A Weekend in Orkney

There are several sets of pictures on HyperBear from my visit to the Orkneys. You can view pictures of Gurness Broch, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brogar, and Skara Brae.

In Scotland, you can't travel for much more than three quarters of an hour before you come across scenery significantly different from what you saw 45 minutes ago. I suspect this phenomenon is noticeable throughout Britain and much of Europe but for North Americans — who are used to efficient, but boring, superhighways cutting through wilderness that was untouched less than a century ago — this can be very strange. This was first noticeable on the joumey from Inverness to Orkney. Inverness is situated on an estuary that leads northeast to the North Sea. Travelling north, the route goes from highlands, to coastal cliffs, to moors, and eventually, to the coastal inlets that hold the northern fishing villages.

The road climbed past Inverness and the surrounding highlands and through a large, wooded region. Eventually it crossed the first of three causeways. These long roads crossed inlets that fed into the North Sea. On the second causeway was a spectacular sight. About three kilometres east was an oil drilling platform. This wasn't out to sea, it was in the mouth of an inlet, within (relatively) easy access to the land. It was a really strange site, seeing huge machine standing on spindly legs as it sucked the juices out of the water it stood within. It reminded me the Martian war machines in H. G. Wells War of the Worlds.

The climb along the coast was spectacular. I'd never driven on a road that could be described as breathtaking until that day. The road hairpinned up and down along the coast in a chaotic fashion. Every now and again I'd come to a rise where the road in front showed nothing but sky, as if we were about to plunge over the edge into the sea. In several places the road was only wide enough for one vehicle. Sand pits sat at the side of the road for use by transports with failed brakes.

About two thirds of the way north, I turned off and headed northwest. Straight north was the town of Wick and finally John O'Groats, the most northern tip of the British mainland, but I was heading for Thurso, further west along the northern coast. The scenery changed yet again. This section of Scotland is surprisingly flat. In the distance the rear end of the western highlands was just noticeable on the horizon. In front was a vast spread of moor. There was little vegetation except for the odd scraggy tree, tough, course grass, and fields of heather. The area looked like it was carved by glaciers. Small lochs dotted the desolate terrain.

To get to the ferry docks at Scrabster, you have to drive through Thurso, a nice town of about 2000 people. Scrabster consists of a smattering of houses hanging tenaciously to a cliff side, and a large ferry terminal. Below was the St. Olaf, a P&O Scottish Ferry. It's a seagoing ship with a lower deck for cars and trucks and a couple of passenger decks.

In spite of the relatively calm seas, I was queasy the whole trip. This was partly due to only having a light breakfast and no lunch. Thankfully, the weather was about 14C and 1 spent most of the trip lying on my back on the rear deck of the ferry. This bugged me since I ended up missing the "Old Man of Hoy," a large rock column carved by erosion that greets the ships heading for Stromness.

Orkney is not one island but a small group of 14 major islands and about two dozen minor islands. Mainland Orkney is in the middle of this group and has a land area equal to all the other Orkney islands combined. South of Mainland is Hoy and South Ronaldsay. Together these three sizable islands, and 10 smaller islands, form a sheltered waterway known as Scapa Flow. This deep waterway has two major ports. The first is Stromness, an ancient fishing village, ferry port, and the main commercial entry to the islands. The second is the Scapa Flow naval base. Scapa Flow was famous during the two world wars.

Once the ferry rounded Hoy and made it's approach to Stromness, the water became very calm. Stromness is on the western end of Orkney's southern coast. It's streets are narrow and winding, sitting in layers up the side of a hill. It's much bigger then Scrabster. It's also very, very old having been settled for well over 2000 years, and possibly twice that long.

One of the more interesting aspects of Orkney is its ethnic makeup. Orkney was first settled before 3500 BC by Neolithic people. These people were mostly farmers, growing wheat and barley, but are also known for their chambered tombs and standing stones, which still exist today. It is believed that two groups lived on the island, one that buried their dead in large tombs with one main chamber leading off to several smaller chambers, and another group that created burial mounds containing one long chamber with burial alcoves.

