First, the facts. At 104 metres in diameter the Ring of Brodgar is the third largest circle of its kind in Great Britain. It is so large that it is hard to fit all of the 27 surviving stones in to one photograph; people on the other side of the circle are difficult to make out, particularly in the wet and misty weather that is prevalent on Orkney even in the summer. Little is known about the ring, how it was made and what it was used for, the centre of the circle has never been fully excavated and stone is notoriously hard to date. The best estimates put construction at between 2,500 and 2,000 BC making Brodgar one of the last Neolithic monuments to be built on the island.
Now to the feelings. Even on a cold day, with the rain falling at just the right angle to penetrate the hood and cuffs of your waterproof, with puddles to avoid, low cloud masking the horizon and dull greyness flattening the light, the presence of the stones is undeniable. They are not monumental in height, most a head or so taller than the average person, and, across the distance of the circle and through the gathering gloom, it is easy to mistake them for figures standing solemnly in the landscape, hunched against the weather, stoic protectors of this sacred place.
Access to the stones is unrestricted (though at the time of writing it is understood that the circle is fenced off whilst repairs to the footpaths are carried out). You can walk amongst the stones, touch their time worn surfaces, feel the residual heat from sunny days and the deep cold of the wild winters. This is a good and rare thing but it is a privilege that is sometimes abused. Many of the stones have been marked by graffiti; visitors to the site attempting to make the stones’ immortality their own. Reassuringly, much of the carving is old, dating from the nineteenth century when fascination with the past was at a high. As I traced my figures over the inscriptions, the names of men long since gone, I found myself conflicted by the marks, now themselves objects of history, and wondering what the tipping point is, when does vandalism turn in to something worthy of protection itself?
Standing apart from the circle, a watchman staring out to sea, is the enigmatic ‘Comet Stone’. If we anthropomorphise the stones of the circle, view them as a gathering of elders, of celebrants, of protectors, who is the Comet Stone? Guard, reject, a worshiper on their way to or from the ring? This mysterious place offers many possibilities and it is rather nice that so little is known of the truth. Room to exercise our imagination is a valuable thing.
To read more about the ancient world of Orkney click here.