Monday, 15 August 2016

On the long version of how yesterday went

I apologize for the curtailed entry yesterday but both the iPhone and myself ran out of juice.

Mainland, the largest island of the Orkneys, features low, gentle hills and good roads. The wind was out of the West and as Stromness is at the Western end of Mainland, by dint of clever navigation, I was able to avoid riding into it for all but a few short bits. In addition, no rain fell. Thus a pretty good situation for biking.

En route to Skara Brae, I saw an open topped double decker bus go by and was struck by the thought "What idiot would have a double decker bus in the Orkney? And who want to ride in it?" I made Skara Brae in time for lunch of locally made and sourced food in its tearoom. I shared a table with an older couple from Portsmouth who were up on a cruise ship and who had ridden from Kirkwall to Skara Brae in the open topped bus! It turned out that the bus they had been supposed to take had broken down.

Skara Brae is a collection of stone houses built out of the local sandstone which is fairly easily quarried into rectangular blocks owing to its particular geology. They are amazingly well built even after 5000 years. No mortar, they were drystone constructions and set into the earth and linked by a central, covered passageway. The stone was also used to make furniture such as beds and dressers. Two of the houses were built before the others and more remains of the earlier phase are thought to be beneath the later phase buildings.

What blew my mind was the almost casual note that these buildings had been dug into a large midden (a waste dump) of an earlier occupational group! This put the prehistory of the place in a very strange place to my mind.

I almost couldn't cope with the hopelessly modern (17th to 20th century) Skail House a few hundred meters away. I therefore went back to Skara Brae for another look. Still mind boggling.

I then set off to the Ring of Brodgar, set on spit of land between Loch Harray and Loch Stenness. These stones were impressive as one of the larger stone circles in the British Isles, though they showed the effects of the weather including lightning damage. The circle was roughly contemporary with Skara Brae. A very little further was the Ness of Brodgar. This is an ongoing archeological dig of a village of the same approximate vintage as Skara Brae only seemingly several times larger. They are still at work and the guide said there is enough material to keep working for a lifetime. Part of me wants to come back in twenty years to see what more they have found. The site is only excavated for about eight weeks of the year. For the rest of the time, it is covered with tarpaulins weighted down with "Neolithic tires" sourced from the garages of the Orkneys who are only too pleased to get rid of them so easily.

I had to get to Maes Howe by four, so I skipped the related Standing Stones of Stenness. I am hoping stop by later.

Maes Howe is a chambered tomb which is currently reached by the entrance the builders intended which is a long low passageway lined with long slabs of rock weighing at roughly ten tons. There is a one ton "door" rock which rests on a pivot. The guide said that a retired guide told him that she used to go in as a child and push the rock closed!

The main chamber is about fifteen feet square. It has three small chambers off of it. The walls and the original ceiling are the usual Orkney sandstone laid very carefully and at height are positioned inwards akin to an igloo. The corners were formed by four re-purposed standing stones. The entrance tunnel was align so the dawn light of the first day of winter shines down it from over the top of the largest hill in the Orkneys and a standing stone located hundreds of yards away! After many years of use, the access tunnel was blocked off with large stones. The next recorded entry was that of the Norse who dug a hole in the top in a quest for treasure. They were disappointed and left runic graffiti to this effect. The roof was replaced in Victorian times.

The combined effect of all these sites, approximately from the era of 3000 BC, makes me think wistfully about changing careers, becoming an archeologist and moving to Orkney. What we don't know about these people would fill a library. What we do know is that they must have had serious building skills including the logistical element so often overlooked. They have caught my imagination.

With the Westerly wind, getting to Kirkwall was easy. After getting to my hostel and attending to various needs, I went down to the harbour front for supper. There were three steam trucks or traction engines smoking away. They had obviously been a part of the Vintage Rally. I later saw then going off into the distance in the direction of Stromness. I couldn't help but wonder about the logistics of getting them on and off ferries given modern safety regulations.

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