Monday, May 17, 2010

Touching the ancestors

Henge and marker stone
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
The recent lack of posting on this blog has been largely because I was away on holiday in Orkney, and though I've been posting photos over on flickr I haven't got round to writing about it.

This was my first visit to Orkney, and came about partly because Mr B had a notion to do a bit of ancestor-hunting on the island of Shapinsay. In the event, we left the Shapinsay trip till our last day in the expectation of sun - a wise move, as it turned out. But before that day I'd already fallen in love with somewhere unlike anywhere I'd ever been. The usual transformation of landscapes brought about by changing light was there, of course, but it was the landscape itself that caught me: these smooth, rolling fields, the low hills backed in the distance by the dark lumps of the mountains on Hoy, the standing stones everywhere, from the huge henge of the Ring of Brodgar (photo) to the random pair we saw in someone's garden, the ancient stone houses of Skara Brae, still with their stone furniture intact.

To the south, there were more recent relics in the Churchill Barriers with their scuttled ships and the Italian Chapel built by the prisoners of war who were working on the barriers. But on the same day as we visited the chapel we also visited the extraordinary Tomb of the Eagles, where we were handed neolithic objects to examine and where I hauled myself on a trolley (such as was used in the movie "The Great Escape") down a low tunnel into the 5,000-year-old tomb on the shore and got stuck on the way back out because the uphill slope brought said trolley to a halt. Because the site here is not under the control of Historic Scotland there are few restrictions - we were told to follow the arrows and if we found ourselves opening a gate we were on the wrong track! There was no-one with us at either house or tomb, and the loneliness and sense of thin-ness was palpable.

The landlady of our excellent B & B asked us if we'd be likely to return. I think the answer is likely to be yes.


  1. It is indeed a surprisingly green place, dairy-rich and home to delicious fudge! And Highland Park, of course.

    I didn't brave the Tomb of the Eagles, but I did walk bent double into the tomb at Maes Howe to examine the Viking graffiti.

    If I had known you were going I could have given you Iain & Sheila Campbell's address - they live in Birsay, up at the top left-hand corner of mainland.

    Their elder son Andy's wedding was in two parts: the first in an open-air ceremony in Acadia National Park, Maine, USA (which I managed to attend), the second a blessing in the ancient little church at Birsay. The first part was serenaded by a local piper and was followed by a ceilidh in a local hall (complete with pinada for the kids of all ages); the second was followed by a ceilidh in the Harray Community Centre. It was all very Peter Maxwell Davies - though I didn't see the sunrise!

    You should try to get there some year during the St Magnus Festival - six days of concentrated culture of all kinds, not just confined to Kirkwall.

    It is an odd sensation to be at a concert in St Magnus Cathedral, with the sun shining in from practically due north!

  2. Orkney is truly amazing - I also was overwhelmed by the sense of history everywhere. And, as you say, the Tomb of the Eagles is amazing.
    It's several years since I was there, but we're going again this year, and I can't wait!