Ancient Orkney – Skara Brae, Broch of Gurness and Maeshowe

Before construction of the pyramids began on the plains of Giza, before the first monolith was raised at Stonehenge, a small community of people were living in an interconnected series of stone walled buildings on a spit of land overlooking the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago.  This in itself does not sound like much of significance.  People were living in all sorts of places in all kinds of ways in 3,200BC.  But how many of their homes can you visit today, more than five thousand years later?  Five thousand years.  It is a period of time that is hard to comprehend and you can be forgiven for not quite appreciating the significance of what lies before you in this remote field on the northern fringes of Britain.  This is not reconstruction, this is not a film set, this is real and it is very, very old.

It is thanks to the skill of its builders, arranging stones without mortar, thanks to the decision to cover the walls with soil and debris to insulate against the cold Scottish winters, thanks to the wild weather of this place that blew millennia of sand from the beach to hide Skara Brae, that it has survived to be the most intact Neolithic settlement in Western Europe, a UNESCO world heritage site.  Storms helped protect the village and a storm also uncovered it in 1850.  The local laird took charge of an excavation, but it was an amateur effort and fairly quickly abandoned.  It was not until the 1920s, after the site was raided and artefacts removed, and another storm caused damage, that proper preservation work began.

Although access to the inside of the buildings is restricted to protect the archaeology, the pathways that have been constructed around the site provide clear views inside.  The layout of the houses is uniform, with two stone beds either side of a central hearth and stone shelves built in to the walls for storage.  Community living was still a new concept when Skara Brae was founded and although it is estimated that a maximum of 50 people lived here at any one time, this would have been a veritable city at a time when it was usual for small family units to spend much of the year in isolation.  For those wanting to experience what it was like within the dwellings when the roofs were intact a reconstructed home can be found just outside the visitors’ centre.

Not far from Skara Brae is the Broch of Gurness.  The Broch is a mere infant compared to its Neolithic neighbour, dating from 200 – 100 BC and perhaps as a result of this you are free to walk amongst the remains of the tower and the village that encircles it.   Broch are a peculiarly Scottish form of architecture and are found predominantly in the north and west (to read about another Broch, this time on the Isle of Lewis, click here).  The example at Gurness once stood 8 metres high and measures 20 metres in diameter.  It was clearly intended as a place of safety for the villagers and forms part of a defence system that includes three sets of ditches and ramparts.

The story of the Broch’s discovery is a romantic one.  In 1929 a local poet and antiquarian, Robert Rendall, was sitting on the mound that once covered it, sketching.  The leg of his stool sank deep in to a hole and, upon investigation and the removal of some stones, Rendall uncovered steps leading in to the ground, remnants of the staircase which would once have connected the tower’s floors.

Completing this trilogy of ancient sites is Maeshowe, the finest chambered tomb in north west Europe, inside which photography is sadly, though understandably, prohibited.

Like Skara Brae, Maeshowe dates from the Neolithic, having been built some time around 2,800BC.  It is a chambered tomb, accessed via a long, low tunnel which opens up in to a cavernous central space with three smaller chambers cut in to the walls.  Entrance to the tomb is by guided tour only, run by Historic Scotland from Tormiston Mill, Stenness which operates as a visitors’ centre and museum.  Places on the tours are limited so do book in advance to avoid disappointment.  We had to wait two days for the next space.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of crawling along the entrance passage, bowed in supplication to the deceased, before entering the unexpected space of the subterranean chamber.  That the structure has survived for more than 5,000 years is staggering.  Great efforts were obviously undertaken in its construction, and not just to ensure its stability.  Maeshowe has intentionally been built to align with the midwinter sun which, as it sets for a few days each year, shines directly through the entrance passage, illuminating the rear wall of the main chamber.  Maeshowe is also in alignment with the standing stones of Stenness which sit in a neighbouring field.  If you stand in the centre of the stone circle, the burial mound appears directly between two angled ‘dolmen’ stones, as if framed by a window.

Modern excavation of the mound began in 1861 but this was not the first time the tomb had been entered.  The walls of the chamber are covered with graffiti, runic Viking graffiti.  Some refer, flatteringly and otherwise, to women they have known, some to the treasure they had been seeking in the tomb, others simply mark their name.  The discovery of the carvings confirmed accounts in the Orkneyinga Saga, which narrate how various Norse groups entered a chambered tomb, known to them as Orkahaugr, an interesting example of physical evidence validating a literary source.

