A Tour of Orkney and Shetland – Part 5, Final Day

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.

First view of Maeshowe from the coach. Excitement builds.

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!)

Alan adds a sense of scale to the stones.

Stenness Stones. Tall but very thin. How did they get them there without breaking them?

Stenness Stones. Looking for alignments – surely those distant hills on Hoy are significant? Don’t know about the coach.

Looking in the opposite direction, towards Maeshowe. Another dip in the hills! The mound was visible from some parts of the circle but not others.

Distant view of the Ring of Brodgar from Stones of Stenness.

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.

Walking towards Maeshowe.

Coming through the tunnel…

…and leaving again.

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.

Approaching the Ring of Brodgar, through a field of dandelion clocks – literally walking through time.

Fencing around part of the Ring of Brodgar, plus another mound – and that view of the horizon.

View of ditch, stones and the loch behind.

Getting close to the stones – the urge to touch.

We were told there were runes carved on one of the stones. One of our party found them – would you have seen them?

View from the top of a small mound, just outside the ring of stones.

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.

Reconstruction of Scara Brae house – a maze of tunnels led to one house.

Entrance to the house

Inside the house, with hearth, beds and “dresser”

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.

An early house. You can tell by the position of the beds, inset into the walls.

View showing position of the village, close to the beach.

Looking into one of the later houses. Note same arrangement as in reconstruction – dresser always faces the door!

Looking across the site towards Skaill House.

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.

Corrigall Farm Museum. The farmhouse at the back, barns in front. Note the stone slabs roofs.

Inside the farmhouse.

Ancient mousetrap – wood and stone and highly lethal.

Our driver, John, surveying the farmyard.

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.

Stromness harbour

Houses in the quiet part of town

Folk music in Stromness

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.


More rocks. No birds.

Dramatic photo of dramatic photographer, but no birds!

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.

Sunset from the Kirkwall ferry terminal.

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.

A Tour of Orkney and Shetland – Part 4, Orkney

After out late night arrival at the Kirkwall Hotel, we were up bright and early next morning and heading south. It seems to be an indication of how far north we were that a lot of the time we were travelling south.

First stop today was the Churchill Barriers, created after the sinking of HMS Royal Oak in October 1939. Ships have been using the sheltered waters of Scapa Flow since man first learned to sail. Vikings anchored their ships there, but it became most famous as a naval base in WW1 and WW2. After their defeat in WW1 the German fleet was interned there pending a decision on their future and in 1919 the German officer in command gave the order to scuttle the fleet. 52 ships were sunk. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s many of the ships were raised for salvage. In WW2 Spapa Flow again became Britain’s main naval base, but when a German submarine the U-47, commanded by Günther Prien managed to penetrate the bay and torpedo HMS Royal Oak, with the loss of 833 men, it was decided to block the entrances. A series of causeways were built, connecting several islands and providing the main road to South Ronaldway.

View from coach on one of the Churchill Barriers of (partially) sunken ship.

Just over the first of the barriers, we stopped to visit the Italian Chapel. This was built by Italians at a prisoner of war camp set up to help build the barriers. They asked permission to build a chapel, which they did using two Nissen huts. All the work was done by the prisoners themselves, using materials “found” around the camp. It is interesting to consider that at a time when British POWs were using their ingenuity to escape captivity, Italians in the same position were creating a thing of beauty.

View of Churchill Barrier and Italian Chapel

Italian Chapel

Italian Chapel, interior

Italian Chapel, screen

Italian Chapel, altar

We then continued south, across the barriers. At this point, I should mention that all the roads were well maintained and there was little traffic. Although we did encounter one traffic jam.

Orkney traffic jam.

At what seemed like the end of the road, we arrived at the Tomb of the Eagles or the Isbister Chambered Cairn. The tomb dates from about 3,000 years BC and was found by farmer Ronnie Simison in 1958. There is an excellent display at the farm and we were given talks on the history of the area by members of the family. I real “hands on” experience as objects were handed round. Then came the bracing  one mile walk to the tomb. I had seen the tomb before, on television (I’m sure I remember Neil Oliver pulling himself inside on a little trolley) but nothing prepares you for the actual experience. I had imagined the tomb to be in the middle of a field , when in fact it is close to the edge of a very dramatic cliff. No wonder so many sea eagle bones were found mixed with the human bones. They must have been a common sight in the area at the time the tomb was in use. And no-one used the trolley!

The queue for the tomb.

Who wants the trolley?

Coming through!

Inside the Tomb of the Eagles. All the side chambers were empty…

…except one!

