Shapinsay: Visiting A Wee Scottish Island


No trip to Orkney is complete without seeing some of the smaller islands. They offer plenty of natural and historic sights as well as peaceful solitude.

Little Shapinsay can be seen from the main harbor at Kirkwall, but visitors often overlook it. Even though it only measures six miles long at its longest and has only about 300 residents, it’s served by a regular car ferry from Kirkwall. My family and I noticed that the locals getting on board at Kirkwall harbor were loaded down with groceries. Apparently there aren’t many shopping opportunities on Shapinsay.

The boat pulled out of Kirkwall and passed some old gun emplacements on the Point of Carness. Orkney was a major base during the two World Wars and there are plenty of remains from that time. We also saw a tiny island called Thieves Holm. Local folklore says thieves and witches were banished here. It’s not too far from the Mainland, but with the water so chilly I doubt anyone could have made the swim. Then we pulled out into The String, the exit from Kirkwall Bay, and felt like we were in the open sea, with clean air blowing on our faces and seagulls wheeling overhead.

%Gallery-161148%Twenty-five minutes later we pulled into Shapinsay harbor. Like most of the islands up here, it’s been inhabited since prehistoric times. There are a couple of megalithic standing stones, including one called the Odin Stone, like the one that used to be near the Standing Stones of Stenness. There’s also an Iron Age broch built by the Picts.

It seems, though, that Shapinsay was mostly a sleepy place inhabited by farmers and fishermen. That all changed in the late 1700s when the Balfour family decided to build an elegant estate on the island. The first step was to build Balfour village for all the workmen, and then work began in earnest on a grand home that looks like a castle. Balfour Castle is now a hotel and a good spot if you want to splash out on a quiet retreat.

And quiet it is. Even in the center of town all we heard is the wind, birdsong and the distant drone of a tractor. After a minute even the tractor cut off. We had a quick coffee at The Smithy, a little cafe/restaurant/pub (you have to multitask when you’re one of the only businesses on the island) and headed out for a coastal hike.

For me, the biggest attraction of Scotland is the countryside, and Shapinsay certainly didn’t disappoint. After a gloomy northern morning, the weather had turned gloriously clear and warm. We chose a five-mile loop hike along the shoreline and through some woods behind Balfour Castle. My 6-year-old son is an experienced hiker and can manage five miles over easy terrain. Of course, when hiking with children make sure you give them a steady supply of water and snacks!

We started out by passing Balfour Village’s little pier and a crumbling old tower called The Douche, which used to be a salt water shower for the local residents. Then we tramped along the stony beach. Orkney is rich in bird life and we saw terns, seagulls, and several other types of birds I couldn’t identify. Every now and then a curious seal would pop its head out of the water and examine us. In the distance we saw a few sailboats and fishing vessels. Otherwise we saw nobody and heard nothing. That was exactly what I wanted.

After climbing a steep slope, our path cut inland and we tramped over lush fields carpeted with yellow, white and purple wildflowers. My son picked a couple for my wife to put in her hair and we headed through a little forest and ended up in the lush garden of Balfour Castle. It wasn’t long before we were back in the village, where we relaxed in the garden of the Smithy looking out over the water and doing nothing for a while except admiring a beautiful day in northern Scotland.

Orkney has plenty of islands to choose from. Do a bit of research ahead of time online and with the local tourism office and head on out. Pay careful attention to the ferry schedule, though, because on many islands the last ferry for the day leaves pretty early.

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Eynhallow: Visiting Orkney’s Haunted Isle!”

Prehistoric Tombs And Viking Graffiti In Orkney, Scotland


There’s something about death.

Graveyards, war memorials, mummified monks, Purgatory Museums … if there’s dead people involved, I’m there. That’s why my 6-year-old son found himself crawling through prehistoric tombs with his dad on remote Scottish islands for his summer vacation.

