We stayed on Orkney for the next 3 days. There was so much to see!
“Beyond Britannia in the endless ocean…” is how a fifth century scribe wrote of Orkney. The islands are mysterious, remote, and mostly left untouched from modern development.
You feel as though you’re on the edge of the world in Orkney. Closer to Norway than to London, Orkney is only 50 miles south of Greenland, and begins where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. (Be prepared for a rough ferry crossing at the point where the two waters meet. Go above decks and chew your ginger gum.)
This fiercely independent “nation state” has a personality that is charmingly Orcadian. They speak their own version of the Norse dialect, and, since they were settled by the Norse, the villages have a Scandinavian flavor that mixes with a Scottish “topping.” The landscape is treeless, elemental, sea-locked, and deeply vibrational.
Even the light is different. We noticed that the satellite dishes at all the buildings were nearly horizontal because of our far northern location, and there was no darkness until nearly midnight, and a lot of the residents fly the Norwegian flag. After all, Orkney only became part of Scotland by accident. It was pawned to Scotland through a royal marriage agreement, along with Shetland.
The relic sites at Orkney date from the late Stone Age. There are so many that we must assume there was a prosperous and advanced civilization on the islands.
We visited Maes How for an insight into prehistoric living. This chambered stone tomb is built so that the winter solstice sun shines all the way into the center of its gathering room.
From there we went to the Stones of Stenness, part of a megalithic walkway from Maes Howe to the Ring of Brodgar, located on a narrow isthmus between saltwater and freshwater lochs.
I’ll come back to Ness of Brodgar, but first, here’s a picture of Skara Brae, a superbly preserved Neolithic hut settlement.
Now, there is hope we will learn more in the near future from the excavations currently taking place at the Ness of Brodgar.
It’s a peninsula between two lochs linking the great stone circles of Brodgar and Stenness. The site has been under intense excavation since 2004, revealing what is believed to be a grand temple at the heart of this monumental Neolithic complex. The warren of interconnected stone buildings remains unique in Europe in both size and construction.
What did people do here 5,000 years ago?
Those studying the site estimate the complex was in use for a thousand years. They are saying it seems Ness was the ‘center of the universe’ for all of Orkney and beyond, it seems, a major ceremonial and ritual center to serve the entire Neolithic population of the Northern Isles. With a salty sea loch to the right, a freshwater loch to the left, and standing stones in front of and behind, I can perfectly imagine why in 3,300 BC people might have flocked to this unique spot—this vast complex of building that was used for 1,000 years.
Excavation season for the site is only eight weeks, July and August. Why? Funding, according to Nick Card, the dig director for the Archaeology Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands. It costs $3,100 a day to run the site. Some funding is local, and a bit more from Historic Scotland, but the bulk of the money comes from public donations and charities, including the American Friends of Ness of Brodgar.
They welcome visitors during dig months, and they accept amateur volunteers. In fact, Paul and I are discussing the possibility of applying to join the dig in future years. We figure it would be a way to contribute to unraveling the mysteries of the world. Wow!
You can find out more about dig-in-progress at www.orkneyjar.com.