The Jewel in the Crown of the annual archaeological dig season in Orkney opened for business this week at the Ness of Brodgar – currently the most significant Neolithic site in Europe – or the World for that matter. I briefly touched upon the Ness in a recent post The Heart of Neolithic Orkney
I spent a day helping the archaeologists and students to uncover the site from its protective winter covers – acres of heavy plastic sheeting and tarpaulin weighted down by thousands of old vehicle tyres.
Our second attempt at getting over to Westray (see “It’s gone technical”) was successful and we were blessed with fine sunny weather for most of the day. If you have the opportunity there are many reasons to visit Westray for a day or more and not for nothing is it known as “Queen o’ the Isles”. To name just a few: the sheer Noup Head cliffs at the top of the island are the breeding site for tens of thousands of seabirds where you will see kittiwake, fulmar, gannet, guillemot and razorbill. There is a major archaeological rescue dig underway at the Links of Noltland. Explore the substantial ruins of medieval Noltland Castle. The best fish and chips in the known Universe are to be found at the Pierowall Hotel (book ahead). The Castle o’ Burrian sea stack is home to the biggest colony of puffin in the Orkney Isles. The latter was our chief reason for visiting now, before the parent birds head back out to sea – which most do by the end of July and leave the chicks to fend for themselves.
So said the guy as we arrived at the Orkney Ferries pier in Kirkwall at 7am this morning, to see the Westray ferry limping away from the ro-ro berth in need of some engineering attention.
Inter-island ferries are the key transport between thirteen islands of the Orkney archipelago. Depending upon the length of sea crossing, the vessels range from bath-tub landing craft to sturdy small ships fit to cross exposed open waters. Services to the very smallest islands are usually passenger-only, although vehicles can be carried on separate cargo sailings. Some services require you to reverse aboard; ferry staff will manouvre vehicles upon request which helps to reduce the number of vehicles driving into the harbour. This occurs more frequently than you might imagine:
Fortunately in the recent case pictured above, a 71-year old retired ex-Met policeman was on hand to dive in and help free the driver from the vehicle.
The ferry timetables are complicated enough to get a railway enthusiast excited: nine vessels serve thirteen islands so most services call at one or two neighbouring islands and daily schedules vary considerably during the week. The casual visitor needs to be aware that the provision of an outbound service does not automatically imply a return crossing later on the same day – or even several days. During June-August however, ‘Sunday excursions’ run to many of the popular islands which is a great way of getting there and back on the same day. Because of the convoluted coastline of Orkney Mainland, ferry services operate from three different harbours; turning up at the wrong one will result in disappointment so it pays to know your North Isles, Inner Isles and South Isles – one imagines local children are tested on this at an early age.
For us, the cancellation was but a minor inconvenience as on this occasion we were able to re-book for the following day when we are confident that the puffins will be just as pleased to see us. However, we met a lady who was in the process of moving to Westray and her freezer was slowly thawing-out in the back of a removal van. Another passenger was a frustrated electrical engineer due to carry out some work on the island.
An attractive alternative is the inter-island air service provided by Loganair. There are drawbacks however: seats are limited – eight passengers max at a complete squeeze and often fully-booked days or weeks ahead; freight payload is minimal; you will need to have arranged transport at the other end, or be prepared to walk; weather cancellations are more likely; seats on some services are reserved for schoolchildren – how cool is that? We were frustrated on one occasion trying to fly into Papa Westray – two seats were available on the outbound flight but only one seat on the return later that day! We are flying into North Ronaldsay at the end of July so more about air services then.
Orkney is now the most popular cruise ship destination in the UK, having experienced exponential growth in the last five years. In 2016 113 ships are booked to call, carrying around 100,000 passengers and 30,000 crew, mostly between April and September.
As well as being ideally located for round-Britain cruises, Orkney sits at a maritime crossroads between Northern Europe, Scandinavia, Greenland and Iceland. Intriguingly, this is most likely the exact same reason that Orkney had such huge cultural, ceremonial and trading importance during the Neolithic and ensuing periods when overland travel must have been extraordinarily difficult.
