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Issue 96 - An Unfolding Saga

Scotland Magazine Issue 96
December 2017


This article is 13 months old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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An Unfolding Saga

John Hannavy explores the treasures of Orkney’s Mainland

As we drove the car on to Northlink’s MV Hamnavoe at Scrabster, a journey of discovery lay ahead of us - exploring the rich heritage of the Orkney Islands. The friends who were joining us on our Orcadian odyssey chose to take the shorter crossing on Pentland Ferries’ high-speed catamaran MV Pentalina.

Our journey took us north past the famous Old Man of Hoy and in to the sheltered little port of Stromness, which was known as Hamnavoe to the Norse settlers 1000 years ago (See: pp.46- 49). The village stands at the north-west entrance to one of the world’s largest natural harbours: Scapa Flow.

On our list of ‘must visit’ locations, the most recent monument to man’s presence on the islands dates back less than 75 years, while the oldest is more than 5,000 years old. Over the years in between, Orkney has always been at the centre of human endeavour.

Oil is now at the heart of activity in Scapa Flow, while 70 years ago it was the home base of the British Atlantic Fleet. Several of the eastern entrances to the bay were closed off after a German U-Boat penetrated the defences in May 1939 and sank the Revenge-class battleship HMS Royal Oak, with catastrophic loss of life. (See: Scotland Magazine #89)

In order to prevent this from happening again, the structures now known as the Churchill Barriers were created. Built of huge concrete blocks, these barriers were erected by Italian prisoners of war that were being held at Camp 60 on the tiny island of Lamb Holm. After their completion, causeways were laid across the tops of the barriers that now permanently link Orkney’s principal island, known as Mainland, with the four islands immediately to its south: Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay.

At the request of the prisoners, two Nissen Huts were made available to them for use as a church. However, the Commandant at Camp 60 could never have imagined what these men would do with those huts. Although still obviously Nissen Huts from the outside, the building became a mini cathedral inside thanks to the genius of one of the prisoners, the artist Domenico Chiocchetti. After the war ended, Chiocchetti continued to visit Lamb Holm to maintain his church and it stands today as a moving memorial to him and his fellow prisoners. It is also a remarkable testament to the humanitarian manner in which Britain treated its POWs and stands in sharp contrast to the horrors that were inflicted on British POWs abroad.

But this is recent history. Five millennia before, Orkney wasn’t (as it is considered by many today) a remote northern outpost but a thriving cultural centre of a flourishing Neolithic society. Recent excavations on the Orkney Islands are leading archaeologists to believe that British civilisation probably started in Orkney and migrated south. Stonehenge might have been the outpost, not Orkney!

To the Norsemen who colonised the islands more than 1250 years ago, the largest island (known today as Mainland, a corruption of Meginland) was known as Hrossay - horse island - because of its rich farmlands. Four millennia before them, no one knows what the early settlers called the place but, as the remains of their civilization continue to be unearthed, the sophistication of their existence is undeniable.

The word ‘unique’ is bandied about rather too much these days, but Orkney truly is unique. Nowhere else in Europe are there such rich remains of Neolithic man.

While some of the sites have been known for centuries, the unfolding saga of Neolithic Orkney keeps throwing up amazing new discoveries. In 1999, the importance of this heartland of early civilization was recognised as Scotland’s third UNESCO World Heritage Site and the citation describes major sites on Mainland as the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’, underlining their enormous importance.

The spectacular remains of the Neolithic village of Skara Brae have been celebrated - and have increasingly been a magnet for tourists - since they were unearthed by a storm more than 160 years ago. The site we now know as Skara Brae was probably first settled about 3200BC, as an earlier village lies partly below the foundations of what is visible today. Some of that village can be seen, but the site is dominated by houses built around 2900BC. To put that date into context, both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid at Giza were built about 400 years later.

By the time of the 1850 storm, much of Skara Brae had probably already been washed into the sea by the constant erosion of the coast and nobody really knows how extensive the site may once have been. Since it was discovered, conservationists have been fighting a constant battle against the elements to preserve what remains. When the site’s importance was first recognised, the landscape along the coastline would already have been unrecognisable to the Neolithic builders and farmers who first colonised the area. That constant erosion from Atlantic storms has completely washed away the acres of farmland that would originally have separated the settlement from the sea. Today, the shoreline of the Bay of Skaill comes right up to the village. To the horror of conservationists, almost a century ago, in 1920, another great storm completely washed away another of the houses, which was known to early archaeologists as House 3, just as work was begun to build a protective sea wall along the shore side of the settlement. Today, stronger sea walls provide a barrier, but nobody really knows how long the sea can be held at bay.

