Orcadian occasion; “By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie streams…” (part 5)

I don’t know exactly when I became aware, and thus interested, in the great Neolithic monuments of Orkney.  I am fairly sure it was only one to start with, the amazing village that was uncovered by storms in the 1850s.  At first it was assumed the ‘village’ must have been medieval but by the time ‘serious’ investigations began in 1927 this was in some doubt and the findings of that archaeological exhumation, and others since, confirmed the site as Neolithic.  The total lack of any metal on the site was one of the main clues, all work from building, farming and hunting was carried out using bone and stone tools.  Professor Gordon Childe laid out the first serious interpretation of the site, eight small houses, at one time ‘underground’ structures, with stone beds, hearths, even dressers still in-situ.

The plan of Skara Brae.

The eight houses of Skara Brae are interlinked; not my idea of fun !

The buildings (surprise surprise !) are built using a rather exemplary dry stone walling technique.  Of course there was little choice, lime mortar was thousands of years away; occupied from around 3200BC and lived in for around six hundred to a thousand years, dry stone walls were clearly quite durable.

Stone beds and dresser in a Skara Brae house.

It is so amazing, stone beds, almost like cots, a stone dresser and a central hearth. The whole would have been covered over and, although smokey, would have been dry and cosy.

Skara Brae is the most visited of all the Orkney pre-historic sites.  There is something fascinating in seeing the homes of ordinary stone-age people, it is quite different to viewing the more ritualistic or funerary sites.  The Bay of Skaill is on the western seaboard of the main island, exposed and open today but probably more sheltered and inland when it was occupied.  The fame that accrues to Skara Brae is precisely because of its rarity, uniqueness even.  Yet, given the great henges and burial chambers, there was certainly a large and intellectual population and thus there must have been many Skara Brae type communities all over the island.  More awaiting discovery perhaps.

There are other ‘villages’ amongst the island’s remains, there is a small Neolithic settlement at the Stones of Stenness with several houses clustered around what is thought to be a sort of ‘community centre’.

Neolithic village near Stones of Stenness.

The village near the Stones of Stenness, on the shore of Loch Harray, is also quite stunning although nowhere near as famous as Skara Brae.

Near the Tomb of the Eagles on the east coast of the mainland, south of Kirkwall, is an isolated (supposed) Bronze Age house which is also very similar in lay-out.  Some of the interpretation at this site is, in my view, slightly awry, particularly the notion that a clay lined ‘hearth’ at the entrance was some kind of ‘walking on hot coals’ welcome mat.  The stated view that the clay prevented water ingress was absolutely erroneous of course.  Nevertheless, the interesting thing ‘up there’ is how the three ages of man which are clearly divided (by metal tools and pottery as well as housing and burial techniques) in the rest of Britain is blurred such that this Bronze Age house (at Tomb of the Eagles) is not hugely different from the houses of Skara Brae or Loch Harray.

Bronze age house on the east coast of the Orkney main island.

The Bronze Age house (at the Tomb of the Eagles) is very similar to the older Neolithic houses such as at Skara Brae.

I was rather perplexed as to why no field systems had been found (or even searched for) as the Neolithic inhabitants of the villages were in fact the early farmers, certainly by the time of the Bronze Age (around 1500BC) elsewhere in Britain (for instance the great stone walled reaves of Dartmoor) large field systems were laid out.  Where were they on Orkney ?  The history of land usage and management on the island reveals that many of the present day field systems are but a couple of hundred years old, many much younger.  Indeed modern post-war farming has seen deep ploughing and land reclamation through drainage and levelling  such that what may have survived in the way of pre-historic field systems was obliterated.  However, much to my delight, I stumbled across a large earth bank with stone on its faces.  It was only a short length, about 20 metres or so, and it had survived by being in an unimproved field of coarse grass and rush close to the sea.  It was clearly man-made and had involved a great deal of effort in such a shallow soil area and I had seen no other such banks anywhere on the island.  In my judgement it was not modern (in the sense of 300 – 400 years old) and was most likely a remnant from a much earlier field system;  I reported it to the resident archaeologist …

The most stunning monuments to those islanders of 5ooo years ago are, to my mind, the great stone henges.  As in Wiltshire, the moving and raising of such massive stones, mathematically aligned to some stellar and/or solar cycle, in a landscape of wet lands and woodlands, is quite staggering.

