Holiday! Part six – in which there is a trip to the Neolithic Heart of Orkney and Comeuppance is Delivered

We did indeed pay for the good weather yesterday. I thought we’d got away with it at first – the morning was overcast, but not too dark – and we were only going a short way, eh, to a bunch of talks on the various big, famous structures round Stenness. So it turned out neither of us put on All the clothes like we did yesterday, and it turned out that was an error. The first raindrops hit the windscreen just as we pulled up at the Stenness stones (half an hour early) and within five minutes there was a biting gale and we were getting hammered by the rain. We did meet some nice foreign people as we all tried to shelter behind the same standing stone (and failed miserably). Note to self: just dress for the worst, like at home.

(They had gloves. God, I was envious of the gloves. It’s summer.)

The talk was really good, actually, and I suppose the awful pelting added to the ambience. Someone did ask if the Neolithic folks had this sort of weather to contend with and the tour guy assured us that Orkney was actually a few degrees warmer back then – and that we’re at latitude 59 degrees, the same as where the Hudson freezes a metre deep in winter, and as Moscow, but it doesn’t get anything like that here.

We don’t know anything, the guide kept telling us. We think the Barnhouse Settlement behind the Stenness stones is to do with it, what with them being so close, the same age, orientated together and the hearth in the middle of the stones appearing to be from there, but that’s not the same thing as proof. We think the same people built Maeshowe, and indeed Stenness is orientated towards it, and we think the beds are so small because they all slept sitting up and huddled against each other for warmth because that was probably a massive priority (eep!)

On the other hand, they obviously had the leisure to hack out a great big henge four metres wide and two deep, right out of the rock (the G Monster pointed out that it’s ‘only sandstone’, aye catch me doing that without metal tools; he also says me hacking out a smaller area for a retaining wall with a pickaxe will be impossible). Then they hauled stones weighing several tonnes apiece overland for at least eight miles, probably without the aid of wooden rollers since the islands were scrub trees at that point, although they might have used seaweed as lubricant.

(Here we are in the pub and the G Monster is telling me they could well have made roads of ice using buckets of water, if they were patient and waited for a winter day, and that’s very efficient for moving big weights along.)

This much is probably true for all the stone circles around here. However! They reckon this one is the very first circle, not just in Orkney but in the whole of the UK and western Europe (it’s 5,100 years old, happy birthday to it). Which might explain why it’s an ellipse. (‘Arg say not bad, but next time, use string’.) It’s a good six hundred years older than the Ring of Brodgar up the road, I think he said, and a lot older than Stonehenge. (He also said they’ve found the bones of cattle raised in Orkney at Stonehenge, so there was a fair amount of moving around back then). Maybe stone circles were invented here partly because the rock cleaves so easily into big, thin slabs (another game you can play while driving around is ‘standing stone or gate post?’) The stones for this circle were brought in from all around, however, each of them aligned in the circle so that their outer surface points back towards where they came from, which makes me wonder if it was a sort of ‘and we all bring a bit and all build it together’ as some kind of kinship affirmation, or ceremonial ‘binding’ of the settlements or something. Hey, your man said since we don’t and cannot know the why, then every theory is true!

(Personally, I would have said ‘every theory is Schröedinger true’ – like, only one (or none, if we’re all way off) is actually true, and just because nobody can ever open the box and find out which doesn’t mean ‘as viable as each other’ = ‘Totes Legit How it Went Down!’ – but then, I’m surprisingly pernickety about that sort of thing, you know, for someone who finds the word ‘trundle’ hilarious.)

Anyway, the stones were cut horizontally out of their beds – apparently we can tell that now – and the upper side faces outwards, while the ‘fresh’ side faces inward; which made me think maybe they were meant to be a huge mouth for eating the sky – remember! This too is totally as true as anything! – but he went on to say one of the notable archaeologists of this place has discovered the stones of the tomb inner walls are also orientated like this, i.e. fresh face in, weathered face out, and he has an exciting new theory that the inner face absorbed the essences of the corpses inside, and then made the bones stronger in return, so the tomb itself became the ancestors, as it were, and the bones were discarded. Which could explain why the living had no problem moving them about and putting them here and there after they were, erm, clean. They weren’t really the ‘resting place’ of the soul anymore, right?

The guide did say this chap – Colin Richards, I think he said his name is and I hope I have that right because I want to look up his work – is full of off-the-wall ideas. However, he does have a pretty big ace up his sleeve in terms of being right, because he discovered the Barnhouse Settlement, back in 1984, I think he said it was. Despite being right next to the Stenness Stones, nobody knew this was here, until your man drew a line through from, um, something to something, possibly Skara Brae to Maeshowe, but I could be making that up, and then went round all the sites during the spring ploughing, having a look at what was churned up (pottery shards, vole bones etc – apparently the Neolithic peeps brought voles and red deer and all sorts with them, which is pretty damn organised for people who didn’t have a cruise liner). And was there ever a lot churned up at this place! So he dug an experimental trench, which the guide helpfully pointed out on the Barnhouse Settlement map. It was exactly in between all the houses, along the only possible line which could have missed them all, so let’s hope he never played Battleship. However, he dug again and this time discovered the village, which was still a hundred percent better than anyone else had ever managed.