Sometime during the iron age, Picts migrated to the island. Though the origins of the Picts are not known with any certainty, one theory suggests that they came from Sardinia in the Mediterranean. Orkney remained Pictish until about AD 800. Around this time Viking raiders, heading for Ireland and Iona, began using Orkney as a base of operations. It's interesting to note that the Viking settlements on Orkney were built on the ruins of Pict settlements, but that these Pict settlements had been abandoned before the arrival of the Vikings and had not been taken by force. In fact, there's much evidence to suggest that the two peoples had ready contact with each other and appear to have lived harmoniously on the islands. Orkney remained a Norse possession until 1469 when Scotland's King James III married Margaret, Princess of Denmark. Orkney and Shetland became part of the Kingdom of Scotland as part of the dowry. Today, the people of Orkney speak with a peculiar Scots accent. The accent is definitely Scots, but there's a Scandinavian undertone to it that betrays the islands' heritage.

The trip from Stromness to Kirkwall takes about 25 minutes. This is roughly three quarters of the journey across the Orkney mainland. The island's terrain is rolling, with large hills (just a little too short to be called mountains) smattered about the island. Compared to the Scottish Highlands, Orkney is flat.

A couple of miles from Stromness are the Ring of Brogar and the Stones of Stenness. The Ring of Brogar once consisted of about 60 stones, each measuring about 1 metre by 3 metres. Today there are only a dozen stones left, spaced apart just enough that you can make out the ring's original dimensions. The purpose for the Ring has never been determined, though it has been suggested that it was used as a form of calendar. Surrounding the Ring is a shallow ditch and covering most of the inside of the Ring is a thick growth of heather. The ditch had been filled in with time and was dug out recently by Historic Scotland. The heather is a recent addition in an attempt to refurbish the inside of the Ring. A small loch is less than a mile east of the Ring, while some old burial mounds (un-excavated) lie to the west. The Ring of Brogar has been estimated at about 4000 years old.

The Stones of Stenness are individually more impressive than the stones that make up the Ring of Brogar. The Stones reach more than 4 metres in height and about a metre and a half in width. Unfortunately there are only five Stones still standing. The Stones stand in a farmer's field, sharing the space with sheep. The sheep seem used to humans visiting their pasture, but remain wary nonetheless. Humans, too, have to remain wary as the ground is covered in sheep droppings. The Stones of Stenness also form a ring of unknown purpose, but this is much smaller than the Ring of Brogar. The Stenness stones are far older than the Ring of Brogar, dating back to about 3000 BC.

The town of Kirkwall is the largest settlement in Orkney. Like Stromness, it is very old though it's primary habitation came about during the era of the Viking settlements. The town is small, but well rounded, with a port area to the north and an airport a couple of miles southeast. In this respect, Kirkwall is a microcosm of larger Scottish towns. The streets are narrow (impossibly so, in some places) and the buildings are thick brick and stone constructions that link like row houses. Being the biggest centre on the island, the number of quality craft and gift stores in the town is completely out of proportion to the town's size. Kirkwall is the most northerly cathedral city in Britain, and was once the capital of the Norse Jarldom (Earldom) of the Nordereys (the Northern Islands - Orkney and Shetland).

Kirkwall has two major ruins. These ruins are right across the road from each other. I got to the ruins at 5:15 PM, with the sun very low in the horizon, but at 59 degrees latitude the sun takes forever to set. The caretaker/guard spoke with an amazing Orkney accent, and sounded like a Norwegian speaking English with a Scottish burr.

