Day 2 |
May 26, 2011

Stromness, Orkney, UK

By Victoria Salem, Historian

Co-ordinates: 58°58’N – 003°18’W
Weather: Overcast, with some rain
Air temperature: +13°C

Silver Explorer made good progress overnight and most of us were able to gain our sea legs without too much difficulty, as the worst of the previous days’ storms have now left the region. Immediately after breakfast I headed for The Theatre for our Expedition Leader’s mandatory Zodiac briefing. This was necessary so that all of our guests understood how to dress for Scottish weather and get in and out of Zodiacs safely, Zodiacs being our prime mode of transport to shore on this expedition “In the Footsteps of the Vikings”. Conrad Combrink followed up with a destination briefing for our day on the Mainland of Orkney.

To everyone’s delight, Captain Peter Stahlberg announced around 10.30am that as we had made such good speed, we were approaching Stromness by the scenic (rather than the most direct) route, so I grabbed a windproof jacket and binoculars and joined guests assembling out on deck to enjoy our first glimpses of the Orkney Islands. As I was lecturing on “Neolithic Orkney” at 11.30am, I was in The Theatre 15 minutes ahead of time and was delighted that quite a number of guests chose to come in out of the wind and learn more from me ahead of our afternoon’s Orkney tour.

Lunch followed and then it was soon time to don waterproofs and disembark onto the pier at Stromness in order to board the buses and meet our local guides for the afternoon. After gathering 29 guests and Kristine Hannon, our photographer, Bus 1 departed and we sat back in our seats to enjoy our first impressions of a peaceful, green, rolling, very fertile farming landscape, without trees, well drained and with frequent pools and sea-lochs. It is not difficult to believe that the best land here has been farmed for several thousand years.

Our guide was full of enthusiasm and was able to give us lots of information about what we were seeing and the area we were passing through, and we learned something of the economy of the islands and the importance of sheep and cattle farming. After driving for about seven miles, our first step back in time was to 3,100 BCE, when we entered the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. Walkways enable visitors to gaze down into these ancient houses, set into midden deposits and covered by sand until the mid-19th century. Since there were only a few scrubby trees in Orkney at that time (there are still only a few and they have been deliberately planted) the houses and most of their furnishings were built of stone, so have survived until today. Stone dressers for display and storage, stone beds and seats, fishbait boxes and even indoor toilets with drainage were laid out before our fascinated gaze. A fabulous, clean sandy beach with a peaceful lapping of the sea would have given the place a Caribbean feel, but for the extreme weather conditions and lack of palm trees. The wide, flat, sandy shore was backed by a boulder beach of flat boulders exactly like those used to build Skara Brae.

By now the rain had lost its force and so, undaunted, most of us followed our guide along the path towards Skaill House, former home of the Laird of Skaill, discoverer of Skara Brae in 1850. Skaill House is one of the most complete 17th century mansion houses in Orkney and is surrounded by lawns and gardens. It has been lovingly restored and highlights include a typical Orcadian chair, Captain Cook’s dinner service and the bedroom of the last resident (as recent as the 1990s) with many of her clothes and personal possessions on display.

We had 10 minutes or so to explore the delights of the Visitor Centre shops, which sold many souvenirs of Orkney and most importantly of all, locally produced ice cream and fudge! Replenished, we reboarded our bus and set off for the next stop in our Neolithic tour, the Ring of Brodgar, dating back to around 2,500 BCE. 27 of a probable total of 60 stones (sandstone) are still standing in a circle 104 ft. (32 m) in diameter. The whole is surrounded by a massive ditch and each stone is set a precise 6˚ from its neighbour; there is much speculation as to the purpose and meaning of the Ring of Brodgar. Taken together with the many other Neolithic structures in the area – including a tomb, many individual standing stones, another stone circle and a village – Orkney must have been a place of some importance and sophistication in the third millennium BCE. Some archaeologists believe that the Ring of Brodgar may have been built as an astronomic computer, its surrounding ditch representing the sun’s photosphere...I liked the way our guide encouraged us to walk with him around the ring and touch the stones, which are all different. We lingered at one stone that had been dramatically broken in two by lightning in the 1980s and were shown two “graffiti” stones towards the end of our circuit – one “vandalised” by a 12th century Viking and the other by 19th century Orkney farmers!

After this we drove slowly past the sinister “watchstone” guarding the causeway between the Ring of Brodgar and the standing stones of Stenness. We were temporarily distracted from things Neolithic by glimpses of swans on nests to either side of us. The nearest nest was empty, littered with fragments of eggshell and we saw the proud mum (or dad) not far away on the water, carefully guarding five brand-new cygnets. As we drove slowly on we got good views of the standing stones of Stenness on our left, thought to be the earlier of the two stone circles here and containing the tallest stone of all, measuring over five metres high. There is a stone hearth and remains of a dolmen associated with these stones, though the circle, probably erected around 3000 BCE, may never have been completed before work started on the neighbouring Ring of Brodgar.

Just before heading back to the ship our guide pointed out to us where the setting sun would be seen, and how in mid-winter it would just skim the top of the Barnhouse Stone (fenced off in a nearby field) before shining right in the entrance of Maes Howe, the finest Neolithic tomb in Europe, dating back to approximately 2700 BCE. This grass-covered mound has a stone tomb at its core, consisting of a large central chamber, with side chambers leading off it. There are no bones in Maes Howe now, but we know it has sheltered many travellers (who may have disturbed it) over the last few thousand years; the most famous were Vikings returning from the crusades in the 12th century, who left graffiti carved into the walls - the gist of which is very similar to 21st century graffiti…

We returned to Silver Explorer around 5.20pm and as we were not sailing until 7.30pm, we could choose whether to walk around the charming settlement of Stromness or get back on board to listen to the local musicians who came to perform for us at 6pm. They introduced us to local music and even got us singing along at one point! Conrad and the Expedition Staff took the opportunity of having so many of us gathered together to give a briefing on tomorrow’s plans for the Isle of Lewis and this was followed by a short recap. Claudia took questions, Shoshanah showed an amazing series of photos of “underwater Orkney” and Gordon regaled us with anecdotes concerning the exciting events of two World Wars in Scapa Flow, Orkney’s famed and history-filled harbour.

By now it was cocktail time, followed by a delicious dinner and a good night’s sleep before awaking to our first day of exploration in the Hebrides, beginning with the Isle of Lewis (and Harris).