Scotland’s Orkney Islands: Pondering Ancient Feats of Architectural Genius
Summer Solstice on the Orkney Islands: Pondering Ancient Feats of Architectural Genius
By Steven Bochenek
Suddenly, a massive arm drags me from behind, away from the bar.
“Honeymooning here? Whoot the hill füre?”
Who is this aggressively friendly giant? His accent sounds like a bad cartoon idea of Swedes. Though Scottish, Orkney Islands are closer to Norway than Edinburgh, and the influence is apparent.
“How did you know we’re honeymooning?” Clearly word travels fast. We’d only arrived the day before, to be near the Arctic Circle for today the summer solstice.
“Boab telt ush,” he sings. Over his shoulder, he indicates a man with a purple complexion. Bob had insisted on buying us drinks the night before in the Pomona Inn, another pub miles away in the village of Finstown.
“We came for the stone circles and pre-history.”
Orkney is a group of more than 70 islands, actually, north of Scotland. It’s easy to imagine life here 200 years ago. People speak in paragraphs, taking time to tell a story or set up a joke. It’s almost as easy to imagine life five millennia ago. Really.
Within an hour’s bike ride of this port town, Stromness lies a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose structures rival even Stonehenge for their impressive antiquity. The best thing is, they’re easily doable for families.
Kids especially love them for their sheer caveman cool. On this very day, we’d crisscrossed this grimly beautiful rock on rented bikes, visiting these structures which make the Holy Land seem young and pimply.
We were tired but pleased to explain to Peter and his ring of friends why we’d come all the way from Canada to Orkney on our honeymoon.
“And y’ cam for the drink, I see!” Peter the giant pointed at Bob of the alcoholic hue. The crowd erupted in laughter. A typical Celtic trait: it’s fun to poke fun. Once you’ve been made an object of ridicule, you’re in. Peter bought us another round to toast these foolhardy newlyweds.
Our day started in Finstown, around the corner from the Pomona Inn. While we waited for the bus to carry us back into Stromness, a nasty wind shot painful needles of rain into us sideways. Our travel-dork Gore-Tex jackets were only somewhat useful. “It’ll pass,” the bus driver confidently smiled.
It did. The maritime winds in northern Scotland ensure a bounty of weather every hour. As one chap hilariously observed, “In Canada, you get weather every day. Here, we get the climate!” By the time we arrived at Stromness – a 20-minute ride – the skies were a brilliant blue, punctuated by the occasional lonely cumulus. The day was magnificent and we followed through on our plan to rent bikes.
First, we booked into a local bed and breakfast, warning them that we wouldn’t be back until late. They weren’t the least bit surprised. On Orkney, the summer solstice is a bit like Christmas. A celebration is everywhere. The locals golf at midnight because they can.
“No, the green fees aren’t cheaper,” Peter anticipated my question. Hippies and flakes flock here to groove out in the stone circles whose alleged magical properties are supposedly heightened.
To test this dippy theory, we rode back out of town and into the ancient past.
Nearly twice as old as Rome, Maeshowe is a 4,500-year-old cairn whose masonry trumps the skill of builders for millennia to come. Outside, shaped like a massive grass-covered igloo, it’s asymmetrical lump in an otherwise billiards-table-flat farmer’s field. Inside, you could barely squeeze a dime between the massive sandstone blocks, carefully arranged into a soaring dome.
Entry requires an extended crouched duckwalk down a tunnel just 1.4m (4.6ft) high and 14.5m (47.6ft) long. So you don’t expect the spacious magnificence inside this ancient stone bubble. The chamber’s diameter measures a jaw-dropping 35m (115ft) and at its apex, the ceiling is 7m (23ft).
Maeshowe was rediscovered in 1861. A farmer noticed the grassy hillock his sheep grazed on was too symmetrical to be natural. He dug and unearthed this Neolithic marvel.
People assume it was a burial chamber because the farmer found a shard of the skull in one of the three ‘graves.’ But if there had been bodies in these shelves they’d long since been plundered. The farmer found proof he wasn’t the first in.
Vikings left runes on the wall 800 years ago, some of the best-preserved anywhere. Much of it was your typical smutty bathroom graffiti, according to translations at OrkneyJar.com. Consider ‘”Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women” (carved beside a rough drawing of a slavering dog).’ Or this Nordic riff on every teenage guy’s favorite, ‘”Thorni f***ed.”’
Filth aside, the runes also report that these Vikings had been seeking treasure. But they believed it had already been stolen by the crusaders who’d also graffitied walls earlier. Amazing.
When you can physically touch thousands of years of human activity, you ponder plenty. Like all this medieval tagging.
At what point does hooliganism become important historical documentation?
There’s famous graffiti by Lord Byron in the dungeon of Chateau de Chillon on Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. Roman soldiers carved toilet humor into what were already 2,000 Egyptian monuments – Napoleonic soldiers did the same 1,800 years later.
Will the spray-paintings of the Bloods and Crips be valued cultural insights 1,000 years from now?
