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

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

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!”

Orkney Islands Serendipity: Discovering The Best Place I Never Wanted to See

“You’ll need to catch the bus to Stromness,” says the lady at the tourist information office. She’s the cheery sort you’d expect to find working here — that rare employee who genuinely seems to love her job.

I arrived in Kirkwall, the largest town in the Orkney Islands, less than an hour ago. I’ve come to ask the best mode of transportation to the Orkney Folk Festival, three nights of continuous musical acts held over the long May weekend.

She removes a pamphlet and turns it around on the counter. She circles the schedule time leaving tomorrow night at 5:15 p.m. Her name tag simply states Kathleen.

“How long does it take to get there?” I ask.

“About a half an hour with stops,” she says. “Are you going to the festival?”

“Yes!” I say.

“How are you getting back? The buses stop running at ten.”

“Oh?” I question. “Could I take a taxi?”

I can see by the look on her face this is not an option. I keep forgetting Kirkwall has about 7,100 residents and where I’m headed tomorrow, less than a third of that number.

“You know, I think my brother is going there. He could give you a lift back.”

Before I can say no, she’s picked up the phone. After a few moments she says it’s all set and he’ll meet me in the foyer after the concert. His name is Alistair. He’ll be with his significant other, Marie.

Ordinarily this goes against everything I learned as a kid: Do not accept rides from strangers. But surely this adorable woman – Kathleen – would not be arranging dangerous pick-ups from the Kirkwall Tourism Office. That would be bad for business. No, I’ll take the risk. The scariest thing I’ve seen so far is a shocking lack of sunshine.

“Thank you! That’s so kind of you,” I say. “I’ll meet him after the concert then.”

Everyone had questioned my decision to visit this place. Nobody had ever heard of it – including me. When I’d studied the map of Scotland, something had drawn me to this archipelago of 70 islands located below the Shetland Islands. My mother had said I might as well go to the North Pole.

“Look!” Mom had screamed. “It’s practically off the page it’s so high up!”

Before leaving Edinburgh this morning, I’d asked the bellman if he’d ever been to the Orkney Islands. He hadn’t, and he was Scottish. True, Edinburgh has a lot to offer: the Royal Mile, the ghost tours, the castle. All the attractions most travelers consider Places of Interest.

“Why are you going there?” he’d asked as I was leaving.

“I’m going to the Orkney Folk Festival. This marks its 27th year,” I’d told him. “For three full days and nights, musicians from all over the world come and play.”

He’d offered a nod and quizzical smile in return.


The next evening I exit the Albert Hotel (one of about six in the entire town) and walk four blocks to the bus station. The rain has kindly stopped. For the past two weeks I’ve never been without a raised umbrella. I step onto the small bus that reminds me of a shuttle at an amusement park. I am seated behind the driver. He cracks a joke as the door shuts that the strange barking noise that sputters from the exhaust pipe is meant to be a dog. Everyone laughs. There are not more than ten people on board. The sun has suddenly appeared for the first time.

As we pull away I notice scruffy sheep standing in a nearby field upon grass so green they seem surreal. A young girl galloping by on a dark horse jumps high over a rail. Whoosh. There are two girls seated across from me. One is holding a large box on her lap and her friend says whatever’s in there smells amazin’. She’s bringing it to an annual barbecue and somebody’s even flyin’ in special.

Dandelions spring out of the ground like hedgerows. Their whitish heads are so dense they probably have ten-times the wishing power when you blow on their parachute balls. Dozens of tiny lambs look like little earthly clouds. There are beige cows, black cows, sitting cows, grazing cows. A sign posted along the road reads Blind Summit. I think it’s a warning we’re about to “fall off the page,” but luckily it’s just a steep hill, and the bus stops at the bottom in front of someone’s house. The slate planks stacked on top of the stone wall look like books tilted on a shelf. More baby lambs are running and kicking like pronking gazelles.

A teenage couple hops on and the girl says to her boyfriend, “Aw, you paid for me?” He blushes. She slides her hand in the back pocket of his jeans. The label says Mish-Mash. As the door closes, the scent of earth smells rich like wet peat moss. Someone has left a newspaper on an empty seat with the headline: Dead Heifer Washes Ashore. In a place where the animals outnumber the residents, missing cows are front page news.

The bus arrives in the tiny port of Stromness. Boats of all sizes painted in primary colors float on calm water. The bar at the Stromness Hotel contains performers carrying musical instruments and it looks as though their idea of a good dinner is the same as mine — a pint of Guinness. The room reminds me of the Old West with its oak interior and worn velvety furnishings. Even over laughter I can hear the floor creak with each step. The bartender, a dark-haired woman with tattoos, has silver hoops up the entire edge of her left earlobe. My second beer comes with a surprise – a shamrock etched in foam, almost too perfect to sip.

At just past seven-thirty, though it’s colder, the sky remains bright blue. A cluster of seagulls fly above the harbor as people on the narrow street gravitate toward the Town Hall. As I approach the entrance, it feels more like a church social; someone’s even selling raffle tickets.

“I’ll take three, please.”

A ginger-haired woman tears off a handful of hope in the form of three stubs.

“Good luck,” she says.

“Thanks. I feel lucky,” I say, stuffing numbers 35, 36, and 37 into my coat pocket.

I ascend the staircase and a man holding a clipboard says I can sit anywhere in the top section. I choose the first row to the left. The seat is barely wide enough to sit upon. My knees are knocking against the wooden casing. A woman finishing an ice cream cone waves to somebody she recognizes. I’m probably the only outsider at this music festival, an event so small, I had to get lodging on the other side of the island, take a bus here, and get a ride home from strangers.