For more of the Viking presence on the island, read the previous post in the series here.  Stay tuned for one more ancient Orcadian treasure.

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St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney – Scotland’s Viking Church

Orkney is truly remote.  A flight from Edinburgh or Glasgow takes an hour, the ferry from Aberdeen six hours.  The shortest crossings are by ferry from Gills Bay or Scrabster on the far north coast of the mainland, an hour and an hour and a half respectively, although you’ll have to drive a long way to benefit from this brief time at sea.

Many inhabitants consider themselves Orcadian first and Scottish only second. In the run up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum Orkney, and its North Sea neighbour Shetland, began their own campaign for separation from Scotland.  A sense of otherness clearly lingers in the collective consciousness; the islands only became part of Scotland in 1472 following the marriage of the Scots King James III to Margaret, daughter of Christian I of Denmark.  The Norse connection is very evident, not least in the Orcadian flag which has a decidedly Scandinavian feel.

 

 

Another reminder of the one-time Viking presence is St Magnus Cathedral which sits at the heart of Orkney’s main town, Kirkwall. An imposing building of red and yellow sandstone, it was founded in 1137, during the time of Norwegian rule, by Earl Rognvald Kollson to house the bones of his uncle, St Magnus.

The architecture is without ornamentation; the stone speaks for itself. The few stained glass windows that stud the upper walls are small; the winds of this wild place would quickly have destroyed anything too grand.  In places the building looks like a waved washed sandcastle, erosion pitting what was once flat and flattening what was once sharp.  With the sparse decoration and strong columns of the interior it is not hard to imagine that you are in the halls of Valhalla rather than a church.

Nods to the Norse abound, including a stained glass depiction of Harald Hardrada, considered by many as the last great Viking and whose invasion of England in 1066 was successfully defeated by Harold Godwinson (he of arrow in the eye fame) at the Battle of Stamford Bridge just weeks prior to the arrival of the Normans, Norsemen by another name, on the beaches of Hastings.

The cathedral also boasts some fine examples of stone carving from the Middle Ages.  Death was not a stranger to the craftsmen that made these monuments and there is no attempt to shy away from the macabre.

The weather on Orkney can be unremittingly awful; we were treated to a full week of camping in the rain during our visit in June.  Indoor attractions are relatively few and far between and so St Magnus was an interesting, and dry, place to while away an hour or so.  But, even if your time on the island is blessed with sunshine do add the cathedral to your itinerary, it offers an intriguing glimpse in to the history, and the psyche, of Orkney and its inhabitants.

For the previous post in the series, click here.  We’ll be staying on Orkney to explore more of its historic treasures in the next post, so if you’ve liked what you’ve read do stop by again.

 

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Scotland’s Secrets #8 – The underwater treasures of Caithness

Travel as far north and as far east as you can in Scotland and you will find yourself in the county of Caithness, famous for John O’Groats, the geographic opposite of Land’s End in Cornwall and home to the embarkation point for the Gills Bay ferry to Orkney.  Orkney is a diving mecca, thanks to the wrecks of 74 German First World War ships, scuttled by their own crews to avoid passing in to British hands.  Perhaps less well known are the dive sites on the mainland which dot the rugged coastline between the area’s two largest towns, Thurso and Wick.  A visit to these remote bays and harbours is highly recommended, even for those with an aversion to submersion; as well as underwater wonders they offer beautiful views, walking trails and wildlife spotting a plenty.

Staxigoe Harbour

Staxigoe is two miles north east of Wick, roughly five and a half hours drive from either Edinburgh or Glasgow.  Its name comes from Old Norse and means inlet of the stack, referring to the large rocky pinnacle that sits in the middle of the harbour.

Divers enter the water from the shore, following a slipway and, keeping the rocks on their right on the way out, and on their left on the way back, can while away a happy 40 minutes to an hour exploring the crevasses of the stack and the creatures that live there.

