I lay flat on my back on a trolley resembling a giant’s skateboard. Gripping the rope that was slung along the roof just above my nose, I pulled myself hand-over-hand through the low, damp stone tunnel and into the tomb.
Once inside, I scrambled to my feet and walked along the dimly-lit central corridor, inspecting the chambers where stone-age men and women laid their dead five thousand years ago. The little rooms were intact, with gently curving walls and neat shelves, carefully constructed from the flat granite stones that lay on the nearby seashore. The small, regular cells could have been built yesterday. Back outside, gulls and kittiwakes cried plaintively as they swooped along the steep cliff face that fell away below the burial site. At the foot of the cliff, grey seals turned lazily in the lapping waves of the North Sea and on the horizon loomed the northern coast of mainland Scotland, like a misty green whale floating on steely grey water.
An Italian woman was loudly refusing to take the short but unorthodox journey into the tomb. “Are there bones inside?” she asked as I emerged from the narrow entrance. When I said that yes, you could see some skulls, she shuddered and turned away to sit on a cliff-top bench, leaving her two sons to negotiate their way in. The boys were delighted with the unexpected mode of transport. I made my way back to the Pictish house, a couple of fields away and a mere two thousand years old, where the farmer who discovered these remains would show me around.
To my surprise, I’d become addicted to visiting the prehistoric sites on these breezy islands off the north coast of Scotland, situated where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea. Orkney consists of seventy islands that are home to twenty thousand people and one hundred thousand cattle. The islands were part of Norway until the fifteenth century when they were ceded to Scotland in a royal marriage settlement, and they still felt like a separate country.
The ferry from John O’Groats, on the north coast of Scotland, had deposited me at the tiny harbour of St Margaret’s Hope after a one-hour crossing. I continued in my car to Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital, through a carpet of rolling lawns speckled with black-and-white cattle. It was a startling contrast to the wild, mountainous landscape of northern Scotland. The drive took me around the edge of the sheltered inlet of Scapa Flow, with sweeping views of sea, sky and distant islands – and straight into another extraordinary era of Orkney’s history, the two world wars. Huge concrete blocks support the causeways which link the islands surrounding this large natural marina. The causeways are in fact walls — the Churchill Barriers — built to protect Britain’s naval fleet that was based here during World War II. I was a little unnerved to see nothing but swelling waves on both sides of the car.
Thankfully it was low tide as I drove slowly across the sea. Rusting hulks of long-wrecked ships were visible on either side of the causeways. Why were they still here? Then it dawned on me that these were the remains of the German Imperial Fleet, confined here at the end of World War I and scuttled by its crews in 1919. I soon discovered that Scapa Flow is a favourite destination for divers wishing to explore undersea wrecks. I would pass on that opportunity, however, and stick to places that could be investigated in greater comfort.
I met up with my daughter Lizzie, who was working here at one of the ancient sites, outside St Magnus’ cathedral. The late afternoon sun lit up the rich red sandstone of the sturdy building that dates from the twelfth century and dominates the centre of Kirkwall. We wandered across a small patch of grass past a couple of trees, a rare sight in Orkney, and into the main shopping street. Flagstones paved the narrow, winding lane, but here was all the usual bustle of a town centre, with meandering tourists and Orcadians shopping purposefully. Cars and vans were forced to proceed at walking pace as they jostled for space with the pedestrians. We stopped for coffee in Lizzie’s favourite café, sinking into deep sofas where displays of pottery and hand-made bags hung from the walls, all for sale. Lizzie pointed out that many people were self-employed or had second jobs, often small craft businesses, as sidelines. One of her colleagues made and sold chocolates in addition to his office day job.
My hotel was several miles beyond Kirkwall, nestling among fields in the parish of Stenness. I felt a great sense of calm in the soothing landscape, and I slept exceptionally well here. From my pleasant room I looked across strips of shining water and more bright fields dotted with cattle. Clouds raced past as gusts of rain alternated with bursts of sunshine, and a rainbow briefly coloured the grey sky. Pointing skywards from the land between the nearby sea loch of Stenness, and the freshwater loch of Harray beyond, were prehistoric standing stones: the three enormous Stones of Stenness and behind them the Ring of Brodgar.
“The position of the standing stones in the landscape was significant”, explained Sandra, my guide, as I stumbled after her through the heather and round the towering pillars. She or a colleague, rangers for Historic Scotland, dropped by once a day to see if anyone wanted a (free) tour. Like many arrangements in Orkney, it was an informal event conducted in a relaxed and friendly manner. Her soft Orcadian voice was musical and unhurried, befitting the undulating hills and curving shorelines lapped by gentle waves.
