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by Chris Brooks, Heritage Action. All images © Chris Brooks.
Unstan is a neatly kept chambered tomb not too far from Brogdar on the other side of Stenness Loch along the A965. There is adequate visitor parking in a set-aside area and the tomb is a short walk along a marked path. The chamber is beautifully sited, near and surrounded on three sides by Stenness Loch. It is covered with a well kept grassy mound and surrounded by the normal wire fencing but looks quite small compared to the other chambers such as Wideford.
I had to get on my knees to enter through the stone lined passageway. Constructed inside in a similar fashion to the Tomb of the Eagles complete with the bunker style dome roof, however this chamber is in much better condition. More or less rectangular in shape, the central chamber is divided into a number of stalls one of which has a smaller side chamber off it. An unknown number of jumbled bones was found in each of the stalls with two complete skeletons found in the side chamber. Standing inside you can’t help but feel the place is a bit of a tardis with the inside seemingly larger than the outside. This is probably one of those optical illusions where there is nothing really to measure size against, either on the inside or on the outside. If you like your chamber tombs neat, tidy and well presented I cannot imagine one much better than this.
People who don’t mind getting their knees dirty, or alternatively can bend themselves double, won’t mind going through the entrance either. Funny bit was me huffing, puffing and swearing to myself while trying to get my photography stuff back through the entrance only to be met by a young couple waiting on the outside giggling to themselves as I heaved myself out. I think I said something like they must have been small people who built this - I then left after yet more photo’s were taken of those lovely surroundings.
As it was a nice day I thought I would drive over to the western side of the mainland and visit a few sites there. I drove up past Deepdale standing stone, but didn’t stop, and on to Voy on the northern edge of Stenness Loch. I had not seen a Crannog before and this would be my first chance to get a view of one. I parked the car up on the side of the road and looked down the cool waters of the loch to two small round islands in the mid-distance. Around the foreshore of the loch a layer of foam had built up and gleaming white in the spring sunshine. But this seemed to attract numerous flying insects which were in turn attracting lot of birds all zooming around the edge. Although I didn’t/couldn’t get very close to the crannog I did stay a while and sat in the warm sun looking out over the loch to the distant hills on the horizon.
I headed north-west along the Yesnaby road towards the dramatic coastline of the West mainland. The road terminated at a small parking place right on the edge of cliffs overlooking the deep blue Atlantic ocean with not much between here and Canada. I walked northward along the cliff edge. The striated rocks formed amazing stepping stones and routes for small streams of water as it made its way to the sea. Eventually a fence with a stile is negotiated and the footpath and sign lets you know you’re on the right route. Also marking your way are a number of small modern standing stones. After a short time as you walk along the border between the monumental rock formations and the green pastures to your right you dip down to sea level crossing a small bridge with a disused building to the side.
A small but beautiful cove hides itself among the cliffs. I stopped here a short while siting on the smoothly worn boulders just watching the lapping water, the pebbly beach, and admiring the sea stack that reminded me of a small ‘Old Man of Hoy’. The cove was sheltered from the wind the sun was very hot but nobody was around… I think I almost fell asleep as I sat there.
It was time to move on and I made my way up the other side of the cove. I met an ex-pat along the route and we stopped and chatted. He had moved away from the island many years ago as the winters can be long, dark and very cold and he preferred the metropolitan life in Edinburgh. But he liked to return to his homeland during the warmer months to see old friends and family and catch up with the local gossip.
As I walked along to the coastal path I could see my target only a short distance away. From the front, the squat building looked like a stone built round house complete with lintel doorway. This was in fact a broch perched on a very small promontory on the very edge of the cliff but gradually giving way to the storms that must battle with this coastline during the dark times. Originally this would have been a large community and the broch the central communal area. Now, however, the walls facing to the sea have given way and maybe used for the small building down by the cove. Evidence of the double wall between which could have been used for grain storage could still be seen.
You can walk around the edge but it is very narrow and not for the faint-hearted. But on the other side of the promontory was another inaccessible beautiful cove being gently washed by the clearest sea water I have seen around the British coastline (and believe me I have dived a fair bit of it). The water being clear enough to see deep below the surface. This place was striking and although it may not have been quite as close to the cliff edge. It must still have been both a dramatic and harsh place to live in the iron age. I made my way back along the cliffs exploring some of the nooks and crannies as I went. As I was approaching the car I realised that in the very distance just off the large Hoy mainland I could make out the distinct shape of the Old Man of Hoy. As I didn’t have my tripod it was difficult to get a steady picture but I am pleased I spotted it and that is another box ticked.
