The Knap of Howar is somewhere that captivated me as soon as I saw it in the papery TMA. A finely preserved ancient house seemingly perched at the edge of the world, inviting exploration. So it was with no little sense of excitement that as an anniversary treat Ellen had booked us a flight to Papay and a visit was on the cards.
Flying to the island is an experience in itself, and a flight from Kirkwall actually costs no more than taking a car on the ferry to the outer islands, but the small size of the aircraft and limited number of flights mean that it gets fully booked very quickly, so it pays to plan ahead and book well in advance. This meant we had to take a gamble on getting a good days weather, but fortunately this gamble paid off handsomely.
After only twenty minutes in the air, the Orkney's spread below, verdant islets amongst the shimmering sea in this beautiful clear weather. After landing on Westray we get to stay on the plane as it makes the world's shortest scheduled flight to Papay, a mere five minutes, barely seeming to get airborne before putting us down again in this remote rural enclave.
The Knap of Howar is only a few minutes walk from the airfield, and after disembarking along with the two other passengers aboard the tiny eight-seater aircraft we turned one way down the road along the spine of the island whilst they headed off in the opposite direction, and within minutes we were alone.
It's hard to describe just how peaceful it is, there's no sound of vehicles, and no-one else in sight, only the calls of the birds and the gentle susurration of the sea. It's also distinctly warm, especially so for Orkney, and I begin to regret bringing my coat.
Soon we reach a crossroads around which are clustered some historic looking farm buildings. One direction seems to lead towards civilisation, or at least a couple of houses and the Papay Community Co-op shop, the other, helpfully signposted to the Knap of Howar, leads through the farmyard. It all seems strangely quiet here, no sign of animals or people, but soon a fenced off part of the field near to the shore is visible, which obviously contains the structure themselves, and they're every bit as good as I'd imagined.
The two buildings form a dwelling with attached workshop/barn, right at the edge of the sea. The low doorways and the way the buildings seem to settle into the ground are reminiscent of Skara Brae (minus the crowds), but here you are free to explore the interiors at will, and really get a sense of the place.
The interior is finely preserved, a large worn saddle quern sits opposite a recess in one of the walls, which I lean against and look out through the doorway to the sea. The thought of someone thousands of years ago bending down at this very spot to grind grain, with perhaps an occasional wistful glance outside just as I'm doing now, is really affecting. It's also the little details you spot that really bring the place to life, such as a recessed shelf, the backing of which is a darker slab than the rest of the wall, a fine piece of flagstone covered with fossilised stromatolites, providing a rich textured backdrop against which to display some treasured possessions.
As Kammer says in his fieldnotes it is serene here, you feel completely cut off from the modern world, and I could happily hang out here all day, especially in such lovely weather. I settle for having a sandwich whilst sitting by the quernstone, and thinking of those people who would have spent their lives here so long ago. But the lure of possibly visiting an even more remote and exciting site soon pulls us on, as we set off in search of someone to take us across to the Holm of Papay...
Visited August 1997: We spent a really beautiful and leisurely day on Papa Westray (or Papay as it's affectionately called), most of it hanging out at the Knap of Howar. It was a warm day, so we just sat there talking for ages, wondering about the houses and looking out to sea.
The Knap of Howar is the oldest known inhabited structure in northern Europe! It's older than Skara Brae, and a lot less commercialised. It's hard to believe just how open access the site is, especially considering it's age. You can just wonder in and take a really close look, which is far from the case at Skara Brae. We were at the site for hours, and we only bumped in to some people as we left.
The whole island is very far removed from life on the mainland (both the Orkney mainland and the British mainland). There's practically no traffic on Papay, and we saw very few people. Our visit was at the height of the tourist season and the weather had been especially good, so I can't imagine how quiet it must be off-season!
My only regret is that we never made it to the Holm of Papay to see the chambered cairns there. If you go to Papay, don't be lulled into such a sense of serenity that you miss the ferry to the Holm of Papay (that's what happened to us).