The tall stone, if it cares, has care
Beyond the span of our caring.
(George Mackay Brown)
Hundreds of years before the construction of Stonehenge, the pyramids, and the Great Wall, Stone Age farmers were building towers and homes on the Orkney Islands of Scotland. And millions of years earlier, nature constructed some stone monuments of its own.
Orkney’s Nordic connection is similiar to Shetland’s, although it is less obvious, possibly because Orkney is much closer to mainland Scotland. Orkney is comprised of seventy islands, twenty of which are inhabited. While Shetland’s leading industries are oil and fishing, Orkney focuses on farming, as it’s geography is low-lying and fertile. Sheep rule Shetland’s landscape; cattle dominate in Orkney. Its human population numbers twenty thousand.
Day One: I easily found my way out of Kirkwall and soon spotted the Stones of Stenness, four huge slabs near the main road. I was surprised to have them to myself. The four standing stones are all that remain of a circle of twelve around a hearth, surrounded by a henge (earthen bank). They were erected around 3300 BCE. As with many prehistoric constructions, the stones align with the stolstices. Nearby is the Barnhouse Settlement, the foundations of fifteen circular stone homes. I passed the eighteen-foot-tall Watchstone, perhaps the largest of the standing stones in the area.
And just down the road, perched majestically on a slight hill of heather overlooking a loch, sits the Ring of Brodgar.
Brodgar, built around 2500 BCE, is imposing. The circle is over a hundred yards in diameter. Twenty-one of the original sixty stones in the circle still stand.
You can walk around them and touch them. They are just rocks in a field, but when you ponder the history, how long they’ve been standing, why they were erected, how they have lasted, it’s a bit overwhelming. A mysterious and brooding place. Nearby stands the Comet Stone, its purpose unknown. Perhaps it served as a signpost on the way to Brodgar.
I hunched down to walk through the low passage into the central chamber of Maeshowe, a five-thousand-year-old tomb. From the outside, Maeshowe looks like a grassy mound, like the Indian burial mounds in Ohio. Inside, it’s a crypt, built with huge sandstone blocks and slabs, some of which weigh tons. Three smaller chambers lead from the central chamber. Presumably, they served as vaults for human remains.
One thousand years ago, those mischievious Vikings vandalized the tomb and left graffiti behind for eternity to read. The messages are written in a runic alphabet and amount to juvenile boasts about how much treasure they stole and who slept with Helga.
On the north coast, I found the sprawling Broch of Gurness. The Iron Age stone tower and surrounding homes were built around twenty-two hundred years ago. I was amazed the homes had stone slabs for doors, which could be pivoted shut at night. The thresholds leading into the homes still feature the depressions upon which the doors revolved.
Day Two: I sped to Stromness to make the 10 a.m. Orkney Islands Council ferry to the island of Hoy. After a half-hour trip through Scapa Flow, the base of Great Britain’s navy during World War I, I arrived at the Moaness Pier on Hoy. It was near here the German navy successfully scuttled fifty-two out of seventy-four of its warships to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Allies. Gun enplacement positions from World War II still line the channel.
I boarded the shuttle bus for the trip to Rackwick, the location of the trailhead. By 11 a.m. I was on the steep trail. The climb was narrow and rocky, often on the edges of cliffs. I braced myself against the blasts of wind, fearing I’d fall over the brink.
After a hard hour, I arrived at the famous sea stack, the Old Man of Hoy. My knees wobbled as I ventured close enough to the edge to take in its entire one-hundred-and-fifty-yard height. The Old Man is spectacular.
A steady wind howled at the top. Seabirds swooped around the red sandstone cliffs. After a picnic lunch, I hiked back and relaxed on Burnmouth’s boulder and seaweed-strewn beach.
I caught the bus back to Moaness. When I attempted to pay Mr. Thompson, the driver, the wind blew a pound note out of my hand. “Oops, it’s running away from me,” I said. “Mine does that too,” he said.
Day Three: More rocks. I drove back to the west coast for a tour of Stone Age Skara Brae. Built around 3500 BCE, Skara Brae is a village of well-preserved Fred Flintstone houses, each with stone-slab beds, dressers, shelves, floor caches, and fireplaces.
The houses and the tools inside were covered in sand for centuries and thus perfectly preserved when found and excavated.
They appeared to have been hurriedly abandoned. A fossilized ghost town. Eerie to view them now and imagine life there five thousand years ago.
Back in Orkney, I toured the medieval Saint Magnus Cathedral. The massive red-sandstone structure was built in 1137 CE and dedicated to the saint. His remains lie within one of the stone columns.
Day Four: I boarded the ferry in Stromness for the Scottish mainland. As the sun rose, the ship passed the Old Man on Hoy, standing tall and proud. He’ll outlive us all.
And think in Orkney
Of the old friendship of stone and man,
How they honoured and served each other.
(George Mackay Brown)