The Shifting Stones of Stonehenge

Not to be outdone by the recent discoveries on Orkney, Stonehenge – one of the world’s most famous stone circles – has thrown up a whole new story about its origins… and its original face.

(1100 words, a ten-minute read)

(Above: Stonehenge – source Pixabay)

It was the end of the archeology ‘dig season’. Strong winds and heavy rain had blown for weeks across the exposed face of the hillside on the west coast of Wales. Everyone was ready to call it a day and go home – an action that would doom the last attempt by Professor Mike Parker Pearson of University College London to show that there was a much deeper link between this saturated hillside and faraway Stonehenge than anything dreamt of, before…

One of the dig team called out – a large stone had been found, not far beneath the surface. Professor Parker Pearson set off across the mud, holding his breath…holding on to the possibility that it might be a Bluestone, or even better, a ‘socket that had held a known tooth’.

(Above: The location of Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, and its unlikely link with the Preseli Hills, 150 miles away in Pembrokeshire, Wales)

If you’ve visited the famous Stonehenge stone circle in Wiltshire, you may recall that the Neolithic monument, 5,000 years old, actually comprises two rings. The outer circle consists of 15 of the larger Sarsen stones, familiar to us from images of the site. Each of the Sarsen stones average 13 feet in height, and an astonishing 7 feet wide. The average weight is 25 tons, though the largest, the Heel Stone, weighs about 30 tons. The stones are connected with matching overhead lintels. Recent developments in geochemical techniques have placed the origin of the Sarsen stones at West Woods near Marlborough, 20 miles from the stone circle.

(Above: the innermost of the two outer circles is the ring of Bluestones. Source Wikipedia CC by SA 3.0

But within the mighty ring of Sarsen stones is a secondary circle of smaller ones – the focus of this post.

Within these, in the centre of both circles was originally a third group of free-standing trilithons, each comprising two vertical Sarsens joined by a lintel. The whole monument is oriented towards the sunrise on the Summer solstice, the longest day and shortest night, and a time of immense cultural importance for the people who constructed the stone circle, 5,000 years ago – using only stone tools.

The two different outer stone circles have long been a puzzle. The types of stone quarried for the Sarsen stones is quite different from that used for the inner circle. The latter has a blue hue and hence their name: Bluestones. Decades ago, geologists located similar stone outcrops in the Preseli Hills (see map) in the far west of Pembrokeshire, the last bit of Wales before the Irish Sea. But that’s a long way from Wiltshire, and the prospect of moving the massive stones 150 miles east begs the question: why on Earth would anyone do that? Wiltshire is not short of its own durable stone…

(Above: Professor Mike Parker Pearson)

Professor Parker Pearson had a theory… actually, he had two, but he wasn’t telling many about the second, which was more of a slim possibility. His first theory was that the long-accepted origin of the Bluestones, whilst being the Preseli Hills, wasn’t the hilltop outcrop at Carn Menyn that had first been assumed. Part of his reasoning was that nothing else related to Neolithic ritual and burial activity was to be found nearby – yet Pembrokeshire is famous for such sites.

The professor is a world authority on the prehistory of Britain and Western Europe from the Neolithic to the Iron Age. He is also one of the authorities on the archeology of ‘death and burial’ during this period; a topic that unites and divides in seemingly equal measure. For the whole spring and summer of 2018, his team excavated two sites a few miles from the rejected Carn Menyn. At first, the work went well, with a high chance of success. But, as the season wore on, conflicting evidence suggested that nothing conclusive could be found – much to the dismay of the locals, who were great supporters of the work; and the potential revelations it would bring about the location’s link to the ancient past.

With the dig-season running out, Professor Parker Pearson turned his attention to a nearby boggy field, Waun Mawn, the site of four small monoliths and well known to the locals. But a full excavation, there, had never been carried out. It was the last possibility. Pearson’s exhausted team dug in for days, fighting the wind and rain… then the cry went up… a new and large stone had been found.

The results are astonishing. The original circle at Waun Mawn comprised a full stone circle of between 30 and 50 large stones. The circle is the third largest in the UK, even bigger than Long Meg, in Cumbria. The stones were of a blue hue… and one of them had a socket hole with no stone; and that socket matched one of the stones at Stonehenge, exactly. The socket had found its ‘tooth’ – 160 miles away. All of this had been protected by the Welsh peat for 5000 years.