The larger of the two structures is the Earl's Palace. Next door is the Bishop's Palace. To confuse matters, there's another Earl's Palace on the island. The history of these buildings is the story of the worst period in Orkney's history. The tyrannical Earl Patrick - who had his eyes set firmly on the Scottish throne - took control of Orkney in 1593 upon the death of his father, Robert Stewart, a bastard son of James V. What followed was an ugly and brutal reign. The two Stewarts introduced to Orkney the feudal system, in it's most oppressive forms, as it had been practised on the Scottish mainland in the previous two centuries. Also — when it suited their purposes — they would use the "udal" law, the old Norse landholding system. In 1610, Patrick was arrested through the efforts of the aptly named Bishop James Law and hauled away to Dumbarton Castle, just outside of Glasgow. After his arrest, his bastard son Robert rose up in a mad rebellion. Robert held Kirkwall Castle (no longer standing), the father's palace and the nearby cathedral until heavy cannon ended the siege. Both he and his father were executed. Earl Patrick was so ignorant that he didn't even know the Lord's Prayer, and so his execution had to be postponed until he could be taught it.

The beauty of the ruins is in stark contrast to the brutality used in building them. The people of Orkney were forced to work for Earl Patrick in conditions identical to slave labour, often working to exhaustion without sufficient food or water, and without pay. The Earl's Palace, though, has been called "possibly the most mature and accomplished piece of Renaissance architecture left in Scotland" The architect was certainly talented, and probably trained in Italy. After the siege, the palace was used as the Bishop's residence until the last Bishop died there in 1688. The episcopacy was abolished the next year, the palace fell into the hands of the crown and — in the next century — into ruin.

Its brown, orange, and sand coloured bricks are quite striking in Orkney's late afternoon light, with its long shadows stretching out across the lawn. The palace/castle is "L" shaped and three stories tall (though it rose to 4 stories at one time). The lower floor holds the vaults, which are amazingly bright. The upper half of the vaults are actually above ground with large windows, removing all trace of the oppressive feeling found in other castles. The buttresses that hold up the main floor are of such exquisite work that they look as though they were poured from a mould. Today the main kitchen area is used as a tourist display of all that's available to see in Orkney.

The ceiling and roof over the second story are gone. The floor and roof over the area that contained a third story are also gone. The main hall on the second floor is a magnificent room. The floor is of tight brickwork and remains flat and level to this day. The room is spacious with large oriel windows. The window frames are all of stone and remain intact. It isn't hard to see how pleasant this room would have been with plaster in the walls and glass in the windows (and with a roof, of course). Below many of the windows were loopholes for handguns and muskets; the Earl had been paranoid, and justifiably so. This armoured home, more villa than castle, would have made any 17th century aristocrat proud.

Across a very narrow street from the Earl's Palace, in the heart of Kirkwall, is the Bishop's Palace. Four hundred years ago, these buildings were attached. A stone wall produced an enclosed courtyard with the Earl's Palace forming the east and south walls and the Bishop's Palace forming the west wall. It's not much to look at today. Unlike the Earl's palace, with it's Renaissance splendor, the Bishop's Palace is an older, more dower structure. Much of what is known of the building's early period can be found in Haakon Haakonson's Saga, the Saga of the great Norse King Haakon. The nearby St. Magnus Cathedral was begun in 1137 and this palace was probably built around the same time. It fell into disrepair in the 14th Century, but was repaired in the 1540s by Bishop Robert Reid, founder of Edinburgh University. The west wall was bowing outward, and so Reid ordered the construction of three large buttresses to support it. He also ordered the construction of a tower on the northwest corner, complete with artillery holes along it's height and a large tower house at the top. During the siege against Earl Patrick's son Robert in 1610 it came under heavy fire and was badly damaged. Time and indifference continued to erode the building.

To the casual observer, the Bishop's Palace is unimpressive. The main portion of the building is a long rectangle, with a lot of stone debris (remnants of interior walls) lying on the ground. The exterior walls are mostly intact but the roofing and upper floors are gone. If you think stonework has remained static over the last 1000 years, compare the Bishop's Palace to the Earl's Palace. The Earl's Palace is much better finished; the stonework in the Bishop's Palace is more crude, more textured, and less uniform. Three floors can be made out by counting the windows in the main walls. The entrance to Reid's tower is on the second floor (the main floor), accessible by way of a modern wooden landing.