Back to the land of the living.

Walking back along the cliffs. If the rabbits were this size, how big were the eagles?

Back on the coach, it was a short drive to St Margaret’s Hope, for lunch etc. We sat and had an (Orkney) ice cream overlooking the harbour, before we returned to Kirkwall.

St Margaret’s Hope, boats

In the afternoon, we were free to explore the town of Kirkwall. Other Half visited the Wireless Museum, while I opted for the small but interesting Orkney Museum. We then met up to see St Magnus Cathedral and the nearby Bishop’s Palace and Earl’s Palace (Yes, another castle built by Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney).

St Magnus Cathedral

St Magnus Cathedral, nave. Hanging banners gave the impression the columns were leaning.

St Magnus Cathedral, arches upon arches.

Loved this monument to John Rae, the arctic explorer.

St Magnus Cathedral – Bishop’s Palace on left, Earl’s Palace behind railings on right.

Earl’s Palace.

Bishop’s Palace, interior. There are steps to the top of that ruined looking tower. Good views of the cathedral and town – if you can open your eyes!

Dinner that night was at the hotel and afterwards we had a walk beside the harbour.

Kirkwall Hotel, bathed in evening light.

The view from our window.

Two nights in one place! We had nearly manged to settle in, but suitcases had to be out the following morning (we braved the lift!). We had another day in Shetland, the highlight of our tour, but it was nearing the end.

A Tour of Orkney and Shetland – Part 3, Shetland to Orkney

After a whole day touring Shetland, we booked into the Queens Hotel in Lerwick, tucked away at the corner of the harbour. The coach was allowed to stop to unload, but the area was forbidden to other traffic. We were told that this was because there was to be filming in the area.

Queens Hotel, Lerwick. Behind the barriers.

One of the reasons I had wanted to visit Shetland was because I had watched the TV series “Shetland” based on the books by Ann Cleeves. A scene from the new (fourth) series was to be shot there the following day. We did wander back later to have a look, but although there was a lot of equipment lying around, we didn’t see any action. I’ll certainly be watching the next series – and reading the books.

I don’t know if it was to do with the filming, but when we went out for a walk that evening, we found a Viking longship moored just behind the hotel. It wasn’t very big, but it gave us a bit of a shock.

Queens Hotel and Viking ship – our room looked out onto this tiny beach.

We survived the night without being raped and pillaged and checked out next morning. Again the coach travelled south, but then took a road to the west coast to visit St Ninian’s Isle. We didn’t actually “visit” the island, which is attached to the mainland by a sand tombolo. Perhaps there wasn’t time, or we weren’t considered fit enough, but the view was enough. There is a ruined chapel on the island, dedicated to St Ninian. When it was excavated in the 1950s, treasure from the 9th century was found there. The collection of silver brooches and other objects is now in the Shetland Museum, which we visited later, so I suppose we didn’t really miss anything.

View of St Ninian’s Isle

Then it was back north, to Scalloway, the former capital of Shetland. We had a brief visit to the “Shetland Bus” memorial, before a visit to the Scalloway Museum, where there is a display telling the story of this WW2 operation. After the occupation of Norway by Germany in 1941, small fishing boats were used to transport men and equipment to aid the resistance.

Shetland Bus, memorial, Scalloway

Scalloway Museum, Shetland Bus exhibition

Next door to the museum was a castle, which we also visited. This was built in 1600, by the notorious Earl Patrick Stewart, who we had met the day before at Jarlshof. Patrick Stewart was the 2nd Earl of Orkney and illegitimate cousin of James VI. He was not much liked by the local citizens, as, amongst other things, he forced them to work on his castle for no pay. They complained to the King and eventually he was summoned before the Privy Council in 1609. He was imprisoned and eventually executed in 1615, in Edinburgh. The castle was abandoned. It is interesting for the graffiti that has been found in the great hall. Some bored visitor had carved pictures of ships that would have been visible in the harbour below.

Scalloway Castle

Scalloway Castle, Great Hall

Scalloway Castle, ship graffiti (very faint)

We returned to Lerwick via Tingwall Valley. The Ting was the old Norse Parliament. This was originally held on a small island in the loch, reached by a stone causeway. The coach stopped in a lay-by, already occupied by workmen, so we were unable to get out for a proper look. It would have been nice to have spent more time exploring the area. Perhaps we will come back another time, by ourselves. There is so much to see in Shetland, the tour can only cover the highlights.