The full story almost needs a stiff whisky to absorb… The Bluestone circle at Stonehenge was the original circle, transported by the tribe from Preseli who migrated to Wiltshire, taking their most treasured object with them. The massive, outer Sarsen stone circle was added, later, at a time when the makers had perfected their art… but they never abandoned their beloved original circle…. which is still there for us all to see and feel – the inner ring of Stonehenge…

All of this is the subject of an excellent BBC documentary, available for the next ten months on the BBC’s iPlayer service, presented by Professor Alice Roberts.

(Above: The BBC programme Stonehenge: The Lost Circle Revealed. Copyright BBC)

And there my narrative was due to end, but then, preparing the blog post from last Thursday on the new findings from Orkney, I saw footage of Professor Parker Pearson walking with Neil Oliver at the intact Neolithic village of Skara Brae.

Last week’s blog discussed the findings that Orkney was the place of origin of all the British stone circles, whose journey took them (predominantly) down the west coast of the British Isles… culminating at Stonehenge in what is now Wiltshire, where the last of their Bluestone masterworks was given its new and final home, set within the most magnificent stone circle ever created.

And you have to ask, assuming they survived, what did these remarkable people build next? But that’s for another day… not that I have the answer, mind you. But I’m watching the people who might have, very closely…

Professor Parker Pearson is the co-author of an interim report on the dig at Waun Mawn. The link to the PDF is here.

If you want to follow the Silent Eye’s workshop on the trail of the Picts and Sacred Orkney, here are the other parts of that series:

Sacred Orkney:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine – end,

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye – a modern yet mystical journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

The City and the Stars – revisited – Britain’s oldest stone circle…

New evidence from the past two years’ work on Orkney has revealed breathtaking perspectives on the nature and importance of the finds at the Ness of Brodgar…

(1000 words, a ten-minute read)

(Above: technical reconstruction of Structure 10 and its dramatic ‘pyramid’ roof on the Ness of Brodgar by Kenny Arne Lang Antonsen and Jimmy John Antonsen)

Staring, breathless, at the TV, desperately trying to keep notes, I was clutching my pencil so hard, it began to splinter…

There was a silence among the archaeologists and assorted technical specialists grouped near Structure 10 on the Ness of Brodgar World Heritage Site; the kind of silence that follows feverish activity and intense speculation – most of it expectantly negative…

We are a cautious species. If we long for something that might change the world, and hope it might happen, we prepare ourselves to be wrong.

The group of intense people were waiting for a phone call regarding a date. A diving team had drilled a ‘time-core’ into the base of the shallow sea that is Loch Stenness, north of the tiny strip of land that houses the Ness of Brodgar site. Extensive ‘geophys(basically radar for archeological work) had revealed a sunken island in the middle of the loch’s basin, and the surface had revealed the shape of a natural stone circle.

(Above: two arial images of the Ness of Brodgar extracted from the freely-available PDF files at the Ness of Brodgar Archeology site)

In revelation after revelation, the story of what was likely the world’s first ‘common culture’ had come together, centred on the Ness of Brodgar, an impossibly narrow strip of land north of Stromness, on Orkney, seven miles north of the tip of Scotland.

(Above: Structure 10 from above – taken from the Ness of Brodgar information panels )
(Above: the Ring of Brodgar; older than the Great Pyramid of Egypt. Picture by author)

Older than the Great Pyramid, the nearby Ring of Brodgar had been dated to a time in the Neolithic period when the tribes of hunter-gatherers had settled in fertile lands, creating the first permanent settlements and beginning what we today call a common culture.

(Above: the BBC series Britains Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney is available on the BBC’s iPlayer service)

I was watching the BBC’s ‘Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney’. If you follow my blogs, here and on Sun in Gemini, you’ll know that Orkney and its ancient history are a favourite topic. Other relevant posts from the Silent Eye’s 2019 workshop on Orkney are listed at the end of of this piece. The BBC programme features, amongst others, Neil Oliver and Chris Packham, two well-know authorities in their own fields; together with the dedicated team excavating the Ness of Brodgar each summer.

Chris Packham had just shown how the presence of the Orkney Vole was really an interview with a time-traveller. He revealed that, thousands of years ago, the non-native vole species had arrived from Belgium, not by itself, but carried and bred as an eaten delicacy by the farmers who originally populated Orkney, five thousand years ago… Meat-eater or not, you’ve got to admire the science…

Back to the waiting crowd at the Ness of Brodgar. Neil Oliver read out the results of the core’s dating. The researchers had dared to consider that the presence of the natural stone ring had been the ‘first stone circle in Britain’… and therefore something that inspired all the rest. Archaeologists have long puzzled how such structures sprang into existence ‘fully formed’. Finding the first would have been a seminal moment.