The tower has withstood the ravages of time far better than any other part of the building. The typical spiral stairs rise clockwise, as is typical of all medieval fortifications. (The reason? With a clockwise rise, a defender fighting off attackers-who had broken into the base of the tower-would have his left [shield] arm to the centre post. This gave him more room to maneuver his right [sword] arm. An attacker would have to maneuver his sword or spear in the more restricted area near the spine of the stairs.) The view from the top is excellent, as the tower stands five stories above the streets of Kirkwall and is the second largest structure in the town. Right next door, perpendicular to both of the palaces, is the Cathedral of St. Magnus, Kirkwall's largest structure.

The cathedral was begun in 1137 by Earl Rognvald, the nephew of the murdered Earl Magnus who would soon become the martyr St. Magnus. The first cathedral of the Northern Isles was founded at Birsay in 1050, where St. Magnus was buried, but the martyr's relics and the Episcopal see were moved to the completed cathedral in Kirkwall. The cathedral was named in honour of Earl Magnus. As a point of interest, the see of Orkney was subordinate to the archdiocese of Hamburg until 1154, when it was made subordinate to the newly created Norse see of Trondheim. After the annexation of the royal domains of Orkney by the Scottish crown in 1472, the see was put under the jurisdiction of St. Andrews. Today, the church is in amazing condition considering its age. I didn't go inside the church. but I did get a good look at it from outside. Its dark red stone gives it an unassuming look, in spite of its size, and it's very easy to assume that it is a much younger building than it is. At the time of the trip reconstruction was being done on the steeple, and so the scaffolding and protective covering made the top of the building look like a green ziggurat. The steeple can be seen throughout Kirkwall and from some distance outside of the town.

Skara Brae sits on the Bay of Skaill halfway up the west coast of the Orkney Mainland. Its existence was unknown until the winter of 1850, when a wild storm blew across the island and ripped the grass from a high dune known as Skara Brae. The next morning, William Watt, the laird of Skaill, discovered a large refuse heap uncovered by the storm, and the remains of a dwelling. Luckily, by 1850 enough interest in the science of archaeology existed that Watt began exploring his discovery with care. By 1868, four dwellings had been uncovered and Skaill House had accumulated a rich collection of objects. After this date there was only casual digging until another storm, in December 1925, damaged some of the uncovered dwellings. The site had just come under the guardianship of the government, which ordered a protective sea wall built. In 1927, Professor Gordon Childe began his excavations of the site and between 1928 and 1930 the rest of the village's 11 buildings were found. Further excavations in 1972 and 1973 discovered the remains of a village below Skara Brae. Today, Skara Brae is the best preserved Neolithic village in northern Europe.

Radiocarbon dating tells us that the village was constantly inhabited for 600 years, from 3100 BC to 2500 BC. This makes the village older than the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. The amazing part of Skara Brae isn't so much it's age but it's state of preservation. The buildings are made of flagstone slabs stacked together to form walls. The exterior wall is made up of midden, a mass of decomposing organic matter, ash, and bone similar to a compost heap. The villagers of the original village accumulated this refuse outside of their village. After it was sufficiently large, they dug holes in the top of the mound. Stones were then set along the inside rim of the holes to form walls. Corridors were cut in the midden and finally roofs (no longer extant) were added. Midden, after it has set for decades on end, becomes a material similar in consistency to tough clay. What resulted was an entire semi-subterranean village, with strong, weather-proof walls. The original village was abandoned halfway through the 600 year life span in favour of the new village, the move taking about a generation to complete. What we see today at Skara Brae is mostly the new village, although two buildings from the old village have been excavated.

