You are currently browsing the daily archive for 21/01/2012.

It’s been a while, (Part 8 was published back in September last year) but at last we can continue the serialisation of Scubi’s trip of a lifetime to Scotland’s highlands and islands.

For those wishing to catch up on the story so far, a list of previous episodes is as follows:

  • Part 1 – Travelling
  • Part 2 – Clava Cairns
  • Part 3 – Banks Tomb
  • Part 4 – Tomb of the Eagles
  • Part 5– Crantit and Grain Souterrains, Rennibister Earth House etc
  • Part 6 – Stenness and Brodgar
  • Part 7a – Stenness and Brodgar
  • Part 7b – Skara Brae
  • Part 8 – Broch of Gurness and Cuween tomb

and now, the story continues…

It was early but I had to get up to ensure I caught my ferry to Eday from Kirkwall. This island lies in the centre of the Orkney Archipeligo but still takes over two hours to get there. Once there you are marooned as there is only one ferry back to Kirkwall leaving later that day. As the ferry plodded through the clear water leaving Kirkwall behind in the distance the weather started to improve and it all started to come together. During the crossing you get a chance to see many sea birds and the other islands. Most seem quite low lying and fairly unpopulated. WWII gun emplacements can be seen at a few key points along their coastlines.

Eday Ferry © C Brooks

The ferry docked at the Bay of Backaland terminal at the very south of Eday, and I drove my car off the ramp. Eday could be described as a badly blown ‘hour glass’ shaped island running north to southish with a single ‘main’ road running along its length and smaller roads running off either side. You can fly here from Kirkwall but I think (like with the ferry) that time here is limited if you wish to do a day trip. Anyway, I had with me my list of places to see and so headed to the northern end of the island. I hadn’t checked out where my first site was properly and instead used my satnav to followed the coordinates given in my printouts from The Modern Antiquarian (TMA) web site.

I drove past London airport and on to the end of the main road and took a right as  instructed. It then took me down a track to a small group of houses… something was telling me that this wasn’t quite right. I looked around a bit and at the notes I had printed and I definitely wasn’t right. I then looked at the OS map and there was no mention of what I was looking for. A quick scan of the map soon pointed me in the right direction and I reversed the car back up the track and turned back to the main road. Eday is small, about 12km long, so it wasn’t long before I was heading the right way. On this occasion I think TMA needs to be updated and the correct coordinates given.

As I trundled past the small loch (Mill Loch) on the left of the small side road I glanced to the right and could immediately see the hand-like standing stone a short distance away. There was an area of parking by the side of the road into which I pulled over.

As you open the car door the noise from the loch suddenly hits you as the sound of  thousands of water birds penetrates your ears. I am no twitcher so I can’t tell you what they were only that there were a lot of them. I turned to the small gate and made my way up the gentle slope. Other than going in the general direction of the stone it was not exactly clear which side of the fence lines you should follow so it soon became obvious that I was on the incorrect side. This resulted in me trying to negotiate the barbed wire fence with all my kit as I couldn’t be bothered to walk back down the hill.

You enter the fenced off area via a stile (if you are in the right field in the first place) and are greeted with this very large and unusual standing stone. Known as the Stone of Setter (or Setter Stone if you prefer) it is heavily eroded and now stands like a giant hand saying ‘hi’ to all visitors to this small island. It is deceptively tall when you stand next to it,with the moss and lichens covering its sides. There is another feature a little way away which I am not sure is contemporary with the standing stone. To me it looks like a small hut circle or possibly a tomb but could just as easily be a broken down sheep pen.

Stone of Setter © C Brooks

There is a small picnic table which didn’t intrude at all and allows one to sit for a while looking at the beautiful green landscape of this island. I pondered my map and printouts and decided to visit a couple of sites to the north west. The land here rises up towards Vinquoy Hill and being a bit lazy I thought I would drive and park further up rather than walk it, so I walked back down and returned to the car. As I drove about it was plain that I  couldn’t get to the top and nor could I find anywhere to easily park the car without blocking the road or annoying a farmer or indeed trespassing, so I decided to return to where I had previously parked. I wasn’t sure about the weather as although it was very warm and sunny where I was there were many patches of cloud full of very heavy rain making their way past the island and I just knew I would get caught under one of them sooner or later.

