Orkney, Scotland. Days 24 and 25, 22nd and 23rd July.
In the West of Mainland in Orkney, on a spit of land between two lakes, is a remarkable array of megalithic monuments and settlements. We will briefly look at the Stones of Stenness, Maes Howe, the Ness of Brodgar and the Ring of Brodgar.
the Stones of Stenness
I appear to have discovered the original reason for building the Stones of Stenness, that no other sources have remarked on. They are clearly intended so that sheep can rub their backs against them.
The Stones of Stenness form one of the earliest stone circles in Britain, at 5,000 years old. Originally there were eleven with an unused place for a twelfth and they are up to six metres high. There were five different kinds of stones used and it appears that the stones came from all around the island. There are only four stones now, plus a few smaller ones. In 1907 the horizontal slab beside the small stones was mistakenly reconstructed on top of those stones as a dolmen (a small megalithic tomb). It was placed on the ground again in the 1970s. A wide water-filled ditch surrounded the circle with one causeway entrance. There was also a hearth at the centre of the circle.
There is a recently discovered neolithic farm settlement about 200 metres away and a nearby mound is thought to be a broch. There was a magnificent stone called the Odin Stone not far away until a tenant farmer (not himself a native Orcadian) dynamited it in 1814. It is variously asserted that he was annoyed by all the visitors who kept turning up or that he wanted a straighter path for ploughing. He was going to destroy the Stones of Stenness too. He pulled one down and destroyed another but was stopped after a public outcry by the community which included legal action and attempts to burn down his house.
Even the more recent buildings are of some interest. Here is a nearby farmhouse complex, at a guess dating from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.
Maeshowe is a chamber tomb dating to about 2700BC but photography is not allowed inside, so I cannot show you any images. Instead here are a couple of drawings from the information board.
The entrance is long and low but the interior chamber is large, with space for maybe twenty people to stand around. For several weeks around the time of the shortest day in mid-winter, rays of light may seep through to the chamber at the rising or falling of the sun, at least providing the weather allows the sun to shine. There are small side chambers for storage of bones though any bones that were there have been removed many centuries ago.
When the cairn was first excavated in “recent” times in 1861, they gained access through the roof and discovered that Vikings had also done so many centuries ago. There were at least two occasions when Vikings stopped for a while at Maeshowe and left runes behind, carved in the walls. The first was in 1150, when Earl Rognvald Kali Kolsson was gathering men to go on a Crusade. He and his men spent some time at Maeshowe and left runes behind. The Orkneyinga Saga relates some of their escapades but essentially, they would have been too late for the Second Crusade (1145-1149) which was generally a disaster for the crusaders. They returned in 1153. Also in 1153, around Christmas, Earl Harald Maddadson and a party of men took refuge at Maeshowe during a snowstorm. Two of the men are said to have gone mad there but the party left some runes behind.
Amongst the runic statements left by the Vikings are the following:
- Crusaders broke into Maeshowe. Lif the Earl’s cook carved these runes. To the north-west is a great treasure hidden. It was long ago that a great treasure was hidden here. Happy is he that might find the great treasure. Haakon alone bore treasure from this mound. (signed Simon Sirith).
- Ingebjork the fair widow – many a woman has walked stooping in here a very showy person (signed by Erlingr)
- Thorni fucked. Helgi carved.
- Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women (carved beside a rough drawing of a slavering dog)
- This mound was raised before Ragnarr Lothbrocks her sons were brave smooth-hide men though they were
It may be that Maeshow was used for a Viking burial in the ninth century in which case the references to treasure would be Viking grave goods.
the Ness of Brodgar
In use for about 1,000 years from 3200BC to 2300BC, the Ness of Brodgar was a remarkable ceremonial centre that was only recently discovered and is still largely unexcavated. It includes a massive “temple”, externally 25 x 20 metres (82 x 65 feet) though with walls five metres thick, so rather smaller inside. It appears to have been the centre of activities rather than the stone circles.
I arrived five minutes before closing and consequently just had time for a few pictures and can’t tell you any detail of what is visible.
As identified on the Orkneyjar site, this is Andy Boyer, an American student working as a volunteer on the site. She perhaps appears to have found a stone axe.
I think this is either part of the Lesser Wall of Brodgar or a section of the Temple.
the Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar is thought to date from 2500BC to 200BC. The ring is much larger than for the Stones of Stenness but the stones are smaller, between 2.1 metres and 4.7 metres in height. There are currently 27 of them and may once have been 60. It is thought to be the last of the great neolithic monuments built on the Ness.
This last image is from the Stones of Stenness again.