Scarfskerry

Scarfskerry is the most northerly settlement on mainland Scotland, on the coast between Thurso and the ferry terminal.  Its name is also Old Norse, meaning Cormorants’ Rock.  Another shore dive, access is easy, with divers simply stepping off the end of the slipway at high tide.  Here, if you can find it amongst the kelp, lies the wreck of the SS Linkmoor which went down in 1930, all lives saved.  The fishing industry is waning here and any boats you encounter are likely to be watching for wildlife; seals, dolphins, seabirds are all found here.  We were lucky enough to spot a basking shark from the shore during our time at the site in early June.

Portskerra Haven

The natural harbour of Portskerra is hiding a secret, a sea arch or tunnel that connects the calm inner bay to the sea beyond.  The entrance can be found in the right hand arm of horseshoe shaped bay near to the end of the reef.  Care should be taken when entering the tunnel as the current can be strong, particularly when the sea is rougher than the water in the harbour.  Lots of sea life makes the tunnel its home and during May and June Dogfish (also known as Catsharks and pictured below) come here to breed.

Papigoe

Of the sites we visited, Papigoe is the least attractive to non-divers.  It is accessed through a housing estate on the outskirts of Wick where the road ends abruptly at a steep cliff.  The scramble down is steep and quite difficult even without carrying diving equipment.   Multiple trips will be needed to and from your car will be needed, don’t be tempted to overload yourself.  It’s also advisable to stop and gather your breath before entering the water, otherwise you’ll have sucked your air supply dry in no time.

Papigoe is worth all the effort.  The series of gullies are full of life and some interesting rock formations, including some small caves and a narrow ‘window’ opening.  The dive is not particularly deep, meaning that there is lots of light for photography, although a good flash system always helps.

This post is an introduction to the sites only.  You should always research any new sites thoroughly in advance; if there is a local dive centre or club they will have valuable tips and may be able to provide services of a guide.  Always dive within your qualification and experience.  Never dive alone.  Having shore cover present is always preferable but if diving in a pair without it make sure someone knows where you are and check in with them before and after.  Always check the weather and the tide and don’t be afraid to cancel if the conditions are not right, or you feel unwell or uncertain.

For the previous post in the series click here.  Our next stop on this insider’s tour of Scotland will be the history packed island of Orkney.

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Scotland’s Secrets #7 – The Bealach na Ba

The Bealach na Ba, Gaelic for the Pass of the Cattle, is the steepest road in the United Kingdom.  It is only three miles long but the climb, from sea level to the summit, is a rise of 2053 feet or more than 600 metres of single track hairpin bends.  It is often impassable, due to snow and ice, in the winter and even in the summer months it is an intimidating prospect.  For reasons completely unfathomable to me, it is a magnet for cyclists.

Though the journey to the top is arduous, the views are breath-taking and, if you time it well, a spectacular sunrise or sunset framed by the mountains of Skye on the horizon can be yours to enjoy in glorious solitude.

The weather of course is not always favourable but low light and mist simply makes the Bealach na Ba more brooding and magnificent.  Here you are so high that when the clouds gather they form a milky sea below you, the peak of the pass a floating island in the sky, adrift on the currents of wind, cushioning the sound of rain falling on the valley beneath.

As is tradition in many high places, those that reach the summit, whether by foot, bike or car, add a stone to the ever-growing cairns that stubble the otherwise sparse moorland, miniature echoes of the hill itself.

Those that go up must come down and at the foot of the mountain a row of houses face out across a stretch of water called the Inner Sound to the Isles of Raasay and Skye.  This is the biggest settlement on the Applecross peninsula and is generally referred to in most tourist information as Applecross Village but is simply ‘the Street’ to the locals.  At the heart of the community is the Applecross Inn which manages to maintain that rare balance of pub atmosphere and exceptional food.  The menu is locally sourced, seafood heavy and highly recommended.  Although is doesn’t feature on the current menu, the langoustine salad I ate during my last visit is up there with the greatest dishes I have ever tasted.

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of camping and for those seeking somewhere to pitch their tent Applecross campsite is a short walk up hill from the village.  As well as sleeping under canvas, the site also offers static caravans and wooden camping huts that resemble the hulls of upturned boats.  This is deer country and, although the site is fenced, we were woken in the early hours to the sound of antlered intruders sniffing at our provisions.  We were camping at the very end of the season, late October, and were the only tent in the field; I suspect the deer would not have been as bold had they been outnumbered.  If you don’t mind a bit of damp and cooler temperatures, off-season is a good time to explore Scotland.  Visitor numbers are lower, the midges are less vicious and although the weather is unpredictable chances of a clear dry day are not really that much different than in the summer.

