You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Orkney Islands’ category.

by Dr Sandy Gerrard

The Stones of Stenness today

The Stones of Stenness today


Today the glossy guide books that you can purchase at the “honey-pot” heritage attractions contain loads of perfect photographs accompanied by a few paragraphs explaining what there is to see and what it might mean. Such publications don’t tout controversy and are very much a product of establishment thinking. This was not always the case and in the “olden” days back in the 1950’s the authors of the so called “Official Guides” produced by the Department of the Environment sometimes used them as a vehicle to vent their spleen.

A wonderful example of this can be found in the “Ancient Monuments in Orkney” Official Guide published in 1952. The description of the Stones of Stenness stone circle on page 21 is remarkable and speaks for itself. “It consists of four erect monoliths together with a spurious dolmen-like structure which dates only from 1906 and is the result of an unfortunate ‘restoration’ of fallen stones by the then Office of Works, misled by certain archaeological ‘experts’ of that time.”

Fairly hard hitting stuff and not the sort of thing you are likely to read in today’s sanitised publications for the general public. Just goes to show that government experts don’t always get it right.

A photograph of the “spurious dolmen” is available here and further information on this particular debacle can found at Orkneyjar.

Someone has scrawled “AA 2015” on one of the stones of Britain’s third largest stone circle, Orkney’s Ring of Brogdar.


A spokesman for Historic Scotland said “Fortunately incidents such as this are rare, and we continue to work with the local community to educate people on the significance of these prehistoric sites.” All very well, but it’s a fair bet it was a visitor not a local and the locals probably need no educating on the subject. In any case, Historic Scotland and it’s predecessor bodies have been “educating” the public since 1885 and it doesn’t seem to have got through to the likes of Andy Alexander or whatever the little toe-rag’s name is.  So you have to wonder if more could be done beyond vague promises to educate people – certainly at the “Hollywood” sites where the sheer numbers of visitors increases the statistical likelihood of attacks. (The Nine Ladies stone circle has recently suffered similar vandalism).

“Punishment” is a form of education that shouldn’t be neglected. In Britain if you’re caught you can theoretically get up to 5 years in jail but of course no-one ever gets much more than a fine. Even bulldozing a circle at Priddy resulted in a non-custodial sentence. Abroad, though, if people are caught damaging particularly precious monuments the penalties can be much more severe. Last year a Russian who carved a letter K on the Colosseum in Rome (which is less than half the age of the Ring of Brogdar) was fined £15,800 and a couple of years ago a man was jailed for 18 months for urinating against the Alamo (a monument that’s one twentieth of the age of the Ring of Brogdar!)

A couple of years ago now, Heritage Action member ‘Scubi’ (Chris Brooks) documented his ‘trip of a lifetime, Scottish Adventure‘ around the highlands and islands of Scotland, visiting many of the prehistoric monuments on the islands.

And now, regular reader Mark Griffiths has documented part of his own trip to Orkney on his personal blog.

As Mark says in his introduction:

Prehistoric Britain exists all around us, with standing stones jutting out of the ground all over the countryside, and chambered tombs tucked into shady corners of modern housing estates. But there are several ‘prehistoric landscapes’ where great swathes of the country are kept as once they were, and it doesn’t take much imagination to feel a tremendous resonance with the past. Remote in both time and space, places like Mitchell’s Fold and Bryn Celli Ddu hold a special fascination for me. Larger landscapes, such as the justly-famous Stonehenge and Avebury sites in Wiltshire, even with the close proximity to the modern world, and the super-attraction tourist status they have, still have the power to evoke a certain something.

Certainly words that resonate with us here at the Heritage Journal! He continues:

Orkney, however, is a particular favourite of mine. A collection of 90 islands off the north coast of Scotland, the islands are made of Old Red Sandstone, which is excellent for building with as it can be quarried into blocks with ease. Perhaps it was this very fact that led to prehistoric folks settling here all those years ago. From about 3500BC it is believed the islands were being settled, as the hunter-gatherer way of life settled down into farming.

His account includes some stunning photographs – I suspect the islands are similar to Cornwall with regard to good light, I’ve yet to see a bad photograph of the monuments there!

Mark visits all the usual sites in his blog: Skara Brae, Barnhouse, Stones of Stenness, Brodgar, Maes Howe etc. and it makes a good read. His blog name includes the epithet ‘Heritage Hunter!’ as a tag line, so we’ll certainly be keeping an eye on his future posts…

Visit: marrrkusss – Heritage Hunter!

If you’ve experienced your own ‘trip of a lifetime’ to a British heritage site or sites, why not drop us a line and let us know about it so we can feature your trip here too?

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

Herewith, the latest segment in the serialisation of Scubi’s trip of a lifetime to Scotland’s highlands and islands last year.

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
  • Part 9 – The Isle of Eday

and now, the story continues…

Today starts with yet another ferry trip this time to the much closer Isle of Rousay. This is just a short ferry ride from Tingwall harbour on the mainland which in turn was not that far from Finstown where I was renting my cottage.

After the previous days early start and late finish I was still feeling a little tired but nonetheless I set off early and was greeted with the water in Finstown bay perfectly still and like a mirror. Living in landlocked Wiltshire you don’t often get to see this sort of thing so I parked up to get a few shots of the blue-black water. I had the feeling this was going to be another lovely day in Orkney.

Finstown Bay © C Brooks

Arriving at Tingwall I parked up where I was told when I purchased the ticket and took a stroll around. The clarity of the water in this part of the world constantly amazes me so much so I could have donned my scuba kit and walked right into the sea there and then.

The ferry was arranged so that we had to drive on in reverse which was a little disconcerting but as it was quite small I took my seat on the open deck and we were away very quickly.

As we drifted along the very still water one of the deck hands pointed across to the Rousay coastline. There on the shore was a small group of seals basking in the ever warming sunshine. Just at that point my mobile started ringing… much to the displeasure of others on the deck. I hastily grabbed the phone from my pocket and answered it gruffly telling the person on the end I was busy. Unfortunately by the time I got back to the seals they were a distant image in my camera.

We arrived at the small ferry terminal on Rousay which lies in the Wyre Sound opposite the small island of Wyre. The ferry does stop on Wyre and other islands on its route so if you have time you could visit these also. Reversing onto the ferry meant that the drive off was so much easier and this time I knew where I was heading and it was probably less than a kilometre away.

I reversed into the small quarried out parking area which was actually about a minutes drive from leaving the ferry. You walk along a path up the hill for a very short distance before being directed to Taversoe Tuick. The cairn is surrounded by a wire fence and at first glance this cairn looks very similar to others I have seen so far on my trip. But a quick look at the information board revealed I would be in for a real treat… and I wasn’t to be disappointed.

Taversoe Tuick © C Brooks

For the want of a better description this cairn is a ‘double decker’ in that there are two main chambers one built upon the other. The information board says that these chambers were both part of the original structure and built at the same time but had independent entrances. One entrance is blocked off by a metal railing. There is also another third chamber a couple of metres away from the main mound and accessed by a rather heavy wooden door on the ground. This itself has a sort of vertically split entrance but both lead into the same single chamber. The chamber itself is quite small about 1.5m square with a number of upright stone pillars infilled with small flat stones very similar in construction to that of the main chamber at the Rennibister Earth House I saw on day 3.

Entering the cairn by the modern entrance door and wire gate, which faces away from the coast line and along the short low passage, you immediately know there is something very different going on here. However, but before I go into detail the only disappointment is this yet another concrete dome roof with the light hole in the top… but this soon fades into insignificance and on this occasion shows the interior off very well.

Standing there looking and trying to work out what is going on, I thought to myself of all the barrows and cairns I have visited (and I have visited many) this is probably… no, this is definitely the best and most fascinating.

In front of you is a rough chamber which is ‘D’ shaped plan view and you are facing into the ‘D’ so the far side metre high dry stone walling sort of arches around to either side of you. A sectioned off smaller side chamber comes off the ‘D’ immediately to the left measuring about a metre square. A much more open layout side chamber exists on the right and this measure about 1.5m by 1m or so. Then in front of you is very small chamber measuring about 0.5m high and wide and about a meter deep. This small chamber has a small cap stone still in situ.

Taversoe Tuick © C Brooks

As it stands this is a little bit strange but what surprises you most is the large square entrance to a lower chamber dead in front of the entrance passageway. This entrance, large enough for me to get into (for a change) is formed in the large flagstone style floor with a somewhat unstable ladder providing access. The lower main chamber is perhaps 1.5m to 1.6m in height (or depth) and as you decent into it you immediately see in front of you the long entrance passage leading into the tomb from the blocked entrance I saw earlier outside. Again the lower level forms a sort of ‘D’ shape similar to the level above and directly beneath it. To the left and to the right are a pair of two tier side chambers raised above the floor level. The upper tier of each being similar to the side chambers directly above on the upper level. The lower tiers of each of these chamber are about 0.3m high. Behind you under the entrance of the upper level are yet another pair of two tier side chambers of similar dimensions to the others on this level.

Taversoe Tuick © C Brooks

My photos did not do this place justice, this is a complex, interesting and very exiting tomb and definitely worth the visit to Rousey if not Orkney, alone… just one thing to be careful of when using the metal ladder, though strong it is not fixed and is quite unstable due to the uneven surfaces.

Leaving the site I spotted those seals laying on the beach I had seen from the ferry so I got a couple of snaps from the hillside. Moving on along the island ‘ring-road’ a short distance of less than a kilometer westward to Blackhammer Chambers Cairn. Accessed by a short but steep walk up the hill there is an information board giving you the usual insight into its construction. Although there is not much to see externally there is a plastic observation window allowing you to see part of the external wall construction. However the plastic had deteriorated and steamed up and in the strong sunlight it was difficult to see much. Mostly destroyed, the entrance passageway faces out towards the sea and the inside of the tomb is gained via a sliding door arrangement and a short metal ladder with a drop of about a metre.

Like the Tomb of the Eagles you enter the cairn at the centre point and the chamber extends out to the left and right of you by about 8m each. The width is a good 2m if not a little wider. The chamber is divided into seven stalls separated by pairs of vertical stones or wall constructions about half a metre apart so that you can walk right down the centre line.

Blackhammer © C Brooks

Apparently remains of only two individuals were found during excavations and a wall has been built later separating the left of the chamber off and restricting access. In this wall is a small side chamber. Opposite the entrance there is a worked stone with some strange shapes cut into it (a sort of deep ‘V’ or ‘L’ with a square hole next to it) which may well be modern but looked interesting anyway. After Taversoe Tuick it is difficult to be blown away by this one but taking it purely on its own merit this is a great tomb to visit.

Right, driving a little further down the coast road the next tomb for me to visit on this trip is Knowe of Yarso. You have to park (if you are driving) in the small car park area by the road and walk up the hill along a private access road. Keeping left wherever the road diverge,s it’s a bit of a slog up the hill. There are sign posts and after crossing a concrete slab bridge and then a wooden bride the route is marked by some black and white poles. After this the route flattens out and you can see the cairn a little way in front of you.

Again there isn’t much to see on the outside apart from the lovely view of the sea. The cairn in surrounded by a wire fence which on the seaward side is very much needed as the tomb is very close to the edge of a steep drop. The entrance faces along the coastline in the direction you have just walked but now has a sturdy wooden door instead of a long passageway. Like many cairns on Orkney this had two layers of walling with the outer layer being a sort of herringbone effect. Twenty-nine individuals were excavated from this site with seventeen of those being represented by skulls only and it is thought the tomb was in use for up to a thousand years.

The entrance takes you into the tomb at the eastern end and inside it is similar to Blackhammer with the inner chamber split into stalls but this time there are only four. Most of the bones found during excavation were located in the furthest chamber from the entrance. Again about 2m wide and about 9 or 10m long most of the stones are covered in an algae giving the tomb a strange green glow as the light from the glass covered holes above bounces around. I think I prefer this cairn to that of Blackhammer as it has a more aged feeling about it and again well worth a visit.

Knowe of Yarso © C Brooks

There is plenty of parking for Mid Howe tomb but it is a fair old walk down to the coastline to the tomb itself. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it wasn’t quite as grand as this. A huge stalled burial cairn (the biggest known) housed within an even bigger stone built building complete with roof for total weather protection. I know this greatly detracts from the environmental context of the tomb in the landscape but if you are going to preserve something this big I don’t think you can do it any better than this. You are requested to refrain from walking into the cairn itself (which I did) but a fantastic walkway has been constructed around the tomb to allow you to look down into the chambers.

Midhowe Tomb © C Brooks

Only natural light floods in giving a good feel to the place and the floor of the tomb has that green alge again making it look a little surreal. The are 12 pairs of very large stall sections, many having bed like arrangements similar to the single stalls found at Skara Brae and originally the inner walls would have leaned and been capped by large slabs of stone some three or four meters above. The outer wall was decoratively built with the interwoven slabs of stone leaning in one direction for a meter or so and then leaning the other way towards the top creating the now familiar herringbone pattern seen elsewhere on the island. From the walkway you can also see how the infill material between the inner and outer walls were sectioned off with upright stones placed deliberately to stabilise the material and reduce the weight on the inner walls.

Midhowe Tomb stalls © C Brooks

This place really is fantastic and as I was left alone for the majority of the time. I was able to totally photograph and take in the place without hindrance – a definite must see for the Orkney visitor.

While you’re here you must also walk along the coast a little further and take a look at Midhowe Broch. As the information board explains this broch and 8 others (including Gurness) stand like sentinels guarding the waters of Eynhallow Sound. In use between 2300 and 1900bce these huge structures and the smaller ‘village’ that surround them were self sufficient communities consisting mainly of farmers and fishermen. Many of the comments I made about Gurness on day 5 also apply to this broch. This broch differs really only that it is located bedrock being sited on a raised crag but again was probably built by a powerful local family and provided a degree of protection from invaders.

