An August 2005 trip
to Orkney Islands by Drever
Quote: Though small in area the Orkney Isles are filled with mystery. Ancient civilisations lived here and have left their monuments. Going further back, fossils are found in rocks from when the area was a vast fresh water lake. These and more recent events shaping the islands are examined here.
Attraction | "The Broch of Gurness"
A visitor’s centre run by Historic Scotland gives access to the Broch of Gurness whose defensive grey stonewalls have stood on the coast since 200BC. Although crumbling, excavated carried out in 1929 gives a sense of how it originally looked.
A prosperous community surrounded the site in Iron Age times. They lived off the harvests of land and sea, spinning and weaving, as well as trading. Envious eyes turned towards them - perhaps from raiding warriors after cattle, land or even slaves. Whatever the threat it applied across northern Scotland. Circular defensive stone towers called brochs sprang up in response. After about 300 years the threat disappeared and brochs fell into disrepair as patterns of farming changed and farmsteads spread across the Orcadian landscape. In Orkney alone there are over 120 brochs, with 360 others elsewhere in Scotland. The Broch of Gurness is a good example of these strange towers.
When the Vikings invaded Orkney around 800 AD this broch lay mouldering under a grassy mound. Perhaps they attached some importance to the site for they buried a Viking woman adorned with elaborate brooches in pagan style nearby.
The excavated ruins now impart an impression of their former glory although the sea has swallowed up half the land between the original north ditch and the outer edge of the broch. The causeway across concentric rings of ditches would have given an impressive and intimidating entrance to the complex and remains impressive even today.
The site measures 45m across and was encircled by a protective ditch with high stone walls, breached only by the entrance causeway. In the centre stood the Broch: a stone tower of eight to ten metres tall, and 20m wide. Internally, stonewalls divided its area, and a deep well provided water. Around it, a village of small stone houses grew, each with a yard and a storage shed.
The broch tower still has an imposing doorway. Because the upper levels haven’t survived it is difficult to gain a clear understanding of the way the broch functioned in times of danger. However, it is still possible to see the hearths on the floor. There are also many stone partitions, items of furniture, cupboards and cubby holes. Within the thickness of the walls is a stone staircase that would originally have led to upper levels.
The ruined village that surrounds the broch is difficult to picture - internal furnishings appear sometimes as little more than piles of stones. It starts to come together when you move around to the entrance causeway leading from the outer defences of the site to the door of the broch. From there the shapes of the houses seem clearer. Close by are the remains of a shamrock shaped farm house built by a Pictish family living here after the broch fell into disuse.
The brochs are part of several strands of evidence of a prosperous ancient civilisation living in the islands.
Adult admission price: £1.30
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 27, 2005
Broch of Gurness
Overlooking Eynhallow Sound
Orkney Islands, Scotland
Coming face-to-face with the local fish, swimming in as close to their natural environment as possible, as I did at the Orkney Marine Life Aquarium was for me an enlightening experience. Rather than objects dragged out of the sea with a barbed hook in their mouth by my brother or I they become creatures with personality. At least we fished for food rather than sport – perhaps I kid myself?
One tank contained a lonely octopus as his chum had gone walkabouts. He played around on the tank’s glass side while fixing me with an intense and unemotional stare. How could I tell that I didn’t stir its emotions? Well, octopuses are intelligent marine creatures and show their feelings. If frightened, they will go white, and if angry will go red–-a human trait.
The Ballan Wrasse fish displayed in another tank changes colour as they mature. Starting with reds and browns they change to the green, turquoise and mottled red and silver green of the mature fish. The strongly built Wrassel can easily crush a crab. They are friendly and like attention. Living among the wartime wrecks in Scapa Flow they make friends with divers exploring the ghostly surrendered German battleships scuttled in World War I. They can be so trusting they take food from divers’ hands – boiled eggs are a favourite.
Fishermen working in Scapa Flow and Orkney coastal waters have gathered many species of sea life for the Aquarium. The strong tides and treacherous eddies of the Pentland Firth and around Orkney have protected shellfish from over fishing allowing them to grow to extraordinary size. There is a "rock pool" that allows close up inspection of shellfish.
