Small islands – big skies – long memories


I’m writing this on our last evening in Orkney – tomorrow morning we catch the Hamnavoe ferry from Stromness back to Caithness (I can’t call it “mainland” since Mainland is what they call the largest island here on Orkney). I’m trying to get my thoughts into enough of a linear form to fit them into things like words and sentences, while I’m still here, so that time and the city and the resuming of life doesn’t dull the experience of this last week. This seems the sort of place that will drift away, somewhere past the cliffs of Hoy, pulled back to the islands and the sea, not something you can take with you. That’s why people come here once and keep coming back. Or never leave at all.

And everywhere there’s the marks made by people long ago – Skara Brae is the one everyone’s heard of, but Maeshowe stole our hearts. You crawl though a 10 meter long passageway, lined with single 20 tonne blocks, and emerge in the main high-ceilinged chamber, three tombs like box-beds set into the walls. The blocks of the main room are covered with carefully etched graffiti – but no lazy tags or scrawled nicknames – these were made with axes and stones – by Vikings, 1000 years ago. The tomb was already old when they entered, sheltering from a wild snowstorm for three nights. Legends says there were 100 of them in the small space (a bit of Viking exaggeration?) – but they alleviated the boredom by writing messages on the walls: “Ingigerth is the most beautiful”….”The man who is most skilled in runes west of the ocean carved these with the axe of Gauk Trandilsson”….and up high, written by a man surely sitting on the shoulders of another -“Eyjolf Kolbeinsson carved these runes high”. On the winter solstice the setting sun hits the Barnhouse standing stone, aligned perfectly with the entrance to the tomb, shines down the passage and illuminates the back wall of the Maeshowe. Oh, and you can watch it live via webcam every year – 21st of December (about 3.30, when the sun sets on the shortest day in Orkney).

The Ring of Brodgar is a huge stone circle amongst the heather, just across the water from Maeshowe. 104 meters in diameter, with a 130 meter diameter encircling ditch dug into the bedrock. The stones are huge – phenomenally big – and all from different places around the islands. The ditch was dug and the stones erected at the same time, but by different people – 4,500 years ago.

The Ness of Brodgar dig a little way down the road is uncovering a series of buildings of some kind – though they’ve no idea yet what they could be. We walked around, wondering if the people who made them had any possible notion that, 4-5ooo years from then people would be there – that people would even care? Perhaps they thought their society and culture would survive for ever, no mystery to their buildings because they would still be in use.

At the Tomb of the Eagles we handled Neolithic pottery shards. One was decorated with little fingernail crescent grooves. I put my nail in these marks – the same marks made by someone else’s fingernails, 5000 years ago. A sense of vertigo, of incredulity. 5000 years ago.

But this is everywhere here – on every island – practically in every backyard. There are something like 300-odd Neolithic dwellings here, just rough circular marks in a farmer’s field of a garden. Only a handful have been excavated, or ever will. Not much treasure here – the bronze-age hardly even made it to Orkney, most of the people here too poor (and too practical) to ever bother with the expensive, soft bronze.

I’ve spent most of my childhood in the remote hills of Mid-Wales. I know the bees on the brilliant purple heather and the scrubby moorland hills, rocky beaches and constant gales. I know the evening sunlight on the water and the geese skidding in to land. It shouldn’t be new to me, or have this effect on me, but it does somehow.

The sky is just so big here. It’s an odd feeling: being this open, amongst this much space, yet feeling as though you’re right in the clouds, shielded from the mainland and the rest of the world behind a curtain of sky. And there’s so much weather here too – it comes and goes at incredible speeds. It rains (though not as much as the rest of the UK), but the rain doesn’t stay for long. Every evening here has been gloriously sunny. The wind never stops – you don’t want it to, because a gap in the gales brings the midges out like demons. Our faces are red and happy with sun and wind-burn.

All we need now is a glimpse of orca during the ferry trip. Crossing all fingers and other crossable body-parts….

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