21-22 August, Northern Scotland, Orkney Islands Sacred Sites
Jo had her boyfriend find us a bed and breakfast. He found one and Jo speculated if it was in someone’s home. She was right. We turned up at a man’s home. There was a child running around. At first I wondered, then I thought we’ll at least we are supporting a family, I prefer that to a commercial venture. We met the guy running the place and the house overlooked a paddock full of cows.
We went upstairs and it was a twin. Both of us got onto WiFi and started checking emails etc. Jo tried to find out about trains back from Inverness for me as she was planning to visit a castle in the area of Skye. I was fine with that, just mindful I have to back in Edinburgh preferably the night before as I don’t want to miss the flight. The twin room was 45 pounds for two which is very expensive. We checked out and headed to the sacred sites. The Orkneys is the only place in northern Europe you can visit 5,000 year old villages alongside ritual and burial monuments created by their inhabitants. It is World heritage listed Sites. The Neolithic and early Bronze Age monuments date from 5,100 to 3,500 years. They include Maeshowe chambered tomb and Barnhouse Stone, Stones of Stennes stone circle and henge and Watchstone, the ring of Brodgar stone circle henge and adjacent standing stone and burial mounds and Skara Brae village. The first people arrived 8,500 years ago they were hunter-gathers, living off seasonally available plants, hunting and fishing. Farming techniques arrived 5,500 years ago. The landscape is largely treeless and would have been populated by farms and villages interspersed with burial and ceremonial places. The sites are located in low lying land around lochs surrounded by hills. These societies were seen as very sophisticated
MAESHOWE – Burial Mound
First stop was Maeshowe, this is considered the finest chambered tomb in north-west Europe. It consists of a grassy mound that sits on a large circular platform surrounded by a ditch and beyond this a bank. The mound contains a long stone passage – tombs like Maeshowe are often called passage raves leading to stone-lined chamber with side cells. Howe derives from the Old Norse word for a hill, but the origin of Maes is less clear.
Maeshowe is dated to around 5,000 years ago because of its form and relationship to better-dated tombs and settlements. Many hands carried stones and clay to build the mound and excavate the ditch, all without metal tools or powered machinery. The mystery is in the construction as it is a major enterprise. The Neolithic building skills were far more advanced then today and the 5,000 year old construction was water proof. There were also rune engravings in the walls. The fascinating part was to see huge stones shifted into place to form the tunnel in and the stacking of the stones in a jiggered fashion. Smaller stones were shunted to provide stability. There was no fillings to fix the stones its stability was in how they were stacked.
The mound is 35m across x 7m high. The central chamber is encased by a well built corbelled wall that grades in height towards the roof. Beyond this wall are two low, encircling stone retaining walls. A thick layer of clay and small stones, sealed by clay skin covered with green turf., seals the whole. It was a water tight structure.
Inside the tomb it is 4.7m across x 4.5 m high. Daylight comes from the 10m long entrance passage. Apparently Norse and later on, Victorians broke into the mound taking off the roof. The owner of Maeshow Mr Balfour built a roof over it in 860. Sohrtly after concrete slab was added. This architecture was soon to crack and this highlights that modern building techniques were unable to match the Neolithic expertise. It is believed the stones that line the passage were originally standing stones. These standing stones are significant but I am still to discover what they mean. I am also very curious about the mounds often seen in the distance near these sights.
There were burials at Maeshowe as they found fragments of human skulls and some horse bones. Bones were brought to the tombs, they buried their dead then dug them up after the flesh and gone. There would be some ceremonial worshipping of the ancestors in these practices. I am still learning what these meant. Slowly I am gaining an understanding that life and death were seen as cycles and death was not the horror event we perceive today. Death was perceived more naturally I perceive.
An interesting fact about Maeshowe and other monolithic structures is the midsummer and mid winter solstice. It appears that the sun lights up the chamber on the 21st December. The sun’s rays align with the standing stones, the Barnhouse Stone, standing 800m SSW of Maeshowe. This is fascinating. I am currently in Ireland and just visited New Grange, this depicted the same event. I will describe that when I write it up. There were definitely deep comprehension of the movements of stars, the sun and the moon. As they were agrarian these coordinates features as part of their day to day lives. They were sophisticated builders and had their own system of cosmology and mysticism.
