After a night on the tiles in Kirkwall, which included a fabulous couple of hours spent in a bar full of motoring memorabilia, and then a few too many night-caps back at the B&B (I went to bed when the singing started!) we awoke a little bleary eyed but full of excitement for the next instalment of our Orkney adventure. Following a cracking full Scottish breakfast, we jumped into the mini-bus and headed straight off to the Ring of Brodgar. We had driven by a couple of times yesterday and the anticipation of finally getting to see it, up close and personal, had made me positively giddy (again). As we parked up in the Historic Scotland car park Alan suggested we pay close attention to how we were being "led" towards the circle by the footpaths and how Historic Scotland wanted us to view the circle. Later, he told us that he had hung back to watch how we all approached the site and this made for a lively discussion on phenomenolgy and human behaviour - apparently we all walked towards the circle and then around it; no one walked straight through the middle of it and we talked about whether this was intentional? It made for a very interesting argument about whether we were doing what our forebears would have done thousands of years ago; skirting round the edge of the monument as the centre was "out of bounds" for specific reasons? Oh, and we all later agreed that Historic Scotland's approach to the stones was from completely the wrong direction!
So, what to say about the Ring of Brodgar? It completely and utterly blew me away. I know, I know, I have said that sooooooo many time before but I could happily have stayed at this site all day. Other sites, that I have longed to see and then made the pilgrimage to, have sometimes had an anti-climatic feeling about them, but not here. As I approached the circle, I decided to take a slight detour and instead of heading straight to the stones, I turned away and walked towards the striking mound of Salt Knowe. I think I was just too overcome by the enormity of Brodgar and felt like I needed to get a different perspective of the stones and I am so glad I did. The view from here was just fabulous; looking towards the circle, you could really see the lie of the land and how the stones sit in the landscape. I finally headed towards the stones, skirting around them and then decided I still needed a different view, so headed straight towards the Comet Stone so see how the site looked from here. Again, a completely different perspective and from here you can see the whole circle against the horizon whereas from Salt Knowe you see the site within the landscape. The stones themselves are mighty beasts and almost too numerous to comprehend. Bloody hell, it is just awe-inspiring - this is a site that I need to return to and (hopefully) soon.
Everyone of us felt the same way about Brodgar and there was a real sense that we had just seen and felt something so inspiring that the rest of the day may well be a bit of a damp squib. With this in mind, we headed out for Skara Brae. When we arrived we had a quick nosey round the visitor centre then headed off to the Bay of Skaill for a bit of beach-combing. All of us convinced that we would find some Neolithic treasure, washed up amongst the stones and seaweed. We watched the seals bobbing and just took in the beauty of the surroundings before heading off the see the "star attraction". Oh my.
I feel like a bit of an old grump saying this but Skara Brae left me feeling a bit disappointed. My favourite part of it was the re-constructed house, which has been built with care and attention and you are allowed to go in and have a wee play.....but the site itself? I think I have just read too many books and seen too many programmes about it but it just didn't have the expected "wow" feeling. I know that Jane and Hob both suggested going after hours, which would probably have helped, but the officious little signs everywhere and the HS woman having a hissy fit because one of us dared to lean over a bit of grass (grass, for gawd's sake!) to get a photo just felt really rubbish. I only hung around for a few minutes then headed back up to the visitor centre to read a bit of George Mackay Brown and have a cuppa. Isn't that awful? This is such an amazing site that I should have been awestruck but I was more impressed with Barnhouse – it isn't the site itself but the way it is managed and I think I probably expected too much. I have since told myself off for being such a grumpy bugger and wish I had been a bit more interested in it all but it just didn't grab me on the day. Bah - and indeed - humbug.
By now, the old familiar hunger was setting in and we decided to head to Stromness for lunch and a wander. What a beautiful little town! "Oooh, I could definitely live here", I thought, as I wandered around the streets and pottered in the bookshops and galleries. It probably helped that the sun decided to make itself known and we ended up sitting by the water, eating lovely food. Always a good combination.
After Stromness we set off for the next site of the day – the Broch of Gurness. By now, the sun was really taking hold although the ever present Orkney winds were still evident and this made for a wonderfully windswept visit.
Brochs are not my strong point, having only ever visited Carlway on Lewis previously, but Gurness was something to behold. The sheer amount of archaeological remains were stunning; evidence of buildings left, right and centre! I could see how the whole village worked, with the defensive structure (with possible kennels at the front doors!) surrounded by what appear to be domestic houses. Looking across the Eynhallow Sound to Rousay from Gurness, to the site of other brochs (and the location on Mid Howe) gave a real sense of perspective and we spent a good couple of hours mooching round the site. On the beach, Vicky even braved the elements and went for a paddle and we found what appeared to be cup marks in the natural stone shelves.
We were all in really high spirits, if a little knackered, after being out in such an exhilarating environment and as we headed back towards Kirkwall, none of us were really ready to call it a day, so we decided to make a last stop at Cuween. This had been on my "must do" list but I was well aware that I was already piggy-backing on other people's trip and hadn't raised any objections when it didn't appear on the original itinerary, so I was secretly elated at the prospect of seeing the "Tomb of the Beagles".
A short but steep-ish walk up the hill and we were there; then there was the obligatory crawl through the passage into PITCH BLACKNESS. We had a couple of torches but there was no real sense of the size of the place until we managed to get all 9 of us in there! There was lots of hilarity as we tried to work out what was there and I used my camera flash to illuminate the whole chamber a couple of times but this felt like the real thing.....discovering little side chambers and squeezing inside with just a pin prick of light from the torch was just incredible. Even better than Unstan which, with its helpful glass skylight at least allows you some perspective, Cuween leaves it up to you to find your bearings and create your own light. All 9 of us trying to talk at once, someone suddenly saying "oooh, there's a wee chamber here, give me some light" and constantly bumping into one another, I am not sure we gave this tomb the respect it deserved but we had a fabulous time and we all agreed that Cuween was the unexpected highlight of the trip. Emerging back out into the most beautiful, bright sunshine with 9 sets of muddy knees and bums, Alan pointed out places where other excavations had taken place and we pin-pointed the cairn on Wideford Hill opposite.
All fired up from yet another outstanding site, we were debating whether to try and get to Wideford but time was really cracking on and we had been out for 9 hours already, so instead, we headed back to Kirkwall, exhausted but deliriously happy with the day's events.
Posted by Vicster
30th October 2009ce
Edited 31st October 2009ce