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by Chris Brooks, Heritage Action. All images © Chris Brooks.

Kirkwall

Day 5

Today started with a trip into Kirkwall as I wanted to visit some of Orkney’s amazing islands and the main booking office was there.  It is not difficult to find, sited close to the ferry port in Kirkwall harbour and is signposted Orkney ferries.  I had already had some idea of the ferry times and knew that the ferry for Eday sailing the next day had to be booked in advance.  Also as I was taking my hire car I would also give them details of this and driving license.  The young lady behind the desk was very helpful and once I had explained what I wanted to do she sorted it all out there and then.

Tickets bought, I thought I would travel down to see Mine Howe as having consulted my notes, this was supposed to be the day it was open (according to certain resources).  After driving past it again a number of times (when will I learn to look at a map) I eventually turned down the little side road the leads to it. Disappointment again!  The place was deserted, the sign covered up and nothing to see.
 

The information cabin was still closed but there were no signs to say what was happening – ie how permanent it was. After my second attempted visit to this site I do feel a little let down. It was not like there was a big sign or anything, just a potentially good site gone to rack and ruin. Although saying that I expect the actual tomb is still OK, it was just the rest of the facilities. I am not sure what has happened here but I may investigate when I get back home.

OK now what… I did consider going down to the Italian Chapel but that was quite far south even from here. I decided to try to find one of the little known sites around Kirkwall again, this one was called Saverock. This was located just north of Kirkwall by the new jetty and is a possible ancient settlement which looked interesting in the photos I had seen. Unfortunately it had started raining quite a bit as I walk around the area trying to find the place. The notes were a little difficult to understand for somebody not used to the place, and of course it was not identified on my map. Running between the road to the jetty and the shoreline was a fenced off ditch area. Crossing this ditch was what looked like a bridge which looked like it could be part of the pictures on my note. This was a little disappointing again as it was not only raining but the area was behind a fence that (by now you will realise) I wasn’t keen to climb over. The rain also meant that I couldn’t really get the camera out and take a decent picture either.

Tingwall

Next I decided to go and book ferry tickets to Rousay, this was back up towards Finstown. I got there and it had started to rain quite hard. I scurried across the car park to the booking office in this very small village. As I stood by the booking hatch the guy on the other side was at his desk on the phone. I didn’t mind this at first but after the first 10 minutes I started to get a little fed up. By 20 minutes I had picked up all the Orkney island pamphlets and read most of the interesting text. I had read the poster and taken notice of the safety things but the guy just kept on rabbiting on. It wasn’t even like his conversation was interesting either… no juicy gossip or tales of woe… just boring stuff. I started to feel sorry for the person on the other end!! However, he eventually stopped saying to the other bloke he had to go to lunch. Not before I have booked my tickets you are not I thought to myself. But to be fair he was very helpful once we started talking. He even advised me that I would need to reverse onto the ferry boat, where the best place to park was and how to do it. I drove away from Tingwall very happy and content that weather permitting (it was still raining) I should get to see at least 2 more islands during my stay here.


Broch of Gurness

Right, now to go somewhere that would definitely be a bit of a treat. Driving north from Finstown I travelled to a complex broch that I had heard about called Broch of Gurness. I arrived in even more rain and the place looked quite busy. As there were many cars in the ample car park I decided that I would wait for the heavy rain to pass over and with a bit of luck some of the people would disperse at the same time (being the partial misanthrope that I am!!). After a period or time my luck had changed; more people left than arrived and the weather improved (a little anyway). Putting on my waterproof coat I went into the entrance. I paid my money and had a quick look around the little museum first. This, like a lot of these sorts of museums, show local finds from the side and try to describe how the people lived based on the finds and various other archaeological activities. I always like to have a good look at these places wherever possible as you are unlikely to see them in any of the great museums in the big cities. But I do quite often think that some of the ‘model settlements’ always look a bit tacky in there presentation… you know the sort of thing, blue painted plaster for the sea and ‘action man’ style clothing, only of an even more ill fitting type! But as I say I still think they are enjoyable and I thought this one was no exception.

