Articles - Skara Brae
The earliest settlers arrived at the Orkney Isles some 6000 years ago. They had travelled slowly, west and northwards, driving sheep and cattle before them, part of a migration that had begun somewhere around the Mediterranean. Their progress along the way is still marked by the stone structures they left behind.
Orkney was a sort of terminus for these Stone Age people. With so many of their megaliths a feature of this landscape the islands can be thought of as a very large archaeological site.
Some buildings are particularly special. Maeshowe on Mainland Orkney is regarded as the best example anywhere of the ancient stone builder’s art. From outside, the grass covered, upturned pudding bowl shape hardly merits attention. But all who venture inside along the low, paved passageway can’t help being impressed.
The passage walls are constructed of solid blocks of smoothed stone weighing around 30 tons each. Inside the chamber, the walls taper upwards, to end in a skylight that was closed over with a single slab of stone. Recessed compartments in the thick walls were possibly used as tombs.
The huge lumps of stone used in the building were transported from a quarry about seven miles away. How were they moved, lifted, placed so accurately? Could they really have been shaped using stone axes?
Its purpose, so one theory goes, is that Maeshowe was designed and constructed as a sepulchre for priestly kings or kingly priests. However, no sign of burial has ever been found.
Later, in the mid 12th century, Vikings, possibly seeking treasure, broke in through the ceiling. Their runes, the graffiti of the times, can be seen carved into the walls. Probably most notable, is the carving in the shape of a dragon that has since come to be known as the Maeshowe dragon. Present day Orkney jewellery makers have been inspired by this ancient, small work of art and use it in designing their own pieces.
In a field nearby there is a standing stone that throws up all sorts of other questions. At the winter solstice, around 22nd December, as the sun sets over a nearby hill, the last rays shine on the Barnhouse Stone and along the passageway of Maeshowe to illuminate the far wall. How did these Stone Age people come to notice such a phenomenon and get the alignment just right?
A mile and a half away, across a spit of land separating Stenness Loch and Loch Harray, you can stroll around the standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar. The ring is incomplete but there are still 27 of these undressed lumps of natural rock, (originally there were probably 60), each one about 10 feet tall.
The stones encircle an area of rough heather. Why this particular patch of moorland was especially dignified is not known. There have been many suggestions including for burial ceremonies, in worship of the sun or the moon, as some sort of clock, or calendar. We can only wonder.
At the Ness of Brodgar, between the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, archaeologists are now digging out even more astonishing finds that may prove people were arriving on these islands even earlier than previously thought. A raised platform allows visitors to look out over the site, see the archaeologists and hear about the painstaking work that is taking place just below.
It’s not far from the Ring of Brodgar to the village of Skara Brae overlooking Skail Bay. The settlement was discovered by accident when it was uncovered by a fierce storm in 1850. The story goes that William Graham Watt, the 7th local laird, was out walking with his dog. The dog sniffed, dug, and fell down a hole - straight into a stone-age living room.
The stone beds are surprisingly small but it’s thought the people slept in a half-sitting, half-lying position. Though visitors are not permitted to walk through the rooms, you can see from above, that a stone dresser was deliberately placed to face the front door. One theory suggests that the household’s best possessions were placed where they could be seen, to impress the neighbours.
Nearby, the local laird’s mansion, Skail House, is now a visitor centre. An interesting display laid on a table is the blue dinner service used by the late Queen Mother on her last visit there. The visitor book reads, ‘signed Elizabeth R August 24th 1983’.
Marvellous in a different way is the little church of Lambholm, which has come to be known as The Italian Chapel. With its statue of St. George nearby, this modest church is a last reminder of Camp 60 where several hundred Italian prisoners were housed in the later years of the Second World War. Under their hands the Nissan hut became a thing of beauty that still inspires countless visitors today.
Most of the material available was second hand and apparently worthless scrap. Inside, the unlovely corrugated iron of the hut was hidden by plasterboard and painted to resemble brickwork. The altar, altar rail and holy water stoop, all beautifully designed, were moulded in concrete. The tabernacle was fashioned from wood obtained from a wrecked ship.