The entire village was laid out according to a plan. There is one entrance into the "marketplace" (which was almost certainly not a marketplace but a common opening area), with a winding passage leading to the other buildings. This passage was apparently designed to stop drafts from blowing across the doors of the houses. Each house is very similar to the other houses, suggesting a village idea of conformity, with a central hearth, bed areas, and cupboards all made of flagstone. At the same time, there are no communal buildings, also suggesting a strong sense of privacy. Each house had a door that could be set from inside. The door was a slab of stone pushed against door stops in the floor and ceiling, and held in place by a wooden or bone bar. The houses were relatively roomy at 36 square metres in area (compared to twice that for the average semi-detached home in modern Britain). The only building outside of this structure, and not covered in midden, is the "workshop." This was a free-standing structure that contained a lot of flint and stone shards, suggesting that it was a tool producing shop of some sort. Tools of stone and whale bone were found, though whales were probably not hunted but harvested when they washed on shore. They could also have been corralled and clubbed to death after being caught in the shallows of a bay, a procedure that is still done today in the Faroe Islands.

The village appears almost organic. The stone buildings are surrounded by the protective midden, covered over with sod. The result is a soft, green lump with large holes cut into it, much as the midden must have originally appeared. There are no roofs to any of the buildings, adding even more to the soft, flowing aspect of the village.

No tools of war were ever found in Skara Brae, nor is it well situated for defense, suggesting that life may have been harsh but relatively peaceful. Eventually the site was abandoned, probably as children moved away from the village in favour of other locations on the island. The island was changing at that point, what with the building of the standing stones and the creation of more elaborate burial mounds. It seems clear that there were more than just religious changes occurring then. Although some have suggested it, it's almost certain that Skara Brae was not abandoned due to some terrible cataclysm. Eventually the roofing of Skara Brae disintegrated and the buildings filled up with sand. Between the sand and the midden, the village has remained in almost perfect preservation.

This is, itself, contrasted by the next three places I visited that day. Further up the coast is Birsay. Acroos from a small car park is a tidal island. Clearly seen were the ruins of the Brough of Birsay (Brough being pronounced like "br" at the beginning of the Scottish guttural sound loch", not "broff'). The tide was still out so I doubled back into the village of Birsay while a group of kayakers prepared to row around the island.

There's nothing much in this village except for the ruins of the Earl's Palace. The other Earl's Palace. I mentioned the Earl's Palace in Kirkwall, above. This palace belonged to that earl's father. It was ruined when the younger earl and his bastard son were carted off to Dumbarton for execution. This is probably the most ruined site that I visited. In fact, it is exquisitely ruined. Just enough remains that you can get an idea of the size of the building without having much of an idea as to what the original structure looked like. The place looks not so much ruined as shattered. One portion in particular looks like a three story block of Lego that had been crushed under some giant's foot. There was no admission booth, nor was there a caretaker's shack, but the manicured lawn showed that the place was still being looked after.

When I returned to Birsay, the tide had gone out enough that it was possible to walk across to the island, and the kayakers were well out to sea. A concrete walkway stuck out just above the water leading to the tidal island. The remains of the village known as the Brough of Birsay are a curious mix of Norse and Pict. I mentioned above that these two peoples got along peacefully on this part of Orkney and this site is the proof. There isn't much left to look at in detail, the church being the most impressive of the ruins though it's walls are no more than about 4 feet high. Foundation is about all that's left of the other buildings, but there are foundations for more than 30 structures. The tidal nature of the island afforded the settlement some protection, but it did nothing to protect the buildings. Today, the main cliff below the village has been shored up with concrete and sculpted to look like a bare cliff.

"Birsay" was once the main site for the Norse settlements on Orkney — supplanted in the 12th century by Kirkwall — but there is some debate whether the site was the Brough itself or the village of Birsay on the mainland. The small church on the Brough is believed to have been dedicated to St. Peter, and yet it is Thorfinn's (an important earl) Christchurch that was once the seat of ecclesiastic power on Orkney before the building of St. Magnus Cathedral. A church near the ruins of the Earl's Palace is believed to sit on ruins of an older church that has a stronger claim to the historically significant Christchurch. Birsay's (both the Brough and the village) significance a thousand years ago is hard to believe. Today it is a quiet backwater but back then it maintained important links to Scotland, Ireland, England, Scandinavia, and Rome.