Stay tuned for more of Scotland’s secrets.  For the previous post in the series, click here.

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Over the sea to Skye – Scotland’s Secrets #6

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Despite the famous song, most visitors to Skye arrive not by boat but by road, crossing the bridge constructed in the early 1990s between the island and Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland.  Skye is the largest island in the Inner Hebrides, more than 600 square miles or 1600 square kilometres and, although public transport does operate, having your own car will make your trip easier and open up a more flexible itinerary.

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A popular base is the town of Portree, which is the biggest settlement and home to a harbour of multi-coloured houses, plenty of shops selling local crafts, art and souvenirs, and a good range of pubs and cafes.  In Portree, as well as across the island, there are numerous accommodation choices, from hotels, Bed & Breakfasts, rental cottages and campsites.  If, like us, you fancy sleeping in the vicinity of an Iron Age hillfort, head for Torvaig campsite, just north of Portree on road A855 which sits in the shadow of Dun Gerashader; an atmospheric place to watch the sun set.

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Continue northwards on the same road and you will come across the Storr, a rocky hill famous for its pinnacle, known as the Old Man.  For the adventurous, there is a path to the top which will take you up and back in roughly two hours.  Solid footwear and a keen eye to watch for rockfalls are recommended.  The Old Man is one of many otherworldly outcrops to explore on the Storr and, in good weather, the views down to the road below and out across the Sound of Raasay to the mainland are spectacular.

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The A855 will also take you to Kilt Rock, a cliff face named for its many crenulations that echo the pleats of a kilt, and Mealt waterfall which streams over the edge, dropping more than 50 metres to the sea.  Sometimes, when the wind is blowing at the right angle, the falls look to be running up rather than down, as the spray is pushed backwards.  Continue on in an anti-clockwise loop around Trotternish peninsula and you will come eventually to Uig, where ferries to Harris and Lewis depart.

Whilst most will visit Portree, not everyone includes Dunvegan on their list of places to stop.  This is probably because the small town is in the more remote west of the island, in  a bay between the peninsulas of Waternish and Duirinish.  Location has given Dunvegan a particularly authentic feel; the inhabitants are generally born and bred islanders ready to offer a traditionally Scottish experience.  One particular gem is the Giant Angus MacAskill Museum which commemorates the life of the eponymous Scot who, at 7ft 9 inches, is described by the museum as the tallest ever ‘true’ giant.  Unlike the man himself, the museum is small, just one room, but is packed full of local artefacts and the enthusiasm of its owners.

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North of the town is Dunvegan Castle, historic home of the clan MacLeod.  You can pay to explore the castle and grounds at any time of year, but if your visit happens to coincide with Guy Fawkes Night, otherwise known as Bonfire or Fireworks Night, which takes place on November 5th, you can witness something special.  An annual fireworks display, complete with burning Viking longboat, takes place on the shores of the loch beneath the castle’s walls, giving you double fireworks for your money, one in the sky and a duplicate reflected in the waters below.  When the show’s over, follow the locals to a nearby pub to continue the celebrations in to the small hours.

Whatever time of year you visit, and whatever you choose to see and do, Skye will leave you with plenty of stories of your own to tell.  Stay tuned for the next in the series which will explore some of the places you can visit on your way to or from the island.

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Touching the past on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland

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The Isle of Lewis is more populous than its neighbour, Harris. The landscape is predominantly flat and therefore more conducive to crofting, Scottish subsistence farming.  It is also rich in peat, which is still extracted and dried today using methods unchanged for millennia, for building, fuel and export.  The current inhabitants are just the latest in a long line of islanders who have benefitted from Lewis’ natural resources and made it their home.  Traces of the past can be found everywhere, but particularly in the north west, which is abundant with Neolithic artefacts.

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Perhaps the most awe inspiring of these are the Callanish standing stones, also referred to by their Gaelic name of Calanais. The stones are set on a ridge in an otherwise flat plain, designed to be seen from a distance and to provide those standing amongst them with views across the countryside and upwards to the sky.

