Sunday 23 September 2012

Riddles in Orkney

Take the Norwegian flag, and just replace the white bits with yellow - voilà, you have the flag of the Orkney Islands. Says a lot, doesn't it? Indeed, if you ask an Orcadian on holiday for his nationality, he will say he is an Orkney Islander. Maybe, only maybe he might concede to be Scottish, but never, ever he will be British. The affinity to Norway has a long history, about a royal dowry that couldn't be paid, Islands being annexed and all the wild things in politics that make nice stories to tell today, but may have been very tough for the people.
Anyway, we are here to marvel at much older events: Our gentle overland drive leads us from Kirkwall to the other side of the "mainland", as the largest of the over 100 Islands is called. Here, in Skara Brae, a fierce storm in the later 19th century revealed the stunning ruins of an old culture, a village so well organised and built that we have no problem at all to relay to this lifestyle, a little bit rural, mayhap, but all there, solid beds around a fireplace, shelves as if delivered by some Neolithic Ikea, and corridors so well conceived that they barred out the wind and the cold while connecting all the houses very conveniently. A great deal of planning and skill was required to achieve this, and it's impossible to look at this site without reverence to the "project manager" of the old days.
Oh, did I mention that we see all this on the most beautiful of days…? Yes, again, sunshine and the green smells of lush pastures all around us, our luck seems infinite.
After a quick glance into Skaill House, the most luxurious manor of the Orkneys, even visited by the Queen Mother in 1983, we carry on to a true mystery site - Brodgar, the stonehenge of the Orkneys. Only here you can get close, here we are alone without ten thousands of people milling about, here we get the good views. The achievement - again - was huge: Not only had these giant rock slabs to be brought from the area of Skara Brae, 15 miles away, but they had to be planted deep into the ground, only two thirds emerging. And then there's the ditch which dwarfs even those efforts: Nine meters wide, three meters deep, half of it carved into the bedrock (!), it has been calculated a task which required about 80.000 man hours. Without taking care of the debris which also had been removed from the site.
What for? Why? Well, nobody really knows. There's a plethora of theories growing around these henges, were they astronomic devices, amphitheatres for religious services, meeting point, seat of governments - it remains dark, no document existing, no writing, no legacy except these marvellous structures. The few runic carvings were made much later, by the Vikings who had not much more to say than the average graffiti today (Bjørn was here), quite disappointing.
Just next door, well, next Loch there is another of these structures, smaller maybe, but the mystery is just as big.
Full of thoughts we return to the ship and off we go towards Edinburgh.