The documentary had already shown that Orkney was the place from which all other stone circles in Britain had originated; following a development that would move south through Scotland and the rest of Britain, and culminate with Stonehenge, in Wiltshire – considered to be a masterpiece of the art, but now dated at least three hundred years after the Ring of Brodgar.

Neil Oliver looked realistic but sad as he reported the data had shown the sunken ring feature was thousand of years older than needed to fit the possibility; millennia before the ‘spiritual farmers’ who came to settle and create this outstanding culture of the Stone Age – with villages such as Skara Brae amazingly intact, including the interior of their houses.

(Above: Five-thousand year old history fully intact… Skara Brae)

You could feel the disappointment in the team. But so much had already been uncovered and proved – including a reconstruction of how the Orkney people, finally leaving their beloved archipelago, crossed the deadly Pentland Firth to reach the mainland near present day Thurso. And all this in boats made from tree branches and waterproofed hides.

The series reached its final few moments with Neil Oliver and Chris Packham visiting a now-deserted island, off Hoy, to ‘feel’ what an abandoned land was like – They found that the cattle left behind, thirty years prior, had not only survived, but, in seven generations, had reverted back to their genetic forbears in order to reorganise and survive, alone.

But then it was back to the Ness of Brodgar for the final sentiments. So much has been achieved; so much revolutionary ancient history uncovered. Orkney had been placed as the ancient capital of Britain. Who would have thought a place so far north could have been such a cradle of civilisation!

And then…

And then, as the archeological team were pulling over the vast tarpaulins that would protect the site through the coming winter, they stopped to show the latest and strangest find. Located in the deep earth below Structure 10 (the pyramid-roofed ritual centre of the complex) was a long, thick slab of stone on its side. Further examples of this strangely aligned stone revealed a random layout, clearly not a part of what had been constructed above it.

The camera pulled back to show the face of the Site Director, Nick Card, calm and unruffled, as he had been through the three programmes. “We think they’re full standing stones that have been laid on their edges,” he said. “As though the whole of this Ness of Brodgar complex had been built above the first stone circle… which, of its type, it might well be.”

The dig had run out of time and weather. It will take another season of careful excavation to confirm that possibility. But, bearing in mind that the Ness of Brodgar has been re-dated back to at least 3,500 years BCE, They may already have found the indisputable heart of the relationship between the stonemasters of ancient Orkney and their beloved sky…

(Above: the bright night sky, seen and mapped by the ancients as the ‘bigger picture’ of everything happening here. We will never know their beliefs, but thanks to Orkney, we can feel the importance of their relationship with the sky. Picture by author)
(Above: the Ness of Brodgar’s timeline)

To be continued.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine – end,

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye – a journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

Some of them…

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I had half expected the town to be deserted.

That is Memory again.

It acts like  some indifferent film director moving extras around, concerned only with their ebb and flow.

Over time the ‘peripherals’ fade leaving only the ‘principals’ behind.

And that goes for events too…

I have no memory of our initial ‘run up’…

Only the camber to the stones and the ravens, wheeling and cawing, and eventually settling in unison on the portals as we approached.

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Contrary to the insistence of our fastidious manipulator of experience, we had not been alone that first time…

There had been ‘others’ in the field but it had not seemed to matter so much then.

Possibly because in those days I did not take photographs.

There were no ravens this time, but plenty of people.

A line of motor vehicles clogged the lane and patches of bright colour flitted about the stones, uncertainly, like overgrown butterflies.

The colours too have now faded, as colours tend to do…

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Perhaps, I have become over sensitive to synthetics?

In the event we easily outlasted three separate groups before the extreme cold became too much.

They do not stay long.

They have, you see, nowhere to file their experience…

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Nothing to lend it context…

Maybe, it appears crude to the mind too far removed from nature?

Would one call hills crude?

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Shadow Play…

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‘Shadowing’ is our term for the phenomenon whereby a standing stone, or group of stones, recreates a distant landscape feature and thereby renders it immediately apparent or tangible.

Most other megalithic writers on the subject have also, independently, recognised this phenomenon although they usually refer to it, less accurately perhaps, as ‘mirroring’.

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This being the case, it is highly unlikely for such a notion to be the product of fantasy, yet it is still quite difficult to credit the skill set required to so accurately render this technique, and especially so in a people still regarded by many as ‘primitive’ in relation to us.

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Either, the ‘circle constructors’ had an incredible eye for, and memory of, the natural landscape, which they, inevitably, would have done anyway, or, they ‘crudely dressed’ the stones once placed.