Hatston pier, situated just outside Kirkwall town, offers the largest deep water berth in Scotland at 385m length and 10.5m draft. This berth is frequently occupied and roughly 50% of visiting cruise ships anchor in the Bay and tender into Kirkwall pier. Orkney Islands Council, who operate a berthing policy restricting the total number of passengers arriving in one day, estimate that the business is worth more than £4m to the local economy.
The pressures on the islands are not inconsiderable however as visitor attractions such as the World Heritage sites and Kirkwall town are swamped by cruise ship passengers. The Cunard ship Queen Elizabeth this week disgorged 2068 passengers for the day, while the typical overall range is from CaribbeanPrincess (3599 passengers) to HebrideanPrincess (50 passengers). Whenever more than one large ship is due to call, key roads in the town centre are closed to traffic for safety reasons and stewards are employed to direct the visitors.
When we first visited Orkney in 2012, cruise ships were a very new phenomenon and fleets of coaches were shipped over from Scotland to meet each arrival, causing chaos on the ferries. Five years on, resident coach businesses now appears to thrive on the basis of six months peak demand. A host of private tour guides operating small minibuses have also sprung up to meet the demand for personalised tours of Orkney Mainland during the passengers eight hours shore-leave.
Interestingly, Tish and I have just spent a few days in tour-guide mode ourselves, showing off the highlights to a friend who was visiting Orkney for the first time. With the luxury of three full days rather than just eight hours at our disposal we devised a busy programme taking in, interalia, the World Heritage sites (see a recent post), other Neolithic sites, both of the Earl’s Palaces, St Magnus Cathedral, the Orkney Brewery, shops, restaurants, and not least the “GlastonBurray” music festival. Our friend has now returned home for a well-earned rest!
We have discovered a wonderful outdoor exhibition of oil paintings in Finstown, exhibited by the artist and most charming man Peter Roche. Peter has donated all these works to Macmillan Cancer Support, an organisation that is guided by the belief that, ‘cancer can be the loneliest place’ – a message that features in their current advertising campaign.
All of Peter’s works take as their theme some recognisable aspect of Orkney and the concept of loneliness that it inspired in him. They are truly exceptional pieces and are on display at the Finstown car park from 20th to 25th June 2016 during the daytime, purposely exposed to the elements.
Orcadian readers of this blog, please stop by if you are passing through Finstown and have a look. Say hello to Peter for us.
It’s a Small Island
To be fair, for most people Orkney is not a lonely place. Just like almost any region of the country outside the crowded and busy south of England, people are outwardly friendly. They have got time to stop and have a chat. Orcadians are very skilled at having a chat.
What makes Orkney slightly different is its small population. After a month staying on the island we find ourselves forever bumping into the same people all over the place. At first we were a little embarrassed lest they felt we were stalking them, but you come to realise Orkney is like that. It is not the place to say, “Hello again, gosh, small World!”
Thanks primarily to television, the Internet and Neil Oliver, Orkney is now probably best known throughout the world for its magnificent ancient archaeology.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site, The Heart of Neolithic Orkney, was designated in 1999 to recognise four Neolithic structures as among the most outstanding ancient monuments in the world. The collection comprises Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness and adjacent stones, and Maeshowe. All of these sites are in the region of 5,000 years old.
Skara Brae is an entire Neolithic village comprising the remains of around ten stone buildings in a truly remarkable state of preservation, most of which are interpreted as houses, plus other structures that are likely to have included a workshop. The earliest buildings are dated at around 3,100 BC and it is believed that the village was continuously occupied for about 600 years.
Skara may have been abandoned because the sea breached the low historical shoreline a kilometre or so distant to create what is now the Bay of Skaill which laps within metres of the site – protected to some extent behind modern sea defences. The encroachment caused the village to be engulfed in deep sand, from which it only re-emerged in the late nineteenth century following a huge storm.
The Ring of Brodgar is the third largest henge site in Britain (after Avebury and Stanton Drew), originally comprising 60 stones in a circle of 105 metres diameter. Thirty-six stones remain standing, not all to their original full height, on the site which is situated on the narrow neck of land between Stenness and Harray Lochs. Less visual but more impressive is the encircling ditch which was hewn out of solid bedrock, requiring thousands of tons of rock to be removed using only bone and stone tools. The construction of Brodgar is believed to have commenced around 2,500 BC. The erection of the stones is thought to have been an activity in which individual Orcadian communities each quarried and supplied a standing stone (the diverse geographic sources of each stone having been identified), and probably undertook themselves the work of cutting the socket and erecting the stone at the ring.
