04 July 2014

Kirkwall, Day Three

The Megalithic Masterpieces tour! This was one of my main reasons for choosing to come to Orkney - the amazing Neolithic sights. There is a bus that links them up, but I decided to go with a tour company because I like to learn more about what I'm seeing versus just reading the signage. 

It was a wonderful tour, with the owner of the company, Clive, in a van seating just 8 people. I love smaller tours, and Clive knew the schedules of the big bus tours so he played "dodge the bus" and we got to each sight without a giant group of cruise ship tourists. I met a very nice couple, Joan and Coe, from San Francisco who were fun to talk with. Our first stop of the day was at Scapa Flow, which I didn't take any pictures of, but Scapa Flow is the natural harbor where 800 men and boys died when the German submarine snuck though the defenses. The area where the ship went down is marked with a buoy and every year on the anniversary, a team of divers goes down to lay a new flag on the ship. 

This is looking across part of Scapa Flow to the island of Hoy:
Our next stop was at Unstan Tomb, which is a burial tomb. If you didn't know it was there, you wouldn't be able to find it as there was no signage off the road and it was in a farmer's backyard! 
Ducking through the short, narrow passageway you emerge into a lightfilled room:
The roof had collapsed years ago, and in the 1930s they built a new roof and added skylights. The tomb is divided into sections. One burial practice at the time the tomb was built was after someone died, to lay out their bodies and let animals and birds pick the bones clean. Then they would bring the bones into the tomb, with each section being for a particular type of bone. There is also a small chamber, where two whole female skeletons were found:
It's really amazing how well built these tombs are; its all dry stone construction, no mortar, and they are  corbeled to give it the beehive shape. It was very neat how from the Unstan Tomb you could see the other main Neolithic sights; that area held very special significance. 

The next stop was the village of Skara Brae. Skara Brae was only discovered in the 1800s, when a storm blew sand off of it. Its the most complete Neolithic village, and we were able to walk above it, looking down. The really sad thing is that it may not be around much longer; the Atlantic Ocean is only feet away, and they are losing coastline every year to erosion. 
I always think of Stone Age people as being less sophisticated as us, but they had dressers in each house, beds, boxes to hold trinkets...all made out of stone. 

Nearby is the Skaill House, which was donated to Historic Scotland by its owner in the 1950s and its left just the same as it was when he donated it. 
It was fun to walk through and see what a Laird's house was like...or more of a mansion since its far bigger than other houses. The only disappointing part was there were just 8 or so rooms open for viewing, and you can clearly see that there are so many more rooms to explore! Closed doors always tempt me. But one of the rooms open was the library :)
There were many polite signs asking you to not touch the books...I very much wanted to pull one or two out and if anyone said anything I could say "Its okay, I'm a librarian, I know what I'm doing!" but I was good and didn't touch. 

Then we were on our way to the Ring of Brodgar. Now I have to admit that to me, stone circles have been a huge disappointment. First it was Stonehenge, where you can't even get close to them and its crowded with people. Then Avebury I thought would be better, because you walk up to them, but it was on such a huge scale it was hard to get the idea of a circle. Plus maybe I'm strange but I always expected them to have a certain magical feel...and they don't. Clearly I read too many fantasy books! So I wasn't expecting much here. 
And I was pleasantly surprised to find I was wrong. There were very few other people there, its clearly in a ring, and you can walk up, touch them, stroll through them (except we couldn't walk in the middle of the circle, there were many birds nesting there!). I think I took more pictures of a bunch of stones than most people, but I really enjoyed being there. 
It is thought it was constructed where it was, because the land is almost surrounded by water, and then that water is almost surrounded by land, which is surrounded by water. So concentric circles, which were significant to the people. 
The next stop was the Stones of Stenness. These poor stones have a sad story. There was one called the Odin stone, which had a large hole right in the center. People felt it could cure ailments, and would pass sick babies through it, stick their arm in, etc. This was done all the way through to the 1800s, when a new farmer was tired of having people tramp through his land to get to the stones. So he started blowing them up with dynamite. He blew up 4 stones before the townspeople stopped him, so all that are left of the Stones of Stenness are four large ones and one half broken one. Still they were impressive, they are the tallest stones and oldest stone circle in the UK. 
Our final stop of the day was Maeshowe, another tomb, though much larger than Unstan. Unfortunately you couldn't take pictures inside, but the inside was huge! There were four standing stones around which the tomb had been built, and then three chambers. Inside were runes carved by Vikings in the 11th century, so very old graffiti! 
It was quite a busy day and I loved seeing the stone circles the best. At night I went to see the Strathspey and Reel Society practice which was entertaining. 
Today is my last day on Kirkwall, tomorrow I head out to Westray!


  1. Bonnie - another great post and awesome pictures. I loved the burial mounds and stone circles. The picture of the library made me want to grab a book and sit down for a quiet read. Please stay safe and have fun.

  2. Isn't it unfortunate that people don't realize historic significance so they destroy precious sites! Just like the Save the Millis Bandstand that you organized! Your writing is wonderful - Nana is going to tell you again that you have to write a book! Love and miss you so much, Mom and Dad :)