You can step into the wheelhouse of a creel boat and see the navigation equipment or try your hand at making a net or mending a creel. A treat sometimes available is viewing seals nursed back to health by Orkney Seal Rescue. These return to the wild. Grey seals are plentiful around Orkney and my father’s border collie would swim out into the sea and play with them. It is difficult to know whether the seals or the dog enjoyed it most.
The Aquarium imparts a range of information through posters. These tell about the different species and the part that fishing played in Orkney’s economy. Herring fishing was a major industry in the past, and most farming families would supplement their income working creels around the shoreline in summer for lobster and crab. They supplemented their diet with line caught codling, haddock and coal fish. Today the main inshore fishing is shell fishing using small vessels. Creels, dredges and nets catch lobster, brown crab, velvet crab, Norway lobster, king scallop, queen scallop and whelks. Scallops, winkles, cockles and "spouts" (razor-shells) lie exposed at low tides allowing gathering by hand but by divers in deeper waters.
Prices: Adults £4. Children (5-15) £3. Under 5 free. Family £12. Concessions £3.25.
Fancy a stroll with plenty of bracing sea air and some antiquities to ponder? If so a visit to the Brough of Birsay beckons. For 500 years political and religious power in Orkney centred on this small tidal island off the north-east tip of the parish of Birsay. It held importance firstly for the Picts and then for the Norse.
The Brough is a tidal island. Access is possible by foot for a couple of hours either side of high tide – the Tourist Office in Kirkwall publishes these hours. A concrete causeway, wide enough for a couple of pedestrians, zigzags out across the seaweed and rocks to the Brough - roughly 240 metres.
The approach is up a steep slope that formed a grand entranceway into the Norse settlement and a slipway to drag boats ashore when storms threatened. To the left is the Historic Scotland visitor centre and ticket office. Higher up the hill are the rectangular remains of early Norse houses, while to the right is a confusing jumble of paved areas and walls that represent successive waves of Norse building over the top of earlier Pictish buildings.
The best place to start your exploration of the site is in the remains of St Peter Church directly ahead of you. A place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, it dates from about 1100 AD. Possibly it was the church in which Earl Magnus, later Saint Magnus, lay buried after his cousin Håkon murdered him on 16 April 1117. This small church is of Romanesque design and probably had a square tower at one end, and a semicircular apse at the other. Enough of the church is standing to reveal a wall cupboard on one side, and parts of two formerly glazed windows. The remains of a cloister to the north of the church suggest a monastery from around the later 1100s. One building identified as a possible sauna and bathhouse probably belonged to a Viking Earl's house next door.
The island’s original residents were the Picts, who lived here around 600-700AD. The most obvious evidence of them is in the replica Brough o' Birsay Pictish symbol stone, marking triple graves found during excavations. Although all that is visible is a small well and a section of wall, archaeological excavations on the site have revealed remains of oval shaped Pictish houses. Excavations exposed hundreds of fragments of broken moulds, as well as several complete moulds on the site. These, with the crucibles and pieces of worked bronze, confirmed the presence of a metalworker. The patterns on recovered moulds suggest casting jewellery typical of the Pictish period.
If time and tide allow and the weather is good, you could do worse than finishing your trip to the Brough of Birsay with a walk up to the automated lighthouse built in 1925. The views from the cliffs 150ft above the Atlantic are superb.
Entrance adults £2.
The newly widowed Queen Elizabeth spotted the Castle of Mey in 1952 while staying with friends. The windswept beauty of the isolated, abandoned building struck a receptive chord with her feelings. The castle stands perched above the Pentland Firth between the two northern headlands of Duncansby and Dunnet with a view across to the Orkney Islands. She quickly negotiated its purchase and then spent four years restoring and making it into a private retreat.
The Queen Mother (1900 - 2002) fascinated by the chequered history of the place liked to research the subject. Cryptic chambers, secret societies, cabbalistic orders and hidden passages leading to the shore are pointers to past lifestyles both dangerous and murky. George Sinclair, 4th Earl of Caithness (1533-1582) built the castle as his family seat on top of a much older site to a Z-plan between 1566 and 1572. The Sinclairs later extended it by adding the porch and baronial features.
