Wednesday, 28 December 2016

September 9th: After lunch, we experience a Broch and a Henge

There are at least 50 brochs in Orkney and, alas, I can't exactly remember which one this is. My best, and likely correct, guess is the Broch of Gurness.

In any event, a broch is a fort. There is some question about who was being defended against. Some said the Romans, but that theory has been debunked by other scholars who say they were built as a result of more localized feuding over scarce land or perhaps just as immense status symbols. 

Most were built between 600 BC and 100 AD; they were conical in shape and could be as high as five to 13 metres. Since no masonry was used, just dry stone, their builders had a high degree of engineering skill. 

The Broch of Gurness, thought to have been erected between 200 BC and 100 BC, was discovered by accident in 1929 by an artist sketching the scenery, when the leg of his stool sank through the turf towards the chamber below. 

There are several dry ditches and ramparts around the broch.

Living quarters were built outside the tower and were also enclosed by the ditch:

Scholars estimate about 40 families lived there.

Upright stones marked the divisions between rooms: 

Each house contained a hearth, stone furniture, cupboards, and apparently a toilet of sorts - likely not the Thomas Crapper variety, however!  

No, not this! (found on Pinterest)

Flat stones were used as flagstones and raised as walls and partitions:

Notice the intriguing white stone in the centre, perhaps used as a grindstone, and the strata of rectangular stones in the wall: 

A ready supply of flat stones for the partitions lay at the nearby shoreline. 

However, erosion is taking its toll here as at other coastal sites:

There appears to have been a rather formal path to the broch:

Over the years, the settlement fell into disuse and was likely partially dismantled over time by other inhabitants of the area looking to use the stones. The houses may have been used by the Picts several centuries later about 500 AD, and still later by the Vikings as a burial mound. Artifacts from both those peoples have been discovered there. Then, after gradually being covered in soil, the site lay undisturbed for a thousand years. 

My source for much of this information:


Afterwards, we carried on to the Ring of Brodgar, sometimes called a henge, which is a  ring of stones enclosed by a ditch (or two or three) and also embankments. Lacking an embankment, it can't strictly speaking be called a henge. It is very close to the Standing Stones of Stenness and many other ancient ritual sites:  
Radiocarbon dating puts it construction close to 2500-2000 BC, making it one of the last neolithic monuments. The stones have been compared to a band of giants lumbering under heavy weight across the landscape:


Our appreciation for its mystery was somewhat hampered by the work underway to conserve the site. The snow fence is not part of the ancient henge:

As the sign notes, we followed the temporary path:

Carrie, our See Orkney tour guide, explained the details of the work going on:

It was rainy, so we avoided the muddy pathways. Greg is making his way across the turf: 

Nevertheless, the sheer size of the stones  was impressive and since the area around them is thought to have been a marshy fen at the time they were erected, the effort expended to transport and raise them is mind-boggling:

I wonder if there was heather 3,000 years ago!

Unlike the Standing Stones of Stenness, which in 1814 a tenant farmer began to knock over when he got tired of ploughing around them, the stones in this ring seem to have toppled for other reasons:

The sign explains how lightning cracked one of the stones: 

Incidentally the insensitive farmer was prevented from destroying any more of the Stenness stones and narrowly escaped having his house burnt down by his angry neighbours.

In 1906, the two henges (and other pre-historic sites) were taken into care by the government, the sites protected and studied and many fallen stones restored to their sockets.

(My source for much of this information:

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Our tour of Orkney was a highlight of the trip

Re-reading my travel journal, I found this entry:

Sept. 9

We went on a tour with Carrie from See Orkney. It was well worth it! We saw all the Neolithic, Pict, and Viking sites as  well as Skalle (sic) House and the Italian Chapel, where a truck spring gave bounce to the baptismal font.

We ate lunch at a  brewery, which used to be a school – I had hot pot: beef, potatoes, turnips carrots. Again, not enough flavouring but still good on a cool windy day. I had soup as well – carrot and coconut. It was good too.

No dinner: we were still full from lunch – ate biscuits and had tea in our room and watched Father Brown

My rather abbreviated journal entry doesn't  do justice to the day. It actually began propitiously when at our typical Scottish breakfast, we were joined by a tiny surprise guest. Someone at the table spied movement on the floor, which we all first thought was a mouse. But no, it was a frog. It must have hopped in when Greg and I arrived in the dark the night before in the wind and rain. Clever amphibian preferred the heated floor of the solarium, where we were now eating breakfast, to the outdoor chill.