View of the Ting, from inside the coach (with workmen’s van)

In the afternoon we had free time in Lerwick. We were dropped off near the Museum. After a lunch of scones (which had been recommended) we looked round the Shetland Museum. It was large, modern and had many interesting exhibits. We confined ourselves to the archaeology section; the St Ninian treasure and some beautiful stone tools. Plus a lifeboat from the RMS Oceanic, predecessor of the Titanic, which has recently been restored.

Shetland Museum, different styles, one amazing building.

We had had enough of the “museum shuffle” so set off to explore the rest of Lerwick. We looked round the shops and visited Fort Charlotte, originally built to deter the Dutch during the Anglo-Dutch Wars. It was rebuilt in its current form in 1781 and named after the wife of George III, but never used in anger.

Fort Charlotte

Leaving Lerwick

Tired and footsore, we returned to the museum, in time to be picked up by the coach and delivered to the ferry. The ship sailed at 5.30 for Orkney. This was a shorter crossing, no cabins this time. We had dinner on board and arrived in Kirkwell about 11pm. It was a short coach ride to the Kirkwell Hotel, where the service was very efficient and we were soon heading for our rooms. We were on the third floor, so decided to take the lift. We had been warned about this, it was one of those old-fashioned types where you have to pull the gate across before it will move. We waited while someone else went up, it returned quickly. It contained three large suitcases – but no people. I’d had enough, we dragged our suitcases up to the third floor.

Viking ships, haunted lifts. What more did this holiday have in store for us?






A Tour of Orkney and Shetland – Part 2, Shetland

We had a pleasant trip from Aberdeen to Shetland. Excellent dinner and breakfast, a calm sea and a good night’s sleep in our cabin. Unfortunately the weather had let us down and we arrived in Lerwick in a dull drizzle.

Landing in Lerwick ferry terminal – rain streaked windows.

Luckily it had stopped by the time we got on the coach and headed south and on to another ferry. This one was a bit smaller and the trip shorter; across to the island of Mousa.

Small ferry…

… and grey sea

We were to visit the iron-age broch that sat on the edge of the island. There was the remains on the mainland opposite, but the one on Mousa was almost complete; so complete that most of the interior survives and you can climb the (very narrow) stairs to the top.

Mousa Broch

Top of the Broch. Why do you need a torch? To see the stairs of course!

Don’t look down!

Interior of Broch.

As we made our way back to the ferry, the sun came out and things looked more cheerful.

Seal on a rock, watching the passing boat load of tourists.

There was a short drive to the Hoswick Visitor Centre for lunch. My other half was surprised to find a display of wireless equipment in the building ( he spent most of the holiday pointing his camera towards mist covered hilltops, thought to be the sites of old radio stations – he was not expecting this!)

Lunch with added wireless equipment at Hoswick.

Once we had dragged him back to the coach, we travelled further south, via Old Scatness, which wasn’t open, to the southern tip of the Shetlands, Sumburgh Head. We were there, not for archaeology (or radio stations) but birds. We were promised puffins, they did not co-operate, we saw none. There were other birds, flying to and from dramatic cliffs, and the sun was shining.

Sumburgh Head

Cliffs at Sumburgh Head – our coach beside the lighthouse.

Twitchers looking for non-existent Puffins.

We drove the short distance to Sumburgh Hotel for tea and biscuits and then walked to the nearby site of Jarlshof. For me this was the highlight of the trip. I had never heard of this site before, but it has everything; 4,500 years of settlement, on one site, all excavated and laid out in chronological order. You start with the remains of huts dating from 2500 BC or earlier. There is not much left as the inhabitants must have reused a lot of the materials. Beside them is a Bronze Age smithy (800 BC) and older houses. Next is an Iron Age village, from the final centuries BC. The sea has taken part of a Broch and its courtyard, also Iron Age. Tucked next to them are wheelhouses from the second and third centuries AD. Behind these earlier settlements are the Norse longhouses dating from the 800s and continuing over 400 years. Nearby are the remains of the Medieval farm that followed.

Towering over the site is the New Hall, built in the 1580s by Earl Robert, Lord of Shetland and expanded by his son Earl Patrick (we will be meeting him later.) Within a century this building was in ruins, but in 1867 a new Laird’s House was built. This is now the Sumburgh Hotel, where we started this visit.

It is a wonderful site to visit, but best take a knowledgeable archaeologist with you!

Jarlshof, The site from Sumburgh Hotel.

Archaeologist Alan Braby in the Stone Age. Looking into the future?

Looking into one of the houses. Think this is Iron Age. There were saddle querns all over the site.

Alan in a Norse house, pointing out the length? or towards the medieval farm, or Sumburgh Hotel?