Everything packed, I began my march up the hill. It should be easy to follow and indeed it was. There was even a wooden walkway over a very marshy part of the Eday Heritage Walk route. Obviously a great deal has been spent here to encourage the visitor. You don’t have to walk far before you come to the next site but it is one that is difficult to see. Beside the old school house surrounded by rolling green fields and hills, you can just about make out the form of a large oval of semi buried stone called the Fold of Setter and is thought it may be the site of a bronze age settlement.

Fold of Setter © C Brooks

Not much further on is a lovely but destroyed tomb called Braeside Stalled Cairn of which can still be seen part of the mound and a few of the upright stones which formed the stalls. What is peculiar about this tomb is that the stalls inside it are offset to the axis of the long mound itself and in fact align with the Stone of Setter in the distance.

Braeside Stalled Cairn © C Brooks

It is a pleasure to walk this route as there are so many sites to see in such a short distance and a few of a type you won’t see outside Orkney. Next up was Huntersquoy, this is a double entrance tomb with one entrance above the other. Unfortunately the top entrance is virtually destroyed and the lower one submerged in water (but it looks fairly intact). Still this was a new one on me and so was well worth spending a few minutes having a look and poking about. There are a number of large structures on the route that look vaguely like they could be something interesting but they are more likely to be the remains of previous quarrying as much as anything. As you walk on further up the hill the island and surrounding islands stretch out behind you like green and brown gems floating in a sea of fantastically deep blue and then you can then see how it all fits in.

Huntersquoy © C Brooks

The Calf of Eday lies to the northeast and was somewhere I wanted to visit but unfortunately not this time. The brilliant white bellowing spring clouds were separated by heavy, deep and very dark storms that could be seen to drench what ever lay beneath. The landscape although not mountainous is as breathtaking as it is mechanically silent but as I made my way further up the hill the wind picked up and I approached my target.

As I got closer I decided to take the obligatory photo of the burial chamber in its natural surroundings. Just as I was setting up the camera a large brown bird appeared from behind it and swooped very close to me. In the excitement I juggled with the camera as it continued to circle me on the second pass I managed to get a shot off which came out very well. I thought it was some sort of bird of prey as it looked quite huge but turned out later that the bird was a Great Skua but still quite impressive… to me anyway.

Skua © brooks

Vinquoy like many burial mounds also sits proudly just shy of the summit and looking out over the island. A single dark entrance way almost sunk into the mound and ‘protected’ by an unlocked and open gate bids you welcome. The entrance is quite small and you step down into it before needing to get on your hands and knees to shuffle along the narrow passageway. A piece of wooden board has been placed on the ground just at the entrance to the central chamber.

Vinquoy © C Brooks

A central hole above allows a little light and moisture to enter, just enough in fact to give life to a miriad of ferns that have taken a footing in the drystone ceiling and which now dangle down into the chamber below. There are four secondary chambers, all of which were far too small to get myself into. One of them is completely flooded, something I hadn’t noticed until I almost plunged my camera into the water as I stretched my arm in to take a photo.

Vinquoy ferns © C Brooks

Not being able to get into these side chambers is a little frustrating and sometimes it makes me wish I was still that skinny 17 year old doing archaology for the first time. It is certainly worth the plod up here, not that it is that difficult at all and indeed on a day like this with so much to see, it makes it all the more special.

Vinquoy chambers © C Brooks

I walked back down the hill and took in the landscape one again. The peace here is so remarkable. Only the sounds of nature to hear, it gives you a taste of the isolation here. To live and prosper you must have to plan ahead, especially in the winter months when a trip to the supermarket must be only a dream. How did those early settlers manage? The cold bitter north wind must just drive its way through everything. Their endurance must have been beyond belief…. or did they simply leave the island during those cold dark months for more hospitable lands inland?

I got a few more shots of Braeside and of the Setter Stone before getting back into the car. There are a number of less spectacular and much ruined cairns on the island and I had wanted to see if it was possible to find them. The first one was called Eday Church. Now this was shown on TMA Google Earth as near the end of the runway at London airport but the OS map had shown it near a small side road south of the airport. I was easily able to park and find the cairn but access was another matter. There is a tendency to surround fields on Eday with a bog for rain drainage and then put a barbed fence around the field to ensure sheep do not fall into it. This means it is also difficult to jump the bog before immediately hitting the barbed fence. Unfortunately this is what happened to me and I slid down the bank into the very muddy ditch as I tried to grab a post without spiking my hands. It was then more difficult to try and climb back up with large clods of muck stuck to your boots. After a couple of more attempts I decided it would be better to admire the cairn from the roadside (call me defeatist if you like).