The great stone circle of the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney.

It is remarkably difficult to photograph, at ground level, the great stone circle of Brodgar. With 27 stones standing and nine fallen (and originally 60 huge upright stones) the circle is 104 metres in diameter, in other words, big.

With all our scientific knowledge, our astronomical discoveries, our trips to the moon, we are none the wiser about what these great henge monuments were for.  There is the supposed link with solstice sun rises or sunsets, there is some thought about calendar aids, about religious ceremony, even just statements of ‘we can do’.  In truth, we just don’t know; I like that we don’t know, I like that for all our belief in the panacea of modern science, there exists in the world great man-made structures, built by both primitive and not so primitive civilizations, thousands of years ago, that leave us dumbfounded and clueless.

The 3 great stones of Stenness on Orkney

The Stones of Stenness dates from around 3000BC but its form today is very different to how it was when first constructed. A large ditch of some 4 metres depth and 7 metres width existed around the site – only found by archaeological excavation – and the format and number of stones is uncertain due to damage and re-use of the stones locally over the centuries. Nevertheless, the three that remain get my vote, they are impressive !

The great stones of Brodgar and Stenness are within a half mile or so of each other, in between, on a narrow strip of land that separates two lochs, recent discoveries are threatening to change forever the view of Neolithic Britain.  The Ness of Brodgar is quite the most remarkable place, but why ? Why, in that low lying basin in the centre of a remote northern island is there such a wealth of Neolithic monuments.  Clearly the nearby villages had a connection with whatever the stone circles and henges were used for and the nearby Chambered Tomb of Maes Howe looks over the whole scene. (A little aside here – the word maes is also used in the Welsh language for the same meaning, hay meadow).  We had a guided tour of the Ring of Brodgar by a member of the Historic Scotland team who give daily tours throughout the season, for free.  Maes Howe required a small payment to enter, well worth it and the guide was equally as interesting. The entrance to the dry stone built tomb had not been altered to meet the demands of modern health and safety requirements or some other such ‘visitor attraction’ regulation (hooray !), it thus requires a very low stoop or crawl along a dark, slightly claustrophobic, tunnel.  This is made very clear when one arrives at the ‘booking hall’ – a nice old mill a hundred metres or so away (this too was so refreshing, it was actually on the other side of a busy main road ! ha, I cannot imagine THAT being allowed down here !) – even so one lady, having paid her money, declined the crawl.  Once inside it was easy to stand, the corbelled roof rose some 5 metres or so above us, and all around were stones laid over 5000 years ago.  There are some still unanswered questions, for example there are, at each corner. large vertical stones that appear unrelated to the structural integrity of the tomb.  That is according to those that know about these things, for my part had I been building such a large dry stone corbelled roof I would have used exactly the same technique.

Neolithic Chambered Tomb of Maes Howe on Orkney

It is quite a noticeable lump of earth, I wonder what people over the succeeding centuries thought it was, after all it stands in relatively flat surrounding land.

I won’t bore you with the historical niceties, Maes Howe is just one of several such tombs we visited.  The thing which stays in my mind more than the jaw dropping thrill of each visit, was the fact that you could visit, and by that I mean go inside !  Where the folk of Historic Scotland have surpassed all other agencies charged with ‘protecting the heritage’ of our lands is in their willingness to let people see and experience these great relics.  There are some that are in private hands but they too are under the enlightened protection of the Scottish guardians and are allowed to operate the sites as visitor attractions.  If I thought the guided tour of Maes Howe was amazing, imagine then my astonishment at finding others where the door(to the entrance tunnel) had a sign saying ‘please leave the door closed’ and alongside a sort of American house postage box which housed a torch !  Which worked !  Astonishing indeed.

