Neolithic Orkney

The Standing Stones of Stenness

If you are interested in the ancient Britons, I suppose you can go to Stonehenge and sidle up to the fence which keeps you from going anywhere near the ruins, in addition to putting the kibosh on your travel photography. But there are parts of Britain where you can go right up to the stones and even hug them without drawing the ire of the local sheriffs. I am thinking specifically of the Orkney Mainland (actually an island) off the northern tip of Scotland.

Above is a view of the Standing Stones of Stenness, which is within walking distance of the Ring of Brodgar, another stone circle. And not a fence in sight! And no ticket-takers either (at least when I was there).

There are two major points of interest in the chambered cairn at Maes Howe. It was constructed in 2500 BC. About 3,600 years later, Vikings broke in and covered the walls with graffiti in the form of Futharc runes. The graffiti was like today’s graffiti: If you want to be amused, click on this website.

The Passage into the Tomb

I haven’t even mentioned a whole neolithic village uncovered when the sands which protected Skara Brae blew away in a major windstorm, exposing houses, streets, even stone furniture. Check out some of these images.

These are just some of the reasons why the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet it gets relatively few visitors. One could fly to Kirkwall from Aberdeen, with a short stopover in Wick. Or one could take the train (if it still runs) to Thurso, taxi to Scrabster, and take the St. Ola ferry to Stromness.

I don’t guarantee the weather will be terrific: It rarely is in these parts. But I do guarantee you will be amazed at the sights. Also, the capital of Kirkwall has a 12th century Viking Cathedral, St. Magnus, whose first bishops were canonized as saints. In fact, the Orkneys were Viking before they became part of Scotland in 1472, and the culture is a Scottish/Scandinavian mix.

The islands even have a great poet: George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), whom I met in 1976. Read up on him if you’re interested in visiting this fascinating part of Scotland.

Under Brinkie’s Brae

Alfred Street in Stromness

I have been to Stromness in Orkney twice, once in 1976 and again in 1998. It is a strange little town with narrow winding streets—and, oh yes, a great poet and storyteller who lived here until his death in 1996. I am talking about George Mackay Brown (b. 1921), whose work I have been reading since I met him outside the town’s bookstore in 1976 while clutching a copy of his poem collection, Fishermen with Ploughs.

Tongue-tied, I asked him whether he was George Mackay Brown, knowing full well that he was, as his likeness was familiar to me. He smiled and said, “I cannot deny it.” If my heart were not in my throat, I would have invited him out for a pint. As it was, I showed him my book, being even too shy to ask for his autograph. We went our separate ways.

What I hope to accomplish here in my blogging here on WordPress is what Brown accomplished in a weekly column he wrote for The Orcadian, a newspaper published in Kirkwall, some fifteen miles eastward. Just to give you an idea of the flavor of his work, here is one of his essays entitled “Place names”:

I was sitting idly in the sun the other afternoon when seemingly out of the blue, the words “Orkney Islands” came into my mind. A waste of syllables, really: since Orkney itself means Orc islands. The fault is what is called, I think, tautology. (Whether “Orc” means whale, or seal, or boar, I leave to the experts to decide.)

That’s not the only tautology in our list of place names. “Houton Head”—the Hout part itself signifies headland (like Howth promontory outside Dublin).

Another misnomer is Brough of Birsay. Possibly the whole parish derives its name from the tidal island where there was originally a keep or fortification of some kind.

The very south end of Stromness is called the Point of Ness; which is to say, “the point of the point,” Ness meaning a piece of land thrusting into the sea: in this case, into the tiderace of Hoy Sound. That is why Stromness is called what it is. Living in the town itself, this is not so obvious. But coming down the Scorradale Road into Orphir, there it lies, a thrust of hard land into the wide strong waters. (Maybe the Norseman who gave Stromness its name was looking west one day from the Orphir foothills.)

Brown’s little essay goes on and names other places in the archipelago, ending with “Hrossey,” the island of the horse, which was the original name of what is today called the Orkney “mainland,” though it is by no means a mainland, but just the largest of the isles off the north end of Caithness.

I have just finished the second volume of Brown’s columns for The Orcadian, called Under Brinkie’s Brae, after the hillside overlooking the east end of Stromness. The pieces were charming and often quite lyrical, full of northern Scots words such as “haar,” “peedie,” “noust,” “Hogmanay” (that’s New Years), “clapshot” (mashed “tatties” and “neeps” with a liberal infusion of butter).

To get to Orkney, you have to take the slow train from Inverness to Thurso, and thence via a short bus ride to Scrabster, where the roll-on roll-off ferry St. Ola will transport you past the Old Man of Hoy to Stromness. There you will find an austere land almost entirely devoid of trees (the wind is so fierce). On Orkney, you will never be far from the sea, and you will never be far from George Mackay Brown, the poet of Hamnavoe (the old Norse name for Stromness).