These days, more than 100,000 visitors a year visit Skara Brae - a tenfold increase since my first visit back in 1972 - thanks to easier access to the islands by ferry and regular visits to Kirkwall by huge cruise ships. The impact of such an enormous footfall means that Historic Environment Scotland now has to deal with erosion from the sea on one side of the site and visitors on the other.

A recent addition to the Skara Brae experience has been the creation of a fullscale replica of House 7 and all its contents, giving the visitor a real sense of what life inside these dwellings would have been like. To protect it from further weather damage, the real House 7 has been covered over and hidden from view.

Skara Brae dates from long before written records, so nobody really knows if the villagers were farmers or fishermen, but their surviving houses show considerable building skills and suggest that their social structure was well developed. It would be wrong to assume that Skara Brae was unique and it is highly likely that there are other similar villages still awaiting discovery. Certainly, the major ceremonial sites that still survive on the islands would have required a considerable number of people to construct them and they must have lived somewhere locally. The scale and sophistication of the Ring of Brodgar, for example, suggests it was built to serve the ceremonial or religious needs of a significant local population.

The massive site on the Ness of Brodgar, currently the focus of a huge archaeological investigation, is located between Brodgar’s great stone circle to the northwest and the even older Stones of Stenness - the remains of another henge - to the southeast. The Ness of Brodgar is a narrow isthmus of land lying between the Loch of Harray to the north and the Loch of Stenness to the south. Discovered only 30 years ago, just to the northeast of the Stones of Stenness, the ancient Barnhouse village may have once housed the men who built many of those monuments, or serviced the ceremonial sites. Some of the remaining structures at Barnhouse have been dated to 3200BC and one of the houses is structurally very similar to houses at Skara Brae.

Obviously, the current focus of attention is the developing story of the vast site on the Ness of Brodgar, a site that has been systematically investigated over the past 14 years by the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands, under the directorship of Nick Card.

The site pre-dates the nearby Ring of Brodgar. It also seems to have served an important communal and ceremonial purpose. Evidence is mounting that suggests the site was occupied as far back as the Mesolithic period 7000 years ago, although the earliest buildings so far excavated are a mere 5,000 years old. Nick Card and his team believe that there are earlier structures, yet to be excavated, that will stretch the date of the settlement back a further 500 years.

The site is open only in July and August each year before being covered over to protect it from the extremes of Orkney’s weather. Nevertheless, new discoveries have been made every day during this year’s digging season. One of the most important was evidence that strongly suggests the entire site was once surrounded by a substantial wall.

As part of their determined policy of sharing discoveries and giving the public as much access to the site as possible, there are daily guided tours during the digging season and a really informative daily blog is posted on the Ness of Brodgar Trust’s website ( The story of the site’s history, rediscovery, and excavation is also chronicled in an excellent booklet, The Ness of Brodgar: Digging Deeper, which is available at the site when digging is in progress or by post from the Trust’s website. The proceeds from the sales of the booklet go towards funding the ongoing excavations.

Not far from the Ness is the huge 5,000-yearold chambered tomb of Maes Howe, which is acclaimed as the finest of its kind in north-west Europe. This massive tomb and its covering mound represent a monumental and complex building achievement. It must have involved a significant workforce over many years and survives today in remarkable condition. The guided tour is an Orkney treat not to be missed. There are other accessible tombs - at Cuween Hill, Wideford Hill, and the Tomb of the Eagles, at the southern tip of South Ronaldsay - but Maes Howe is the grandest and by far the most spectacular.

Most of the tombs require some athleticism to get into, through low-roofed tunnels, but are well worth the effort. At Maes Howe, bending almost double while entering through a 15-metre-long tunnel is required, while lying on one’s back on a small fourwheeled trolley and pulling on an overhead rope is the easiest way of getting in to the Tomb of the Eagles. At Cuween Hill it’s a hands and knees job, while access at Wideford Hill is down a ladder through the roof. The interior of Maes Howe has been fitted with electric lights but torches are made available at the others. One of the highlights at the Tomb of the Eagles is the opportunity to handle Neolithic objects, recovered from the tomb itself, in the adjacent visitor centre.