The hall fills quickly. Some four hundred Orcadians are in attendance, a vast difference from the concerts back home. A man and his daughter squeeze past and sit beside me. He asks me where I’m from and if I’m going to the Bagpipe Concert in Kirkwall tomorrow night. His child, a beautiful girl around the age of fourteen, has brown bobbed hair and a mouthful of metal, and is missing both of her hands. I tell him that sounds like fun and maybe I’ll try to crash it. The girl smiles at me, yet never speaks. I think her face may be the purest thing I’ve ever seen.

A voice shouts, “Order, order!” The lights dim and an all-male trio take the stage. The man playing an accordion with holes in the knees of his jeans leads another man banging a keyboard while the other strums a guitar. Toes are tapping and heads are bobbing. Someone’s foot shakes the pew behind me. Here, in the dark, I cannot bring myself to clap, and stomp the floor instead, like the handless girl seated next to me.

I am more aware of the crowd than the players. My mind flashes back to the girl on that horse leaping over a high, white bar. I feel like a wild pony, mane flying, nostrils flaring, running through a green-green, greener-than-anything field.

I’m spellbound by a singer named Karan Casey. Her voice holds more emotion in each note than anyone I’ve ever heard perform live. Oh, to be born with such a gift, to move an audience, bringing tears to the eyes of those you’ve known all your life, the people of interest in unremarkable places. I wonder how many other wee towns there are in the world worth visiting. The ones so small nobody’s ever heard of them.

When the concert finally ends, the raffle begins. There are five prizes to be awarded tonight, says the lady in burgundy supervising the gentleman reaching into a jar and pulling out random tickets. The crowd listens carefully. None of my three numbers has been called and she’s about to announce the fourth prize.

“Number thirty-six,” she blurts.

“That’s me!” I cry louder than anyone else who’s won so far. The people seated around me applaud and pat my back like a friend as I descend the staircase two steps at a time.

I’m given a large tin wrapped in green and blue paper and tied with a gold bow. Whatever’s inside sure is heavy.

I follow the crowd through the exit doors and wait in the lobby. I see the red-haired lady still seated at the entrance table. Now she’s selling CDs from the acts that have just performed.

“Look!” I shout, flashing a big smile her way, holding up my present.

“Oh, that’s just grand,” she says.

There go father and daughter. The girl grins at me one final time. I can tell she knows I won’t be at her dad’s piping concert tomorrow evening. All the venues around town are sold out. I’d bought my ticket online to tonight’s show weeks ago and had it sent to the Albert Hotel. The price was less than eight dollars.

It’s after ten o’clock and I’m startled by a noisy murder of crows from the tree in the courtyard, the one next to the restrooms.

“Jill?” a man asks.

“Yes, that’s me.”

“I’m Alistair and this is Marie,” he says. He has a pleasant face and is wearing wire-rimmed glasses. His friend appears to be in her forties and is quite pretty without as much as a stroke of mascara. I can see the resemblance between Kathleen and her baby brother.

“So nice to meet you,” I say.

“Did you enjoy the show?” Marie asks.

“Oh, yes!” I declare. “It was better than I could have ever imagined.”

“Are you ready?” Alistair asks.

I’m never ready to go home.

“I guess,” I say sadly.

Alistair quickly senses my lack of historical knowledge when he mentions the Ring o’ Brodgar and the Standing Stones o’ Stenness. I stupidly ask if they have something to do with hobbits. I am oblivious that last year an archaeologist named Dr. Colin Richards spent time excavating these megalithic monuments. The standing stone circles are one of the main attractions here in the Orkneys.

“Dr. Richards said that the great ring may have been built around a pre-existing pathway and passing through it may have altered a person’s state, a bit like entering a church and moving towards the altar,” Marie shares.

Alistair pulls his car off the road and parks. As he opens the door a gust of bitter cold air sweeps through the backseat. Across the marsh on the other side I see a man fishing in a small boat. His dark outline is striking against the reeds and rippling water. He’s motionless.

Marie and Alistair have already climbed the slight incline toward the Ring o’ Brodgar’s standing stones. I’m stepping cautiously as each footprint sinks into the soggy soil. The wind swirls around me as I approach the monument.

“Touch one,” Alistair says. “They’re supposed to bring good luck. We’ll get a photo of you if you’d like.”

Selecting one of the largest stones I inch toward the twenty-foot-tall, flat rock and throw my arms around its base. Golden lichens and frosted white markings cover the surface above me like ancient graffiti. I’m hugging a mystical chunk of the world, standing in a place I’d never heard of before with total strangers.

Walking back down the hill toward the road, I hear a scuffling noise.

“Look,” Marie says, pointing. “Over there, beyond the fence.”

I see the faint outline of a cow kicking its heels up behind it, like a rodeo bull gone mad.

“Wonder what she’s so happy about?” Alistair jokes.

We all laugh, but it almost feels like I’m cutting up during a preacher’s sermon.

After a few more minutes, we finally reach the familiar town of Kirkwall. Alistair knows a shortcut to my hotel. I cannot thank them enough for the ride and the unexpected tour. Waving good-bye and watching the car drive away, I suddenly feel terrible for not giving them the prize I’d won as payment. I don’t know what’s underneath the wrap, but feel certain it’s definitely worth seeing.

Jill Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her essays have been featured in The Best Travel Writing 2009, The Saturday Evening Post, Travel Africa, Thought Catalog and other publications. She has an M.A. in Humanities and a Master of Professional Writing degree from USC. She travels for the inexplicable human connection.