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!
The fast Pentland Ferry from Gills Bay near John O’Groats docks on Orkney at the sheltered harbour of St Margaret’s Hope (known locally as “Hup”) on South Ronaldsay and nearly all vehicles disembarking are intent on making their next leg the 15 mile journey from here to Kirkwall. Google Maps correctly estimates this short distance to take an extraordinary 46 minutes – which presumes an average speed just under 20 mph. For although the road has many straight sections it is also very undulating with several sharp bends, and is conservative in width, so overtaking opportunities are limited and the first-time visitor may feel slightly apprehensive.
However, delivery van drivers and locals disembarking the ferry are usually anxious to get ahead of meandering tourists exhibiting a lack of urgency on unfamiliar roads, so during embarkation they will if possible try to engineer a position at the bow of the ferry, so as to be among the first off. Those failing to pull off this trick are left to overtake at every opportunity.
Far from presenting an obstacle, the four “Churchill Barriers” – the narrow wartime causeways a few hundred meters in length connecting the islands of the southern archipelago – offer local drivers a last-ditch overtaking opportunity provided (a) there is no immediately oncoming traffic and (b) the doubtless alarmed visitor keeps resolutely to the left on these very narrow carriageways bounded by Armco barriers and menacing rocks. One cannot help but feel sympathy for any visitor who is remorselessly overtaken by an assorted procession of speeding vehicles, including the odd Mercerdes Sprinter van with just inches to spare, provided that is, they are not sitting in front of you at the time doing 20 mph….
Outside of scheduled ferry arrival and departure times, South Ronaldsay roads revert to being as typical as any on Orkney in exhibiting considerate driving at (relatively) moderate pace.
Airpro Media Ltd has just released a drone-imaged video of the Pentland Ferries “Pentalina” sailing from Orkney to the Scottish mainland. Worth a view if you can search for it on Facebook.