He loved it, of course. He still has that wonderful sense of adventure children should keep into adulthood. Plus he wasn’t scared in the least. It’s hard to fear death when you assume it doesn’t apply to you. My wife is a bit claustrophobic and so is less into this sort of thing. She prefers stone circles, although she gamely explored the tombs with her crazy husband and son.

What appealed to him, and me, was the spooky, silent darkness of these prehistoric tombs and the strange texture of the stones. That’s why I love this photo by Paddy Patterson. It shows the Tomb of the Eagles on the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay just off the north coast of Scotland. This image highlights the almost fleshy texture of the rock and the dank, dark interior.

Orkney is full of Neolithic tombs. As I mentioned in my previous post in this series, Orkney was home to a flourishing Stone Age culture 5,000 years ago. These people buried their dead in large subterranean tombs with several side chambers that were reused over several generations. The Tomb of the Eagles was one of the biggest and gets its name from the many eagle bones found inside.

Our visit started at the museum nearby, where a docent passed around artifacts found at the site and showed us the skulls of the people buried there. Life was hard back then and those who survived childhood rarely made it past their 30s. One woman’s skull showed an abscess the size of marble. Strangely, it never got infected. Her teeth showed signs of wear consistent with chewing on leather, a crude but effective way of softening it up for use. Since the traditional method of curing leather required soaking it in urine, and urine is a natural disinfectant, perhaps her abscess never got infected because she was chewing on urine-soaked leather all day. The good old days? I think not.

%Gallery-161068%While the museum was great, I must admit I was a bit disappointed by the tomb itself. It was unprofessionally excavated by a local farmer who tore off the entire roof to get inside. Now it’s been covered with a concrete cap that reduces the whole effect. Hopefully someone will provide the funds to restore the roof someday.

A much smaller but almost perfectly preserved tomb is Cuween Hill on Orkney Mainland. Overlooking the road between Kirkwall and Finstown, it has a central chamber and four side chambers. My son and I had to crawl inside through a tiny entrance passage. When we got there, we found someone had lit candles at the entrances to each of the side chambers.

“Why did they do that?” my son asked.

“Because they’re respecting the ancestors,” I replied. “Leave them alone. We’re going to respect their respect.”

“OK,” he replied. “Just don’t burn yourself when you crawl over them.”

My son knows me well enough to know that a little bit of fire won’t stop me from exploring an ancient tomb.

What struck me about this tomb was how well it was made. There was no mortar; it was simply made from rectangular slabs of rock cleverly stacked atop one another to form arches, doorways and passages. A lot of care went into their final resting place.

Besides human remains, archaeologists discovered 24 dog skulls in Cuween Hill, prompting witty locals to call it the “Tomb of the Beagles.” Another tomb had otter bones. Perhaps each group had their own communal tomb and totem animal.

Orkney’s most famous Neolithic tomb is Maeshowe. Built around 2700 B.C. within sight of two stone circles and at least two major settlements, it appeared as a massive artificial hill 30 meters (100 feet) around and 11 meters (36 feet) high. It was surrounded by a ditch and earthen embankment, something also found around many stone circles.

Entering through a long, low passageway, we soon were able to stand and admire a central chamber fashioned much the same way as Cuween Hill but on a much grander scale. The passageway was acted as more than an entrance. For a few days around the midwinter solstice, the setting sun shines through the passage and onto the back wall. If you don’t want to brave the Orkney winter, you can watch it on a webcam.

Maeshowe’s walls are covered in Viking graffiti. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, on Christmas Day 1153, a group of Vikings were making their way to a nearby port in order to sail off to the Crusades. A sudden storm blew up and the Vikings broke into the tomb to find shelter. To pass the time, they wrote runes on the walls. Most of these are prosaic, like “Tryggr carved these runes.” One fellow showed off by writing in two rare styles of Runic. Those who could read it were rewarded with the boast, “These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean.”

Another hints at a buried treasure: “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 that great treasure. Hakon alone bore treasure from this mound,” signed “Simon Sirith.”

For a complete listing of the graffiti, check this link.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Shapinsay: Visiting A Wee Scottish Island!”

