How time flies! I’m aware I’m blogging two weeks late but internet access has been quite patchy, so here’s the rest of my Orkney trip summed up… from Bradford!
Me and Andy left Rousay on Friday morning to visit the Mainland on Orkney. Immediately we were able to head to the Broch of Gurness, which is visible from Midhowe on a clear day across Eynhallow Sound. Sailing between these two imposing towers must have been quite an experience in the past. The remains of the settlement at Gurness are extensive, just like at Midhowe, and it is clear that this entire area would have been thriving with activity during the Iron Age.
After this, we travelled back in time as we headed towards the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, with a quick stop off at the Standing Stones of Stenness – the oldest part of the site, dating from 5400 – 4500 years ago (Historic Environment Scotland 2017). The size and scale of the stones only sink in when you stand right next to them!
We then made our way to the Ness of Brodgar excavations, for a site tour. It’s a very impressive place (see main blog image at the top!). The stone-built Neolithic structures that are being revealed are immense in size, with some outer walls 5 metres wide. Check out their website for updates on their work: http://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/
Andy had to return to mainland UK that day, so I made the most of the weekend to see more of Orkney’s World Heritage Sites, chatting to other visitors and staff. It’s amazing to see how enthusiastic and knowledgeable they are about Orkney’s archaeology. I certainly learned a lot! It was to the famed site of Skara Brae on Saturday (on a most scenic, relaxed bus journey from Kirkwall).
The reconstructed houses are excellent at giving a sense of how the houses would have been organised and used originally. I particularly liked the (fake!) lobster and fish kept fresh in the stone-lined tank. It was very busy at the main site, as many people like myself had decided to make the most of the sunshine and see Skara Brae and walk along the beach. I also visited Skaill House, which was included in the admission price, and was surprised at how large and grand it was! There are some interesting exhibits on the original excavations of Skara Brae inside. Next time I must go on an evening tour to see the structures up close, after hours! On the way back, the bus stopped off at the Ring of Brodgar, so I had time to walk all around the stones in the late afternoon sun, AND visit the Stones of Stenness again, with a spot of seal watching on the opposite side of the water.
I was initially worried the main buses to the famous archaeological sites don’t run on Sunday, but with a bit of detective work and kind help from the Kirkwall Tourist Information Centre (thanks so much!!), I established a bus route to the Maeshowe visitor centre in Stenness (not the old one across the road from the cairn itself, which as of July 2017 is closed). The trick is to book early, especially if in a group, as it was amazing at how quickly tickets get snapped up for this site. After puzzling out the bus timetable (buses run once every two hours from Kirkwall to Stenness – just ask to get dropped off at the Maeshowe visitor centre), it was a pretty quick journey to get to the visitor centre (don’t go to the cairn itself as no one is there to let you in!). Once there, you get on a small bus with the tour guide, which shuttles you to Maeshowe itself. Another tip – tours run on the hour, so make sure you get to the visitor centre with time to spare, so the bus isn’t late, as it can hold up the next tour!
As for Maeshowe itself… wow. Seeing images and videos of the interior cannot match the experience of really being there! The guide was very knowledgeable and talked about the history of the site, showing us some of the key runic inscriptions and the famous Maeshowe “dragon” carving. There’s a swallow nest inside too, and it’s cute to see the adult birds swooping through the entrance passageway to reach the chicks inside, although they do dive-bomb dramatically (I may have worn a hat to cover myself!).
Back at the visitor centre, there’s a Samsung Gear VR headset you can try on, to view the Maeshowe virtual reality app which was created by Historic Environment Scotland and Glasgow School of Art. It uses laser scanning data conducted as part of the Scottish Ten project and is available on iOS and Android (click here for link). I liked seeing the English translations of some of the runes placed in 3D beside the location of the carvings! It would be fantastic if something similar can be designed for the three brochs I am researching… perhaps?
Monday was my last day in Kirkwall, so I headed to the Orkney Museum, which has some great exhibits on display, featuring artefacts from the Norse burial from the Broch of Gurness, beautiful Pictish carvings and a great many prehistoric finds, including stone maceheads and those mysterious carved stone balls. I also explored the impressive red sandstone St Magnus’ Cathedral, the most northerly in the UK, which dates back to the 12th century and was founded by the Viking Earl Rognvald. The town takes its name from the Norse Kirkjuvágr, which is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga. I thought its large round columns look very similar to those at Durham Cathedral, also founded in the Norman period. Both are free to visit and well worth a look to get a good understanding of the history of Kirkwall and Orkney!
It was farewell to the Northern Isles late that evening as I caught the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. I had a wonderful time here, got even more survey data than I expected and the weather has been (mostly) absolutely fantastic (apparently it’s been more sunny than Cornwall this July!). I’m looking forward to heading back up next month for the ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ conference being held by the Archaeology Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands.