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We continue the story of Scubi’s ‘trip of a lifetime’ around the Scottish Highlands and islands, with details of his last day on Orkney…

This is my final full day on Orkney and I will be sorry to go. I thought today I would check out the main town of Kirkwall which I have not yet looked around but I would also round it up by a visit to one of Orkney’s iconic monuments.

Compared to the rest of the islands towns and villages, Orkney is a positive metropolis. It is the only place on the islands that I have got caught up in anything that could be called a traffic jam. Parking in the town can be difficult but I managed to find a space fairly central.

The high street is quite modest and as you would expect, normal shops interspersed with those targeting the tourists. Most are quite tame though and it was quite pleasant to walk up and down. I wanted to get a t-shirt or two and/or a nice ornament that would remind me of the place but I must admit to not buying anything. The t’s were either not to my taste or very clichéd and most of the really nice ornamental stuff was very much out of my price range. The craft shop I was hoping to visit near the harbour was unfortunately closed so I came away with nothing which was a bit of a shame.

Earl's Palace © C Brooks

Kirkwall has three main attractions, the Bishop and Earl’s Palaces and also the C12th St Magnus Cathedral which are all worth a good look around, although I just walked around the grounds. Set in a pleasantly kept cemetery, the cathedral with its reddy-brown brickwork looks a modern structure but at the same time there is an air of ancient times about it. It must certainly be the one of the biggest if not the biggest brick building on the islands. The palaces seem to consist mainly of ruins but have enough of their old structures to give you an idea of just how majestic they once were such as the great turrets and gateways. The walls in some places are many feet thick and the interlaced stonework construction reminded me of the many burial chambers I have visited on the island.

St Magnus © C Brooks

I may have said things like this aren’t always my cup of tea but I did get a number of nice photographs. Overall Kirkwall is a pleasing enough town with all that you could want without having been turned into some ghastly ‘kiss-me-quick’ seaside monstrosity. Also geographically it is fairly central to the island complex and is where the majority of the ferries can be accessed, but I think Finstown is more my sort of place with its quiet outlook and being within walking distances of many of the most interesting places (not that I actually walked to any of them).

Having stopped for lunch, it was time to visit my final ancient site on this trip to Orkney.

You have to pre-book at least a day or two in advance, places are limited and it is unlikely that should you just turn up on the spur of the moment that there would be any left. In the warmer months it is likely that you would need to book much earlier, possibly before you even travel.

Maes Howe has a pleasant little museum and sells the normal trinkets prior to your guided tour. I purchased an official Heritage Scotland booklet and was also given a small piece of paper showing similar burial sites in the area… all of which I had already visited on my trip.

The tour guide started the tour by saying photography is not permitted within the structure. But on being asked why (and knowing full well the real reason) they just said cards showing the interior were available to purchase in the shop, and (funny enough….or not!) therefore avoiding answering my question directly but at the same time explaining exactly why.

From the museum car park you need to negotiate the main road that separates the building from Maes Howe tomb. While you are advised about the road there is no proper crossing system (light controlled or otherwise) so if you are not very able bodied you may want to be a little careful here as some vehicles are obviously travelling quite fast.

Access to the mound is by a paved walkway and therefore normal footwear is suitable. The mound itself is surrounded by an impressive ditch but much less impressive wire fence.

If you look around from here you can see the Neolithic landscape all around you. Stenness, Brodgar, Barnhouse, and most certainly more hidden yet to be found. The importance of this area in Neolithic times cannot be doubted and this area is easily the same if not more important than Avebury or Stonehenge.

Maes Howe approach © C Brooks

You cross the ditch to the ‘side’ of the mound rather than directly towards the entrance. The lovely stone facade entrance is also surrounded by an ugly metal gated fence and yet another metal gate guards the passageway to the tomb itself.

Maes Howe entrance © C Brooks

This passageway aligns with midwinter sunset marking the end of dark months and the beginning of the new year and the sun can be seen to shine along the passageway directly into the inner chamber during this time.

Once you have negotiated all these you are advised of the need to keep your head down along the low passageway into the inner chamber and also again reminded that photography is not allowed inside.

A number of dim lights guide your way to the softly lit interior. Huge stone slabs are used along the passageway and must weigh many tons. A metal rail surrounds you in the centre, stopping you from going near the inner walls as you are herded into the middle. Like many of the chambers I have visited before, the roof rises up and in above you – this one forming a sort of cross above your head. This passage tomb is probably the largest I have been in on the islands. The upper part of the roof is painted with a distracting white to distinguish its modern renovation from the original structure. Personally I don’t think the whole of it needed painting as a simple line of marked stones would have done the same job and would not have the same detrimental effect. Huge buttresses, again made from giant slabs of stones, support the walls in the corners.

There are three large side chambers which I could probably lean into but unfortunately you couldn’t get near them to look inside.

The tour guide was quite young and obviously reasonably new to the role and the talk could have flowed a little better but this wasn’t to the detriment of what was being said which overall was very informative.

I was probably at an advantage in that I already knew a little about the mound and the surrounding area beforehand and probably a little more than the guide themselves.

A good description was given about the geographic source of the stones used to build the chamber, the tomb’s use and purpose but most statements were finished with the line “but we don’t really know” which made me smile to myself.

What struck me as the most interesting thing about this tomb are not just its size and structure but the number of ancient Norse runes carved on the stones. I believe these Futhark runes are a form of Ogham or at least they look something similar. They were carved in the 12th century, much later after the tomb’s construction. The runes are not all written in the same way and many have been encrypted by their authors. They provide a great deal of history about who and when the tomb was accessed during the time period and is very fascinating indeed.

I realise that Maes Howe is now in the money making business in a similar fashion to Stonehenge and that they need to preserve the monument for the future, but like Stonehenge it suffers that ‘look but don’t touch’ feel. And I guess this is necessary as leaving the mound open for free access to all would probably also leave it open to damage or even theft from the same. I had tried to contact the museum to see if they did a Stonehenge style ‘out of hours’ access programme but unless you were from a formal interested party then this wasn’t possible. This is a shame as I think it would be popular for people such as myself willing to pay extra for this facility and have a few minutes to absorb the feel of the place. The fact you are not allowed even to take photo’s inside is annoying as a few minutes to take a few personal pictures at the end of the tour would be harmless.

Maes Howe © C Brooks

I liked Maes Howe and its importance in the landscape can not be denied and for that fact alone it is a must see, but overall I can quite honestly say it is not the number one on my list… by a very long way.

After leaving I spent a little more time walking around Brodgar and Stenness for the last time taking in the atmosphere of the stones, the weather and the island itself before returning back to my cottage to pack for the rest of my tour.

For those wishing to catch up on the story of Scubi’s travels to date, 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
  • Part 9 – The Isle of Eday
  • Part 10 – Isle of Rousay


April 2012

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