The Heart Of Neolithic Orkney

Heart Of Neolithic Orkney, Neolithic Orkney, Orkney, Standing Stones of Stenness
For reasons that aren’t very clear, the Orkney Islands just north of Scotland were the happening place to be 5000 years ago.

The temperature was warmer in Orkney back then, with forest and deer in addition to the abundant bird and marine life that still mark Orkney out as a natural wonderland. The Neolithic (Late Stone Age) people farmed the land and hunted game. They also built some of the most remarkable prehistoric monuments in Europe.

The photo above shows the Standing Stones of Stenness, a stone circle built around 3100 B.C., making it one of the earliest of the 1000 stone circles in the UK and roughly contemporary with the earliest building phase of Stonehenge. It was once made up of about a dozen massive yet thin slabs, but now only four remain standing. Several lone standing stones stood in the surrounding area.

Many legends and traditions grew up around the stones. One stone, called the Odin Stone after the Norse god, had a hole near its base. Young Orcadian couples used to promise themselves in marriage by clasping their hands through it. A local farmer got so sick of these happy couples trespassing on his land that he knocked the stone down in 1814, with the intention of taking the rest down too. The Orcadians were furious and the farmer wisely stopped destroying the stones.

Like many stone circles, the Standing Stones of Stenness was surrounded by a ditch and earthen palisade. The opening led to a nearby village of the same date called the Barnhouse settlement. Here archaeologists uncovered 15 round stone houses. The rooms have stone furniture and little recesses for beds. They also have fireplaces made up of four stone slabs. One of them seems to have been moved from here to the center of the Standing Stones of Stenness. Why? Nobody knows.

%Gallery-160972%Less than a mile away across a narrow isthmus between two lochs stands the Ring of Brodgar, a massive stone circle measuring 104 meters (340 feet) in diameter. The only stone circles bigger than it are Avebury and Stanton Drew in England. Twenty-seven stones still exist, and archaeologists have found evidence for a total of sixty.

The Ring of Brodgar was built between 2500 and 2000 B.C. and is the youngest of the great Neolithic monuments in the area. Like the Standing Stones of Stenness, it was surrounded by a ditch that would have been filled with water, thus making a symbolic “island” like the real ones these people lived on.

A couple of minutes walk away, archaeologists have discovered an impressive Neolithic settlement made up of large stone buildings. The largest, rather unromantically called Structure Ten, measures 25×20 meters (82×65 feet) with 5-meter (16-foot) thick walls. This is by far the largest Neolithic stone building found in Britain.

Called the Ness of Brodgar, this settlement was inhabited from about 3,200 to 2,300 B.C. Each of the buildings was used for a time and then covered over. Structure Ten got special treatment. There seems to have been a big feast there as a grand finale, with the bones of some 300 cattle deposited at the same time, as well as a complete skeleton of a red deer, which seems to have been simply left there and not eaten. You can read more about the Ness of Brodgar excavations on their blog. New information is being uncovered every day.

So the dates of the two stone circles and two settlements show there was about a thousand years of activity in this area. Archaeologists believe that it was a ritual focal point for all of Orkney and maybe even for people in more distant lands.

On the Bay of Skaill, on the western shores of Mainland, is the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. The eight structures are similar to the Barnhouse site but on a much grander scale. Each has a large square room, beds to the sides, a central hearth and a stone “dresser.” These shelves of stone have caused all sorts of debate among archaeologists. Some think they were simply for storing things, while others suggest ritual use. The buildings were connected by covered passageways.

Skara Brae was occupied from about 3200-2500 B.C., the same period as the other great Neolithic sites. Before Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, Mainland Orkney developed a great and little-known civilization.

The prehistoric sites on the Orkney Mainland are collectively known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Beyond those mentioned here, the UNESCO listing includes many tombs, including the impressive Maeshowe. More on them tomorrow!

A great resource on all things Orcadian is the Orkneyjar website, which has a seemingly endless supply of articles on the history, archaeology, culture and folklore of Orkney. Highly recommended!