After this we left, tired and sunburned, to return to Lerwick and to check into our hotel.

I was hoping to cover all of our stay in Shetland in one post, but we did so much (this covers just one day!) that I will have to leave that to the next post.



A tour of Orkney and Shetland – Part 1

You may have noticed that I haven’t blogged for a while. I have been away, on holiday. I did no writing whatsoever, and I was in an Anglo-Saxon free zone. Plenty of Vikings, but the Anglo-Saxons didn’t get that far north – not to settle anyway. Perhaps they visited, perhaps they were taken there. Can I use this in a future book? An interesting thought.

To return to the present. I have been on “An Archaeologist’s View of Orkney and Shetland” It was a coach tour run by Brightwater Holidays. It was a holiday I had looked at several times before, but rejected because of the number of ferry trips. My other half is not keen on ships, but this time he made an exception. Perhaps my wistful remarks had sunk in (not exactly the right word?), perhaps it was the proximity of a special anniversary, but he agreed we could go. Luckily all crossings were calm.

The holiday was only six days, so we added three nights in Yorkshire at the end “to recover”. We didn’t fancy the long drive home – Yorkshire was quite far enough, but you can read about that later.

Brightwater Holidays offer a selection of departure points, so we decided to drive to Edinburgh. We spent the night in a hotel near the airport and were picked up by the coach at 9.15 the following morning. There were only six of us to start with, including our guide Alan Braby. He was not “as advertised” but had stepped in at the last minute, because the original guide was unavailable. He did an excellent job, apart from a slight difficulty in telling left from right, usually at the end of a busy day. But we got used to it. I’d rather have an archaeologist who does a bit of guiding than a guide who knows a bit of archaeology. Driving the bus was John, from Glasgow. He was responsible for much of the organisation and was capable of taking a full size coach to places I never thought it could go.

The first stop (a comfort break at a garden centre near Perth) provided some unplanned history. There was a view from the car park of an ancient building. The signs said Huntingtower Castle. The name was familiar. It was the site of  the Gowrie Conspiracy of 1600. An attempt on the life of King James VI of Scots, soon to be James I of England. I had read a book about it a while ago. Blood of Kings by J D Davies. The author writes books on naval history and also historical fiction set in the 17th century (the latest book in the Quinton Journals, a prequel, includes this bloody event in Scottish history).

The coach continued to Aberdeen, where we picked up more passengers and the airport, where the last of our group joined us. The tour proper had started.

We drove out of the city to visit the Loanhead of Daviot Stone Circle, near Inverurie. This is a recumbent stone circle. Was this a circle of fallen stones? No. This type of ancient monument is found only in this area of Aberdeenshire (and Ireland) and features a large stone lying on its side supported by two flanking stones. It was built about 5,000 years ago and aligns to positions of the moon. It is a pity that the main alignment south-west to Mither Tap and the summer moon, is obscured by trees. We spent a lot of time spotting alignments in the surrounding landscape and someone noticed another recumbent stone circle opposite.

Loanhead of Daviot Stone Circle

1500 years later, a cremation circle was built beside it and later still a large cairn was built in the centre of the circle. It would have been taller than the stones, but most of the rocks have been reused, probably to build walls and houses in the vicinity. All this was done by the local people, farmers of the surrounding land, probably ancestors of the modern inhabitants. A wonderful demonstration of continuity; something we were to discover time and again on this trip.

Stone Circle, showing remains of the cairn in the centre.

Members of the group search for cup marks on the supporters of the recumbent stone

The distinctive shape of Mither Tap (view through the coach window)

We then drove closer to Mither Tap to the Maiden Stone, a slab of granite, over 3m tall . The maiden who gives it its name was a local girl who made a wager with the devil, and lost. In fact it is about 1200 years old, and Pictish. On one side is a Christian cross, on the other, mysterious Pictish symbols. It is very worn and it was difficult to make out the carvings, although by this time the sun had appeared. There is a mirror and a comb, but what is the animal above them? There are suggestions that is an elephant, but I think I’ll go with the dolphin theory.

Maiden Stone. Pictish images difficult to see.

Maiden Stone. Christian symbols on reverse











Display board, showing details of Maiden Stone.

An interesting start to the holiday. We returned to Aberdeen, to board the ferry which sailed at 7pm. We watched the departure, before having dinner on board. As this was the first meal since we had stopped at the garden centre, I was starting to wish I had had eaten something then, instead out spying out interesting old castles!

Leaving Aberdeen.

Then it was to bed in our cabins. Next day we would arrive in Shetland.