This was to be one of the highlight of the holidays. Unfortunately the weather did not appreciate how much I was looking forward to the day. This was my third visit to Orkney, and on each occasion the weather has been bad – I have been unlucky.
The Orkney archipelago starts only 5 miles north of the Scottish mainland, but until 1483 was controlled by Norway. And so until the 17th century in Orkney and Shetland a variant of Old Norwegian, Norn, was widely spoken. Today modern Faroese is the most similar language. Norn died out from the 15th century onwards as more Scots moved to the islands, Scotland took increasing control, and the locals saw the benefit of speaking the language of the dominant society. But some residual knowledge of Norn survives in language academics, gleaned in the 19th century or from a few documented poems.
Orkney is a honeypot for history nerds. Historic Scotland (HS) has details of three hundred and eight sites in Scotland in its guidebook. Thirty-five of these are in the Orkneys, a concentration totally disproportionate to the small size of the islands. The Orkneys only consists of about 1.25% off the area of Scotland, but it has over 11% of Historic Scotland’s sites.
I suspect there are three reasons for the survival of so much history. Firstly the islands are practically treeless, but local sandstone is plentiful. The sandstone is easily broken along the grain when first quarried, but in time the surface oxidises and hardens. Therefore building was in stone rather than wood or turf, and therefore much more likely to survive than a wooden building.
Secondly, the islands seem to have been something of a religious centre. Archeologists are still investigating, but the islands seem to have been a magnet for religious worship. Why this occurred on this archipelago of islands we just don’t understand.
And finally we now think of the islands as remote, but in the past this was not so. Much of Scotland was densely forested. The rivers were untamed and not channeled, so the land was very boggy. So sea travel was the way to go. In the last millennium Orkney and Shetland were therefore on major trading and transport routes, particularly between Norway and the west of the U.K. and Ireland, and between Norway, the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland. The Orkneys were also on the sea route between east and west Scotland. So the islands were a service station on a major transport artery.
Our ship docked outside the main port, Kirkwall. We were tendered off the ship to the pier, and took a shuttle bus from the pier to the bus station in the centre of Kirkwall. We then transferred to a local bus towards Stromness, the island’s second town, but alighted at the Maeshowe visitors’ centre. Maeshowe is a Neolithic burial mound. The Neolithic period (think stone age in common parlance) in Orkney ended about 1500 BC. In outward appearance Maeshowe is a large turf covered mound. The visitors’ centre runs a bus once an hour to the mound, and booking over the internet in busy periods is essential because of the small size of the central chamber in the mound.
The mound is entered via a narrow passage, about 7 metres (23ft) long and about 1 metre (3ft) high, to a central burial chamber. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside the chamber. The burial objects are long since gone, removed by Norse tomb raiders if not earlier. The main chamber is almost 4 metres high, and could probably accommodate 25 people standing, a bit of a constraint for HS in busy periods. On three sides there are small chambers.
The internal chamber of Maeshowe has a large number of runic inscriptions scratched on the stone walls, and the HS guide interpreted some of these for us. Runes were a form of writing, based on an alphabet of angular letter, particularly suited to carving on stone or wood. Runes were used by Germanic languages before the Latin alphabet was adopted. None of the inscriptions in the tomb are works of literary merit – they are more the work of 12th century Norse graffiti artists. However what is surprising is the level of literacy amongst the 12th century Norse. A wide range of ordinary people had left messages, showing they could read and write.
After Maeshowe, we walked to the Stones of Stenness. This was a henge, with twelve standing stones, although only four still survive. The structure is around 5000 years old, and the stones rise to about 16ft (5 metres) above ground. It was cold and wet, and we were on foot, so rather than continuing to the even more impressive Ring of Brodgar, another more complete henge which I had visited before, we took the local bus from Maeshowe to Stromness and visited the museum there.
Between the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar archeologists have discovered a major prehistoric site. Traces were identified in a geophysical survey in 2002, but archeological excavations only started in 2004 in what is likely be one of the foremost Neolithic sites in Britain. Again there just wasn’t time to look at this – mainland Orkney, the archipelago’s main island, requires a week as a minimum to do it justice, not just a day. And there are a number of other islands in the archipelago.
Stromness is a busy small port today, and in the 19th century was a stopping off point for Hudson Bay Company ships travelling from London to Canada. They often recruited Orcadians as crew or to work for them, and so the Orkneys made a major contribution to the development of Canada.