Vikings, Crusaders, Bloods or Crips – who knows how many times this big creepy room’s been explored and exploited? If it was a tomb it was an important one because – fasten your seatbelt, please…
This is also a massive prehistoric calendar.
The sun kisses the back shelf on the shortest day of the year. Provided you’re between cloudy blasts, as it sets, the sun drenches the long low corridor with light and salutes this empty grave! During the weeks preceding and following December 21, the sun gradually inches to and from this spot. But on the solstice it’s perfect. Every midwinter for thousands of years.
Amazing, yes, but why did they do it? A path to the next world for an important king? A religious display of gratitude for the precious sun that grows what meager crops the surrounding stony fields can yield? Aliens? We don’t know.
The people who lived here thousands of years ago left no written language. But we must assume this calendar is no accident. Just imagine the builders’ math skills to conceive of all this. (I get stumped just trying to convert the admission charges.) Then add to that the gargantuan task of executing their vision.
It gets more mind-blowing.
Right at sunset on the winter solstice, the shadow from the Barnhouse Stone, a single megalith in the middle of a field half a mile away, lines up with the entrance to Maeshowe. This stone, in turn, aligns at midwinter sunrise with another huge lonely marker the Watchstone and finally with the center the Ring of Brodgar. Which is?
The Ring of Brodgar is a titanic stone circle nearly another half-mile away, twenty-seven of whose 14-foot triptychs still stand today. There were once sixty but, at 114 yards wide, it’s easy to picture them all still in place.
I marveled that they could ever create so perfect a circle without a computer or even a protractor. Then the guide told us that if you affix a piece of string to a post, stretch it straight, then walk in one direction, you have a perfect circle.
Umm. Yes, well. This deflating epiphany doesn’t diminish the immense awe you feel walking the Ring of Brodgar. Access is free. And if you love henges and stone circles, ride your bike less than a mile back.
The Standing Stone of Stenness are even more impressive. Originally a circle of twelve stones, there are now four with what may have been an altar in the middle. Though they’re fewer than Brodgar, the triptychs here tower to over six yards high but are less than a foot wide. Standing beside them, your spirit soars.
Why haven’t they snapped and all fallen over in the five millennia since they were first erected? They weigh tons. How did the builders transport and erect them? At 58 degrees north, we’re well past the tree line. So rolling these vast singular slabs of stone on logs wouldn’t have been cheap or easy. Few experiences in many years of travel have come close to leaving me so utterly gobsmacked.
And that was our morning. We rode northwest for an hour. The destination was less than 8 miles but we were pushing hard into the wind to the edge of the island.
Skara Brae is a stone-age village composed of (big surprise) stone. Impossibly well preserved, it features actual stone homes, complete with drainage and stone furniture, between little alleys. It was unearthed during a violent storm in 1850.
Children love it here because, what’s most striking, is the diminutive size of the structures. It was easy for the kids to imagine themselves living here because the houses Skara Brae contains were built for four-foot Fred Flintstones. Though a popular source of international insults, Scottish nutrition has clearly come along way in the past five thousand years.
For us adults, the aforementioned gobsmacked marveling continued: how could these hobbits possibly have built the huge structures we were puzzling at just an hour earlier?
And the harshness of the environment. Even on this longest day of the year, which remained sunny and dry from 10 am till midnight, we were often chilled by the strong winds. It’s beautiful here but relentless. Life must have been tough and as short as the people themselves.
“What’s that smell?” On our ride back to Stromness, local farmers were making the most of the long days, fertilizing their fields. This was the day I learned the meaning of ‘silage.’ Most of the island was redolent – even the café we were sitting in after we arrived back in town, around 4:00 pm. Or was it?
I sniffed my travel-dork gore-tex jacket.
Yes, the layers we’d sported became sweaty with the exertion necessary to pedal into the wind. So the scent of sheepdip had been nailed into us. We skulked back to our b&b, at least ten hours earlier than planned, showered and changed. Later we strode to the pub where we met Peter and friends.
Unlike many UNESCO designated destinations, the locals here aren’t resentful of travelers. Their economy is robust. They export a lot of goods, from dairy to oatcakes to whiskey – that stone circle pictured on Highland Park, a single malt enjoyed worldwide, is the Ring of Brodgar – and they don’t depend desperately on tourism. They were as curious about us as we them.
“Fühnny accint you got,” Peter teased. I bought the final round.
How we got there:
Orkney tourism’s promotional website boasts, “Orkney is nearer than you think.”
Flying there from southern Scotland isn’t cheap. We got a ferry from Scrabster, near the towns of John O’ Groats and Wick at the far tip of mainland Scotland. We got there by train from Inverness. The ferry ride is a couple of hours on the often rough North Sea.
The islands have unlikely names like Papa Westray, Hoy and Shapinsay. But if you’re keen on ancient history – or just get a buzz from seeing a massive stone circle for free – you don’t need to leave the Orkney mainland to feel like you’ve left the real world behind.
Steven Bochenek is a veteran marketing writer who has dabbled in editorial the past couple of years, and recently added travel to his portfolio.