'Where weird and grim the standing stones, in a circle there they stand.'
August 13, 2018
I am leaning on the boat's railing, watching the ferry cut through a strip of wild water. Apparently there is a fault line under here, which causes the choppy waves. It can also be good for lobster fishing, if fishermen dare to come out and set their traps in these treacherous waters.
The air is fresh: cool, sharp. My daydreaming is cut short as a member of crew excuses himself and quickly slides a bolt into place, followed by setting a locking device in place. I must look concerned, as he apologises and explains that he ‘forgot’ to lock it.
‘But I could have fallen in,’ I say as he sheepishly walks away.
Thank goodness I’m not on an aeroplane!
The snappy breeze carries a fishy, salty aroma into my nostrils. I feel a sense of freedom as the wind catches my hair, like long skinny fingers scratching straight lines across my scalp. I expect to hear the screech of seagulls on the breeze, but today they are silent. Perhaps the roiling sea has frightened them away. Ahead of me are little patches of brown and green floating on the sea.
Along the ridge of the closest one, I can see tiny peaks along the top of the ridge. I point the camera and zoom in, and realise they are houses. I wonder why anyone would build a house in the windiest, coldest location of this far-north island.
We clear the choppy section and now the North Sea is calm and flat like a huge piece of glass. After a forty-minute journey, we arrive at the tiny pier in Burwick on the island of South Ronaldsay and board a bus. Inside the seat pocket is a map and an itinerary.
Today we are visiting the Orkney Islands, but I’m unprepared for the information overload I will be given over the next eight hours. Perhaps I should have done more research!
The sun is shining and the island looks pristine as we pass by farms; a patchwork of yellow and green, divided by hand-built stone walls. Here and there are old stone houses, abandoned and used by livestock for shelter from the prevailing winds and persistent rain. The islands are treeless. As with the northeastern side of mainland Scotland, the glacial action during the last ice age plus the slash-and-burn techniques of the Neolithic farmers (yep, blame the poor old Neolithics who cannot defend themselves), and the constant buffering by wind have all contributed to the denuding of the land. There is evidence in the bogs that the islands were once covered in forests. Despite the lack of trees, the land is not at all barren and the farms and uncultivated areas have low-growing vegetation that provides colour and coverage for small creatures.
There is, however, a lot of rock, and this is evident as we arrive in Kirkwall, the largest town on the island called Mainland. St Magnus Cathedral dominates the small town with its distinctive red and cream ‘chequerboard’ patterned stonework, which dates from the 12th century. Despite many additions and changes over the centuries, the cathedral remains a beautiful landmark. The church is the final resting place of John Rae, the Arctic explorer who is credited for finding a way through the Northwest Passage in Canada, after the disappearance of the Franklin expedition in 1848.
I am a little puzzled to see huge planks of wood, bolted across the doors and windows of many homes in the town. Apparently, these are placed there to prevent damage done by the annual games of Ba, which is a type of rugby match played each Christmas and New Year’s Day.
I suppose boys will be boys, but I was almost not surprised to hear that the girl's version of the game had to be stopped due to its violent nature.
I have never seen an animal, which is a cross between a sheep and a pig. And I don’t today! The strange curly-woolly sheep-pigs are a weird breed from Germany, but somehow look quite at home and almost cuddly and warm here in the Orkney islands.
Stromness is the second largest town in the Orkneys. It is situated just a short way from Kirkwall, but its natural harbour has been an important link to the expeditions to the far north and the Arctic regions. The Hudson’s Bay Company of Canada had a store in Stromness, from where fur trappers, explorers, and others were dispatched.
Although there is no firm evidence, I like to think that my ancestor, Henry Kelsey departed from Stromness on one of his many voyages to Canada. He is attributed with having an important role in establishing the Hudson’s Bay Company. More importantly, he was a prominent explorer, and is even mentioned in the Stan Rogers song, Northwest Passage.
Three centuries thereafter, I take passage overland
In the footsteps of brave Kelso, [sic] where his "sea of flowers" began
Watching cities rise before me, then behind me sink again
This tardiest explorer, driving hard across the plain.
