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

The route back was quite hard going against the wind and now the rain had started again. In fact at times it was hitting my face so hard it felt like riding a motorbike in a hailstorm with the helmet visor open (trust me, not recommended). But as I rounded the hill both the rain and the wind died down a little and the ground levelled out. For some reason the walk back seemed shorter somehow; I am not sure why but I didn’t care as I was ready to get back in the car.
I decided to drive back to the cottage and change my clothes as my trousers had got soaked through. After a little food and a bit of a rest the weather improved a little (well it stopped raining anyway) and I drove out again.

I made my way along the A965 passing Maeshowe on my right then turning off onto the B9055. You can not help but take your eyes off the road as you realise the three huge stones on your right. There is a very large parking area to your right into which I pulled. For a moment I just sat and looked out of the window of my car realising even more now that I really was here at last.

To me the Standing Stones of Stenness are the icons of Orkney, and from my little house in Wiltshire I had always dreamt of seeing them. Now in front of me the dream had come true and I had arrived at the place that had grabbed my attention in so many books, websites and TV programmes. You may be amazed to know that I did not stay, this was really because I wanted to meet these stones alone and the field had a number of visitors at that moment.
A little way up, the road turns into a single track road as you drive passed the Watchstone on the left and then further still the fantastic Ring of Brodgar appears on a small hill to the left. Signs guide you into the purpose built car park. Along with the large but surprisingly lacking information board, an eye pleasing raised wooden path meanders its way over the watery marshland towards the great circle commanding the side of the hill in front of you. You have to negotiate the mainly quiet road that you have driven up and then, after the gate, a reinforced grass path takes you up the hill. By the gate there are a couple of parking spaces for those who need them but you still need to negotiate the grassy but gentle slope. Further up there was some erosion control taking place where one of the paths crosses the ring ditch.

Despite the grey clouds and cold breeze, this place really does grip you. I spent a good hour just walking around taking in the stones’ size, texture and shapes. The central area is covered in heather and the a few small signs request you stay off – which I was happy to do. There is no bank so it is technically not a henge but it is the third largest stone circle after Avebury and Stanton Drew.

The landscape in which this place stands is inspirational, even on such a miserable day. Both the nearby water and the distant surrounding hills give weight to the probable importance of this place. However it may be a surprise to know that when it was built it is thought that Stenness Loch was a watery marshland (similar to that which the wooden footpath crosses) and only became waterbound when the sea breached it over 1000 years after its construction. After a while I was joined by some of the people who were at Stenness so I took this opportunity to leave and head back there.



The stones stand proudly in a fenced off field, and you approach them through the normal kissing gate arrangement. Yes, the stones are big, massive in fact, and the two largest are shaped so that they seem to cut into the dark cloudy sky like knives. Just as in the car you can not help constantly looking up at the tops of the stones while you walk around. Their shape definitely leads your eyes up and you can’t help but notice how very thin they are compared to their height.

Fortunately it was becoming obvious also that the weather was improving. The dark rain filled clouds started to retreat like rivers of fog over the loch, with patches of blue appearing in-between. The sun was setting and the remaining high cloud had a pink hue to it. I scrabbled to put my wide angle lens on the camera in order to get this magnificent sky, and I snapped away getting as many shots as possible. Eventually it got dark and the crescent moon appeared above the stones. Again there was a level of serenity only disturbed by the odd passing car and now, as I watched and took in the atmosphere, I am sure the shape of these stones are significant and our ancient ancestors must have thought the same to have put them there. I could imagine a complete ring of stones pointing to the sky… maybe they pointed to object depending where you stood – I don’t know, but there must have been a reason for it.
It was a bit dark now and I drove over to the Watch Stone and parked in the nearby lay-by for a while. It was difficult to get a good shot without a powerful flash now but there was plenty of time to return and I will do so.


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

 

The weather had turned wet and windy, and while checking my programme of events I decided I would visit some of the more local sites that day. Now I was staying in Finstown, which is very close to some of the local sites that would be on most people’s ‘Top 5 Orkney places to visit’ list. First off though was a trip to Crantit Souterrain near Kirkwall so, with the satnav set, off I trundled. After a relatively short drive I ended up on a small road just outside Kirkwall where there was no signage to help me identify where I should be looking. A quick look on the map suggested I was at the right place, but after looking over a few fences, and even asking a bewildered passer-by, had no luck. The weather was still poor and not wanting to just invade private property (well not with people about anyway) or to waste much time on a wild goose chase, I decided that, as this site wasn’t very high on my ‘to do’ list, hopefully there would be better ones and I could try to find this one again later.

