First stop this morning was Maeshowe. We called into the Maeshowe Information Centre and found out the only way to access this site is through a Historic Scotland guided tour which needs to be per booked. The tour leaves on the hour every hour until late into the evening. The next available tour was 11am so we booked this, and in the meantime, we visited the Standing Stones of Stenness.
The Standing Stones date back as far as 3000BC and today consists of four upright stones up to 6m in height in a circle which originally held 12 stones. In the interior is a large hearth and once the stones were encircled by a large ditch and bank but have been lost over time because of ploughing.
Alongside the Standing Stones are the excavated remains of a village thought to have been inhabited by the builders of Maeshowe called the Barnhouse Neolithic Village. The houses are well preserved and are similar to Skara Brae but on a smaller scale.
Back to Maeshowe Information Centre for our 11am tour. We boarded a bus with a tour guide and headed 2 minutes up the road and then a 10-minute walk to the site. Maeshowe is a 5000-year-old burial tomb beneath a large grassy mound. To enter the tomb, we had to bend over for about 10 metres. Inside is a square room with four standing stones, one at each corner. In each wall there is a rectangular hole which archaeologists think may have been some kind of burial area. On the walls are engraved symbols which tell a story and on one pillar is a drawing of a dragon. Its midwinter alignment allows the setting sun to illuminate the interior of the chamber for just a few days in December at the winter solstice. A webcam is set up for 20 days before and 20 days after 25th December to enable people all around the world to view this amazing occurrence (www.maeshowe.co.uk). The guide, Sara is very knowledgeable, humorous and a great story teller.
Next, a mile northwest of the Stenness Standing Stones we took a one-hour free guided tour with two experienced World Heritage Site Rangers of the Ring of Brodgar, an enormous ceremonial site dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. It comprises of a massive stone circle, originally consisting of 60 stones; 27 survive today, at least 13 prehistoric burial mounds and a large rock-cut ditch surrounding the stone circle with 2 causeways to enter the inner circle. The purpose of the standing stones is unknown but just as churches today are used for various events it is likely that the stone circles served a number of roles. The rangers have a wealth of knowledge and the hour-long tour was well worth it in helping us understand the importance Orkney’s long and colourful history and the connections between the sites.
Between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stenness Standing Stones is the Ness of Brodgar a massive working dig which has so far revealed a Neolithic site of great importance of a walled settlement with a large building and around 100 other structures, some painted. Currently the dig is covered with black plastic and tyres to preserve it and reopens next week for visitors and the recommencement of the dig for this year. Apparently, the site is an amazing thing to see, but this we will have to wait until our next visit.
We then headed along the main road to Kirkwall and in the roadside fields were Highland cows which have long haired coats and on the opposite side of the road in a field with mud were Woolly pigs which have a coat that looks like a sheep but the ears and tail of a pig. They are Mangalica pigs from Hungary. It was fascinating to see these woolly bodies grunting.
Connecting the mainland of Orkney to a chain of islands across a body of water called Scarpa Flow to South Ronaldsay are the Churchill Barriers, which are four permanent barriers built in the 1940’s. In 1914 the navy used this harbour as a base and they closed the narrow passages between five islands by sinking blockships. Then at the start of WWII the defences were brought back into use and further blockships were sunk but they were inadequate as a German U-Boat many were killed. As a result, Winston Churchill issued orders to make the 4 barriers permanent and they were completed just in time for the war’s end. The lasting legacy of this is these four causeways serve as a link to the five islands and are made of rock encased in wire cages topped off with concrete blocks.
The other lasting legacy of the building of the barriers came from the employment of Italian Prisoners of War. They were housed in Camp 60, on the northern slopes of Lamb Holm which is the first island across Churchill Barrier No 1, where the Italian Chapel is located. This chapel was constructed by prisoners to serve the camp and remains a lasting monument to the prisoners and to the Orcadians who befriended them. Today, the site of the camp is marked by a statue of St George constructed from barbed wire coated in concrete. The paintings inside the chapel are magnificent.
The last site today was the Isbister Chambered Cairn, better known as the Tomb of the Eagle, which was discovered by chance by a local farmer in the 1950’s. These have been dated back to 3000 BC. Before we visited the tomb, a guide gave us a great insight into the lives of these Stone age and Bronze Age people and we saw a collection of amazing bones and artefacts which were found on the sites. We walked about a mile along a well-marked path to the tomb which overlooks the cliffs. The passageway to the tomb is quite small so to enter the tomb we had to lay on our backs on a trolley and pull on a rope. Inside the chamber is where 30 human skulls were discovered, three which are on display in the visitor centre and talons and bones of white tailed eagles. Roughly halfway back from the tomb is a Bronze Age site where excavations have revealed a building complete with stone trough, water system and hearth, adjacent to a mound of burnt stone. Archaeologists agree that the water was heated in the trough but there is much debate about how it was used. The most popular theory is that it was a steam house.
Tonight, our campsite was at the Burwick ferry terminal where the ferry from John O’Groats lands on the southern tip of South Ronaldsay.