|WILD AND WINDSWEPT ORCADIAN WONDERS DAY ONE
Orkney is the one place that I had wanted to visit for ages but, for some reason, thought I would never actually get there. Trips to Ireland and the Western Isles had completely blown me away but after 3 failed attempts to get to Orkney (one trip we had planned clashed with a punk festival that Mark wanted to go to, so we put the UK Subs before Skara Brae!) I finally achieved my soul's desire in the most unexpected of ways. In May, Vicky had told me that a group of archaeology students from Glasgow uni were planning a trip in September and did I want to join them? I have spent the last 11 years working in a FE College, and the one thing we CANNOT do is take holidays in September as it is the beginning of the new academic year and incredibly busy. I simmered inwardly, saying how wonderful it would be and how envious I was blah blah blah......then, out of the blue, at the end of July, all my hard work and loyalty was paid off when they made me redundant! The first thing I did after being told (and I am talking a matter of 2 hours here, before I had even sorted out my mortgage!) was book my flight and start planning the itinerary.
So, September came and the reality of the trip started to kick in. I drove up to Glasgow on the Thursday night and stayed over at Vicky's house. There were 9 of us going; 7 students who had met on the Adult Education "Archaeology of Scotland" course (some of whom had gone on to study at degree level, all of who were passionate about the subject), me and Alan Leslie, one of their tutors. It wasn't an official uni trip, Alan just wanted to come along as he had enjoyed teaching the group and had been part of the Barnhouse excavations in the late 80s and wanted an excuse to return. Our flight was at 10am the next morning, so after a rather spiffy Thai takeaway and a couple of bottles of celebratory bubbles, we headed off to bed, certain we wouldn't sleep with the anticipation of the journey ahead.
Our flight from Glasgow was at 10am and we had planned to head straight off in the mini-bus to the Stenness area for our first taste of Neolithic Orkney. However, LoganAir had other plans and our flight was delayed by 2 ½ hours. Frustration set in, as our whole itinerary looked like it was going to be at risk, and we spent the extra 2 ½ hours at the airport working out how much we would get to see that day. We had booked to go to Maes Howe at 3pm, so once we finally landed (having availed ourselves of the complimentary wine, naturally) we jumped in the mini-bus and headed straight out towards Stenness.
Bloody hell, this landscape is stunning. Having been to the Western Isles on a number of occasions, I was expecting more of the same and was surprised at just how lovely Orkney is. Green, undulating fields, with the most enormous skies.....just beautiful. We drove past Maes Howe, on to the Stones of Stenness, past Brodgar and then stopped at Buckan. From here, the view down to Loch Stenness and Loch Harray was just breathtaking and you could see how the sites were placed within the landscape.
However, we didn't have much time as we had to get back to Maes Howe for our appointed time.
I was surprised that we had to book in advance as it was hardly tourist season, but we dutifully turned up at 2.45pm and all got slightly hysterical! This was our first real site and there were 9 rather excitable amateur archaeologists just itching to get inside! The first disappointment was the "no photography" warning. Why do they do this? Is it so you will buy the guidebook at the end, so you can have pictures of the place? Grrr. It always really annoys me (having said that, the Historic Scotland "Maes Howe and the heart of Neolithic Orkney" guide book is rather good!)
Anyhoo, the 9 of us and 3 other visitors dutifully filed in and the first thing that struck me was how small it was! I have seen Maes Howe on TV many times and it always seemed so much bigger. When you see in on The Modern Antiquarian, it looks positively roomy - and Julian Cope isn't exactly small, is he? - but once in there with 12 other people, the place seemed really compact. The guide spent a lot of time talking about the inscriptions and less time about how and why it was built but it was generally an interesting visit. There was some discussion as to whether the internal stones had been part of a stone circle- or possible 4 Poster - and the burial mound built around it at some later date, which was thought-provoking and set us amateur archaeos off on one of our rambling debates (more of which to come later!).
Maes Howe is spectacular and interesting and worthy of more than a 20 minute tour - I just really wish they would let you have some time in these places to really get a feel for them. Lord only knows what it is like in high season when the tourist coaches are pulling in, one after the other but at least we had a fairly small group and no one else queuing to get in behind us.
Following our visit to Maes Howe (and the obligatory stop at the Visitor Centre and gift shop where I bought a Callanish Tea Towel – woohoo!) we were definitely in the mood for more, so we headed back towards the Stones of Stenness.
It was a typical Orkney day in-so-much as the weather changed constantly and the wind was howling. Living where I do, I am used to REALLY windy weather but still found it exhilarating and was just amazed by how big the sky was. The flatness of the landscape and the ferocity of the wind was just fabulous. When we got to the stones, we were giddy with the sheer beauty of it all and ran round like a group of school children at playtime! Again, these are stones I have seen many times on TV and read about, so finally seeing them up close and personal was just amazing. I knew all about how slender some of the stones are; we have all seen pictures where they look like they are made out of balsa wood and are about to break in two, but was I was not aware of was how beautifully patterned the actual stone was. What must this have looked like when it was a complete circle, with 12 stones standing proud, instead of just the four that remain?
Whilst we were "ooohing" and "aaaahhing" at the wonder of it all at Stenness, Alan had wandered off towards the Barnhouse site. For him, this was an incredibly personal journey, returning to Orkney for the first time since he worked on the excavations at Barnhouse in the late 1980s. Again, I was almost dumb-founded by the archaeological remains of this site; where else can you see such outstanding remains of what was clearly a domestic location, situated so close to monuments such as Stenness and Brodgar? One of the things that has always frustrated me when I have visited sites across the UK and Ireland is "where the bloody hell did they live?" Barnhouse goes some way to easing that frustration and gives an insight into the domestic lives of these monument builders. To me, this is as important and revealing a site as Skara Brae and yet we had the place to ourselves. No tourist buses, no visitor centre and no guides telling us what we can and can't do. Alan explained that the Loch had not existed during the Neolithic period and there was likely to be more archaeological remains under the water. We wandered around, stumbling upon large stones in the landscape and raised mounds, wondering at what it all meant. Fascinating.
By now, it was getting quite late and none of us had eaten or drunk anything since the free glass of wine and weird Worcestershire sauce pretzels we had on the plane but we weren't quite ready to call it a day and into Kirkwall to the B&B just yet. Alan suggested we round off the day with a visit to Unstan, to give us some perspective on our visit to Maes Howe and to see a tomb without the "Disneyfication" we had witnessed earlier.
When we reached Unstan the wind was really picking up a pace and standing on top of the mound was a feat in itself but the views back across the loch were stunning.
We dutifully crawled in to the passage and into the chamber, torches lighting the way. After the pomp and ceremony of visiting the "big" sites we had all dreamed of, Unstan was breathtaking and stole the show for me. This is how I like to see archaeology; on my knees with a torch in my hand and a slightly hysterical sensation coursing through my body! We all got a bit giddy again and kept bumping into each other and talking over each other – 9 of us crammed into the central chamber, just awe-struck by it all. The almost luminous green of the algae reminded me of the covered cairns at Cairnpapple. This was definitely my favourite site of the day.
After Unstan we discussed whether to go to Wideford and Cuween but it was really getting late and most of us were ready for some food and alcohol. We headed into Kirkwall and found our B&B; a wonderful, warm welcome and straight into the shower before heading off into Kirwall for some food and time to reflect on the amazing day we had just had. The following day, we were planning to visit Bodgar, Skara Brae (and those bloody dressers!) and Gurness.
Posted by Vicster
27th October 2009ce
Edited 31st October 2009ce