Monday, 10 June 2013

Returning to Mainland Britian

Today was our last day on the Orkney Islands so we set out to Maeshowe the finest chambered tomb in north-west Europe and more than 5000 years old. It was broken into in the mid-twelfth century by Viking crusaders who carved graffiti runes on the walls of the main chamber. In 1999, Maeshowe was designated part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.

Maeshowe hides its monumentality, for externally it appears just like a large grassy mound. (The word ‘howe’ derives from the Old Norse for a hill.) Only when we entered the single portal and walk stoopingly along its long stone passage and into the central, stone-built chamber did we become overawed by its atmosphere. Behind us only a small glint of light beckons. We feel remote from the outside world. The central chamber is quite small, only 4.7m across, but everything else is monumental. Forming most of each wall of the 10m-long passage is a single, gigantic sandstone slab, weighing anything up to three tonnes. At each corner of the central chamber is a magnificent upright standing stone. And off the central chamber are three side cells, the floors, back walls and ceiling of which are single stone slabs.

At one time of the year it was particularly special for the people who used Maeshowe. The gently sloping passage is carefully aligned so that at sunset during the three weeks before and after the shortest day of the year (21 December) the light of the setting sun shines straight down the passage and illuminates the back of the central chamber. The sun’s rays align with a standing stone, the Barnhouse Stone, standing 800m SSW of Maeshowe.

It seems that after several hundred years of use as a burial tomb Maeshowe was closed up for good. At least 3,000 years passed before it again attracted attention. This time it was Norsemen – descendants of the Vikings – who broke into the mound, no doubt curious as to what lay within. They also left behind a fascinating legacy, in the light-hearted runic graffiti they carved all over the walls. This graffiti comprises the largest collection of runic inscription that survive outside Scandinavia – a potent reminder that Orkney was under Norwegian rule until 1468.

Entrance to Maeshowe

View from Maeshowe to the Stones of Sterness

View from Maeshowe to the Ring of Brodgar
The Brough of Birsay is a tidal island off the north east tip of West Mainland was our next stop. What makes it special is that for over five hundred years it was an important settlement for two different cultures, the Picts and the Norse, before being abandoned for more easily accessible sites. As it was never redeveloped, large parts of those settlements are visible on the ground. The Brough is tidal, and access is only possible for a couple of hours either side of low tide. From the Point of Buckquoy there are a set of steps descending to the shore. A concrete causeway, wide enough for a couple of pedestrians, zigzags out across the seaweed and rocks, before depositing you near the foot of the low rocks of the Brough itself. Higher up the hill behind the settlement are the elongated remains of early Norse houses, while to the right is a confusing jumble of paved areas and walls that represent successive waves of Norse building over the top of earlier Pictish structures. The church dates back to about 1100 and was dedicated to St Peter. The church is the only really identifiable building remaining on the site. The church is also interesting for its shape. Though very small it is of Romanesque design. It probably had a square tower at one end, and a semi-circular apse at the other, very reminiscent of that at the Church at Orphir. Enough of the church is standing to reveal a wall cupboard on one side, and parts of two windows complete with evidence that they may have been glazed. It is debatable whether there is evidence of an even earlier church on almost the same spot, but the remains of a cloister to the north of the church do suggest there was probably a monastery here, most likely built in the later 1100s. Although little of St Peter's Church remains today, it was still a place of pilgrimage in the middle ages. The Brough of Birsay's original residents were the Picts, who lived here in the 600s and 700s. Much of what is on view today on the Brough dates back to the Norse settlement from the early 800s to the 1200s.  One building has been identified as a possible sauna and bathhouse, probably associated with what might be an Earl's house next door to it. Another area of slabbed flooring shows clear signs of the drain running underneath. The unmanned lighthouse was built in 1925.

Brough of Birsay across the causeway

We walked through Stromness the other large town on the island along with Kirkwall. It has one long winding road simply known as "the street" flag stones and shared by motorists and pedestrians. From this street a great number of narrow lanes and closes branch off. This gives the town a labyrinthine quality with steep narrow paths climing the hillside on the north side of the street, while on the south, the houses and shops back on to the shore. Under parts of the street are secret passages now blocked formerly used by the smugglers.

Home of Eliza Frase who in 1836 survived shipwreck on the Great Barrier Reef and capture by Aborigines to become a legendary figure in Australian History.

We then drove to the ferry terminal at St Margarets Hope for our return to mainland Britian.

The witch I spoke of in our last crossing was still at work keeping the sea salty.
Seals on the shore as we are on our way back to Gills Bay.
Once on shore we drove to John o' Grouts the most northerly point on mainland Britain.

The John o' Grouts House Hotel built in 1873 is currently undergoing a $2 million restoration.

A coastal ruin on our way to Wick

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