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Prehistoric Tombs and Viking Graffiti in Orkney!”

Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles

Orkney
In my school library in Canada, there was a curious old volume printed in 1909 called “The Orkney Book.” It was written for schoolchildren living in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland and told them about their land, culture and history.

This book fascinated me with its stories of Viking warriors and mysterious stone circles. I studied the grainy black and white photos of those remote islands and dreamed of going there. Last week I finally did.

Orkney, as Orcadians call their home, is a group of about 70 islands between the North Sea and North Atlantic. The exact number is a matter of dispute because in addition to the numerous inhabited islands, some with a population as low as one, there are many more uninhabited islands and skerries. When is an island really an island and not just a rock sticking out of the sea? I suspect this has been the subject of many long conversations in Orcadian pubs.

My wife, 6-year-old son and I landed in the tiny airport at Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital. With a population a little above 7,500, it’s not exactly a booming metropolis, but it does account for more than a third of Orkney’s population. What Kirkwall lacks in size it makes up for in history and character. In the broad harbor are moored numerous fishing and pleasure boats and a few larger vessels. Beyond can be seen other islands, green humps rising out of the gray sea.

Dominating the Kirkwall skyline is the 12th century St. Magnus Cathedral built of red sandstone. It was built in 1137 by Earl Rognvald, a Viking at a time when most Vikings were nominally Christian. He built it to house the remains of his uncle Magnus, who had become a saint after having his head split by an axe in traditional Viking fashion. Magnus had been an Earl of the Orkneys, ruling for the Norwegian king along with Magnus’ cousin Hakon, who was Earl of another part of Orkney. This co-rulership led to trouble and when Magnus and Hakon met to sort things out, Hakon betrayed him. Hakon didn’t want his own hands soiled by a kinsman’s blood and called on his cook to perform the foul deed. Soon miracles started happening around Magnus’ grave and he was proclaimed a saint.

Kirkwall also has an excellent museum tracing Orkney’s history from the surprisingly active prehistoric period to the modern day. There’s also a cool Wireless Museum filled with a huge collection of old radios; one from 1912 actually works and on another set you can practice your Morse code. My son was more interested in the old TV where you could play Pong, a video game from an era that must seem as remote to him as the Neolithic.

%Gallery-160901%Our next stop was Stromness, a half-hour bus ride from Kirkwall. As we got off and gazed over the cluster of gray stone buildings huddled around the harbor, my son asked, “Is this the other place they call a city?”

Well, after growing up in Madrid, I guess it doesn’t seem like much of a city to him, but with a little over 2,000 people it’s the second biggest town on the islands. It has a thriving artistic community and many artists display their work at the Pier Arts Centre. There’s also a large museum about the lives of the hardy local sailors, whalers, and explorers of days gone by. Many of the displays are of the things they brought back from their travels, everything from artwork from Niger and Greenland to whalebone scrimshaw and necklaces made from human teeth.

The highlight of our visit to Stromness was walking along the shore and around a promontory. Soon we left the town behind us and looked out over the cold waves. Seals popped their heads out of the water to study us. “Look, a seal! Look, a seal!” my son kept shouting as he spotted another and another. A few rocks became identified as seals too, and spotting more seals took on the uncertainty and excitement that adults generally reserve for UFOs. We clambered over the remains of a World War II gun emplacement, one of many on the islands, and admired the high hills of Hoy island, shown in the photo above.

Both Kirkwall and Stromness are on Orkney’s main island, which Orcadians call the Mainland even though mainland Scotland is barely twenty miles from its southern shores. For those wanting a base from which to get out and about on the islands, either of these two cities is a good bet. Many of Orkney’s top attractions are on the Mainland and Kirkwall and Stromness have regular ferry services to other islands. While we stayed in Kirkwall, my wife and I found Stromness more attractive. Its old architecture and quieter streets had a more traditional feel.

We’d only been on Orkney for 24 hours and we were already hooked. I was looking forward to seeing the countryside and the smaller islands.

This is the first in my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney!”