authorities realised what was going on and managed to dissuade him from destroying the others. How could someone actually do that to a piece of priceless heritage, I ask myself. It’s amazing he didn’t get prosecuted.

The Stones of Stenness.

We jump on the bikes again, and carry on up the road between two freshwater lochs, Loch of Stenness and Loch of Harray until we reach the Ring of Brodgar. It is big – there were originally 60 stones in a circle of 104 m in diameter when it was built between 2500-2000 BC – now there are only 27 still remaining. Outside the ring is a circular ditch around 3 m deep and 9 m wide which has been cut into the underlying bedrock – no mean task, when you consider that it would have all been done by hand with wood, bone or stone tools – no metal around at that time. Clearly it was a communal effort, and it demonstrates the power the leaders must have had to be able to command large amounts of labour from all over Orkney to come and contribute. Were they forced or did they come willingly?

The Ring of Brodgar with the Loch of Harray in the background.

The boy watches in fascination as the fires are lit. The flames reach into the sky, beaconing to the gods. As the sun sets behind the Hills of Hoy, the blues and reds of twilight appear, reflected in the waters each side of the Ring. The children bring their pots of grain to the centre of the Ring, the knives flash, blood from the sacrificial sheep and cattle flow; the gods are pleased with the offerings from their people. This year the harvest will be good – they will see to that. The Stones stand tall and dignified on the boundary of the Ring, each one representing an ancestor of the people. They are also pleased that their descendants prosper. Dressed in white to symbolise purity, the young couples approach the Holy Ones gathered around the hearth in the centre of the Ring and make their pledges – their marriages will be happy and productive and more people will be born, continuing the circle of life. As the darkness falls, the music, the singing and the dancing begins – more and more people previously drinking bere ale and talking quietly now clamber across the ditch to join in. The boy feels a surge of pride – these are his people, his ancestors, his land – he belongs here, this is his home, he is not alone.

“We need to get going”, says the First Mate. “We still have to see the Ness of Brodgar. Who was this Brodgar chap, by the way?”

The Ness of Brodgar is a few minutes back the way we came. It is an ongoing archaeological dig, and we join a guided tour group going around the site. We watch fascinated – the dig is a hive of activity wherever we go. Teams of people in lines on their hands and knees scrape the earth forensically and the most minutest of finds is tagged and stored before moving on. Gradually, the walls and floors of various buildings are emerging into the light again after millennia of being hidden under the soil. The quality of the workmanship of the buildings is stunning – the stones fit next to each other perfectly with hardly any gaps, and in places even traces of pigment is still seen. We try and imagine the whole complex in vivid colour rather than the dull grey stone we see now.

Excavations at Ness of Brodgar.

Most of the work is being done by volunteers – archaeology students wanting to gain practical experience, amateur archaeologists, archaeology professors on summer leave, and the like – none are paid except the few professional archaeologists supervising the project. They have very little funding – most is from donations from the public – but there is a real air of camaraderie and enthusiasm that they are doing something worthwhile in bringing the past to life again.

Volunteer archaeologists uncovering clues at Ness of Brodgar.

Afterwards, we meet Anne Mitchell, the Finds Supervisor, who is the sister of a friend of ours back home. She is enthusiastic as she tells us about the site.

Anne Mitchell, Finds Supervisor.

What they are uncovering seems to be some kind of temple complex – people didn’t live in it continuously but only for certain periods. They think that it might have been connected somehow with the Ring of Brodgar – perhaps people came there from afar to attend the ceremonies and this is where they stayed. The stone it was built from may have come from quarries that are now submerged – the water level has risen since then. Strangely, the complex went out of use in 2200 BC, but is seems to have been on purpose – there is evidence that a huge feast was held in which 400 cattle were killed. Was it a sacrifice to avert some perceived threat? A transfer of power to a new set of leaders? Or perhaps a new belief system? We can only speculate.

A Neolithic temple complex comes to light.

