Tuesday, 6 October 2015

A Walk in History - Orkney

The ferry from the mainland of UK/Scotland arriving at the very very small port of St Margaret's Hope on the main island of Orkney.  I think anyone who considers the islands of Orkney - in the far far north of Scotland - probably thinks, like me, that these islands are so close to the top of the planet that they will be wild, stormy, grey and cold.  However, our first 2 days there were just as lovely as, I hope, this photo looks!  It was calm and sunny on arrival and for the day after.  Everyone we met commented on the weather, "you must have brought it with you!", we were told. 

I've only really been aware of the name/place, Orkney, for the last couple of years.  I was introduced to it by the 'rock star' BBC-TV archaeologist Neil Oliver.  I love watching him, his programs and listening to him talk!  Love his long hair too!  The program he presented on the discovery of the 'Ness of Brodgar' really grabbed my imagination and I thought if I ever had the chance I'd love to see it for myself.  So we went there!

To get to Orkney from Inverness we had to get out of bed at 5am and drive over 2 hours north to catch a fast car cat/ferry for a one hour sail across the Pentland Firth and into the Orkney Archipelago . There is a larger, but slower, ferry available but we wanted to make the trip over quickly. Our fast sail was sunny and calm and as soon as we drove off the ferry we hit the history trail.

Our first stop was the Tomb of the Eagles.  I didn't know what to expect since I hadn't done any research on any of the sites but the tourist brochures said it was well worth a visit.  To get there we drove down narrow 2 lane roads winding between well cultivated fields of hay in the process of being harvested as well as small herds of cattle. The hills are treeless ... nothing seems to grow much taller than a small bush.  With every turn of the road you could see the ocean or a loch - with nothing blocking the view - and we could just imagine how vicious the winds would be blowing off the North Sea or North Atlantic.

The visitor entrance to the Tomb of the Eagles was a building in the back of a farm shed.  We pulled into the car park and went inside for a surprising and enlightening 30 minute one on one education about the area and the 5,000 year old artefacts and bones they found on the site.  Then after the talk we were taken into another room to be fitted with "Wellie Boots" and shown the path out across the muddy field to the archaeology site.  Turns out, unlike Stonehenge, most of the sites here on Orkney are well preserved but you can get right up and personal with pretty much all of them.   First we saw a site dating back 5,000 years which was very very muddy then we walked to the main Tomb site.

We walked along these rocky cliffs to reach the Tomb of the Eagles.  Out there is the North Sea!  What a lovely day we had - probably about 14C degrees - and no wind. 

This is what I mean about "getting up close and personal" with the ancient site.  After about a 15 minute walk we came to a fenced in large mound of earth with a stone base.  On the ocean side there was a small and narrow hole at ground height with a board on wheels.  The idea was to lay on top of the board and pull yourself into the dark tomb by the rope above your head.  Here you see George's feet and butt as he's pulling himself along into the tomb.

This was the inside of the tomb ... you could stand up inside.  Part of the preservation of the site is a concrete ceiling complete with small Perspex skylights so you can see.  The alcoves in the wall originally contained 300 skulls of humans and bones from eagles, dogs and red deer all dated to over 3,000 years ago.  Fascinating!!!

The talk and tour of the Tomb and surrounds took almost 2 hours!  It was becoming clear that our planned couple of days on Orkney may not be enough time to get around all the sites we would like.   And it's pretty clear this blog could take forever as well ... so I'm going to resort to pictures to describe the rest of the trip.  Here goes ......

The next stop was The Italian Chapel ... an amazing human achievement.  During WW2 Italian prisoners of war were interned in a POW camp in Orkney and they didn't have a place of worship.  Through negotiations they were eventually provided with 2 Nissen Huts to construct a place they could practice their Catholic religion.  Nissen huts were prefab corrugated iron structures in a half-cylindrical shape - very ugly.  There was an artist among the POWs and he, along with the rest of camp 60 set to work turning the 2 joined huts into a beautiful chapel.  The results are spectacular.

This is what the inside of the chapel looks like.  All the walls are painted from the front door to the altar at the rear of the church.  It is beautiful and perfectly preserved!  When the POWs were repatriated to their homes in Italy the people of Orkney made a commitment to preserve and protect the chapel.  The artist returned another 2 times to touch up the walls and visit the people he had become so close to during their time in Orkney.    Today the beautiful chapel is still in use as a place of worship.  I found it very inspiring.  I suggest you google it to see much better photos of the building.

