This is a journey that’s taken two years to come to fruition and seemed like it might never happen at times. Two years ago we were all set to go, ferries booked, camper van sorted and routes planned and then a week before departure my wife Alison slipped a disc and was advised not to travel. So we postponed and waited and waited and then work got in the way and then it was nearly 18 months before we thought it might all be back on again. So, literally a few weeks before a prospective date was selected, we started to re-plan the whole merry dance.
As we were driving all the way from the South Coast we knew we couldn’t do it all in one day so we contacted our friend Karl the Viking in Derbyshire and another old friend Pip near Hadrian’s Wall as possible campsites en route. Day one and we’re driving up the M1 when the van’s automatic gearbox starts to misbehave. We come off the motorway at Chesterfield and by a stroke of luck there’s a Mazda dealer with a service department in the town centre. (Perrys - if you ever have problems with your Mazda ask to speak to Nigel He’s your man!) Luckily they diagnose it and say that the gearbox doesn’t appear to be wrecked, but can’t fix it today. So we have to ring up International Rescue who come and pick up our van, lend us Thunderbird 6 (like a Citroen C1) overnight so we can get to Karl’s and assure us that they’ll do their best to allow our Orkney dream to thrive.
The next day we call International Rescue and Mr Tracy says that the van should be ready by mid afternoon dependent on a quick road test. I decide that a trip to nearby Mam Tor is in order as we’ve never actually climbed up it, merely gazed longingly from a distance. Boy is it windy up there today and the higher we climb the worse it gets to the point where you feel you could almost lie on it, though not too close to the edge obviously. I’m not entirely sure about pavements up hills, even if they’re nice stone sets tastefully placed, but as Alison only has sandals on I’ll let that one go. You really can’t beat the Shivering Mountain for views, even the cement factory in Castleton looks enigmatic today and all around is a green heaven of loveliness. For a week day it’s surprisingly busy up here with people coming and going in every direction, well actually either up or down. We descend to the car park to continue our journey back towards Chesterfield and wonder how things will pan out over the next hour. Luckily the camper van is fixed and seems to have no further problems so we continue our expedition Northwards. Th,th,th,thanks Mr Tracy!
We arrive at Pip’s near Haltwhistle just as it starts to get dark and decide that we’ll stay an extra day rather than jump straight back into the van the following morning. We ring the ferry company to move our crossing date and luckily that’s ok. The next day we wake to a hot and sunshiny day and plan a days walk around the local area with a picnic and a chance to catch up on seven years of news. During the walk we find and pick a lot of wild mushrooms and bring them back with us to use in that evenings meal. Fungi collecting is something we’ve done for almost thirty years and never had a problem with so it’s a real shock to have Alison being violently sick at 2.00 in the morning. Eventually this stops and we all go back to bed but wonder who might be next, having consumed the same mushrooms. Thankfully it doesn’t happen, but Alison is still feeling a bit odd and we try to get medical advice. After numerous calls to local chemists, hospitals and NHS Direct, but not International Rescue, we are advised by RVI Newcastle to come into A&E and get some blood tests done in case something like kidney failure strikes 3 days later. Thoughts of making it to the Orkneys are now beginning to fade, but that’s really the last thing on our minds at this stage. The wonderful people at RVI Newcastle take good care of her but insist that she stays in overnight so they can keep an eye on her and get the results from their numerous blood tests the following morning. A tense 12 hours later Alison is feeling much better and the test results are fine. They think she probably picked and then discarded a particularly virulent mushroom (might have been a Destroying Angel) and should have cleaned her hands before we had our picnic, which might explain why she was the only one to get ill.
So, off we go again. We know we can’t make it all the way to Gills Bay by this evening but we get as far as Inverness and decide that we’ll over-night it at Clava Cairns. This is our first visit to a Scottish prehistoric site and what a great opener! This really is quite a spectacular place; cairns, stone circles, cup marked stones and all neatly contained in a leafy glade. I wander around excitedly photographing what’s on offer while Alison reads all the info which is conveniently supplied next to each cairn. After a while she heads back to the camper van in the car park to prepare our evening meal and I have to resort to flash and long exposures as the light dies. Then the first stars begin to shine through the cloudless sky and a real magic takes hold of the site. The next morning the magic is sustained with low raking Autumnal sunshine giving another chance to amble around the place viewing it afresh. I hadn’t realised the evening before that the road alongside the site actually passes through the stone circle of the Southernmost cairn leaving one of the standing stones isolated from it’s brethren.