This special place where the Queen Mother felt relaxed is now open to the public. It was a place where she could doff her royal cloak and feed the dogs from a plastic bowl or unwind with one of her battered Dick Francis novels. Often she listened to recordings stacked next to the 1950’s record player she refused to replace. The palace is as she left it – a home. The pictures of her prized black Highland cattle lie under a bookcase, the threadbare carpeting she refused to throw out still needs attention, and the small service bell with an old button sewn on a piece of string still replaces the missing bellpull.
The esquires who supervised her list of appointments liked to buy her little nonsense gifts like a wriggly Loch Ness Monster or a kilted doll. Whatever she though of them she thanked them warmly. Some of these appear in the most surprising places – out of reach of servants keen to throw them in a drawer.
It is uncertain what Her Majesty knew about the secret chamber behind the library wall, or the hidden route from the castle to the beach, or the blocked-off doorway and the mysterious addition of a "walk in" stone fireplace with a disproportionately large chimney. But her entreaty to a member of staff to "look out for the angels" showed she was aware of many of the castle’s secret places. The "angels" - six cherubim carved high up on the original tower - are cabbalistic rather than Christian in design. To see them you have to view the tower at a certain angle and know what you are looking for.
The castle has 38 rooms, including 15 bedrooms, 3 reception rooms, a library and a billiards room. An imposing double staircase from the entrance hall leads to the principal rooms on the second floor. A trapdoor in the floor of the dining room leads to a dungeon. The gardens are also open to the public. They contain vegetables as well as flowers and shrubs.
Admission adults £7.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on September 27, 2005
The scale of the ruins built from the local grey flagstone seems odd in this rural coastal setting. My first reaction was to wonder why they are here at all. The whole area is mysterious for the Brough of Birsay is close by. It was a centre of power for the Picts followed by the Norse. Following their demise power clung to the area through this castle though the area offers few natural advantages apart from good farming land. There is no natural harbour or good defensive position.
Robert Stewart the illegitimate son of King James V of Scotland and one of his mistresses, Euphemia Elphinstone had the palace built. It stands a monument to Robert's royal pretensions and to his oppression of the people of Orkney. Born in 1533, Robert in 1564 became Earl of Orkney and Shetland and Sheriff of Orkney. In 1568 he added the properties previously controlled by the Bishop of Orkney to his estate and began building this grand palace in 1569 to reflect his exalted position. Use of forced local labour helped ensure the Palace was complete by 1574.
By 1575 Robert's tyrannical rule earned imprisonment in Edinburgh but by 1578 he was back with added titles and powers over Orkney and Shetland. Unmorned Robert died peacefully in his bed in the Bishop's Palace in Kirkwall in 1593. By then his son Patrick was already abusing the titles of Earl of Orkney and Lord of Shetland. Patrick suffered beheading for treason while his son ended his life dangling from a noose for leading a rebellion against the king.
The Stewarts' successors the Earls of Morton also took over this palace but by 1650 when Cromwell's forces requisitioned the building they reported broken windows and missing shutters. By 1700 the roof had collapsed.
A tour of the Palace shows that in its heyday it consisted of a grand group of buildings set around a courtyard. The ranges rose to two storeys, and the towers at each corner to three. It was as much a fortress as a home. Only the palace's upper floors had large windows; the accessible ground floors contained small opening and an array of gun-holes from which musketeers could cover every side of the building. The remains of one of the towers that formed the corners of the Earl's Palace still stand.
Few records of the palace remain to give a clear impression of its contents and layout however, a 1633 account describing it as a "sumptuous and stately building" confirms it was a luxurious home.
The Reverend John Brand, who published a description of Orkney in 1701, highlighted the palace's décor, in particular the ceilings elaborated decorated with painting of biblical scenes. He wrote:
"[The upper floor] hath been prettily decorated, the ceiling being all painted, and that for the most part with schems holding forth scripture histories of Noah's flood, Christ's riding to Jerusalem etc."
This is a Historic Scotland building – entrance is free.
The Orkney Fossil and Vintage Centre in its restored farm buildings on the Parish of Burray has been a popular attraction in Orkney since it opened in 1993. While Orkney’s richness in archaeological sites brings visitors from far and near few knew of the richness of fossils contained in the underlying rocks until this Centre opened.