Just a short journey north is another of Orkney’s most famous prehistoric attractions. Skara Brae is perhaps the most intriguing of sites. To me it has always been like a place captured in time. The fact that it is so complete leaves little to the imagination and you can instantly see in your mind the people coming and going about their business.
As you turn off the small country road you drive along a small track and into the main purpose built car park. There was plenty of room to park that day but I can imagine it gets quite full at peak times. As you enter the large reception building and pay your entry fee (£6.90) you are instantly aware that this is a well oiled machine, complete with small museum, video centre and shops. The entry fee is for both the Skaill House and the Skara Brae settlement. Apparently during the winter months you can just pay to see the settlement… for a whole pound less! To be honest I wasn’t that interested in the house (not really my bag to be honest). Anyway I sat through the nice little interesting video and the small museum which has some cool artefacts, and then made my way outside. Also quite well done was a reconstruction of one of the houses complete with roof and everything. As you are not allowed into the real ones this is a good second as you are allowed to touch everything and just take in the place and how the real ones must have felt. If you follow the passage way out you have to stoop over quite a bit and it can be quite painful, however there is nothing stopping you going back out the way you came in which is much easier on the back and neck.
It remained a very warm and windy day and I took the gentle stroll along the beach edge path that leads to the settlement. Skara Brae is nestled in the protected corner of a small mushroom shaped cove looking out at the gleaming white sandy beach and the most beautiful blue waters of the Atlantic ocean. The same waters that must have both covered and re-exposed Skara Brae many times in its stormy history.
The settlement is fenced off and you have to enter via a gate where a path takes you around the site so you are able to appear down into the various houses. A watchful ‘guard’ walks around the the site making pleasant conversation with the tourists on his rounds. I suppose this is necessary as the urge to get among the finely presented rooms was almost unbearable.
Just as the reproduction house showed it does indeed look as if everybody has just popped out for a short time leaving the fire going and the kettle on. One building has been covered over to protect it from the elements and it cannot be accessed so you are left to wonder what it contains. The other open building varies from very from small communal areas with a simple fire in the middle to a full studio apartment complete with compartmentalised beds, cupboards, kitchen and fireplace. Taking everything in is almost impossible and I just had to take loads of photo’s. Due to the very bright day and almost white stones and very dark shadows, this was quite difficult to do. The only thing that was unexpected was the size of the complex. It is much smaller than I had imagined with each building and room packed into the available space like a honey comb. Still it is very much worth the visit and luckily there were not many tourists around that day so it was very enjoyable for me.
I returned to the my car via the shop, purchased the official tour guide and decided to just drive around the top of the mainland on the way back to the cottage visiting Wheebin standing stone on the way.
This was a very tall, almost dorsal shaped standing stone, standing in a field a short distance from the road overlooking a large loch and easily accessible. Nothing special but again like most thing on Orkney worth just stopping to take a look at. It had been a long day already and I looked forward to having a spot of food in the cottage’s garden this evening. After a bit of a rest, and sitting in the warm evening sun, I thought to myself, what if this is the only nice day on my holiday and it chucks it down for the remainder… maybe I should just pop out to Brogdar just in case?
I was in the car before you could whistle and driving back along that now familiar road. It had cooled somewhat and a jacket was needed but it was a very pleasant evening nonetheless. I scurried along the the wooden causeway, over, the road and up the hill. The sunset was starting to look as if it might be a good’un. I set the tripod up and shot a few pictures capturing the texture of this amazing place. The warm sun brought out the reddish glow occasionally spotted on this island. One stone in particular had a fantastic wave like texture over its entire surface, looking almost too surreal not to be manmade.
Being in one of the top places on Orkney, and it also being a great sunset, meant I wasn’t alone for very long. An ever increasing paparazzi of photographers appeared around me all trying to get the same good shots but at the same time not getting in each others way. The sun was producing long shadows across the great circle and I left the group to try to get some independent shots elsewhere around the ring. This proved quite fruitful but as the sun disappeared behind some distant low cloud and the beautiful red sky dimmed, the crowd dispersed with just a few hardened photographers remaining.
I decided to go over to Stenness to see what I could get there. It was just light enough to get some long exposure shots which came out great. The moon also appeared now and this added to my magic hour among these giant stones. Eventually the light beat me and even with Canon’s powerful EX580 flash I was unable to get any better pictures that evening. But my little late excursion had been worthwhile and I returned to the cottage looking forward to the next day.