The road along the north edge of the island leads to Gurness Broch. The side road to the broch (pronounced like "br" with the Scottish "och" sound added, not "brock") was so bad, that I was I had made a wrong turn. I couldn't do anything about it, though, as there was no place to turn around. Eventually the trail came to a gravel parking lot with the Historic Scotland flag flying beyond.

Brochs are common throughout Scotland, especially in the north. Gurness was built by Picts somewhere between 200 BC and 200 AD. A broch is a fortified farm with a particular, and unique, feature: a squat cylindrical building used for defense. Both the cylindrical building and the settlement are known as brochs. The building consists of cut stone placed without mortar. A single opening allowed access to the inner chambers. The chambers were laid out in a circular fashion, leaving a space between the backs of the chambers and the outer wall of the broch. This space contained multiple levels, known as galleries. The lower galleries were probably used for storage while the upper galleries were manned parapets. It's impossible to tell the broch's original height. One broch in Shetland reached 13 metres in height, but many were much smaller. Outside of the broch's main entrance was an avenue of buildings, ranging from a metal caster's workshop to houses. The people of the broch grew cereal crops, kept cattle, sheep and pigs, and also fished and hunted deer, seal, otter and wildfowl. From the garbage left behind it's known that they used pottery, wove wool, and made tools of bone, wood and iron. Later on in the broch's occupation they also made bronze objects. Outside the broch and the immediate buildings were a series of deep ditches used for defense. Eventually the ditches were partially filled in and buildings sprung up outside of the defensive perimeter. The broch itself is older than most of the buildings around it and there is evidence of many years of building in and around the site.

Although the tourist books said it was open until October, the caretaker's shack was locked up and there was no one there to take the admission fee. The site is very interesting. None of the buildings are particularly well preserved. but there are a lot of them. The ditches make for a peaceful undulating terrain, and the only noise I could hear was the noise of sea birds and the surf. All though it didn't have the mystery and excitement of Skara Brae, Gurness Broch was one of my favourite sites because of its peacefulness. Just beyond the broch is the sea and a short distance away is the island of Rousay. The island of Rousay is about an eighth the size of Mainland Orkney, but it has four chambered tombs and a broch of its own under Historic Scotland's care. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to visit this island.

Speaking of tombs, on the way back to Kirkwall I stopped off at Culween Hill. This is a tomb dug into the side of one of Orkney's huge, steep hills. The walk up a very steep slope, led to a wire fence surrounding a hole in the hill. Inside the hole is a tomb, dug out of the hill and lined with stones. Unfortunately I couldn't see anything since the site's flashlight was almost dead. I did get some flash picture developed so that I could see inside the tomb once I got home. The island is dotted with these tombs, which resemble large, stone rooms with square niches cut into them. The view from Culween Hill is great and worth the trip up the hill itself.

The next day was cool and wet. I tried to drive down to the southern coast so that I could catch a view of Scapa Flow, but we couldn't find the right road. Scapa Flow was Britain's main northern naval port during the two world wars. Today, it has some of the best diving any-where in Europe. The German High Seas Fleet surrendered to Britain at Scapa Flow in 1918. Just before the Armistice was signed, it looked as though the peace wouldn't last and that war would break out again, so the German commander ordered the fleet scuttled rather than captured by Britain. Although some of the ships were recovered, many remain on the sea floor, offering amazing diving opportunities. During the Second World War, Scapa Flow was the primary base for naval operations against Germany. It was here that the British aircraft carrier, the Ark Royal, was torpedoed by a German U-boat. My father's father worked up here during the war as a "chippie" (ship's carpenter) but the closest I came to it was a video on Scapa Flow at the tourist information centre in Stromness.

The only other regret I had was not seeing Maes Howe. This is a large chambered burial mound covered with the Norse graffiti. Unfortunately, the mound didn't open until 2:00 PM on Sundays and the Ferry left at 3:00. That's on my list of places to visit when I return to Scotland.

If you ever find yourself in Scotland, I sincerely suggest that you visit Orkney. From Glasgow, you can drive up to the ferry port at Thurso in one long day, or two short days. Flights leave almost daily from Aberdeen and Glasgow. It's well worth the effort.