We stayed in Orkney for 13 days in July/August 2017, with a day to travel there and a day to return, staying in a cottage in Kirkwall, the main town.
We saw the sights:
- Mesolithic implements in museums representing the lives of the early nomads some 7,000 years ago;
- Neolithic tombs (chambered cairns), villages and farmsteads, as well as standing stones set up around 5,000 and 4,500 years ago;
- Iron age brochs;
- a Viking farm occupied until the 19th century, and a house built on a Viking graveyard;
- ruins of Norse churches and villages (12th century);
- the Romanesque Cathedral built in the 12th century by the masons who built our own Durham Cathedral;
- ruins of palaces built in the 12th, 16th and 17th centuries;
- a gentleman’s house begun in 1620 and extended and developed over the centuries;
- memorials to the importance of the port of Stromness for the Hudson Bay Company and the explorers and travellers who came from Stromness;
- evidence of the important role played by Orkney in two 20th century World Wars – Kitchener was drowned off the coast of Orkney. In the Second World War, the Royal Oak was sunk by a German submarine, which led Churchill to insist on barriers to be built between the southern islands by Italian Prisoners of War, who also built a chapel from two Nissan huts, which is still maintained and cherished;
- memorials recording great literary creativity, to George Mackay Brown, Erick Linklater, Edwin Muir, Robert Rendall;
- the Piers Arts Centre of world renown, with art by some of the 20th Century greats, including local Orkney artists.
I came away with a sense of the layers of human history, of generations that occupied or made use of or developed further the land, the structures and the culture of previous generations. Maes Howe, a Neolithic burial tomb, was used as a shelter from harsh weather by Vikings who left graffiti on the walls. There was also the conscious abandonment of culture, when Neolithic cairns were filled in with earth when they went out of use. Even then, the evidence suggests that the sites were still respected by the peoples who came after. This sense of continuity may be an obvious thing to note, but I have never before felt that sense of continuity going back for so many thousands of years.
I was also impressed at how able and intelligent and creative were the people of the stone age with such meagre resources – so unlike the caricature. The people who dragged huge stones to Brodgar from different corners of the Orkney Islands were able to create a place of awe and wonder, a place that links earth and sea and sky. They designed Maes Howe to catch the light of the midwinter solstice, a moment when light bursts into the darkness.
The archaeologist who showed us round the excavation at the Ness of Brodgar and the Ranger who introduced us to the Ring of Brodgar were clear: in the end, nobody really understands what is going here. Why did the people of the stone age bury the remains of their ancestors in chambered cairns? How did these burials take place? Were they of corpses or excarnated skeletons? And then why were some of them cremated remains? Why were rings of great stones erected? Why were tombs always on the outside of the circles and not within? What held the communities together? There are so many questions. In the absence of answers, there is a tendency for people to project their own norms onto the patterns of stones and artefacts carefully brushed from the ground. (I may have been doing this myself in the last paragraph!) When we visited Skara Brae, we listened in to some of the guides leading groups around the site. A visitor asked one man if the residents of Skara Brae were peaceful or warlike. He said that in the 1960s hippy culture archaeology, the archaeologists had projected their own love and peace ethics onto the community and declared them a peace-loving people, but actually there was evidence that it was not quite like that. A few moments later, we heard another guide telling her group that Skara Brae hosted a non-violent community.
It is inevitable that we look at such amazing structures and wonder about the people who made them, lived in them and used them. We bring our own world-view, our own hopes and expectations. We are trying to make sense of what we see in the landscape, and what we feel in our own interior landscapes. We look at the world around us and try to make some sort of sense for our own lives. And that’s fine. We listen to the scholars and experts and weigh up what they tell us. And that feeds into our own assessment of the big questions that humankind has pondered from the beginning.
For me, it was a privilege to see these marvels. I was in the presence of the holy in a way I could not articulate. I was looking at the way ancient peoples had tried to make sense of the world and found it wonderful. But then, I’m projecting, aren’t I?