When I was on the tour I filmed the tour guide speaking of the history of Maeshowe, she mentioned UFO’s. She doubted the validity of the claims but said many people came here with these viewpoints. I told her I don’t laugh at these speculations but would like to know more about the stories. Later she gave me a website which I will investigate, it is of a man who comes regularly who is looking into the extraterrestrial connection. I see links between ET’s and the rituals and mystical events these people appear involved in. I would like to know more, I am simply following a gut feeling.
Inside the tomb I saw the runes carved in and was struck by the solid building practices. They also carved a dragon, seal and snake onto the walls. It is like a great jigsaw and people are guessing. The tour guide said that anything can be proven wrong as they are speculating, so the UFO phenomena is in the same vague space. My understanding is that there is not much known unequivocally about these sites. I definitely felt moved to be there.
A brief overview of the runes. These angular letters on the walls are part of the runic alphabet developed by Germanic peoples from the 2nd century AD. They are derived from the roman alphabet. They are used for inscriptions, graffiti, everyday messages and magical formulae. The later I am increasingly interested in and just a quick aside when you look at the stones in Ireland they have symbolic carvings, I gained the impression they were catalyzing symbols. Just a feeling I had but it leads me to consider this further. Back to the runes, the alphabet used by the 12th century Norse consisted of 16 letters fupork – hnias – tbmlR (p, thorn, is written out as th). If the Norse wanted to be clever or tease their readers they wrote in cryptic twig runes. Makes me think of cryptic crosswords, we all like a good challenge. The Norse inscriptions on three sides of the tomb contain references to treasure. There is some speculation whether pagan Vikings reused the tomb for burials. Much of the speculation comes from radiocarbon dating peat the test dated back to the 9th century, it is a bit vague as it looks at the peat and not the works to the bank. So there is much mystery that remains, an incomplete history.
THE STONES OF STENNESS – Standing stones
The surviving standing stones, stumps and concrete markers outline an oval that was around 30m in diameter. Just inside the original entrance to the henge is a low arrangement of stones. Early accounts report a very large broad stone that lay towards the centre of the circle, in 1821 novel the Pirate, Sir Walter Scott encouraged the idea that the early Orcadians used it as an alter for human sacrifice. The focus of the interior of the Stones of Stennes is a large still visible hearth, there was a special symbolism attached to this hearth. The name Stennes comes from Old Norse Stein-nes meaning ‘stone promontory’. In Neolithic times there would have been more stones then seen today. Groups of standing stones encouraged people to walk in certain directions, between ceremonials sties and settlements. The watchstone is the sole remaining sentinel that stands on the Stenness side. The watchstone is 5.6m high, it is possible that this stone (partner stone) and the watchstone once marked the approach to the Ness of Brodgar.
The Ness of Brodgar is a new excavation not far from Stenness. Archeologists have discovered prehistoric domestic and ceremonial structures, and possible chambered tombs. Jo and I actually met an American archeologist at Skara Brae who told us it was the most sacred site on the island. He said if you want to pick up energy, that is the place to go. So we went along and I felt the energy come up through my left foot. It was a small dig but strange how you feel it is more than it seems. This guy loved digging he said, it was a great project.
THE RING OF BRODGAR
This was the reason I came to the Orkney’s. I felt strongly to see ths site. It is a near perfect circle of 36 out of up to 60 original stones. The Ring of Brodgar is one of the largest of all Neolithic henges measuring 130m in diameter including its ditch and two causeways. The ring of stones itself is 104m in diameter. The best guess about this site is that early Orcadians constructed this henge between 4,500 and 4000 years ago. It is slightly later than the Stone of Stenness, which is the earliest henge in the British Isles. Like Stenness the Ring of Brodgar fulfilled a social and ceremonial function, probably associated with the commemoration of the dead.
Around the Ring of Brodgar there are at least 13 prehistoric burial mounds and stone settings. The most recent date to 3,500 earliest may pre-date the Ring. Their number, scale and diversity tell that people regarded the area as important for a long time. Besides the mounds, at least nine small mounds lie to the south of the Ring. The Comet Stone is 1.75m high and lies to the SE of the Ring. There is a massive mound measuring 40m x 6m comparable to Maeshowe may well enclose another chamber. How these all link is not clear in the literature I have looked at and it seems little is known about how these sites were used and how they connected. I am very curious about it.
