Co-ordinates: 58* 57.77 N, 003* 17.73’ W
Weather: sunny, clear blue skies
Air Temperature: +15C
A bright start to our day in Orkney, the northern most point of our odyssey. The huddled grey buildings with narrow gables edging the shore framed our docking position in Stromness. Having spent several decades of my archaeological career examining the Norse in Orkney, this was, for me at least, like a homecoming. Eager to be away on our full-day excursion, we efficiently loaded all four coaches on the dockside and scattered like leaves across the verdant Orkney countryside.
Each coach had its own itinerary, but all included the same sites in the UNESCO World Heritage Zone of Mainland Orkney – the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The majestic standing stones of Brodgar, some 60 plus leviathans of flagstone formed a massive ring bounded by a great ditch. This is communal building of massive proportions. Moving onto nearby Maes Howe, conservation and related issues have forced Historic Scotland to limit access to the tomb of Maes Howe for such large groups, so this was indeed a rare treat to see inside the Neolithic chambered tomb dating to 5,000 years ago. The tomb was broken into by the Norse in the 12th century, leaving behind them graffiti comments in runes. Access to the tomb involved considerable stooping, but the airy chamber at the end of the long stone passage was captivating.
The best-preserved Neolithic village in Northern Europe – Skara Brae – was next on the agenda, and this was where I spent virtually the whole day!! Visiting first the replica of one of the buildings and then explaining the site itself, laid out on the wonderful Bay of Skaill was indeed a treat in the sunshine. I explained about the layout of the houses and the two phases to be seen, one barely visible beneath the other and dating from 3100 BC or thereabouts. The chunky stone furniture may not be to everyone’s modern taste, but it served its function well. Small cupboards and huge stone dressers dominated the interiors and winding passages with stone roofs that allowed a form of draft-free access. Major issues of coastal erosion as well as conservation of the exposed stonework were discussed at the site.
The rest of the day focused on a visit to St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall and its surroundings. All were impressed by the bright and airy interior of the church and marveled at the decorated columns. A true monument to the skills of stone masons from Durham, N England and a fitting memorial founded by the Norse Earl, Rognvald to his slain uncle, Magnus, who was murdered on the Orkney island of Egilsay.
Tired but very happy, I returned with the coaches to the ship in time to watch as we slipped away through Scapa Flow in the evening sunshine, with just enough time to prepare for the Captain’s Farewell cocktail party.