Orkney is in the news. Stunning recent archaeological discoveries and a new BBC (UK) TV series combine for a serious spike in travel interest. I had a great time up in the Orkneys last year, although, granted: my trip was much more civilized than a true Odyssey. No Sirens, no Circe, no Cyclops. I will be dropping several blogs about different aspects of Orkney over the coming months, starting today with: romancing the stones!
Islands and Mainlands
The Orkneys are a group of islands and islets, located just over a handful of miles off the north coast of Scotland. They’re easy to get to, see my recent ferries blog. The main island in the group is called – wait for iiit – Mainland! When Orcadians say they’re going to Mainland, this is what they mean, not mainland Scotland. For a land mass this small, it is truly baffling how much ancient cultural and archaeological treasure these windblown islands have contributed.
Reverse 5,000 years in 30 minutes
Orkney’s most famous ancient sites are conveniently located on Mainland. In 1999, UNESCO combined them into the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” Heritage Site. Within half an hour of the main town, Kirkwall, the Heart consists of the ancient village of Skara Brae, the chambered tomb at Maes Howe, the Stones of Stennes and the Ring of Brodgar. They were constructed in the Neolithic period, over 5,000 years ago, before the Egyptians built their pyramids, and predating England’s Stonehenge by several hundreds of years.
Skara Brae could not stay away
In the mid 1800s, a fierce storm blew apart a tiny village on the west coast of Mainland. After the weather calmed down, the villagers realized they were not the first ones living here: the amazingly well-preserved village of Skara Brae appeared from the rubble: a settlement that preceded their own by thousands of years!
Skara Brae, the best-preserved Neolithic village in Western Europe, is simple to get to, albeit on narrow roads. Drive west from Kirkwall, follow the clear signage, park in their car park and walk to the Visitor Centre to purchase your ticket. Note that opening times vary quite a bit between summer and winter, with winter being a typically northern season of October through March. The Centre features an Exhibit area, a Café and the inevitable gift shop. Watch the intro video before you continue into the village; you’ll get more out of your visit.
A firm mattress
Walking through the complex, you’ll see the ancient houses, artifacts and even some 5,000 year old furniture. An ancient Orcadian stone bed will last much longer than a modern Scandinavian assemble-it-yourself flatbox one! Then again, not everyone likes a firm mattress.
One Stone Two Stone
Sorry Dr. Seuss, no red stone or blue stone here, but Mainland does boast not one but two Stone Circles. The Ring of Brodgar is one of the UK’s most famous henge stone circles, meaning stone circles surrounded by a rock-cut ditch – or “henge”, as in “Stonehenge”. But there is another circle on your way to Brodgar: the easy to miss and much less famous but equally fascinating Standing Stones of Stennes, a mere 15 minutes from Kirkwall.
Standing Tall at Stennes
Archaeologists tell us that Stennes was built some 5,400 years ago, predating Stonehenge and even Brodgar by several hundreds of years. Originally, the Circle had 12 standing stones, and they were enormous. Today, only 4 survive and at a towering 20 feet, they surely are impressive.
The Circle has a diameter of about 100 feet and the site just casually sits there on the right hand side of the road from Kirkwall. Park in the tiny pullout, push open the little gate, walk in, no ticket no nothing, and you’re standing at the Stones of Stennes, much like its builders did, 5 millennia ago, contemplating life and its meaning, under darkening skies.
Fun fact: the Orcadians pronounce Stennes as “stain-is” with the emphasis on the first syllable.
Breaking Bad Clouds over Brodgar
Continuing on to the Ring of Brodgar, a mere 2 minutes further, I lucked onto some intriguing weather. Blue skies, flying clouds changing from pretty white to ominous grey and back within minutes, and just a couple of spots of rain in between. Unique in October for sure.
Amazingly, even Brodgar is free to visit. And, it’s unprotected, except by the expectation that people will respect this ancient site like their predecessors did. Park in the car park just a few hundred yards past it to the right, and walk back. I saw a very healthy-looking bunch park in the handicapped zone right by the Ring, kids running off, parents hanging back at the minivan, smoking. Littering is not encouraged….
Romancing the Stones
Rain had made the approach up to the Ring muddy but the path only has a little bit of incline, and is covered with metal grating. Brodgar originally had 60 stones, 36 of which survive today. The Ring – an actual circle – has a diameter of some 340 feet, over 3 times that of Stennes, but its stones are not as tall. The highest one is about 15 feet, still a baffling accomplishment to move and set up so well that it stays upright for 5,000 years.
Walking up on the right side you reach the mound’s top where the stones stand at the edge of the sea. The middle of the circle is covered with dense growth of heather or gorse or something similarly hardy – botany is not my forte. There’s a narrow track, flattened by people walking to the centre fort the ultimate romancing the stones sensation…
One of the stones had fallen over. I was going to blame those minivan kids but they were actually well-behaved and had scampered back already. A sign explained that this stone was felled by lightning in 1980. The powers that be decided to leave it in situ as a natural occurrence, perhaps to remind us that the wrath of Thor can strike at any moment: the Vikings ruled here for centuries and maybe Thor is still mad about them being kicked out!
Seeing that lightning strike sign made me realize how truly amazing it is that the Ring is still standing, surviving as complete as it is. Brodgar has weathered some 5,000 years of lightning, rains, storms, erosion – and most destructive of all: people! How wonderful that the locals, visitors and early semi-scientific explorers have largely left them alone….
Fun fact: you know how groups of animals have odd names, like a “raft of otters”, a “parliament of owls”, and a “murder of crows”? Did you know that a group of stones is called a “concert of stones”? No? OK, I made that up. Sorry Mick…
In 2002, geophysicists discovered evidence of “anomalies” in the Ness of Brodgar, the narrow strip of land right between Stennes and Brodgar. With permission from the landowners, trenches were dug and excavation began, using proper modern techniques.
The dig started to deliver very quickly. It has already produced unusual Neolithic art finds, high quality stone carvings and what might turn out to be the largest non-burial-related stone building of that period.
The interest is enormous. The BBC sent a team up to the Ness of Brodgar dig, filmed weeks of activity and is broadcasting their “Operation Orkney” series this month, January 2017, in the UK. Archaeologists and other specialists from all over the world are angling for an opportunity to participate. Even students had a chance to go over and contribute their time: dig for your dinner!
A New Age of Old Stuff
Who knows what additional archaeological treasures will be found here. Romancing the stones never gets old – it already is! Keep scratching the surface of the Trenches of Treasure – careful with that trowel – and with patience and expertise you will reach the Depths of Knowledge. And that’s an Odyssey in itself.
DISCLAIMER: My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine except where credited as noted, as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
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