We were joined by an Australian mother and daughter who had just visited the croft their family left a century ago. A young American and her English boyfriend were on their way to meet her cousins who lived on an outlying island. Sandra invited us to speculate about the original purpose of the stone circle. Probably religious and to do with ancestors, we suggested, but she reckoned it was also a festival ground. “After all, they lived in small communities and had to expand the gene pool somehow”. Was this atmospheric place really the hub of the clubbing scene five thousand years ago?
“Forget Paris or Milan – five thousand years ago, Stenness was the cool place to be!” Our guide bubbled with enthusiasm. Possibly she thought it still was. We were inside Maeshowe, an intricate chambered tomb that had been precision engineered by Neolithic people and was possibly a central point in elaborate rituals. Vikings had sheltered here from a raging storm a thousand years ago, whiling away the time by carving on the walls, so giving us Britain’s finest collection of Norse runic writing. They displayed the deep thoughts of graffiti-writers everywhere. For example, “Haermund Hardaxe carved these letters”. Some of the letters were very high up; I could imagine the Vikings horsing around and climbing on each others’ shoulders to see how far up the wall they could reach as they waited for the howling wind outside to abate.
Among many early and prehistoric sites in Orkney, the jewel had to be the village of Skara Brae. Together with the tomb at Maeshowe and the stone circles, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a recognition of its significance and uniqueness.
When the ancient Egyptians started to construct pyramids, the inhabitants of Skara Brae were already moving out. Set in farmland that overlooked the glistening white sands of the Bay of Skaill, lay the remains of nine connected round houses and a workshop. They were built to efficient ecological standards, semi-underground, and using natural waste as insulation. We looked down on them from above, as the roofs were no longer in place, and we could see that they were laid out to a regular design. Neat box beds surrounded central hearths. Shelves and alcoves for storage were set into the robust walls. All had been carefully hewn from stone. A Neolithic Ikea was obviously nearby. It was all very personal and felt as if the inhabitants must have gone out for the morning. They would surely be back any moment, maybe bringing with them the latest in state-of-the-art stone sofas.
In the Skara Brae visitor centre I saw delicate bone necklaces and stone beads that were fashioned by the people who lived here, and jewellery-making remained one of Orkney’s distinctive industries. I had already wandered around many small shops in Kirkwall and gazed longingly at the works of local painters, potters, knitters and weavers as well as jewellery makers. The jewellery designers’ names and their work were familiar from big-city stores; wave motifs and subtle colours inspired by the land- and sea-scapes, shapes and patterns based on the designs of ancient artefacts.
Another major industry was not as obvious at first sight. As Lizzie and I disembarked from the tiny ferry bringing us back from the island of Rousay, a fisherman was packing up crates heaving with lobsters and enormous crabs. “Where can we eat them fresh?” we asked. “In Spain, mostly,” he grinned. He was transporting them in his van to storage tanks where they were kept to ensure a regular fresh supply to customers. The only visible signs of the industry were the few fishing boats and piles of lobster pots, and the red buoys bobbing on the sea.
But we’d already sussed out the places where we could get fresh seafood, for it didn’t all leave these shores. In the port of Stromness, where Lizzie and her bike were staying and where granite houses rose out of the sea to merge with the stone-flagged road, several café-pub-restaurants served lobster and crab. We picked a favourite restaurant, lucky to get a table and ensuring that we didn’t coincide with the evening arrival of the big ferry from mainland Scotland. Inside the cosy room, candles flickered on big, sturdy wooden tables. A group of athletic-looking men and women earnestly discussed diving techniques as they attacked large steaks. As the welcoming waiter ushered us in, we were greeted cheerfully by the Italian woman from the skateboard tomb and her family. They were tucking enthusiastically into plates of seafood, side orders of chips and salad, and a bottle of white wine. We’d seen their hired bikes resting against the outside wall. Orkney could clearly provide plenty to satisfy the visitor who was somewhat less enthusiastic than me about our remoter ancestors.
I’d felt a real sense of connection in these unique
islands; with the people who lived here over thousands of years; with
the animals and birds who shared the shores; and with the landscape
that shaped lives. But I was sipping wine that tasted of the Mediterranean.
Rock music played in the background, interrupted by the low hoot of
the ferry as it arrived to disgorge more cars, lorries and tourists.
As I finished my crab salad I could think of no other place where the
ancient and the modern sat so easily and comfortably together as in