By Ian Grosz
I am headed north: for Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a landscape both largely devoid of trees and deeply sedimented in vast layers of human history. This being Scotland's year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, it’s not a bad time to visit.
I surge up the A9 from Inverness, skirting the bleak seascapes of Caithness and eventually reach Gills Bay, where I will catch the ferry for the short crossing to St. Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay, the most southerly of the Orkney archipelago. Gills Bay is just a few miles along the coast from that old stalwart of Scottish landmarks, John O’Groats. When I pass by the visitor centre, it is busy with holiday makers wondering where the summer has gone.
On South Ronaldsay I camp at the wonderfully eclectic Wheems Organic Farm – just the right side of hippy - and fall into an easy sleep listening to the calls of oystercatchers and the swooping chirrup of swallows in the dusk. The next day, I head out on my bicycle to see the evocatively named Eagle’s Tomb, and the less compelling but well marketed Tomb of the Otters. That night I dream of bones.
What I have really come for, like most people, is the enigmatic group of monuments centred around Brodgar and Stenness - the latter the site of an ancient stone circle that pre-dates Stonehenge by 1000 years - and the mysteries being uncovered at the Ness of Brodgar, where a 5000-year-old complex of ceremonial buildings has been unearthed. Approaching the head of the isthmus that separates lochs Harray and Stenness, linking the Ring of Brodgar with the other sites, you find yourself in a natural amphitheatre dominated by the two peaks of Hoy to the west. At mid-winter, the sun sets between the hills and for three weeks either side of the solstice illuminates the deep interior of the incredible feat of engineering that is Maes Howe Chambered Cairn.
This is a liminal place, a portal between worlds, between the setting sun and the mountains, and the shimmering waters of the lochs. It is a place between life and death, and not without atmosphere. Encountering the monuments in context with the surrounding landscape bridges the vast gap in time between the people who built them and us. Here, in the low lying fertile ground, where fish and wildfowl were plenty, and the sun’s light fell at year’s end, is where they found and made their place.
Maes Howe, still a striking feature in the landscape today, pre-dates the Great Pyramid at Giza by several hundred years, and commensurately, to view it you must join an official tour. No photography is allowed inside the tomb. Keepsake pictures are available as part of the official brochure. Still, it is worth the expense, and the unwanted chit-chat with other tourists on the bus from the visitor’s centre to the tomb itself. Ages layered on ages lie within: from the standing stones re-used in its construction and the Viking graffiti on the walls, to the Victorian roof repair. Swallows nested above our heads while the ages were unpicked for us.
At the Ness of Brodgar, a seemingly insignificant and gently rounded hill at the northern end of the isthmus that leads to the Ring of Brodgar, archaeologists are now uncovering a large building on a scale not seen before. Constructed with incredible stonework, some of which has been intricately decorated, the structure potentially represents the zenith of cultural development at what is increasingly considered to be the heart of Neolithic society, and not just in Orkney. The term 'temple' has been used, and from the dating of grooved-ware pottery contemporary with the site – found all across Britain but first right here – it seems that Orkney was indeed something of a cultural capital in the late Neolithic.
What is so fascinating for the visitor, is that it is still possible to view the dig in progress: to see archaeologists at work first-hand and get a real sense of the excitement associated with the valuable discoveries being made on an almost daily basis. Teams of volunteers painstakingly remove the earth layer by layer, and plot each find in what at first appears to be a confusing jumble of ancient walls, stones, and pits. This apparent mess is made sense of by joining a tour with the site's leading archaeologist, which lets you glimpse into their world as they peel back the layers of ancient history.
At the Stone Age village of Skara Brae on the Bay of Skaiil are remnants of dwellings, complete with stone ‘dressers’ and beds. Here the day-to-day lives of the people who visited and perhaps worshipped at the monuments of nearby Stenness and Brodgar feel startlingly recent. Uncovered after a storm in 1850, the village gives the distinct impression that it was still occupied hundreds, rather than thousands, of years ago.
In Stromness I visited an exhibition themed around our relationship with stone. The focus was on those who work it, collect it, or simply own special pieces that have been passed down the family or have come to them by chance. How many of us pick up pebbles on a beach, are drawn to stone sculpture, or seek out these ancient memorials in the landscape? Aeons old, constituted in stars, formed in the earth, shaped by ice and water, and worked by people, stones represent an impossible journey across time that we cannot imagine. Do we find comfort in their seeming permanence? Or do we wish to feel connected to something beyond our grasp, a part of eternity? The sculptor Barbara Hepworth said "it is a perfectly natural feeling to wish – to take a rock and turn it into life and to make, in that way, an image which has a magic to preserve life in one’s own personality." For those of us who don’t build lasting monuments, or sculpt wonderful forms from bare rock and stone, perhaps picking up a pebble on a beach is driven by that same desire.
Many people visit Orkney for its archaeology but there is much more here to enjoy. During the remainder of my visit I walked along empty beaches and enjoyed fresh seafood, local ale and whisky. In a Stromness café the young man at the counter asked what my favourite thing about Orkney had been. I told him that aside from the light and the laid back feel of the place, it had to be the ancient sites at Brodgar and Ness. He nodded with disappointment. Feeling dejectedly like a predictable tourist, I asked him the same question. "The small isles," he said. "There’s no police ... Out on the small isles you can do what you like."
For our ancient ancestors Orkney was a place marked out by the solstice sun, the dominant hills of Hoy and the abundance of resources. For me it is a place to ponder time, and for at least one young local it means being away from the prying eyes of state control. Whatever sense of place one finds here, there is no doubt that it will be special.
Ian Grosz is a postgraduate researcher in social anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. He has studied creative writing with the Open University and his work focuses on the relationship between people and their environments.