The guide did say, we don’t know anything about what Neolithic people thought, or believed, and given that there can apparently be enormous differences in outlooks in different cultures and times; to the extent that if someone modern had been living in, say, 400 BC China, it might be impossible for them to think in terms of some modern concepts (and vice versa) so we will never know whether the Neolithic peeps even had religion as we understand it. He did say, however, that they were extremely prone to losing things, given the amount of really amazing artefacts that had apparently just been put down and forgotten about, which makes me think about toddlers and their habits – though, the idea that people who can organise something like this and have the minds of toddlers is a bit scary, really. Then again, my abilities at organisation are simultaneously a) ferocious! at work, and b) involve forgetting to pack socks, so maybe I should stop while I’m ahead.

The G Monster had speculated that this place was so clustered with sites because of the two freshwater lochs, but we found out the Barnhouse Settlement predates them – that used to be a marsh, and the sea broke through some hundreds of years later and flooded the place, taking out at least part of the village, which must have been quite traumatic. I suppose wherever it got through closed up again at some point and the salt… leached out again? (Oh look, something else that I totally don’t know how it works and should look up).

So even though we were soaked through and horribly cold, that was an hour well spent. Fortunately, the Maeshowe visitor centre had a wee cafe we could go thaw out in, too, before we took the guided tour to that. The guided tour is the only way to get to Maeshowe, if anyone reading this is thinking of going; you go to the visitor centre down the road, get in a wee bus, trundle for about two minutes and have a short walk. And do mind out you don’t bang your head on the way in.

The guide for this one said – and I have noticed it at other sites – that the Neolithic people were well into restricting the way into sacred places; aye, look at the avenues to Stonehenge and similar sites, and the henges (the ditch and embankment, it took me ages to realise ‘henge’ does not mean, the big stones with a stone across them) round them. Also, apparently, at Barnhouse and the Ness of Brodgar up the road (currently shut, alas), there is one very big building, with no sign of domestic use, which had a hearth right in the entranceway (Barnhouse) and no less than five hearths in the entranceway (Ness) which… well, it did a good job at restricting access, but nobody knows why.

One guy in the party did declare it might be a doorbell, with the person trying to enter yelling ‘ow! Ow! Ow!’ and the guide laughed and laughed and said he was stealing it. If you ever go, and hear this theory, know it was formed on this day, year of our lord etc etc.

Damn, I’m pre-ruining the tour spiel, so I’ll knock it off now. The tour is free, however, and that particular guide was very good, so I’m glad we went. Even if we were soaked.

Maeshowe – well, about as much is known about that as about the other sites, i.e. close to eff all. However, it does have a midwinter sunset alignment – as opposed to Newgrange, which has a midwinter sunrise alignment – only in Maeshowe’s case, you do have a three-week window, and at Newgrange I think this is the only day?

However, for some reason (nobody knows! The mating call of the TV programme QI) it all got abandoned at some point, until a group of Vikings, sheltering from a snowstorm – ha the climate must have changed then – broke in through the roof. Their legend says there were a hundred of them (the twenty or so of us looked around at this point, as if trying to imagine how the hell five times our number fitted) and they were in there for three days. During which time, they amused themselves carving outlandish Boasts on the walls. “I am so and so and I carved this using [a famous axe I almost certainly did not lay hands on and would never have wrecked in such a way if I had]’ was a typical one, as well as ‘There was all this treasure and you totally missed it (spoilers, there was probably not – the Neolithic did not have any metal, including gold or silver)’ and ‘look at me I am standing on my mate’s shoulders to carve this higher than anyone’ (it could explain how they all fitted in, after all). One of them was even a high-ranking woman who joined in the Boasting (boasting was a Viking Accomplishment, as far as I can tell from the sagas, there was none of this being all backward about blowing your own trumpet. Though the Vikings did give the English language the word ‘shy’, although hell, it might well have meant ‘someone who did not kick your teeth down your throat as a greeting’). And there was a tiny, gorgeous dragon someone had carved, and I like to imagine all the others, once they had hacked out their biggest and best runes*, being dismayed because Sven (or whoever) had just quietly and patiently made something lovely.

*one guy’s runes got much smaller as he went up the wall, and then went sideways, giving a good indication of his height, if nothing else.

So, mind aflame with all sorts of ideas and failing to fathom five thousand years, I got back in the car to Skara Brae. Seeing as we had free entry and high hopes that we might get a seat for lunch. Which we did. And then, the Ring of Brodgar, though my camera was still all fogged up from all the changes in hot/cold, wet/slightly moist and I will have some pretty damn atmospheric pictures, despite the obvious blue skies.

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