There is another Ring of Bookan, a massive ditch 13m wide x 2m deep. I didn’t get a chance to go up and see this one as time was ticking away.
SKARA BRAE VILLAGE
Jo and I visited Skara Brae Village. I was expecting a fully functioning village with buildings but instead it was more of an excavation that showed how they lived and carved out their homes. They often had little fireplaces in the centre, you can imagine how life must have been and the closeness of family groups. They were not huddled around a television. The farming settlement was continuously inhabited for around 600 years, from approximately 3100 BC to 2500 BC. The village survived because its construction is largely subterranean and because sand sealed it shortly after its abandonment. It was built next to a small inland loch. The village was buried underneath sand dunes after the land between it and the sea disappeared. The burial of the site was a gradual process.
The community worked and lived closely together. The houses had a cross shaped arrangement, those of the later phase are slightly larger and built into midden which provided more shelter and made construction easier. The beds in the second phase project from the walls instead of being built into them.
Jo and I walked around the small village and I was thinking about ideas for how I will live sustainably. What I have learned so far is many places work on the fire as the centre. Some buildings are created from stone and circular with grasses for roof and wooden branches forming the framework to the building. Mud is a good insulator and if one is able to dig into the earth then carving out shelves and beds may be a practical way to design the house. The burial tombs are also excellent places to live as they are permanent structures and well insulated and protected from external climatic changes. So I am learning a little from prehistoric man/woman.
We left there and headed past Kirwall to stay in the village close to the ferry terminal. It was very cold and around 9pm when we got there. I was really cold and Jo ended up finding a place and a dinner. We stopped over night there and caught the ferry at 8pm. I didn’t get much sleep as Jo was coughing, so I just accepted that and went with the flow. We got back to Inverness, I was feeling extremely tired. Made a quick decision and said my goodbyes to Jo with a big hug, then got on the train.
I jumped on the train and met a lovely old Scottish guy in his 80’s. He spoke to me half of the trip. He told me stories, his family, working as an engineer and his grandchildren. I told him about my work in peace and my clowning. Half way in the trip we stopped at Perth station and changed trains. I got on and tried to rest as I was exhausted. I enjoyed listening to the old fella but I found it hard to continuously listen. I had to get some energy to find a place to stay. I rang my AVP contact in Glasgow, she got me a Rotary number but it was the venue they spoke at, and turned out it was a hotel charging 150 pounds a night, way outside my budget.
I arrived at Edinburgh, no idea where I am staying but peaceful about it. I ended up going to the travel centre at the station and got a place for 60 pounds (expensive). I was relieved as Edinburgh has no accommodation during the Fringe festival, so I was very lucky. Spoke to my friend Kayte who I bumped into on the tube in London, I knew she was with the climate camp, she did offer me to stay in her tent but it was very cold. I really didn’t want another poor night sleep, so kept that idea as a back up. I got my internet work done and tried to organize couch surfing for Ireland but had no luck on the accommodation front, my hope would be Rotary. I knew UK, Ireland and US will be tricky as they are expensive, so hopefully my money holds out.
The next day tried to get to see my friend Kayte who is at the Climate Camp protest. She told me the police were checking for bombs and searching everyone going there. They were asking for names and filming people. I find this disturbing in a democracy. Climate is a serious issue and when a large group get together clearly there is concern around it. Always the police protect the interests of the State and when the people get together they always seem to be seen as trouble makers, as they are not in order, yet democracy is about a voice, so many don’t understand what is a true democracy. There were around 600 protesters. I do accept why police watch as they don’t want the group to get out of control, and there was some protesting against the Royal Bank of Scotland to do with their funding. Apparently some cooking oil was thrown there. Perhaps that was related to funding the oil industry, I am not sure, I have to get debriefed from kayte. Notwithstanding, there must be a better way to really have the voice heard without it being seen as somehow anti-establishment. We have to create a culture where people speaking up is a democratic right and not seen as potential terrorism. I find that development concerning.
Anyway, I couldn’t get to see her and have a cuppa tea and instead had to get to the airport.
Dublin here I come.