Entrance to Orkney Chambered Tomb

A ‘crawl back in time’, each of the chambered tombs had entrances like this, hands and knees and a deep breath…. but the torch supplied was very useful, remember to close the door !

For those of you that don’t know, a chambered tomb is a stone built (and then covered over with earth) ‘room’, usually with the shape of an upturned boat, in other words the roof is corbelled inwards and often large slabs are then laid across to form the capping (see part 1 for the sous terrain).  The size of the main ‘room varies but is often only 15 – 20ft (5-7 mtrs) long and 6-9ft (2-3mtrs) wide.  Off the main chamber are small recesses, ante-chambers, into which the bones of the dead were placed, having been first left above ground to decompose and be stripped of flesh.  Sometimes, as at Maes Howe, the alignment of the entrance is such that one or other of the solstice sun rises or sunsets enters the tunnel and lights the back wall illuminating the whole chamber (and of course it does that for two days or so either side of the solstice).  Similarly at Tomb of the Eagles where the sun rise enters the chamber on the longest day.  This is all an added confusion, in one sense.  After all, the start of the new year, the shortest day, was the significant solstice, days lengthening thereafter. Also, if the chamber was only lit on those few days was that therefore the only time that people entered to inter the bones ?

Entrance to Tomb of the Eagles

I only just fitted into the entrance tunnel ! This is Tomb of the Eagles, so called because bones of a number of Eagles (amongst other animals) were found within, alongside human bones. If you look carefully you will see I am actually lying on a small wheeled trolley which makes entry and exit a little more easy with the rope above to haul on, a bit like the Great Escape film !

Whilst the Neolithic remains are the mainstay of the pre-historic interest there are other structures to examine.  Ever since I first read about them I have wanted to see the great dry stone buildings called Brochs.  These strange towers are not unique to Orkney but occur in the many Scottish Isles and in places on the mainland.  Again their actual purpose is unclear; they are clearly some form of defence, having strong outer walls and staircases running up through the middle of the walls to give access to the battlements.  The usual arrangement is the (remains of) tower within which are living places including stone bed cots and dresser type shelving, and adjoining houses which nestle close to the tower.  Normally sited on the coastal inlets and significant promontory, the Brochs are classed as Iron Age in date (the first millenium BC) and therein lies the conundrum.  Whilst elsewhere in Britain a certain unwelcome gang of Italians were threatening to arrive, and eventually did in the mid first century AD, no such threat existed in the north, so what were the Brochs meant to protect against ?

Broch of Gurness houses

The great Broch of Gurness, whilst the tower is much depleted – it was originally around 10 metres (30ft) high – the surrounding dwellings are quite extraordinary, certainly as intact as Skara Brae.

I have been particularly fascinated with the Brochs because they are built using a dry stone walling technique, and they are so massively built that they are a study in building mechanics and design.  What’s more they are unique in the northern hemisphere and mark the zenith of dry stone walling which does not appear anywhere else at that time.  Strange things indeed.

The remains of the Broch of Gurness

The Broch from a little distance away still looks massive and daunting, a formidable structure to try to attack.

Following the arrival of Christianity, the Islands became the home of  Pictish people, a Celtic language similar to Welsh (maes !!) was spoken and these folk lived right through the Scottish lands.  Their remains are few, some small buildings and possible hermitages or early religious sites have been identified.  The next real period of which there are architectural remains is when the Nordic visitors arrived.

The last stone archaeological remains I want to mention is one such Nordic settlement.  It lies in the north of the island on a small island only reached at low tide.  The cliffs around the small headland are wonderful nesting colonies for sea birds including Puffins.  Nestling on the sheltered south east coast, facing the mainland, is a small village which has both Pictish and Nordic remains.  The Brough of Birsay is another ‘must to see’ when visiting Orkney, and we did.