Domenico Chiocchetti, a prisoner with great artistic ability, painted frescoes on the sanctuary vault. The rest of the interior was painted to resemble brickwork with a dado along the base of the curved walls to imitate carved stone. Another prisoner fashioned an intricate screen and a gate from wrought iron.
These men, captured during the North African Campaign, had been send to Orkney to work. Their job was to establish a series of concrete barriers to seal the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow, a sheltered area of sea used as a British Naval anchorage. The order came from Winston Churchill, so ever since, the barriers have been known as the Churchill Barriers.
Until then, four channels between islands had been blocked with sunken ships and it was considered that attack from that direction by sea was impossible. Early in the war however, in October 1939, a brilliant U-boat commander, Lieut - Commander Prien, took advantage of a gap in the defences and an exceptionally high tide. He penetrated the Flow and sank the battleship Royal Oak and managed to get out again safely. In the Royal Oak, over 800 men perished and the Navy, having learned a hard lesson, left its anchorage until the entrances could be securely sealed.
The massive barriers of stone and concrete on the seabed became causeways and are now part of Orkney’s road network. They have proved to be a boon, but at the time, some of the construction workers were dismayed by the seemingly futile task of “filling in the sea.”
Boat trips out into Scapa Flow take people to see wildlife such as seals and seabirds. For the scuba divers coming from all over the world, the wrecks on the seabed are a great attraction. These wrecks are part of the German High Seas Fleet interned at Scapa Flow pending Armistice negotiations. On 21st June 1919 Admiral von Reuter gave the command for seventy German battleships, cruisers and destroyers to be scuttled rather than fall into British hands.
All roads on mainland Orkney lead back to Kirkwall, a sizeable seafaring town with a busy harbour. Dominating the centre is St. Magnus Cathedral, founded in 1137, whose red sandstone glows in the sunshine. The walls are adorned with plaques commemorating Orkney poets and painters, explorers and saints. A large wall tapestry, gifted by the King of Norway, was given to the late Queen Mother on 19th August 1987. Symbolising a sail, it expresses the friendship between Norway and the people of Orkney.
St. Magnus Cathedral was part of the Norwegian arch -diocese of Trondheim for most of the pre - Reformation years. Orkney only became part of the kingdom of Scotland in1468 and in 1486 the Cathedral was given into the care of the people of Kirkwall by the Scottish king, James 111.
Across the road are the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace built in the mid 12th century and the Earl’s Palace begun in 1600, by Earl Patrick Stewart. Using forced labour to quarry and ship in the stone required, Stewart planned to build a dwelling that was unrivalled in design, comfort and beauty. His palace was finally completed in 1607 but shortly afterwards Patrick Stewart was arrested and work was abandoned. After his execution in 1615 the portion of the Palace already built became the residence of Orkney’s bishops.
Across Broad Street, the Orkney Museum tells the story of life in these islands from the Stone Age to the present day. Amongst the many fascinating exhibits, a display gives details of the Ba’(ball) game that is usually played by men on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Imagine a game of rugby without rules. The ball is football shaped, though slightly smaller and filled with cork dust. Play rages along the main streets. Shops are barricaded with stout planks for the duration. The ball can even be smuggled inside a coat or baggy sweater. The object is for one team, the Doonies, to land the ball in the sea at the harbour or for the other team, the Uppies, to land the ball at a certain piece of wall, up the town.
It rains often in Orkney. For the whisky makers at the distillery in Kirkwall, this is a blessing. Visitors escaping a downpour can enjoy a guided tour with a film and a dram. A plaque in the visitor centre shows some thoughts on whisky from James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. It reads, “If a body could just find oot the exac’ proper proportion and quantity that ought to be drunk everyday and keep to that, I verily trow that he might leeve forever, without dying at aa, and that the doctors and kirkyards would go oot o’ fashion.
At Orkney’s distillery they obviously agree.
Further information: A stroll around Kirkwall Harbour and through the garden behind Orkney Museum are both well worth a wander. Close by, there are café/restaurants making use of Orkney produce. To hear local, traditional Orkney music try visiting The Reel pub/café/meeting place.