Glancing around today’s Orkney landscape with it undulating hills and surrounding seas gives a misleading impression of the area these fossilised creatures lived in for they lived in a subtropical climate and a vast freshwater lake - Lake Orcadie. These conditions existed in the Devonian period (416 – 359 million years ago). Sediments deposited in the lake formed flagstones and sandstones. These now lie exposed along the Orkney sea cliffs. The lake teemed with life, leaving many fossils, including wonderfully preserved fossilised fish. Cruaday Quarry in the parish of Sandwick provided the basis for the fossil collection. The breadth and quality of the collections are rare and Cruaday quarry is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Around the room in display cabinets are slabs split to reveal the fossils. Weird they appear but adapted to the conditions applying millions of years ago. I will just mention a few here. The Pterichthyodes had its head and shoulders encased in boxes of bone with its eyes and nostrils on the top of its head. Dipterus was a lungfish, which can survive out of the water - there are still three species of lungfish alive today. Tristichopterus also probably had a lung and may have been able to walk on land for short distances.
The social history collection upstairs contains objects used in the everyday life of Orcadians. In a woodworking section I recognised many of the tools my grandfather used. He combined joinery with crofting. A collection of antique cameras made me pause as being a member of a photographic society I have an interest in the subject.
A recreated room showed a typical room in Orkney around the beginning of the 20th-century. A boxed bed allowed total privacy by drawing shutters even though the bed is off the living room. Some recreated rooms showed Orkney in World War II. The islands were home to the Northern Fleet and contained more sailors and troops than civilians at the time. Wartime artefacts still dot the landscape and seabed. There is also a large collection of old photographs and books, which the visitor is free to browse through. They cover both peace and war. As an Orcadian I could have spent hours browsing through these.
The café in the Orkney Fossil and Vintage Centre makes a welcome stop for people travelling to or from the car ferry that crosses thrice daily from St Margaret’s Hope in South Ronalsay to Gill’s bay in Caithness. The café serves coffees, teas, home bakes as well as lunches in pleasant and friendly surroundings.
The Fossil Centre is open seven days a week, 10am - 6pm.
Mysterious grassy mounds, which as a child we called Picts Houses, dot the Orkney landscape. Some lay broken open revealing low passages and a central chamber giving the impression Picts were dwarfs who lived underground. Visiting the Tomb of the Eagles clarified matters.
Ronald Simison discovered the Tomb of the Eagles in 1958 when farming on the island of South Ronaldsay. He noticed flagstones poking through a mound which overlooked cliffs. Curiosity aroused he began digging. Ten minutes later, he reached the bottom of a wall. Before long he uncovered a black-and-white polished mace head, axe heads and a tiny button made of jet. Digging further he reached the top lintel of what he recognised as being an entrance.
Peering into the darkness of the small stone cairn he saw by the flickering light of a cigarette lighter 30 human skulls. Investigations suggest the Tomb of the Eagles was in constant use for around a century from around 3000 BC. Upright slabs of flagstone built into the walls divide it into three. Originally two low compartments each with a stone shelf across it lay at either end of the main chamber. Only one of the shelved chambers remained and this proved full of human bones.
Beneath this surviving side chamber was a deposit of bones from about 15 humans as well as those of white-tailed sea eagles. The eagle remains intrigued the excavators, who had also found large numbers of their bones throughout the tomb. This led to the idea the bird was significant to the people who built and used the tomb hence the name - The Tomb of the Eagles.
Did the sea eagle symbolise the tribe, who perhaps regarded it as a sacred animal and connected it to the rituals undertaken in and around the tomb? Did the sea eagles tear the flesh from laid-out bodies before burial? Were the feeding birds seen as carrying the soul or spirit of the dead to the other world or as mythical protectors of the dead?
Human remains mixed into a communal "bone pile" lay throughout the tomb. In total, over 16,000 assorted bones belonging to at least 342 people lay within. Human skulls lined the walls. The two cells at the western end of the main chamber held dozens more skulls and an assortment of other human remains.
The shelved compartment to the south was markedly different as it contained human bones but no trace of skulls. Opposite the tomb's long entrance tunnel lay a mound of broken pottery. Weighing around 26kg, the pottery shards came from an estimated 46 different pots. The smashed and burned pots and the charred fragments lay in the main chamber.
The tomb itself although empty is open to the public. The articles, which it contained are shown and discussed by an able speaker at the Visitor’s Centre and Ticket Office.
Entrance adult £5.
Ayr, United Kingdom