We quickly find the statue and monument to John Rae overlooking the harbour. His eyes look over to his birthplace and family home on the opposite side of the harbour. Unfortunately, someone has placed a roadside ‘witches hat’ on his head probably as a joke or Buck’s party stunt. A young man offers to remove it for me, climbing on the memorial to do so. I am not leaving here without a photo of John Rae, since this is the reason why we are here today. After my voyage to the Northwest Passage in 2015, and meeting Kevin McGoogan, who wrote the book, Fatal Passage, amongst others, I had been eager to visit Stromness. And so, here we are.
The rest of the day is spent visiting archaeological sites and standing stones. Orkney’s history dates back over 5000 years when Neolithic people settled in the region, building stone houses. The well-preserved Scara Brae is a stone-age village, which was only uncovered during a violent storm in 1850. It shows evidence that the houses were sunk into middens left by other people. The middens served as insulation, thus protecting them from the elements.
When we hear about stone circles, we tend to think of Stonehenge way down south in Wiltshire, England. I am amazed to find that Scotland has many stone circles across the land. Our next stop at the Ring of Brodgar shows an almost intact stone circle. Of the 60 slots in the circle, some 27 are still standing tall. A trench or a ‘henge’ was dug around the circle. For a stone to be raised in a standing position, one third of its height has to be under the ground. Given that there is approximately one metre of topsoil before hitting bedrock, and these stones needed to be placed at least 2 metres below the surface, one wonders how the people of the day dug into the stone. It seems to me that many ancient cultures across the world had willpower and tenacity beyond our wildest imagination.
As I walk up a small incline, I feel the wind pushing me back. This exposed area of the island may be very bleak in the winter, and I’m happy that today is sunny, if not very warm. I wander amongst the ancient stones, touching them lightly as I walk in a clockwise direction.
We visit one more site at Stenness, where more standing stones are located. I do wonder whether the ancient people these were simply showing us how to create large-scale domino races.
Before I arrived here this morning, I had little idea of the history of this small cluster of islands. The Orkney story is so old and so complex that I would need many university degrees in archaeology, geology, and Medieval, maritime, and wartime history to fully understand it all. This one-day tour has my head spinning at a hundred kilometres and hour, and we haven’t finished yet.
We skirt the large body of water called Scapa Flow during most of the day. It is mired in First and Second World War history and it is fascinating. The causeways that we are using today, which links some of the islands of the archipelago, had been built by the British military as this was a chief Naval port during both World Wars. There are intriguing stories of Churchill Barriers, German torpedo attacks, the scuttling of an entire naval fleet, and the death of Lord Kitchener, but I’m not going into that part of the history here.
We arrive back in Kirkwall for a short break. As we walk toward the Cathedral, there is much excitement in the street, which had been cordoned off. A procession of horses appear; the lead rider holding a large flag. They approach the front of the cathedral, where the mayor and other officials are standing. The flag bearer, still astride her horse, approaches the mayor, who hands a large scroll over to the rider. This procession and ceremony dates back centuries, when Kirkwall was a Burgh, giving permission to reassert people of Kirkwall their rights of Admiralty and Maritime jurisdiction. Though short, it was good for us that our visit coincided with this annual event.
We have just one last visit to make before boarding our ferry. It relates back to the Second World War, when the Italian prisoners-of-war were living on the islands. They asked for a place where they could pray together and were given two Nissan Huts, which they transformed using whatever materials they had at hand; paint and concrete, into a chapel. Most of the interior decoration was done by Domenico Chiocchetti. He painted the sanctuary end of the chapel and fellow-prisoners decorated the entire interior. They created a facade out of concrete, concealing the shape of the hut and making the building look like a church. The light holders were made out of corned beef tins. The baptismal font was made from the inside of a car exhaust covered in a layer of concrete. The imagination and ingenuity of people with few resources is amazing, as is the painting of the Madonna and baby holding an olive branch behind the altar. This last stop before getting onto the ferry for the forty-minute ride back to John O’Groats, I believe, was one of the most poignant sites we visited today. The people value and respect the chapel and keep it well-maintained as they do with other artefacts on the islands.
The day may have been long and somewhat exhausting, but I thoroughly enjoyed visiting this wondrous place, with more history and geography than a person could possibly grasp in a short eight-hour period. I would love to return and stay for a week.
Title Quote: Standing Stones. Traditional lyrics collected by Peter Kennedy
Accommodation: The Anchorage B & B East End, John O'Groats KW1 4YS, UK