In contrast, the nearby Stones of Stenness are significantly older than Brodgar, construction probably commencing around 3,000 BC. It is a smaller circle, originally comprising 12 stones of which just four remain standing. The stones themselves are very large – nearly 6 metres in height. The remains of a stone-built village, Barnhouse, was recently uncovered in the adjacent field and this site is closely associated with the Stones of Stenness. Not far from the circle, an alignment of other substantial outlying stones are still standing, unlike several that succumbed to nineteenth century farmers who were sadly determined to remove these agricultural ‘obstacles’.
Maeshowe is considered to be the largest Neolithic burial mound in Northern Europe. The turf-covered mound is 35 metres in diameter and encloses a central stone-built chamber with three side cells. The central chamber is reached by a narrow passage some 11m long. For a few days around the winter solstice the setting sun shines directly up this passageway and into the central chamber. This layout of chambered cairn is very common in Orkney and there are many similar examples as well as a wide variety of alternative designs. Clearly however, Maeshowe was a very significant site on account of its overall size and proximity to the nearby Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar. Construction is thought to have commenced around 2,800-2,700 BC.
Cementing the belief that the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness and Maeshowe were at one stage a contiguous ceremonial site is the very recent archaeological discovery on the Ness of Brodgar of the remains of a huge complex of Neolithic buildings. These were constructed and re-developed over a long period of time. The Ness of Brodgar was too late to be included in the World Heritage Site, and excavation is still on-going, but its overall significance is likely to dwarf the other individual components.
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney Community
Community involvement continues to this day, and only two days ago as I write this, the “Community Map” was launched – a project involving local school children and adults from the Stenness community to record their important memories and experiences of the famous Neolithic sites in their own backyard.
One side of that map appears at the beginning of this post; here is the other side:
A pdf can be downloaded from Historic Environment Scotland along with the story of the development of the map. It would be great to do something similar back at Kent Wildlife Trust, getting local school children to think about what they get from the natural world around them.
As in previous years our arrival was carefully coordinated with the start of the annual four-day Orkney Folk Festival, currently in its 34th year. By all accounts the festival has become markedly more international during the last 10 years or so and routinely attracts top artists from around the world. Scotland’s own Julie Fowlis was undoubtedly the biggest ‘international’ name this year although several top acts came from Canada and Scandinavia.
Traditional music is such a massive part of the Orcadian culture that is is unsurprising to hear some locals lament the festival’s evolution from what was once a series of concerts featuring purely home-grown amateur talent. And what talent there is! Every school on Orkney provides music lessons (and an instrument) for all pupils regardless of ability. The fiddle is probably the instrument of choice, but all manner of traditional folk instruments feature strongly and guitar, mandolin, banjo, accordion, pipes, bodhrán etc will likely be found at every gig. The festival is based in the town of Stromness which offers several venues within an exceedingly compact area (little bigger than a football pitch). In addition ceilidhs are held in many outlying districts and outer islands; there are also music workshops, church services and even a fiercely-contested football match, “Orkney versus The Rest of The World”.
Vital statistics: 35 gigs, 55 acts, 7000 tickets sold plus dozens of pub sessions. Visit Orkney Folk Festival to see and hear more of this year’s offering.
Our friends Jo and Elaine from the brilliant Jo Philby Band were playing at the Birsay Ceilidh and I was delighted to be asked to photograph their set. I also took the opportunity to grab a few shots of the other acts.
Jo Philby and Elaine Grieve from the Jo Philby Band
The Driftwood Cowboys
Visit Orkney at any time and a festival or some celebration will be happening somewhere. Over Christmas and the New Year there are various “Ba” matches. Ba is an ancient Orcadian game vaguely similar to a mass-participation rugby match between two teams of unlimited number, the ‘Uppies’ and the ‘Doonies’, which is held in the Kirkwall city streets. There are essentially no rules except to get the ‘Ba’ into specified parts of the harbour. Matches can last for many hours and it is often bloody (see below). Festival season starts in earnest around April and lasts until the autumn. A non-exhaustive list includes:
St Magnus International Festival
Other key events include:
Stromness Shopping Week (yes, really!)