Fast forward about 3000 years and we reach the period of the broch builders. The remains of the Iron Age Broch of Gurness, a fortified tower with surrounding dwellings, stands next to the shore on the east coast of Mainland.

It is surrounded by a complex ditch system, part of which dates back to about 200BC. Brochs were built all over the north and west of Scotland over a period of 500 or 600 years, and Gurness is a particularly interesting survivor that is set in a stunning location. Across Eynhallow South from Gurness, on the island of Rousay, Midhowe Broch is equally impressive but involves a half hour boat trip from Tingwall (there are usually six sailings a day) and a fair walk.

On Birsay, a tidal island off the northwest tip of Mainland, lies one of the islands’ most spectacular archaeological sites. The Brough of Birsay has been occupied at least since Pictish settlers arrived there in the 7th Century and what can be seen today are the remains of that village, alongside the ruins of a 12th-Century church and village that is believed to have been built by the Vikings. The location is stunning and well worth the walk across causeway and rocks at low tide. But be warned - check tide times before setting off.

Get the timing wrong and you run the risk of being stranded on the island for several hours. There are, however, many worse places to be stranded on a beautiful summer day, with the ruins to explore and plenty of puffins to be seen by those willing to walk across the island.

In Birsay village on Mainland, looking over towards the island, stands the shell of the Bishop’s Palace, which was built in the 16th Century by Robert Stewart, son of the Scottish King James V.

Our base in Orkney was a rented house in the City and Royal Burgh of Kirkwall.

Kingston Self Catering’s accommodation ( is right in the heart of the island’s capital, so ideally suited for visiting the city’s own architectural treasures. There is also a good selection of places to eat in the area. Worth a special mention are the excellent fish and chips to be had opposite the harbour in the St. Ola Hotel - great local beer as well, by the way - and good Italian food at Lucano, which is just a short walk from the waterfront.

Work started on St Magnus Cathedral, which is right in the heart of Kirkwall, in 1137. The building evolved over the following three and a half centuries and by the late 15th Century it would have looked pretty much as it does today - except for the spire, which is the third to sit atop the crossing tower. The 15th- Century spire was destroyed by lightning in the late 17th Century and the present pyramid spire is an early 20th-Century addition.

The Gothic west front of the building dates from the enlargement of the cathedral in the 13th and 14th Centuries. However, inside the nave remains pure 12th Century Romanesque, with tall cylindrical columns. Back in 1972, the minister of the cathedral was a family friend, the Reverend Bill Cant (always referred to as Billy in our family) and under his guidance my late father and I got to explore every nook and cranny of the building, even up into the roof timbers. His enthusiasm for the beautiful cathedral did much to make the rest of the world more aware of Kirkwall’s most treasured building. Back in those days, taking pictures on film in the gloom of the rafters was not an option. How I would have loved to do the same tour this time with a modern digital camera. Instead, I found great picture opportunities from the top of the tower of the Bishop’s Palace, due south across the road.

The Bishop’s Palace was largely built around the same time as the early cathedral, in the mid-12th Century, and must have provided a very luxurious residence for the bishop. Quite extensive remains from that period still stand. The round tower I climbed with my camera, however, dates from the 1550s and was built by Bishop Robert Reid, the last pre-Reformation Bishop of Kirkwall.

Just across Watergate from the Bishop’s Palace stand the very extensive remains of the Earl’s Palace, built by Earl Patrick Stewart in the early 17th Century. When all three buildings were complete - Palace, Bishop’s Palace and Cathedral - this corner of Kirkwall must have looked magnificent, as it is still very impressive today.

That’s a lot to have packed into a week, including the obligatory visit to one of Orkney’s distilleries, but, believe me, there was so much more left for us to see, especially on the other islands in the group, that we are already talking about a return visit.

Many of the sites described on these pages are in the care of Historic Environment Scotland and are open daily. The more remote tombs have free access and superbly illustrated guidebooks are available at all the major sites.

The highlight of the trip for us was, undoubtedly, the captivating tour of the Ness of Brodgar with Nick Card, but thanks also to everyone else who added to the stories we came away with. The Orkney Islands truly are a ‘must visit’ destination for anyone interested in Europe’s earliest human history. 


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