After a quick breakfast we do the last part of our journey through the Highlands and get to Gills Bay at lunchtime. It’s so well timed that Pentland Ferries allow us to travel on the next sailing in 45 minutes even though we’re 2 days late arriving there, though we had kept them informed of our predicaments and they are a very understanding and flexible company. After disembarking we immediately head to the bottom of South Ronaldsay Island to visit The Tomb of the Eagles. One of the great things about this site is that you get a comprehensive talk with it and are allowed to handle some of the finds from the tomb. After that you make your way to the tomb via a Bronze Age building which once functioned as a sauna! It’s difficult to know whether this theory is true or not but considering the burnt mound next to it and that it was connected to a source of fresh water, that would appear to be a reasonable bit of guess work…or maybe they were just steaming their vegetables to retain some of the vitamins that we modern people simply boil away. Clever. The tomb itself is quite impressive with great sea views from the edge of the cliff and you have a choice of rolling through the entrance passage on an oversized skateboard or squatting down and shuffling through while banging your camera against the wall. Sadly I chose option two. You can only truly appreciate the space once everybody else has departed, which after about 20 minutes they do, and then you can marvel at the workmanship and thought that went into this 4500 year old architecture and the man hours it took to produce it. They either took a very long time with few people or maybe life was good and the population relatively high during this period? Judging by the sheer amount of monuments and settlements spread throughout the Orkneys you’d like to think it was the latter. Walking back to the museum you can take the cliff edge route which gives you an insight as to the building supplies available, i.e. tons of stratified sandstone that was easily quarried. Back at the museum we enquired about Banks, another nearby tomb, only to be told that it had just closed for the season. Damn.
The next day is the Autumn Equinox (timely!) and we head off from the campsite at Kirkwall for Maeshowe. Due to it’s extreme popularity and the fact that it’s about to be closed down for some time we have to reserve a time slot 2 hours later. We’re also advised that there’s a ‘no photography inside the tomb’ policy in place, which although making sense in terms of crowd numbers, leaves me feeling a bit dis-heartened. I’ve driven 750 miles and this was on the top of my list! We head off for the nearby Stones of Stenness and that too is fairly brimming with people, but at least you can take photos. These are rather fine stones that wouldn’t look out of place in a sculpture park; tall, thin, elegant slabs with interesting angles. Were they always that shape and where are the rest? Presumably once a beautiful circle, now a whimsical arrangement. It just doesn’t seem to look old, though apparently it pre-dates it’s neighbour The Ring of Brodgar and that’s where we’re off to next.
By the time we’ve parked up at the Brodgar Neolithic car park we only have time to walk to the ring, circle it once and then head back to the car park and back to Maeshowe. We’ll return to Brodgar later. Maeshowe. Well what can you say? It really is something else. Firstly there’s that amazing tunnel entrance, which I avoid banging my camera into, and at first assume it to be modern and quite tastefully rendered, but no, it’s four very long slabs of stone set at right angles delivering you to the heart of the huge mound. Once we’re all safely in and our eyes have adjusted to the weak light we can begin to understand this marvel. Yesterday I’d been impressed by The Tomb of the Eagles, but Maeshowe makes it look like a Wimpey home, but to be fair, it’s not as old and the Orkney tomb builders had probably had a decent amount of practice by then. Precision seems to be the order of the day here and every slab of stone fits neatly to produce perfect recesses for the remains of the ancestors (again like the entrance way with single slabs for walls, floor and ceiling), perfectly arced walls head to what would originally have been a beautiful, high corbelled dome. It is stated by the guide that the four upright stones that make up the corners of the tomb are actually not supporting anything and of no architectural importance and there is the possibility that they were there before the present tomb or were at least nearby and had some significance and were incorporated into the tomb. Again they’re all of a similar size and shape. Also of interest are the Viking Runes and pictures scratched into some of the slabs during the 12th Century which can only be properly seen by the guide sweeping the light from her torch across them. If there was ever anything of interest or value within the tomb it had certainly disappeared by 1861 when it was first excavated and there is the possibility that it was never used at all, though to my mind that seems doubtful with all this dextrous handiwork and a Winter Solstice sun shining brightly down it’s passage. Probably those pesky Vikings.