Someone at the table picked him up and set him outdoors  in the little walled garden just outside. I looked for him over the next couple of days, but I didn't see him again.

Carrie, our tour guide from See Orkney, arrived at the dot of 9:00, and off we went, the only passengers in her van. Carrie, pronounced as in car (not carry), was a wonderful host: she knew lots of stories about the area and the sites. She also kept us on time so we didn't have to worry about when to be anywhere, especially lunch, which she arranged for us at a pub/brewery.

There were of course sheep everywhere:

Here are some standing stones with sheep:

and no sheep:

and a shy sheep (just one):

Carie said that the standing stones were so prolific in years gone by that farmers used them as flagstones.


Our next stop was Skara Brae, a neolithic settlement inhabited between 3200 and 2200 BC. Eight prehistoric houses, connected by low passageways, have survived.The village was revealed by a massive winter storm in 1850, which not only gouged out the land around the village, but killed about 200 of the local people.

In the older part of the settlement, which probably never held more that 150 residents, the sleeping areas are little rooms off the main area:

Here is a passageway:

The view across Skaill Bay is rather unadorned:

Apparently this structure was a workshop , as described in the photo below this shot:

We were there on a rainy windy day. Glad I don't live in neolithic times, deerskins notwithstanding:

The later houses changed slightly and "became more rectangular with rounded internal corners. Also the beds were no longer built into the wall but protruded into the main living area."("

The doorway seems a bit low; notice the rounded corners:

Here is the shoreline around Skaill Bay, probably not too much changed over the years, although erosion from storms is taking a greater toll now. 


After seeing Skara Brae, we warmed up a bit touring Skaill House, which Visit Scotland calls the "finest 17th Century mansion in Orkney." It was built in 1620 by Bishop George Graham, who was given the land after the execution of the previous land-owner, Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney, for treason in 1615. I mention this only because the 2nd Earl us a very distant relative of mine.

When  I (very quickly) realized that the Stewarts are still strongly disliked, I kept my pride at being related to this earl under heavy wraps. 

The southern wing of the house stands on a pre-Norse, likely Pictish, burial ground.

This link provides a fun account of the lives of Bishop Graham (who was removed from office for being soft on witchcraft and incest) and the various lairds who succeeded him:  

This is the sunken garden at Skara Brae. The weather in the Orkneys is relatively moderate since, thanks to the Gulf Stream, it is on the same latitude (ca. 58 degrees) as the southern tip of Greenland. Often the flowers we saw were similar to those which flourish in PEI.

Skaill House was eventually home to the man who unearthed Skara Brae in 1850, William Graham Watt. According to information in the link below, he entertained Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of Sir John Franklin after the explorer left Stromness on his ill-fated voyage to find the Northwest passage (a Canadian connection in that Franklin's ships, the Erebus and the Terror were found in 2014 and 2016 respectively).

I must confess I don't recall whom the portrait below memorializes. It might be Lord Watt. Captain James Cook's dinnerware is displayed at Skaill Hose, but the captain probably didn't linger long enough to have his portrait taken.  


Our next stop was Maeshowe, a 5,000 year old burial place, through the passageway of which the sun shines at the winter solstice. I hope, since it is December 21st today, that it is not overcast in Orkney. The entrance is at the white patch to the left.

Archeologists call it a "superlative monument." 

This is the walkway to the mound. Carrie told us that the powers- that-be are thinking of closing Maeshowe to the public because people have to cross a busy road to get to it and they are afraid of accidents. There must be better ways to solve that problem than closing the monument.

The passageway into the mound, lined up to greet the wintry sun, is 36 feet long.You have to walk doubled over and by the end, you feel very glad to be through it.

In about 1100-200 AD, Vikings found their way into the tomb, likely to pillage it, and left rune carvings on its walls. They called it the Mound of the Orks "Orkahaugr." (Graffiti were popular even then but are now considered to be very fine examples of runic writing.)

The Vikings weren't shy about boasting:

This graphic give a good idea of the elements of the mound:


At about then, it was time for lunch.  Now it is time for my 4:00 pre-suppertime break. I shall continue the story in my next blog.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

In which we make our way to the Orkney Islands

Taking the bus to Inverness is faster than the train

When planning the trip, I was puzzled that it would take seven hours to get from Fort William to Inverness by train. But, as a glance at the map made clear, we would be going back south to Glasgow only to come back up north: but this time on the west side of Scotland, not the east side. Taking the local bus would take only a couple of hours, so I arranged for that.  