While we are talking, a young digger comes up with a small soil-covered shape in her palm and asks Anne how it should be classified. To me it looks like any other piece of soil one might dig up in the garden, but to the trained eye, it obviously has some significance.

“Label it as Organic Miscellaneous”, she says.

The digger returns to her excavations. I wonder if the nondescript piece might contain the clinching evidence that unlocks the secrets of what the site was used for in Neolithic times.

Precise stonework on a newly excavated building.

Back in Stromness, we decide to go to the museum. There is an exhibition on the scuttling of the German Fleet in Scapa Flow at the end of the First World War, and we spend an absorbing couple of hours learning the details. The Fleet was interned in Scapa Flow while Armistice negotiations were going on, but the negotiations were going badly for the Germans. The Admiral in charge of the Fleet, Ludwig van Reuter, suspected that the Allies would take the ships and divide them amongst themselves, so rather than let that happen he decided to pull out the plugs and sink them. Out of a total of 74 ships, 52 were sunk. Although technically they had broken the terms of the Armistice, the self-respect of the German Navy was restored to some extent. The British were also secretly relieved, as it meant that the German ships couldn’t be divided amongst the other Allies so that they would maintain their own naval superiority! Most of the wrecks have now been salvaged; the few remaining are popular dive sites.

Scuttled German battleship in Scapa Flow.

The other exhibition is on a chap called John Rae, a name that had cropped up often as we had explored Stromness. He was a local son, had studied medicine, then joined the Hudson Bay Company in Canada as a surgeon. He became famous for his ability to survive and travel long distances in the wild, living off the land with minimal equipment, and used his skills to discover the last section of the Northwest Passage. He also set off in search of the ill-fated Franklin expedition and learned from the Inuit what had happened to it. Unfortunately he also found that the last survivors of the expedition had resorted to cannibalism to survive, which didn’t endear him to the British establishment, and he never received any recognition for his achievements in comparison to other explorers such as Livingstone. That seems to have been put right now with a statue in the main street of Stromness.

Dr John Rae, Orcadian explorer in Canada.

“I think I have just about had enough history for one day”, says the First Mate, back at the boat. “Let’s have a glass of wine.”

I have to agree. There has been a huge amount to take in. We sit in the cockpit and watch the sun go down over the hill behind Stromness. A retired fisherman comes past and stops for a chat. He detects my New Zealand accent and waxes lyrical.

“I was in the merchant navy when I was younger, you know”, he says. “I travelled the world and New Zealand was one of the places that I stopped off at. Lovely country. In fact, my daughter lives out there now with her husband and family. We visited them at Xmas time.”

Even though he is retired, he hasn’t stopped fishing and is off out now in his wooden boat to try and catch some crabs and lobsters. Most of them go over to Norway, he tells us. Orkney has strong links with Norway, and the islanders sometimes feel they have more in common with the Norwegians than they do with the rest of Britain. Indeed, several of the signs we have seen on Orkney are bilingual – English and Norwegian.

The topic of Brexit comes up.

“Och, it’s a complete mess”, he says. “Don’t like it at all. It’s made the country a laughing stock in the world. So many of our markets are in Europe and that will all stop. The majority of people on Orkney voted to remain. Perhaps some of the fishermen catching white fish voted to Leave, I don’t know. We would be better off working with our neighbours rather than against them. Anyway, I had better go – the tide won’t wait.”

A few minutes later, we hear a boat engine start further down the pontoon and see him heading out of the harbour entrance. He has life sorted, I decide.

The fisherman’s wooden boat.

4 thoughts on “Stromness

    • Hi Birgitta, thanks. Yes, Orkney is fascinating. Well worth a visit.
      We did the Neolithic sites over two days – Skara Brae on the first, Maeshowe and the Brodgars on the second.


  1. glad you enjoyed Orkney – as we love going there every year.
    Great that you managed to meet up with Anne aswell. Hope to see you and your boat sometime next 2/3 weeks


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