After a brief chat with the guide at the end of our session I’m surprisingly permitted to take a few pictures of the interior, but only on condition that they don’t appear anywhere and are just for my own personal use. Fair enough. After this we continue our whirlwind tour with a quick stop at Unstan, yet another chambered cairn which is smaller and more cute than either Maeshowe or TTOTE. The interior is very similar to Eagles with its stalls but, in this case, only a single recess off the main chamber. I have the whole place to myself, which is nice, until I hear voices outside, a woman urging her partner to go inside and have a look and his reply with an Estuarine twang of “Nah, looks f**kin’ borin’ ”. They’re obviously having a great time on the islands.
Our final destination for the day is Skara Brae just a few miles up the road from here. We arrive to find a car park almost full to the brim with coaches and cars and I’m beginning to think this is not such a good idea. However, once we’re through the visitor centre, cafe and shop we realise that they’re not really that interested in the main attraction which is almost deserted. Strange! Why would you pay to get in and then blow all that money on the side shows? My first impressions are that the village is actually quite small and incredibly compact. Were there any other similar structures nearby I wonder? The preservation of the interiors is quite amazing and it’s a real shame you’re restricted to viewing it from a short distance. Why don’t I have long black, flowing hair, a Scottish accent and a film crew behind me? Then I’m sure it would be just fine to have a good nosey around. I wonder how dark this semi-troglodyte world would have been with it’s narrow openings into restricted alley ways and probably only a fire to light the interiors and a tiny opening in the roof to let the smoke out, rather like the tombs they built for their dead. Before we leave there’s just enough time to have a quick look around Skaill House, home to the discoverers of Skara Brae on whose land it sits. There’s an illustration there of the ‘Stones of Stennis, Orkney’, dated December 7th 1820, which is a little mystifying as on closer inspection it’s quite obviously The Ring of Brodgar. When did the names change? Or were both the circles generalised as the ‘Stones of Stennis’? Answers on a postcard please to…… As it’s now getting late and I think Alison probably can’t take a revisit to The Ring of Brodgar today without serious matrimonial breakdown we head to Stromness to find a camp site for the night.
The next day is mostly taken up by a visit to The Pier Arts Centre in Stromness which is a fantastic building and has some very interesting work on show. Thoroughly recommended, but it lacks a cafe. After lunch we head off to the Brough of Birsay in the North West of Mainland. This is a small island separated from Mainland at high tide, but at low tide you’re afforded a few hours to cross by foot onto the island where you can frolic around the remains of a Pictish/Viking settlement and a wee church. When we arrive at the car park there are a number of Norwegian tourists (Vikings I believe) waiting for the tide to go out while consuming local whiskey. I ask them what they’ve done with the contents of Maishowe, but they just look at me blankly, or drunkly. A nice evening is spent at the Brough of Birsay watching the sun set.
We awake to leaden skies, have our breakfast and head off to the Broch of Gurness. It’s not open when we arrive and we make a mug of tea and wait. Eventually a man on a bicycle arrives and opens up and let’s us in. Luckily the sun breaks through and all is wonderful. Being a Broch virgin I take my time wandering around noting the double skin walling of the broch itself (what’s that all about? Insulation? Storage? Somewhere to hide should your enemy penetrate the inner sanctum?). I’ve noticed previously from photographs that they’re all built in almost exactly the same way and probably similar sizesand proportions. The interior layout and stone furniture doesn’t vary much from what was evident at Skara Brae, but possibly 2-2,500 years separate them and things won’t change significantly until the Vikings and IKEA arrive. The siting of the broch is nice too, with views across a narrow stretch of water to Rousay Island. It seems that nearly all brochs and ancient settlements were situated at the waters edge and that all communication between people was by boat and, in fact, that carried on until fairly modern times. Just before we leave Alison points out a strange piece of stone furniture in one of the outer dwellings which can really only be interpreted as a ‘sofa’. Well I never.
Our fleeting Orkney saga is almost complete now, but we have one more crack at visiting The Ring of Brodgar. By now the sun has disappeared into a murky, flat grey sky and although that’s not conducive to interesting photography, it’s still nice to wander around the circle and some of the surrounding mounds. We know we have to make the most of this moment as this evening is going to bring heavy rain and local people say that most of August was wet and windy, so we’ve been tremendously lucky with our weather. The afternoon is spent in Kirkwall and a visit to the Museum, which is excellent and has a huge amount of prehistory on offer. The rain arrives as predicted and the next morning we head back down to St. Margaret’s Hope to get the ferry back to the Scottish mainland and start the long journey South. We’ve enjoyed our stay and it would have been good to explore some of the smaller islands and also some of the lesser monuments in this fascinating place, but that’s for another time.