Midhowe Broch © C Brooks

The stonework is impressive with a self supporting double skinned wall wide enough to walk through and provide access to the upper floors. Also impressive are the great slabs of stone which formed the internal walls to the broch and some of the outer buildings. Many have crumbled over time and are held together using modern metal bracketry but you still have to wonder how they were able to take such large slices of solid rock. A new(ish) sea wall has been built to protect the coastline from erosion but the structure adds quite well to the broch itself and resembles some of the middle earth buildings described in the Tolkein books… well it did to me anyway. What can I say, take a butchers yourself.

Midhowe Broch © C Brooks

The only draw back with the Midhowe tomb and broch is the long slog back up that hill to the car… boy, that had me wheezing even with the wind and rain to cool me down.

Well, that was my final site visit while on Rousay and for the remainder of the day I took a slow drive around the island and spent a little time just wandering around before rejoining the ferry back to the mainland.

I would say it would be much cheaper and nicer to bring a bike over from the mainland rather than a car. There are a few hills but you can cycle to all the main monuments easily and probably take in the island a little better.

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.

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


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.


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.


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.

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.

Skara Brae.

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.



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

Day 4

Well, return I did. After a good night sleep I got up and drove straight back to Brodgar but again it was occupied by the maintenance team cutting the grass. Just checking my map, there were a couple of other places in the area I could visit and so drove down to the Barnhouse Stone.

This standing stone sits in a field near the turning onto the Brodgar road near Maeshowe burial tomb. Being quite close to the main road the traffic can be distracting and there is nowhere easy to park nearby. Although quite thin, the stone is top heavy, being quite broad at the top and narrowing significantly as it enters the ground. Its uppermost part is covered with a beautifully thick head of moss and yellow lichens form flashes down its lower sides. This stone aligns with the entrance to Maeshowe during midwinter sunrise. Access to the stone was limited as the field in which it sits was in early crop and the stone itself is surrounded with a low height barrier. I managed to get a few shots although I couldn’t get the alignment with the famous tomb it is associated with.

I returned to Stenness, but rather than going into the stones I followed the sign and walked to the close by Barnhouse settlement. You approach the small settlement via a short grassed track that passes alongside the standing stones.

One thing I like about Orkney is you never failed to be surprised at almost every site, and again this was not exception. On the ground before you lie the shape of what looks like a house. But at a second glance it becomes obvious that this is not a house at all… or at least not in the normal sense of the word. The floor plan is of a more or less square circle with a grass covered retaining wall around the outside. There is then an intermediate area which is entered through a ‘doorway’ in the outer wall. There is then a walled passageway entrance to the even more square inner area which contains a central hearth. Interestingly, there is a second hearth in the passageway entrance to this section also which is the first clue that this is not a home. The outer and inner entrances are not aligned either so you have to walk around the intermediate area to get to the inner section. The outer entrance has a couple of portal stone whereas the inner entrance is more grand and complex. Surely this is the reverse of what you would do for a home (well it is these days) and the fact that you would first have to traverse a fire to get into the centre points to an entirely different purpose maybe relating to some sort of ritualistic ‘rite of passage’.

There is another large square building in the complex which resembles a modern semi-detached home. This structure is split into two mirrored images in that it has two hearths separated from each other by a thin stone wall which goes across the centre. Around the hearths are what look like sleeping areas, again separated by thin walls. This building may be a home but I think not as many as the normal round houses on the site which are just that, normal. They are smaller, round and have a single hearth at their centre. The first impression I got was that this is all part of some sort of ritual procession that involves these structures and the Standing Stones of Stenness. The information boards more or less confirm this. The fact that there is a build containing two similar layouts suggests some sort of bonding ceremony, maybe, where each person is separated before the bonding. It could be marriage or it could be coronation related… but I am only guessing. The fact is that there is so much here to get you thinking, which is something I very much liked about the place. There are many structures here, enough to keep you busy for a good while anyway, and there is a small standing stone next to the loch which is a good place to contemplate when it get busy.

Again I returned to the standing stones where, as normal, it was quite busy; unnoticed by the crowd however were two seals sunbathing on the shores of Stenness Loch. I took a few shaky pictures from a distance and got back in my car.

The Ring of Brogdar. Image credit and © Chris Brooks


February 2023

Follow Us

Follow us on Twitter

Follow us on Facebook

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 10,809 other subscribers
%d bloggers like this: