Life of the Neolithic man on Orkney

Our last full day on Orkney was our sightseeing day. It wasn’t a big day in terms of kilometres, but we had a few stops.

The first was Maeshowe, a 5000-year-old Stone Age tomb. From the outside it looks like a small grassy mound, but as you duck down to crawl through the entrance and along a dark corridor, you enter into the chamber with its four walls and several smaller chambers.

You can only visit Maeshowe with a guide, and Moira has been guiding groups through for more than 20 years. She was a lovely old duck, who could chew the ear off a donkey, and told us about the people in the area.

When someone mentioned the mainland, she questioned where they were talking about. “You see, we use mainland to talk about where we are now, the main island of Orkney. But you are probably talking about the Scottish mainland?!”

She told us about the Gaelic language, and how they use some of the words in their local dialect.

“Yu would na coll me a small person, yu’d sai ah was a ‘piddie bodie’,” she told us.

“Just as yu see them piddie coos oot thar,” she said, pointing at the small cows.

We all giggled, and craned our ears to listen some more. Not a lot is known about Maeshowe, but once a year on the longest day the sun will shine directly into the back wall. Nothing much was found when the cavern was unearthed by a farmer, because hundreds of years earlier a band of merry Vikings broke their way rather ineloquently into the tomb and graffitied all over it in runes.

It was actually the best part of it! They wrote things like “I’m the best at writing runes” and “Helga is the most beautiful woman in these parts”. And there were small pictures of a dragon, a seal and another animal. The corner where we were standing had a cross etched into it.

But none of these marking could be seen in the normal lighting. It wasn’t until Moira turned the lights off and shone her torch over them that the runes etched into the stones could be admired.

Just across the way and within sight was the Standing Stones of Stenness, a ring of tall, flat stones that were hauled in place, although only about six remained. It was on flat green grass, a smaller more intimate place to hold ceremonies.

More impressive in size, and just another few kilometres away was the Ring of Brodgar. It stands between two lochs, one filled with freshwater and barely metres away the other a saltwater loch that joins the ocean. The ring has 21 of 60 stones still standing, some weathered away, one fallen from a lightning strike last century. They’re said to have been from around 2500-2000 BC, situated on a small hill covered in heather.

Our last stop, and the most fascinating for me, was Skara Brae. It pre-dates Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. A small neolithic village showing life from a prehistoric period. The visitor centre gave a great insight into how life was, but  the big mystery is why life finished there and allowed the preservation of such a sight.

It had a room with all sorts of information, the bold writing being factual information and the italics only guesses as to how life was lived. Things like tools they used and food they ate had bones and other materials as evidence, but many of the “why” answers were given as assumptions.

They also made a replica of the inside of one of the houses, so you could get up close. The site itself is small, with about seven one room houses and a workshop in the area. It is right on the beach, and sits lower than the current ground, with the corridors covered by grass. Many of the roofs had collapsed in, so you walk around the outside peering over and into this ancient village.

I had fun watching a rabbit make his home in one of the houses. The girl on guard said he had escaped the farm next door, where more than 50 of them were just sitting mowing the grass, and built his nest. They need to get him out, but do it in a way that doesn’t affect the village.

We were finishing the day in Stromness, where we would be catching the disgustingly early 6.30am car ferry back to the Scottish mainland. It was dark by the time we were looking for a place to camp around the small town, and the recreation field the boys found had no coverage for female peeing, so I vetoed it for across the road, a small service street that had a green strip with tall bushes between it and the main road, while the big house we were in front of was empty and boarded up, so we wouldn’t be bothering anyone. A few people saw us setting the tents up and begin cooking, but it was so cold we were snuggled and asleep within no time.