The Brough of Birsay at the north of Orkney mainland

The Brough of Birsay, that little island across the causeway that can be used only when the tide is like this, was one of the highlights, scenery and history of immense quality.

I was fortunate to be in the company of some real bird experts; I’m fairly good at my inland birds but to me everything that is grey and lives on or by the sea is a ‘Gull’ – not so of course.  Apparently what that little island had in the way of nesting sea birds was quite something as my ‘sis’ kept up a constant “ooo look, there’s a…”.  For me, balancing out on the edge of cliffs, hundreds of feet above the sea (and with geology that looked very fragile) to catch a view of a ‘sea gull’ is slightly un-called for.  But they seemed to thoroughly enjoy it…

Cliff hangers !

I don’t know what they are looking at – a sea gull I expect – but what I do know is the sea is a long way below !

The wildlife that did excite me was a rare sight of an Osprey, a Corncrake, Grey Seals and the little unique Orkney Vole.  I could go on and on writing about the things I saw.  Eventually I have to stop, is anyone still reading !!

I visited a number of other interesting places, especially two very fine farm museums which show the typical croft farm in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  The buildings alone were outstanding, the central hearth with the peat fire smoking away, the box beds, the straw mattresses, the corn drying kiln, so very much.  You will not be surprised to hear that I was hours and hours examining (and handling !) the tools and machinery of those hardy crofters.  I think just a few more pictures then… just a few.

The corn drying kiln at Kirbuster farm museum.

Kirbuster Farm Museum. I really liked the great Caithness slabs which roofed the little blacksmiths shop; the round building in the back is the kiln for drying the oats – a peat fire of course – which, given the predominant wetness of the islands, was very necessary.

Peat fire at Kirbuster farm museum

The ‘black hoose’, the peat fire in the open hearth would never be allowed to go out – starting a peat fire is not easy – and this example is the oldest hearth to survive on the island.

Orkney croft kitchen at Corrigall farm museum.

A more modern kitchen, this one around 1900, at the Corrigall farm museum.

Quern stone at Corrigall farm museum

The quern stone was used for grinding oats and bere into a meal from which all sorts of bread and oat cakes were cooked on the open griddle. It was one of my favourite items ,not least because I have one at home ! If I tell you the one I have is about 3000 years old you will understand that the quern is a very long used item.

Tumbril or Scotch cart

Another ubiquitous item, the Scotch cart or Tumbril which was the common workhorse of all farms right down to Cornwall and certainly here in Wales – ahem, I have one of those too !! and now I’ve seen this colour scheme… watch this space !

So there you have it, two weeks of amazing discoveries, stunning scenery, rare and wonderful wildlife, World Heritage quality archaeology and old farming.  All under a blue sky – well except for my last day, but, what the hell !! To end I’ll show you what I brought home…  You may remember back in part 1 I mentioned the ‘flauchter spade’ (at the Highland Museum), a similar type of breast plough was used in the uplands of Wales (of course I have some…), I have a Scottish scythe, I have a cousin of the cas chrom , I brought home two flauchter spades, oh yes, two very old, very used, of known crofting providence…. Welshwaller travelled all the way home with THE widest grin.  Thanks Scotland, thanks Orkney, thanks Sis and H, I had a GOOD TIME  !!

Scottish Flaughter Spade

A genuine Scottish Flauchter spade, added to my collection of old farm tools, it is so similar to our Welsh breast plough, but also so different.

Back to Wales, back to Walls, back to RAIN !!  Never mind, plenty of the summer still to come and plenty of interesting things for Welshwaller to report – or at least I think so !!


2 Responses to “Orcadian occasion; “By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie streams…” (part 5)”

  1. Emily Camille Says:

    I discovered your wonderful blog last month during a trip through part of the US south. I’m delighted to see the new entries you’ve made and can’t wait to read them.

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