Enjoying the Incredible History of Orkney

Long before coming to Orkney I had heard and dreamt of visiting Scara Brae but a trip here and I realize how it is just one of the hundreds of incredible antiquities that date from about 5000 years ago through to this last century. Blend this with a vibrant modern culture of arts, crafts, music and food, as well as being a bird-watchers haven and, with a week here, I feel I am leaving with so much left unexplored.

A couple of days ago we took the 25 minute ferry ride to the island of Rousay, the fifth largest of the Orkney islands but only a 13 mile trip around the loop road. Despite this it is home to over 160 archaeological sites ranging from Neolithic through Bronze and Iron Ages to Viking and Medieval. Since then we have been to see traditional homes from the 17th through 20th centuries, palaces from the 16th, mills from the 18th and 19th and looked out on Scapa Flow which played a vital role in both the first and second World Wars. How could I not be excited to be here? Although part of Scotland that is only since 1472 when it was offered as dowry for Princess Margaret of Norway and Denmark the countries that then held Orkney the Orcadian culture is clearly different from that of Scotland never even speaking the Gaelic language.

The island of Rousay rose out of the thick, damp mist that hung over us as I stood on the deck of the Eynhallow, a small landing craft style ferry that can carry a maximum of 10 cars, a number dependent on the skill of the drivers backing down the ramp onto the boat to squeeze in 3 abreast. We have opted to walk on as we signed up for a tour with Patrick Maguire of Rousay Tours, a friendly Northern Irishman who has lived on the island for 9 years. We head off on our tour with one other couple, coincidentally also from Canada.

Patrick keeps up an informed commentary as we drove slowly round the island. It was thought provoking as he talked about the past and present, as he quietly discussed one set of views versus alternate ones. We learn about the present population of about 200 with only about 30% of those being Orcadian and the balance from various parts of the UK and Europe to as far away as Australia and Canada, but the real reason I have come to Rousay is to learn about the pre-history sites here on the island and our first stop is Midhowe Broch, the best surviving of 3 such brochs all within just a very few hundred meters of each other along the shoreline and only one of the over 50 that have been identified in Orkney.

Brochs were large fortified circular structures believed to have been at least 13m high built around 2500 years ago. This one has a 9m internal diameter but with 4.5m thick walls. Inside the broch is filled with stone partitions and access is by way of a narrow entrance with the remains of the lower door hinge stone still visible. One of the most amazing things in a broch is that the layout that includes a central square stone fire pit and secluded stone walled box-beds remained little changed for most of the next 2500 years. I wonder if all Brochs were built to an identical set of plans because of 3 that I have seen, which includes Carn Liath in Sutherland and the Broch of Gurness on the Orkney Mainland, the internal layout seems so similar. Tucked up against the wall of the broch are a series of smaller homes creating a small village. The access corridor off which all the homes are built is roofed so that the whole village is protected from the weather. It makes one realize how difficult the weather must have been.

From Midhowe Broch to Midhowe Cairn we step back another 2500 years to around 5000BPE, a time when Orkney was several degrees warmer and treed. This cairn is one of the most impressive of the many chambered cairns in northern Scotland. About 33m long and 13m wide, once inside there is a 24m corridor with 12 separate stalls on each side that held the remains of the dead. It appears that excarnation was practiced meaning that the dead would have been left out until their bones were picked dry and then the remaining bones only being buried in the cairn. Often in cairns the bones were in one area of the cairn and the skulls in another.

On the Brough of Birsay you can see the remains of a Pictish village complete with sauna, a set of Viking longhouses and a monastery all within perhaps a 150m diameter area.

For me though my favorite ancient sites were the Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic stone circle which originally had 60 stones arranged in a 104m circle. Today only 27 remain but with the soft autumn sunlight we had early this morning the peace and the colors drew me back in time and I felt I could sit there all day. More impressive than the standing stones is the 4m wide by 4m deep ditch that runs around the whole site cut into bedrock at a time when the strongest tool was made from stone or antler. A short distance away is Maehowe a burial chamber from around the same period. What captures the imagination is that it was looted by Vikings who rested inside the cairn for 3 days around 1200AD and took to scratching graffiti on the walls using their runic alphabet such as “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women”. As our guide said it was the Viking equivalent of “for a good time call…”.

Jump forward to the time of our immediate ancestors and at Kirbuster Museum you have the last surviving “firehoose” in Scotland, a traditional home with a single room partially divided by a low wall with the open peat fire below vented through a hole in the roof. I felt so completely at home sitting in the high-backed Orkney chair, the peat stack close by, the dried and smoked herring hanging from near the ceiling and the beremeal oatcakes cooking on the griddle. This is history you can see, feel, touch and smell, quite literally. I leave with the delightful scent of heather peat smoke hanging on my clothes. Step forward a little in time, or at least in wealth and you have Corrigall Farm Museum, still with the herring hung over the fire and the oatcakes on the griddle but now with a real chimney and separate rooms, some with box beds but the main one with it’s own fireplace and a regular bed. Happily I am not a servant as their bed mattress is woven simman (twisted straw) rope.

Both in World War I and World War II Scapa Flow, a huge natural harbor largely enclosed by the islands of Mainland, Graemsay, Hoy, Burray and South Ronaldsay, played a vital role. With the traditional harbors being down in the south of England it was decided during the first war to move further north and the only place almost ready for use was Scapa Flow. Because of nervousness over German submarines being able to sneak into port between the many islands over 60 block ships were sunk which better enabled anti-submarine nets to be strung. Only 2 German submarines tried to enter Scapa and both ended up being destroyed. At the end of the war 74 ships of the German fleet was held in Scapa while negotiations took place on their future. In June 1919 the German Admiral, concerned that negotiations had failed scuppered the whole fleet. The British managed to rescue 22 of the ships but the remainder were sunk. For the second World War the Churchill Barriers were built, causeways that connected Mainland to Burray and South Ronaldsay and then also the smaller islands of Lambs Holm and Gibbs Holm. Unfortunately they were not built until after the HMS Royal Oak was sunk in October 1939 by German U-Boat U-47. Today one can drive across the barriers and also visit the delightful Italian Church, an lovely little church built by Italian prisoners of war who worked on the barriers.

Highland Park Distillery and tomorrow, Scapa Distillery, the Orkney Brewing Company, winner of the World’s Best Beer in 2011, Barony Mill an old water-mill still grinding beremeal (an ancient form of barley) and oats, a visit to the Orkney Blues Festival and some wonderful food including great fresh seafood at Skerries Bistro have rounded out a phenomenal week. I will be back.

In between the history there are amazing cliff and beach walks, crafts people, great food and wonderful people. I look forward to returning.

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