This was the day I had been looking forward to, the trip to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, including the world heritage sites of Maeshowe and Skara Brae and the Standing Stones of Brodgar and Stenness. These were the sites I had read about and seen on television. They were on my “must see” list of places to visit. I had already had one disappointment when we were told that the Ness of Brodgar excavations had not started yet and everything was still covered up for the winter. Never mind, there was plenty of other things to see, and it is the complete ritual landscape that is important.
It was not a good start, we were too early for the Maeshowe visitor centre, or they weren’t ready for us, so we went to the Standing Stones of Stenness first. It was perfect weather to view these tall stones (unless it is winter with dark skies and snow on the ground!)
Rather than continuing across the causeway to Brodgar, we returned to the Maeshowe visitor centre, where we moved to smaller coaches and picked up guides. It was a short drive and then a walk along a path through the fields to Maeshowe itself.
I am sorry I have no pictures of the interior of Maeshowe, but photography was forbidden. Maeshowe is a megalithic chambered tomb, similar to the Tomb of the Eagles, that we had already visited, but bigger and with no skulls. It is famous for its mid-winter alignment when the setting sun shines along the passageway to light up the interior. When the tomb was opened, in 1861, the entrance was invisible, so it was entered by the top. The roof is a Victorian replacement, not nearly as accomplished as the original must have been. In earlier times, it must have been open as, in 1153, a group of Vikings took shelter there from a snow storm. Bored, they carved runes onto some of the stones in the chamber. It is now one of the biggest collection of runes in Europe.
Our guide was very knowledgeable, but was obviously under instructions to increase income for the visitor centre. As you would expect, someone asked what the runes said. We were told, “It’s in the guide-book.” I have checked the entry price. It is £6 for an adult; not bad for a short coach trip and a guided tour. I suppose they need to raise more money somehow, but, together with the prohibition of photography, it left a bad taste in the mouth.
After a stop in the shop (we did buy the book) it was back onto our coach. As we crossed the Ness of Brodgar, I looked out for the archaeological site. I glimpsed a farmyard with a pile of tyres, so I suppose that was it. We were soon out of the coach again and walking up a path to the Ring of Brodgar. This was a spectacular site, on a sloping site. As you approach it, the view beyond is invisible. It seems the whole landscape had been manipulated, to hide and reveal different aspects at the correct time in whatever ritual was being performed. I would love to know how, and why, it was used. Like the stone circle we had seen on the first day and Stonehenge and Avebury, it probably meant different things at different periods. Religion must have changed drastically over five thousand years plus.
Like Avebury, the Ring of Brodgar is large, too large to photograph properly. The problem was made worse by the fact that part of it was roped off for conservation. That is the problem with popular sites. Too many visitors can destroy a place which they want to see because it is so special.
We made our way back to the coach and the trip to the last ancient site we were to visit today, Scara Brae. We first spent time in the visitor centre – most of us in the cafe, for a much needed lunch. We then wandered outside to explore a modern re-construction of one of the houses we were about to see.
The reconstruction was a good idea. You could see everything from ground level, imagine sitting round the hearth on winter evenings. I discovered that the edge of the beds was just the right height to sit on. Apparently, when the reconstruction was built, the passages were made taller and wider than the originals – modern people are larger (or less nimble) that the inhabitants of the neolithic age.
Finally we were allowed to see the original, from above. The village was inhabited for at least 600 years, starting around 3000BC, so older houses went out of use, or were replaced by later ones. Then there was a sudden catastrophe. The whole site was covered in sand and never used again.
We didn’t have much time (about 10 minutes) to visit Skaill House, home of the local Laird, which was included in the entrance price. An interesting house, I would have liked to have spent longer there. It was back into the coach to visit another old house, not as old as Scara Brae, but perhaps older than Skaill house, although lived in until comparatively recently.
Corrigall Farm Museum was an addition to the schedule. It is a traditional ‘but and ben’ house that portrays a typical Orkney farmhouse and steading in the late 19th century. While we had been at Scara Brae we had been told to think about all the perishable objects that would have been found in the houses – wooden tools, woven baskets etc. This was an opportunity to see, in situ, all the possessions of a Victorian farm would have in their house. A lot less than we would own nowadays but not that different to a prehistoric farmer facing the same problems of daily life.
It was here that the first of our group left. An American couple were due to fly back to Shetland, to join another tour – birds this time – I hope they saw some puffins. John was very helpful, arranging a taxi to pick them up at the farm. He also gave them a lot of advise on places to visit later in their holiday. I’m sure it was beyond his job description but was greatly appreciated by our foreign visitors.
For the rest of us, the day was not yet over. We made a brief stop in Stromness, for tea or coffee. We had a walk along the main street. There was a strange atmosphere, quiet but busy, if you know what I mean. We stared seeing people carrying musical instruments It was the start of the Orkney Folk Festival held at the end of May each year. By the time we got on the coach again, singing was coming from outside a nearby pub.
On our way back to Kirkwall, we stopped at the cliffs at Yesnaby I don’t know if we were looking for puffins again, I don’t think so, there was no soil, only bare rock and a strong wind. Very dramatic.
Finally there was the long trip back to Kirkwall, where we were to have dinner at the Ayre Hotel. It was a jolly event; the whole group on one long table – much better than the small tables we had experienced at other meals. Then it was back onto the coach for the short trip to the ferry. It was the same one we had arrived on two days before. There was a bit of a wait in the terminal, then we were onboard. After such a busy day, most of us went straight to our cabins.
We awoke next morning, back in Aberdeen. Some of the party left from there, others were dropped off at the airport, but the final few of us made the trip back to Edinburgh. Our car was still in the hotel car park, so we packed our luggage into the boot, and left. We had booked a few days in Yorkshire before the final trip home, but that will have to be described another time (perhaps)
So. how was the holiday? Was it up to expectations? Definitely. We saw places we expected to see and some we didn’t. There are many places that when they appear on TV history programs we can say “We were there.”
It was not a relaxing holiday, but we didn’t expect that. So much to see in only six days. It was very well organised, we always arrived when and where expected. Even the weather was good!
The other travellers were friendly and none caused problems, no-one was late at getting to the coach, in fact sometimes we left early.
Many thanks are due to Alan and John, who hadn’t met before the coach arrived in Edinburgh. They melded into an entertaining and informative team.
Thank you Brightwater Holidays for organising the trip. If you are interested in archaeology and/or Orkney and Shetland, I would recommend it highly. Just don’t expect it to be relaxing. But who wants to sit on a beach all day?
I hope you have enjoyed this series of posts. It will now be back to business. I haven’t had a chance to write properly for ages, but I have some exciting news to report very soon.