The second group of Viking Islands that we visited were the Orkneys, which on a clear day can be seen from the northern tip of Scotland. As we flew over these islands, they appeared even greener than the Shetlands.
The Orkneys consist of about 70 islands of which 20 are inhabited. The total population is 20,100. The islands are not hilly, the highest point, Ward Hill, is only 481 metres high. However, the coastline is often rugged and these rugged cliffs provide a wonderful habit for sea birds to nest and roost.
The islands are generally treeless. That’s really nothing new as deliberate deforestation took place prior to the Neolithic period, about 4,000 BC in this part of the world.
Although The Orkneys are located 59°N, the climate is temperate with an average winter temperature of 4°C and an average of 12°C in summer. However, this does not take into account the wind chill factor, there often being strong gales in the area. As with the Shetlands, the islands are often shrouded in fog during the summer months.
Hunter-gather communities existed on the islands by about 3,900 BC. These early inhabitants left behind chambered tombs, standing stones and stone circles. One we visited was Maeshowe, a burial mound that can only be visited with a guide. Our guide turned up exactly on time but he looked very glum and disinterested. This was another case of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. He turned out to have a wicked sense of humour as he delivered his spiel.
There’s not a lot to photograph at Maeshowe but its story was interesting. It’s one of the largest tombs in Orkney and is thought to have been constructed around 2,800 BC . The mound is 7.3m high and 35m in diameter. There is a 14m wide ditch surrounding the mound. Under the grass mound is a complex of passages and chambers built out of flagstones weighing up to 30 tons. The entrance passage is 11m long and is aligned so that the sun, at the winter solstice, shines on the back wall of the central chamber. This tunnel is only 90cm high which requires visitors to virtually crawl on all fours to get to the central chamber. The chamber is roughly 4.6m square and currently is 3.8m high although it is thought it could have originally been 4.6m high or even more. It has a corbelled roof.
Next on our list of ancient piles of stones to be visited was Skara Brae, an early settlement of the cluster type. This was really a very significant pile of stones. It was uncovered by a fierce storm in 1850. The old village had been preserved under the coastal sand dunes for 5000 years. The homes that were uncovered contained furnished rooms with stone beds and dressers. Skara Brae has been inscribed on the World Heritage List of the World Cultural and National Heritage Convention because of its exceptional universal value. Skara Brae is northern Europe’s best preserved Neolithic village.
Standing Stones of Stenness are not far from Skara Brae. Originally, there were 12 stones laid out in an ellipse with a diameter of about 32m. The stones are approximately 300mm thick and stand up to about 5m in height. A couple have been destroyed by lightning strikes and a farmer, in December 1814, decided to remove the stones altogether as people were trespassing on his land to get to them. After toppling a couple of the stones, public outrage prevented him from further damaging the stones. The site is thought to date from at least 3000 BC.
While out exploring, we saw many, many fields of flourishing crops, many of them just on the point of harvest.
These crops are all used ‘on the farm’ to feed animals during the winter months. What a waste – perhaps all this output should be going to feed those who go to bed hungry each night rather than feeding animals for the tables of the rich! And, what about all the corn and sugar cane being grown in other parts of the world to produce fuel for our hungry motor vehicles? Don’t get me started!
As to other Orkney income earners – fishing has declined in recent times with the industry now concentrating on herring, lobsters, crabs and other shellfish and the farming of salmon. Whisky, beer, beef, and cheese now feature in the islands exports. Of growing importance is the development of wind and marine energy resources.Whilst walking around the standing stones etc. there was plenty of opportunity to see and photograph wild flowers (and weeds!) growing in the surrounding meadows.
Indigenous to NW America – a naturalised weed of meadows
I liked what I saw of The Orkneys. Another day of exploring here was still to come. D