The next location on my list took me to Grain Souterrain.  I arrived at the coordinates and after a bit of a look around managed to find the entrance. As expected this a small mound with a hatchway surrounded by a fence with a locked gate. I went to get the key but had no luck as it was a Sunday and nobody was available, or it was too early (not sure which). This wouldn’t be a problem as I would again return when I had time in the week. Things were not going to plan at the moment so I decided I would get out of Kirkwall and hunt for better game else where.

 

As I drove back towards Finstown I spotted the sign for Rennibister Earth House so turned off down the farm track and parked in front of the sign telling me I couldn’t drive any further. As you approach the farm on foot there is a small sign which points you around the back of the main house, follow this and you immediately see the site in front of you. In a similar fashion to Grain, this too is fenced off but this time the gate is not locked and you are able to walk straight in. There is a small information board (which says it was discovered when a piece of farming machinary drove over it and broke through) and a hatchway directly into the ground where access is via a shortish ladder of about 6 rungs. When you have descended you are met with a sort of hexagonal chamber with pillars of stone in each ‘corner’. There is also a passage way leading to an entry point protected at the other end by a metal grid. The stone corbelling is very good too and overall the chamber was in very good condition.

As normal I sat there a while and thought about what it was used for, and I guess (as the information board says) storage was the most likly reason. The very small passageway to the main building could create a nice airflow and reduce moisture build up. Indeed this was a very pleasant and thought-provoking place, and a lovely example of a souterrain you could wish to see.

 

Having taken my fill of photos and video at Rennibister I drove to the top of Wideford Hill looking for the next place on the list. I didn’t see any signs for the cairn after I left the Old Finstown Road at the foot of the hill, and eventually arrived at the top where all the communication antennas are. As I was here (I thought to myself) I would take a look around. Now I could hear and feel the wind in the car but nothing really prepared me for its strength when I tried to open the door, it was absolutely phenomenal. Had I been a small and meagre person (rather than a large one) I may not have been able to get out of the driver’s side of the car (but I did). Standing in the wind was a bit of challenge let alone walking in it. Looking down the side I tried to see if I could see Wideford Cairn but was having no luck… again. I knew it was towards the Kirkwall side of the hill so I consulted my notes. These suggested there was a parking area before you get to the top of the hill, and so as I drove back down I noticed the information board on the right and a small parking area which, for some reason, I had missed on the way up. It was big enough for maybe 3 cars and so I parked up and took a butchers at the board. Thankfully, it showed exactly where the cairn was with a good description of how to get there.

 

I put on my wet and windy gear and off I trundled. Initially the walk is fairly flat but, as you walk along, the stones that had been put down to create a sort of cobbled path, the walk then gradually begins to descend. As it does so the stones disappear and the path becomes a track worn into the peat. Luckily, because Orkney had had very little rain in the last 10 days or so, the peat was quite dry and firm and it was just a case of following it.
Along the route you come across a black and white banded pole and then a gate with no fence on one side and a sign saying ‘Please shut the gate’ which obviously I found amusing. There is also another sign which states ‘Alternative route to Finstown’ which I also found amusing as to why would anybody want to get to Finstown by going over this hill? Keep following the route in the same general direction and eventually you can see the cairn just a short distance away. The path had taken a bit of a steeper fall now so I had to watch my footing.

You enter the site through the normal gate on its lower edge. There is an information board in front of you and to the left of the cairn there is a little box on a post containing both battery powered and wind up torches – both of which were working which was nice. Now while it is probably possible to enter the tomb through the passageway, the easiest way is through the sliding hatch that is sited on top of it, but of course to get to it you have to walk over the mound.
The grass covered terracing of this cairn is more defined than that at the Tomb of the Eagles and (in my opinion of course) it looks better, almost as if it has been built into the side of the hill. The view out to the bay is breath-taking, well I imagined it would be if it wasn’t now raining and blowing a gale and I could actually see it.
Pulling back the sliding hatch and making my way down the metal ladder – this time quite a bit higher than the one at Rennibister.

 

As you touch down you can only but admire the construction of this inner chamber. Reasonably wide at the bottom, the chamber narrows as it rises up over your head toward the new entrance and the magnificeant dry stone work, meticulously interlayered. Around the bottom of the chamber are a number of small passageways that lead to further chambers. A little small for me to feel comfortable to get right in to but I was able to examine them with the torch – with my feet stuck out into the larger chamber. Again the stone work was fantastic, stepping its way to the top of the chamber like some sort of mini cathedral and capped at the top with a single slab.

The other chambers were similar and one had its own short passageway which was way to small for me to attempt to get in to. A few more photographs and a moment of silence to take in this place was had. It is very difficult to get across the feeling of awe you have just sitting there unless you come here yourself.
I climbed the ladder, slid back the hatch and placed the torches back into the box. The wind had picked up but the mist cloud had dispersed revealing that hidden view for a brief period. It certainly was worth the walk.

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