May 2016

The IWNHAS visit to Orkney

Janie Martin


The intrepid participants were David Tomalin, Delian Backhouse-Fry, Helen and Peter Jackson, Erica Manley, Alan and Renella Phillips, and Alan and Jane Martin.
We didn’t go for the weather, which is just as well since it was cold and wet, with a bitter, strong wind from Iceland attacking our extremities for almost all of the 8 days. It did nothing, however, to dent our enthusiasm, since we were privileged to investigate arguably the best Neolithic sites in Europe with one of the foremost experts Caroline Wickham-Jones.
Helen made an impeccable job of organising our travel and accommodation, by Red Jet Cowes to Southampton, then Flybe from Southampton to Edinburgh, then LoganAir to Kirkwall, capital of the Orkneys. After booking in to the excellent Royal Oak Guest House it was straight out for an introductory meal with Caroline at the Kirkwall Hotel. Start as you mean to carry on!

Neolithic Orkney

Neolithic carved stone balls

An early start next day took us to the Ness of Brodgar, a remarkable site, discovered 12 years ago, where a massive settlement was built around 3,200BC, and used for at least 1,000 years. We were met, in the pouring rain, by Nick Card, from the University of the Highlands and Islands, Director of the excavation. He was unable to show us round the site as it is covered until this year’s dig begins in July, but he did show us some amazing finds, including stone balls with knobs on and with intricate, sophisticated designs, found at many sites. They are very tactile and fit in the hand, but their purpose is unknown. He also showed us some large stones excavated from the site. These were skilfully cut and shaped, with remarkable carvings on them; Nick explained that some of the building stone had even been painted. Inside the perimeter walls one building is a huge, ceremonial Hall, 25m long by 20m wide and at least one of the buildings has evidence of a tiled roof.
The Ness of Brodgar is in the middle of a World Heritage Site. This includes the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, the Neolithic tomb of Maes Howe, and the ceremonial Stone Circles of the Stones of Stenness and The Ring of Brodgar; so all aspects of Neolithic life, from birth to death, can be found in this one amazing place. The problem Nick explained will be what to do with the trenches and finds when the excavation is completed. How can they be preserved and displayed, or will it be necessary to fill them in again?
During the week we visited all the above sites and many others, as Orkney has more Neolithic sites than you can shake a stick at, if you could find one since it is almost treeless.

Stone Circles

Although several of the Stones of Stenness were blown up by a 19th century vandal landowner who objected to their pagan connotations (plus ca change), those that remain are impressively shaped at the top to mirror the hills on the island of Hoy in the background.
The Ring of Brodgar is a huge henge 104m in diameter, where 27 of the possible 60 original stones remain standing. As we walked around the circumference in the early evening the atmosphere was enhanced by curlews calling, while skylarks and reed buntings sang their hearts out. Both stone circles predate Stonehenge by several centuries.


Reconstructed dwelling at Skara Brae

Skara Brae was discovered by the local laird in 1850 when the sand covering it was blown away in a storm. There is a reconstruction of one of the houses in the Visitors’ Centre, and although the shape of the roof is conjecture, it gives a good impression of what the homes were like, with a stone sideboard facing the entrance across the central hearth, and stone-lined beds at the sides. The site itself was reminiscent of Hobbiton, with many of the circular stone houses covered in turf for preservation. It is not known why the village was abandoned around 2,500BC but it may have been due to erosion bringing the sea much closer.

Links of Noltland


The Links of Noltland are on the island of Westray, behind a stunning bay which would be lined with hotels if the weather were much warmer. Here Caroline discovered another Neolithic village, which is currently being excavated.
Caroline did not expect anyone to be there but we were extremely lucky that the Director of the Excavation was at the site and agreed to show us round. Looking at a dig in progress made it easier to see the problems involved and the need for meticulous attention to detail, since there is so much material to catalogue and remove and to make matters worse this site is among sand dunes, which means everything is constantly being covered by fine sand blown by the strong winds.


Neolithic tombs

In addition to the ceremonial sites and villages, we visited many Neolithic tombs, the most famous of which is Maes Howe, on Mainland and probably in use around 2,700BC. The passage to the great chamber in the centre of the mound is built of 4 huge stone slabs, 1m high by 7m long and at the mid-winter solstice the sun setting over Hoy shines through the passage on to the rear wall of the chamber. What clever people! Thousands of years later some Vikings entered through the roof for shelter and carved Runic inscriptions on the walls, boasting of their exploits (plus ca change!).
We visited three further tombs on Rousay. The first was the spectacular Midhowe Cairn, a huge mound with a long central corridor, lined with stalls and shelves. Of the two smaller ones Taversoe Tuick dates back to 3,500BC and is unusual in having two storeys; and Blackhammer Cairn which is entered down a ladder is similar to but much smaller than Midhowe.
The most poignant of all the tombs is Isbister Cairn, the Tomb of the Eagles, so named as eagle talons were found here alongside the human remains. The tomb was discovered and excavated by the local farmer on S. Ronaldsay, Ronald Simison. His daughters, Katherine and Freda, lovingly look after the artefacts and maintain the excellent museum, demonstrating a strong connection across the millennia with the people who lived there.

Iron Age to Vikings

Broch of Gurness

For most of us the prehistoric sites were the main reason for the trip, but Caroline showed us plenty of the rest of Orkney’s history and landscape.
In the Iron Age a number of the villages in the Orkneys were built around brochs, huge circular towers with accommodation inside. We visited three, firstly the Broch of Gurness, on Mainland, the largest island of Orkney. It is situated beside an important sea channel with strong and dangerous tides. There is a wide street approaching the imposing entrance to the Gurness broch.
On the island of Rousay is Midhowe Broch, which, like Gurness, has a huge lintel over the entrance and a small stone structure outside, which Caroline suggested was probably a guard dog kennel.
The third broch we visited, at the Links of Noltland on the Island of Westray was excavated by Caroline many years ago, and is now sadly slowly collapsing into the sea.
Little evidence remains of the Picts, although on the Brough of Birsay, reached by a causeway at low tide from Mainland, we saw remains of a Pictish community, including a carved gravestone.
Since the Vikings ruled here for centuries it’s not surprising that they left more behind than graffiti in Maes Howe. On the Brough of Birsay they built extensively over the Pictish settlement and on Westray we saw the ruins of a Viking homestead at Quoygrew beside a beautiful beach. The house was well built and lived in for centuries and the people made a good living catching cod. Remains of the stone boat shelters can still be seen.

St. Magnus’ Catherdral

By far the most impressive legacy of the Vikings is St. Magnus’ Cathedral in the capital Kirkwall, attractively built of red sandstone from Mainland and yellow sandstone from Eday. Magnus was murdered by his fellow Earl, Haakon, and when Haakon died his heir, Rognvald, built the cathedral in his honour. Magnus’ bones were found recently, having been hidden behind a loose stone in a column near the altar, where they were probably placed for safety during the Reformation. The cathedral also contains a poignant memorial to HMS Royal Oak, sunk in Scapa Flow by a Uboat during the Second World War.

16th-19th Centuries

Some ruins remain from this period, notably the Earl’s Palace at Birsay, built by Earl Robert Stewart, son of Patrick, the illegitimate half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots. Patrick built the Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall, across the road from the cathedral. This was an impressive building, rather resembling a French chateau. Using forced labour for these buildings, it is not surprising that the Stewarts managed to alienate the local peasants, but they got on the wrong side of the gentry too, so were finally sent to Edinburgh to be executed for treason.
Noltland Castle on Westray was built by Earl Balfour, another shady character. He was implicated in Darnley’s murder and various other nefarious deeds before being exiled to Sweden, where he was executed after being involved in a plot to kill the King (plus ca change). Impressive as they are, these ruins were not a patch on the Neolithic remains.
Skaill House was worth a visit. Home of the laird who discovered Skara Brae, it is full of interesting memorabilia of the family and the history of the Orkneys.

20th Century

During the two world wars the huge natural harbour of Scapa Flow was the main base for the British Fleet and the place where the Germans scuttled their Grand Fleet in 1920.
Old ships (blockships) were sunk across entrances to the harbour for protection but after the sinking of HMS Royal Oak by a Uboat, with huge loss of life, Churchill Barriers were built across 4 possible entrances between the eastern islands. These remain as causeways connecting the islands to Mainland and the lives of the islanders have become much easier as a result.
Most of the construction was carried out by Italian prisoners of war, who built themselves the beautiful Italian Chapel from 2 Nissen Huts. The lovely painting above the altar was taken from a Renaissance postcard given to a prisoner, Domenico Chiocchetti, by his mother as he set off to war. This peaceful place is a testament to what faith can achieve in times of adversity.
The Western entrance to Scapa Flow is protected by the Ness Battery, an ugly if functional fortification. Inside one of the Nissen huts is another wartime artwork of a picture postcard English village, complete with thatched cottages, pub, church, windmill and gypsy encampment. The work was signed by A.R.Woods, who, after exhaustive research, has been traced to Gravesend.
From the Battery it was a lovely walk around the coast, passing basking seals on the way to the pretty town of Stromness. Here we were lucky to find the Orkney Folk Festival in full flow. In the Hudson Lounge of the Royal Hotel we enjoyed lunch to the music of a group from Prince Edward Island in Canada. Stromness had been the base of the Hudson Bay Company. Outside in the square we listened to a Pipe Band before visiting the excellent Stromness Museum, which held many Neolithic artefacts as well as fascinating displays about Arctic expeditions.


It is impossible to thank Caroline Wickham-Jones enough for organising our holiday. We were taken around by minibus, enjoying the beautiful, if stark, countryside, and on two ferry trips, to Rousay and Westray. Caroline organised an excellent lunch each day, most memorably at the Pier Restaurant on Rousay, where we were treated to the most amazing buffet including great piles of crab and salmon and much else besides.
It was a real and much-appreciated privilege to be shown the Orkneys by such an interesting, expert guide, a University Lecturer who has written books on the History and Monuments of The Orkneys. She enabled us to visit some sites not open to the public as well as so many that are. Finally thanks to Delian, who conceived the idea and made the trip possible through her family links to Caroline.