Kirkwall Sailing Regatta (and others such as Westray)
The district Agricultural Shows culminating in the Orkney County Show
Vintage Club car and motorcycle shows
Riding of the Marches
St Magnus Marathon, Hoy Half-Marathon
And so the list goes on, all in addition to an active conventional sporting programme, although I have yet to see any sign of cricket…
What we really take away from this is that Orkney has a thriving community culture.
The commemorations in early June 2016 represented the biggest peace-time operation ever mounted in Orkney, requiring complex planning, policing and security arrangements. Tish and I were lucky to get a ring-side view of the events taking place in Kirkwall and the ceremony photos appeared on my Facebook page immediately afterwards, but some are included here for completeness.
Battle of Jutland centenary commemorations – St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Tuesday 31 May 2016
Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery, Hoy, 31 May 2016
The royal party and VIPs were then flown out to a service of remembrance at Lyness on the off-lying island of Hoy which served as the naval headquarters for the Grand Fleet and Home Fleet stationed in Scapa Flow during both world wars.
Kitchener Memorial re-dedication, Marwick Head, Sunday 5 June 2016
Lord Kitchener, British Secretary of State for War, was one of 787 men who died on HMS Hampshire when she struck a German mine on the night of 5 June 1916 in a severe storm off the Orkney coast at Marwick Head. The final stage of the Jutland commemorations was to rededicate the Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head and to unveil a new memorial listing the names of all the men who died, both on the Hampshire and shortly afterwards when HM Drifter Laurel Crown also struck a mine nearby. Tish and I attended the moving service at Marwick Head held on a beautiful Summer’s evening.
We imagine we live in a semi-rural area at home in the Southeast – we see a wide range of garden birds, occasionally some raptors, foxes, the odd badger, hedgehog and so on; we also have horses and sheep grazing just up the road alongside other wildlife. Orkney however does countryside in an altogether more rustic way, especially “out in the sticks” on the Deerness promontory where we are currently staying..
Fierce farm cats prowl the lanes and sometimes busy roads looking for prey in the adjoining fields. They swagger about like Scottish Wildcats and I certainly wouldn’t want to meet one up a dark alley at night.
A bird roosted on the rotor of our nearby wind turbine on the day the wind speed dropped to zero recently. Perhaps not rustic but definitely enterprising.
We are surrounded by fields, of which probably half are arable – mostly growing grass for winter silage – and others support cattle and sheep. Goats, the odd pig and numerous poultry are kept loosely around the farmhouses. Mucking-in with this lot are lapwing, curlew, oystercatcher, smaller gulls, skylarks and all the meadow birds you can imagine.
Most if not all of the farms around here are owner-run, ie they are not tenant farmers. The farms are relatively modest in size but appear to prosper for it.
There are other very obvious differences from the Southeast too:
Oystercatchers root about on our front lawn like sparrows and dunnocks.
Curlews in the field next door chatter away most of the day and half the night.
Hares loaf around in the field opposite, often sitting right next to a bird.
Hens snooze in the drainage ditch at the bottom of our front lawn – every time we go to drive off they leap out and run wildly up the lane ahead of us – behaving very nearly like headless chickens.
The ducks and geese wander about at will and especially like to squat in the road any time there is a bit of rain.
It reminds me very much of “The Darling Buds of May”, set in our home county of Kent, not that we consider ourselves to be Ma & Pa Larkin…
Orkney has been blessed with exceptional weather since we arrived three weeks ago, mostly sunny, dry and warm, but at all times accompanied by a breeze varying from stiff to light. Then something extraordinary happened late last evening: all the wind turbines stopped. Soon, mist began to develop in the folds of the fields opposite our cottage and we woke up this morning to a thick blanket across the island. It is not a “Haar” – a sea fog – which is commonplace here, simply because there is still not a breath of wind to drive moisture in from the sea. …or indeed blow away the clag we have today, to reveal this…
It has rained properly only once while we have been here and that was only for an hour or so on the otherwise cloudy morning that we had booked a guided tour of the fascinating hidden upper levels of St Magnus Cathedral. More on this another time, but from the very top of the cathedral tower the view is dramatic, even in the rain:
There is much to say about the maritime climate in Orkney which is interesting and different to that we experience in mainland Britain. A topic for another occasion perhaps!