The cairn is a little overgrown and a few of the stones can be seen poking out from the centre and although tantalising I think it was wise to stay by the road rather than risk injury trying to negotiate the ditch and fence.

Eday Church © C Brooks

I managed a couple of decent photos for the album before starting to return to the car. It was at this point that I noticed within the nearby compound a white albino rabbit running around with other normal bunnies, which was unusual to say the least… I took a couple of pictures just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming but at least this one wasn’t 6 foot high and called Harvey. Can’t see it lasting long around here though.

The next couple of places were a couple of burial cairns somewhere on the western coast line just off the ‘main’ road that runs through the centre of the island. Although the island is very unpopulated, the main road does get used quite often. I reckon a car, tractor or van passes along at least every 30 minutes and its not the widest of roads so I didn’t want to be holding anybody up by just parking the car anywhere I fancied. I drove up and down the road trying to spot either of the cairns and also somewhere to park when the Satnav said I was close. Unfortunately the only place was by an old converted church, which seemed a little way from where I wanted to be (I am so lazy).

As I parked up I noticed the church was now the Eday Heritage Centre so I took a quick look around inside. Whilst walking around somebody came up to me and asked if I was local. Replying to the lady in my broadest Wiltshire accent that I wasn’t, she told me she was part of the Orkney Marine Research unit and was looking for places where mussels would be in abundance as they wanted to carry out some marine pollution research. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to help. I just find it remarkable the people you sometimes meet in the middle of nowhere.

Walking back along the road it was very difficult to find an access point into the field other than by jumping another very deep ditch and straight into a gorsey hedge…oh and of course climbing a small barbed wire fence. There were no signs pointing to a clear entry to the cairns. I managed to get in the field and at the same time risking future bodily functions from both the gorse and the fence. The gorse being quite thick it was difficult to see anything on the ground and after about half an hour of searching I gave in (defeatism strikes again).

The next site, called Eday Manse, was situated high up on quite a steep hill that occupies the southern half of the ‘hour glass’ island. Another old abandoned church is sited near to the cairn and this can be seen from the road below so I was very hopeful of finding this one. According to the OS map there should be an old track leading up to the church but again I couldn’t find it anywhere. Eventually I spotted what could be a footpath and decided to go for that. The footpath eventually became less clear further on and the walk up the hill became a bit of a struggle as I made my way through the mixture of tufted grass and gorse. I decided to try to make a sort of zigzag route up but which seem to take ages and, as is common when climbing hills, you think you have just got to the top when another peak appears further ahead. But eventually the ruins of the old church came into view and I was able to make my way to the cairn as the land flattened out.

To be honest there isn’t a great deal to see here. The cairn is sited within the the grounds of the old church with a dilapidated dry stone wall all around. There remains a mound but it has been extensively damaged and dug into making it difficult to work out the orientation. There are a small number of largish stones distributed about the site that were obviously part of the cairn. Some of these had been deliberately shaped and one that also showed signs of possible markings but as I am no expert these could be just natural. The view from the cairn is still quite impressive but not as much as the one on Vinquoy Hill. There are barely a couple of walls left of the church so not really much to see here.

Eday Manse © C Brooks

Time was getting on, I had seen (or attempted to see) most of what I wanted prehistory wise and now I wanted to drive around and take in the island a bit more. I found the more direct route back down the hill which turned out to be more of a gully than a track but which was mostly dry.

Eday has a whole range of sea birds and mammals but you have to look around a bit. I decided to see if there were any seals on the west coastline, a place called Seal Skerry. Unfortunately a mooch around here did not reveal any seals but I did discover a wonderfully secluded cove with perfect white sand and crystal clear water lapping against the shore. The sun was warm and the distant cloud bursts gave this place such a magical feeling that I decided to just walk around a while collecting the odd shell or stone as is my thing. Before long though time was getting on and I needed to get back down to the ferry jetty to ensure I caught the last ferry back to Kirkwall.

I was able to take in more of the island on the slowish drive back. I parked up by the jetty and waited for the ferry only to have my peace disturbed by white van man and his very loud stereo blasting away radio one. Isn’t it marvellous how you can be in the middle of nowhere and have your tranquillity shattered. But it was not all bad, on the ferry back I bumped into the Marine Biologist again and she gave me some good pointers about where to go in Kirkwall if I get a chance to walk around there.

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