Leaving Fort William on  the bus 

In the early morning at the bus station in Fort William, which was really just a series of bus stops with benches, we were all alone except for two other travellers. One was a man on whose hat were the words Prince Edward Island. Turned out he and his wife were United Church ministers, who had been living  in Vernon River but were living now near Ottawa.  

Except for the scary narrow road, whizzing traffic, and  daredevil  touring bicyclists, it was a pleasant journey. Prettier actually than the much vaunted trip to Fort William, but admittedly,  the day was clearer. The sheep looked like rice kernels thrown on the hillsides. Middle-school children rode the bus to their school.

At some point in the morning, we ate our breakfast sandwiches packed by the proprietor of the Bed and Breakfast back in Fort William. We had to leave before breakfast, so she made us a nice little packet of comestibles instead.

We wait for the train in Inverness

The train station at Inverness was a five-minute walk from the bus depot through a parking lot and past  a lot of chain link fencing . We followed the people ahead of us who assured us this was the way.   Once we got to the station, I was put off by the fact it cost 20 pence to use the washroom: or as I cleverly noted,  20 P to pee.   But it seemed , as I observed people’s comings and goings, you could  activate the turn stile without actually paying. That seemed to me far more reasonable.  

While we waited the 90 minutes for the train to Thurso, we took turns going outdoors to glimpse downtown Inverness: many stone buildings, very ornate hotel next door with a wrought iron staircase, as I recall.
Helpful cab driver makes a lot of sense

Once on board the train, we shared our table with our new-found friends from Canada . They were heading further into Caithness than we were, so we bade them good-bye at Thurso and alighted onto the platform into a downpour of rain.

I had arranged, in a series  of emails with a local cab company, to have a taxi waiting for us for the short trip to the ferry terminal at Scrabster.  Richard of Ormlie Taxis had also advised us that a cab ride to Castle Mey could be rather expensive. That helped with our travel plans. He also warned us of an impending rail strike but said not to worry, as there would be alternate transportation, and his driver would find us at the station.

And indeed he did, looking rather wet and a bit anxious, as we were last passengers off the train. He spoke strongly against going directly to Scrabster, as the ferry terminal there was not yet open, and we would be sitting for several hours, with only an overhang for protection, in the pouring rain.

Instead, he recommended visiting the local museum “where there is a café.” He would return at 5:30 pm to pick us up.  This seemed a bit daring, but we said yes. The museum was excellent, and we absorbed a lot of local history and listened to stories recorded from elderly members of the community in a local dialect almost unintelligible to us (something about a desperate couple eloping).

Then we had a tasty snack and tea in the café. I had a rather odd chicken curry, as it turned out to be a chunky chicken sandwich flavoured with curry, not curry on rice as I was expecting. We also enjoyed a carrot parsnip soup, which, like the goulash soup Greg had had in Glasgow, could have used more seasoning. Nevertheless … comfort food for a wet afternoon, friendly staff, and a cheery space.

We were early leaving the museum, but it had stopped raining, so we found a bench outdoors and  sat with our luggage, wondering if we had made a big mistake in thinking the taxi would return. I did a bit of window shopping. A pedestrian mall had been constructed in the environs of the museum, so we didn’t have to look out for darting cars. 

Just as we were becoming a bit antsy, lo and behold, the little cab returned, scooped us up, and took us to Scrabster just as planned. I highly recommend  Ormlie Taxis.

Arriving at the Orkneys

Excellent crossing I remember very little about. It was dark when we arrived at Stromness, one of the two towns on the Mainland, the largest of the 70 Orkney Islands, hence the rather misleading name (for an island).

The woman at the ferry counter called us a cab . A man from the local tourist bureau on his way “back to Scotland” recommended our choice of a Bed and Breakfast and said to say hello from him to Joy, the proprietress. 

My journal notes:
We have a nice room with our own bathroom next door off the hall. We watched A Midsomer Murders repeat … to bed at 11:30… awake at 4:00 am (grrr). Read an architecture magazine for a while; back to sleep about 6:00; alarm [placed in the  in the armoire this time] went off at 7:15.