After we finished at The Italian Chapel we drove on in to the main town of Kirkwell and found our B&B, checked in, had a glass of wine and then walked all over the town that night looking for a pub and then a place to eat.  We were there in Orkney as everything was closed or closing for the season.  The main site I wanted to see - The Ness of Brodgar - had already closed.  Nothing much was open but we still managed to find a place on the water front to drink and eat.  It was cold and I can't imagine how hard it must be to live there during the winter. 

And a note for our sailing friends .... you don't just snuggle your boat into a marina for the season here.  We passed a place where the yachts were winterized.  They pull yachts out to a place on land.  Remove all the canvas covers and the masts and then they strap them down.  Imagine having your boat up on a cradle with as many as 10 ropes lashing it to the ground!  I KNOW Orkney will never be on my sailing bucket list!!!  Pittwater is still the love of my life when it comes to sailing.

The next morning we got up early, had a lovely breakfast at the B&B and started out to see all the "stones".  The first place we went was The Standing Stones of Stenness.  These stones are ancient and believed to be the earliest stone circle in Britain ... dating from 3100BC.  They are very tall and you can see them from a good distance as you approach the site by car.  I loved being there and thinking about the ancient people that went to so much effort to construct something of this scale.  As you can see from my hat and gloves and scarf the day was colder than our arrival day.  Still blue sky but the wind was getting up and the wind chill alone made it quite cold.  Again, with all the places we visited I suggest you google to find out more.  We spent a good deal of time walking around and reading all the plaques on the site .. there's so much fascinating archaeology here I can't begin to describe the sights and atmosphere in this little blog. 

Just off to the side of The Stones of Stenness they've recently discovered a village dating from Neolithic time.  They're calling this The Barnhouse Neolithic Settlement and even though you had to use a good sized chunk of imagination to picture the dwellings/buildings it was fascinating to think people lived and worked here 5000 years ago!

Next was The Ring of Brodgar.  This ring is huge!  The stones are much smaller than The Stenness stones but the ring itself is very big ... so much so the interior has never been excavated.  Again we spent a lot of time walking the complete circumference of the ring and thinking about the who and why of the circle.

Our final stop was the site called Skara Brae.  This was the final ancient site we would visit - time was getting away from us - we didn't arrive at Skara Brae until the early afternoon.  BUT it turned out to be the most amazing.  This village was unknown until two storms - one in 1850 and the other in 1925 - unearthed a village from the grass covered sand dunes that was almost perfectly preserved.  The site is 5000 years old and because it was so perfectly preserved you can see exactly how people lived and organised their living space.  Like the Tomb of the Eagles we had a chance to get a good education about the site before walking around it which added to the WOW factor. 

By the time we'd finished at Skara Brae we were both cold, hungry and exhausted.   We returned to the B&B and went out for dinner early that night.  Oh ... and one thing about the way people in Orkney speak .... they have a very unusual accent.  It doesn't sound like Scottish exactly .. more like a mixture of Scottish and Scandinavian.  And, it is very hard to understand!  George managed to get it .. I was hopeless.  Also when you talk to people there they seem to still think of themselves - just a bit - as being part of Norway.  These islands are certainly a long way north!!

Our final morning in Orkney we woke to strong winds and grey skies and cold temps.  The wind had been howling outside our window all night and I wasn't thinking good thoughts about our one hour ferry ride back to the mainland later.  We had one more site to see and then we had to make an 11:50 ferry.

Just down from our B&B stood the stunningly beautiful red sandstone Cathedral of St Magnus built in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald.  Beautiful to walk around and learn about the many years of intrigue involved in this building.  Because it is built of sandstone it is very worn from the elements but still retains it's red natural beauty. 

We made the ferry and the sail back to the mainland wasn't too bad .. a bit bumpy but not enough to make me want to lose my breakfast!

We drove back to Inverness via John O'Groats .. the end of the road north in the UK.  We'd been to the end of the road in Tasmania so I guess as far as the United Kingdom goes we were at the other end!  And here we are ... freezing but happy!!!

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