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Archaeological research suggests that the stones were erected in the late Neolithic period, somewhere between 2,900 and 2,600 BC. This makes them roughly 5,000 years old.  5,000 years; for beings who manage 70 to 100 years on this planet if we are lucky, it is a length of time that is hard to comprehend.  You cannot help but be moved in their presence.  Unlike that more famous of Neolithic monuments, Stonehenge, the relatively low visitor numbers to Callanish means that you can still walk freely amongst the stones.  Place your hands on them and you feel a tangible link to the past that is almost overwhelming.

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The stones are arranged with a central circle surrounded by an outer cruciform pattern that draws the eye away to the land beyond and also in to the heart of the formation. Some time after the site’s construction, a burial in a chambered tomb was squeezed between two of the stones that form the inner circle.  We can only speculate about the background of the person buried there, but it is not hard to imagine that they must have been of some significance.  Equally mysterious, is the purpose of the stones themselves.  There are many theories and these are explored in the nearby visitors’ centre.

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If you are planning a trip to see the stones for yourself, make sure to include a stop at the thrice named Doune, Dun Carloway or Dùn Chàrlabhaigh Broch in your itinerary.  Brochs, drystone towers, are a uniquely Scottish form of architecture.  The word comes from the Norse for Fort although it is debatable whether the structures were predominantly used for warfare. Dùn Chàrlabhaigh dates from the first century AD and is remarkably well preserved for its age.

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A visit to Lewis, whether as a daytrip from Skye or (at a push) Ullapool, or as part of a longer stay on the island, will leave you with great photographs, strong memories and a bit of perspective about humanity and our place in the world. I only hope that in five thousand years our descendants are left with something equally beautiful to remember us by.

The Isle of Skye will be the next stop in this Scottish secrets series. To learn more about Lewis’ twin, Harris, click here.  

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The Isle of Harris, Scotland’s Caribbean

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Harris, together with its conjoined twin Lewis, forms the largest island in the Outer Hebrides or Western Isles of Scotland.  As both names for the archipelago suggest, this is a remote place, over 60 miles from the mainland.  It can be reached by plane from Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness or by two ferry routes, both of which require some serious travel before you are even on board.  The first option is to sail from Ullapool on the north west mainland to Stornoway on Lewis.  The crossing takes nearly three hours, in good weather, and Ullapool itself is a four hour drive from Edinburgh.  The second option, and the one we chose, is to make your way to Uig, on the Isle of Skye, for the shorter crossing (roughly two hours) to Tarbert, Harris.

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Harris is smaller and more mountainous than its immediate neighbour, and less populous.  Tarbert, the main settlement, is home to roughly 500 people and whether out walking, or driving on the winding, often single track roads, hours can pass before you see another person.  It is a wild and spectacularly beautiful place of big skies, white sand and uninterrupted breath-taking views.

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We arrived shortly before dusk, chasing the light as we drove south from the ferry terminal to our chosen campsite of Horgabost and were treated to the soft mellowing of colours across the bay and a glorious sunset.  The facilities at Horgabost are minimal but the beach-side location more than compensates; in early April we had the place completely to ourselves.  Nothing tastes better than BBQ under the stars and, that far away from artificial lights, there were too many to even begin to count.

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April is a good time to visit any of Western Scotland; the crowds will be smaller, the weather in the last few years has been fair, not necessarily warm but often dry and clear, and most important of all, the infamous midges will not yet have stirred.  Midges are small, mosquito like insects, who swarm in vast clouds in the Scottish summer, biting mercilessly and seem to have become immune to most varieties of bug spray.  They are not harmful but are unpleasant and best to be avoided if possible.

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Outdoor activities dominate on Harris, though there are a number of small art galleries, gift shops and cafes selling local crafts including the world renowned Harris Tweed, a protected product of the island. Some of the weavers offer demonstrations to visitors and the warehouse shop in Tarbert is certainly worth a visit whether you’re staying in the town, passing by on the way to your campsite or whiling away time before your ferry departs.  Crossing the border to Lewis is also recommended; keep a look out for my next post for some sights not to be missed.

For the previous post in my Scottish secrets series, starring the Mull of Galloway lighthouse, click here

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