I walked outside and by now the rain had stopped (periodically anyway) and the sun was starting to make an appearance (periodically anyway). There were a few people hanging around still so rather than going straight in I hung back and explored the outside of the broch first. This is another worthwhile place to visit. A good portion of the intact circular house sits among a myriad of stone walls, banks, walkways and structures that surround it. There are so many in fact that from a normal standing position it is difficult to see any real organised layout. The gleaming stones glare back at you when the sun comes out making it difficult to get good pictures. Like the Barnhouse settlement near Stenness, I always think the places could do with some sort of viewing platform so that you could look down and see the structure of the community more easily. But I suppose that would detract from the site itself. The information boards suggest older building may lie beneath the present ones, meaning this settlement may be much older than its late iron age would suggest.

Like most brochs this one is sited on the edge of an inlet, again suggesting the sea provided the main food source. To back this up there is a large stone tank set into the floor where it is believed live bait for fishing could have been kept. The close proximity of each of the houses means this was likely to have been a very crowded place, and probably quite claustrophobic as there were no windows and the straw roofs would have kept in the thick black smoke of the fires and the smell of meat and fish hanging down would have stifled the place. The entrance to this broch is considered the best in Orkney.

A huge portal stone spans the narrow passageway. The information board suggest the small roofed structures either side of the easily defended doorway were used for guard dogs. The low door pivot points can be seen as can the holes either side of the portal used to put a bar across the door. When you walk in you are forced around a corner before entering the central tower. You are now in the central tower and before you lie a number of small rooms, cupboards and other structures. There are walls constructed not of piles of precision placed stones but rather of single slabs of stone only a few centimetres thick. A great hearth dominates the centre of the tower and to a degree the whole place reminds me of Skara Brae but much more complex. You could spend a good part of the day just looking around this place (just like many in Orkney) and I did. It wasn’t difficult imagining this place bustling with people doing various tasks just trying to survive in what is often a very hostile environment. I wandered the pathways for some time before returning to the car and the next place to visit.

Cuween

Like most tombs on Orkney Cuween, or Fairy Knowe, is placed high up on a hillside and this one overlooks the bay between Kirkwall and Finstown. You can drive a large portion of the way up to a purpose built sizeable car park. From there though there is a footpath up the ever steepening hill to the tomb.

And to finally do you in at the end there is a tall and quite slippery ladder style to get over before you can actually get to the tomb entrance. Still outside the tomb there is an information board. These all seem fairly new so I assume there has been a general desire to improve the experience of visitors to Orkney.

The entrance to the tomb is via a passageway that was just about big enough for me to get through. Inside it is big, dark and wet so you will definitely need a torch (one isn’t provided here) and clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. The head height is 2m so plenty of room for even the tallest to stand but may have originally been higher. This tomb is more or less the same as the one on Wideford Hill (see earlier posting) which I imagine can be see from here (although I couldn’t locate it).

The information board says that at least eight human skulls were found here and that there was a general on-going clear out every now and then so it is likely there were many more. More incredibly there were also found the remains of 24 dogs, possibly used as totems in a similar way that sea eagles were used at Ibister on South Ronaldsay (and possibly otters at Banks tomb just over the road). There are four side chambers which I can just about squeeze the top half of my body in to have a look around. This is a magnificent tomb just as good as Wideford, the inter-layered stone work is meticulous as it funnels up to the ceiling vault. It is also very silent and only my own heavy breathing and rustle of clothing could be heard. What a great place and without all the pomp and circumstance of some of the other pay sites. This and Wideford Hill are a must see in my opinion.

 

After my visit I walked to the top of the hill for the view. Up here are stacks of stones forming pillars on the top of the hill. From the bottom they look as if they could be standing stones. The are obviously not ‘old’ but do for a surreal landscape at the top.  Time to go back to the cottage after a good day or organising and site visits, and I look forward to my trip to one of the major islands in Orkney tomorrow morning.

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