The Scottish Highlands - Part 4

A part of the wide circle at the Ring of Brodgar with Loch Stenness in the background.
The mountain that can vaguely be seen in the background is Keelylang Hill southeast of this site.

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The Orkney Islands

Day 12

In the morning of August 15 we left Thurso to take the ferry to Stromness on the Mainland of the Orkney Islands. It turned out to be a pleasant town consisting mainly, as far as we discovered, of one long main street and the long stretch of harbor with several different ferries coming and going and a number of youth-type looking restaurants with loud music. We found, after a somewhat boring experience on our first evening, a very pleasant restaurant at the Royal Hotel where we had three very pleasant dinners in an international ambiance.

It was a heavily overcast day and we couldn't see much of the coast line that we passed by. This is the Island of Hoy, the second-largest and the southern-most island in the Orkney archipelago. "Hoy's best-known sight is the spectacular Old Man of Hoy, a 137m-high rock stack that juts improbably from the ocean off the tip of an eroded headland." (Scotland's Highlands and Islands - Lonely Planet Publications)

Orkney Museum in Kirkwall and the Ring of Brodgar

The first afternoon in Stromness, we took a short ride to Kirkwall on the eastern edge of the Mainland. We visited the Orkney museum,
which  contains relics of Orkney culture from the last 5000 years. Among other things, it has some beautiful Pictish carved stones.

For specific interest, compare the similarity in the carving patterns between this stone from Newgrange, Ireland, and the above Pictish stones from the Mainland, Orkney Islands. This similarity would certainly indicate a close cultural relationship between the Picts (identity unknown) and the Celtic Scots.

"The Picts were a Scottish people who forged their own kingdom before uniting in AD 843 with the rest of Scotland ... They are first mentioned in AD 297. ... After 367 their raids upon Roman Britain became increasingly fierce. The Pictish kingdom, which in the 8th century extended from Caithness to Fife, is notable for the stylized but vigorous beauty of its carved memorial stones and crosses."

"Their identity has been much debated, but they possessed a distinctive culture seen particularly in their carved symbol stones. Their original language, possibly non-IndoEuropean, has disappeared: some Picts probably spoke a Brythonic Celtic language."  (Encyclopedia Britannica - Micropaedia and Macropaedia)

The Ring of Brodgar is situated on a narrow isthmus of land between Loch Stennes and Loch Harray. It forms a wide circle of standing stones, some of them over 5m tall. On our way back west towards Stromness, we took a turn north at the Stones of Stenness to visit this impressive site.

"Twenty-seven of the original 60 stones are still standing among the heather. These old stones, raised skyward 4500 years ago (Neolithic period), still attract elemental forces - on 5 June 1980, one of the stones was split in two by a bolt of lightning. It's a powerful place, with the two 'lochan' standing still and serene on either side." (Scotland's Highlands and Islands
- Lonely Planet Publications)

It was getting towards evening and the twilight hour when we arrived at the site. The very high and narrow stones on the right are seen against Loch Stenness.

"There are also several large mounds and smaller tumuli in the area, which are probably Bronze Age, as well as another circular mound to the north-west called the Ring of Bookan (HY284145). It seems that the Brodgar area remained important during the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC at least, and today it still has a magnetic attraction."
The Ring of Brodgar - Charles Tait, photographic Ltd.

Day 13

Skara Brae / Skaill House and then the fascinating 5000 year-old Maes Howe

"Overlooking a beautiful sandy bay, 8 miles north of Stromness, is northern Europe's best preserved prehistoric village, Skara Brae. Built around 3500 BC, this remarkable site was hidden under the sand dunes until 1850 when a severe storm blew away the sand and grass covering the stone huts. The local laird, William Watt, discovered the complex, which sits just half a mile from his mansion at Skaill, and made excavating the ruins his personal project for the next 18 years. Skara Brae was given World Heritage Listing in 1999." (Scotland's Highlands and Islands - Lonely Planet Publications)

Link to Skara Brae - Orkney's Neolithic Village (Charles Tait, photographic Ltd.) - (Click on 'Neolithic Orkney' in the menu on the left and then on 'Skara Brae')

"Skara Brae (HY232188), by the shore of the Bay of Skaill, is virtually unique. This remarkably well preserved village is one of very few archaeological sites where it is actually possible to imagine the life style of the inhabitants. First revealed after a severe storm in 1850, this prehistoric community was occupied for about 600 years. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the site was occupied from before 3100 BC to about 2600 BC."

Skaill House, an early 17th century mansion, the former home of the laird of Breckness, William Watt, who discovered Skara Brae. Skara Brae, the prehistoric village
Skaill House mansion is off in the background

"The houses are in an incredible state of preservation. Even the stone furniture - beds, boxes and dressers - has survived the 5000 years since people last lived here." (
Scotland's Highlands and Islands - Lonely Planet Publications)

You can see a glimpse of the sea here behind the "beautiful sandy bay" mentioned in the same guide book.

Entrance to a room at Skara Brae which was considered too insecure for access to visitors.
"North of Stromness, the west coast rises into a truly dramatic series of cliffs and exposed sea stacks at Yesnaby, off the road to Skara Brae".
While waiting for our appointment at Maes Howe, we took a side trip towards the south from Skara Brae.

"Maes Howe, constructed about 5000 years ago is the finest chambered tomb in Europe." Here we are on the path leading out to this fascinating monument coming from the road where the tourist center is situated. Interesting info about Maeshowe at Welcome to the Maeshowe Webcam Site  "Once you enter the low stone passage leading into the central chamber, you step back several millenia to the dawn of man. The vast main chamber is over 6.7m high and 35m wide, and the entrance passage is aligned with the direction of sunset at the winter solstice." (Scotland's Highlands and Islands)

Our group was lucky to have a knowledgeable and very lively young woman guide. We were told that, among other remarkable facts, the chamber had been used for a group of vikings, having to take shelter from extremely bad weather for quite a long period of time. They had evidently been able to enter into the mound from an opening in the roof and they had left clear traces of their sojourn in their shelter. Runes were to be seen in several places in the chamber, which indicated that the guests had been extremely literate and thus most likely upper-class Scandinavian chieftains. Our young guide said she had learned to read some of the runes, but since the writing was in old Norse, she couldn't really read the words and she thought learning old Norse in order to be able to interpret the rune inscriptions would be a bit too much work.

Next - Part 5

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