Please note the inaccurate use of the notion ‘crude’ here.

There is nothing crude about the ancients’ ability to dress stone in this way, quite the opposite.

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Even more perplexing, perhaps, is the question of precisely why the circle constructors would do this?

The terms ‘false perspective’, ‘collapsing distance’ and ‘correspondence’ are all useful in formulating an answer to this intriguing riddle.

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All the images in this post display examples of ‘shadowing’ in one form or another, although you may have to work quite hard to discover each and every one of them.

‘Damn those pesky primitives!’…

Wish you were here…

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In Olden Times,

Holidays were originally just that…

Holy Days.

The whole community would lay aside their workday duties and together engage in deeply or intrinsically symbolic activities that related to the situation that they all found themselves in.

For example…

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Cheese Rolling…

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May Polling…

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…and Beating-the-Bounds.

The City and the Stars (9 – End) : The most peaceful place in the world

The conclusion of the Silent Eye’s extended workshop to Orkney. A visit to the neighbouring island of Rousay. A sad disappointment and a wonderful surprise. (1300 words, a twelve-minute read)

(Above: a modern reconstruction of a Neolithic farmer felling a tree with a hand-made stone axe)

For our final day, we were off to the Island of Rousay..

I’ve written, elsewhere, about what it’s like to drive a car full of passengers, backwards, down a steep ramp towards a ferry which should be ‘down in the gloom, somewhere’… Then take a twenty-minute journey to a neighbouring island, only to do it all again and return at the end of a the day…

(Above: Looking back at the Orkney Mainland from Rousay)

On our previous trip to Orkney, in 2018, we had visited the island of Hoy, across the central Scapa Flow waterway.

(Above: the vastness of Scapa Flow, the central waterway of the Orkney archipelago)

It had provided a necessary contrast to the Orkney mainland, and reminded us how central was the constant presence of navigable water to the ancient peoples who lived here.

For this trip to Rousay, the ferry crossing was a shorter one, and the purpose of our visit was twofold: to examine a chambered tomb within what had been a Neolithic farming community; and to carry out a coastal walk to a ‘Broch’ – a peculiarly Scottish defensive structure that was often found at the heart of prosperous Iron Age settlements – usually close to the sea.


(Above: the information board for Blackhammer Chambered Tomb, a Neolithic sacred building)

The first of these was Blackhammer Chambered Tomb, built by Neolithic farmers over five thousand years ago, and uncovered thanks to the work of Walter Grant and Graham Callander (see image below).

In 1936, Walter Grant, a local whisky producer, and National Museum director Graham Callander dug into a mound of heather-covered stones to reveal Blackhammer. Inside they found human remains and objects possibly left as offerings to the dead. The chambered tomb was remarkably intact.

(Above: the mound into which Grant and Callander dug now forms the ‘dome’ of the tomb, just as it was in the 1930s. All original photos by the author)

Blackhammer is one of 15 such tombs on Rousay, and in use at the same time as the Ness of Brodgar sites now being excavated. There was an important difference, though – and that was why we wanted to visit.

(Above: the interior of Blackhammer from the virtual tour- see notes below)

Here on Rousay, the chambered tool served the needs of a simple farming community, and we felt it would allow us to understand their spiritual beliefs, which may have subtly differed from the ‘priestly’ community around Brodgar.

Excavations in the 1930s revealed two adult male skeletons, fragments of animal bone, a bone pin, a polished stone axe of plain grey-green stones and some Neolithic pottery. It is not known whether these were ‘grave goods’ buried with the body, or ceremonial objects used during burial rites.

The Blackhammer burial chamber has seven compartments and is cocooned within the heather-covered mound, less than a mile from the sea. Dry stone walling arranged in a herringbone pattern runs around its outer edge. The tomb’s construction was a massive undertaking for local farmers during the Neolithic period, when most of their time was spent providing food for their families. It reveals the important place that the community’s ancestors retained in daily life.

(Above: the internal structure of the Blackhammer Chambered Tomb. Image from the information board)

The above schematic shows the internal structure of the Blackhammer Chambered Tomb. The elements are: (1) Entrance Passage; (2) Blocking Stones; (3) A set of ‘stalled chambers’ for the remains of their ancestors; and (4) A later wall which may have been created following encroachment on the original tomb)

(Above a stone axehead and flint knife – the latter whitened by heat-treatment)

Sadly, when we got there, the site was closed… We knew the second of our visits would provide ample justification for the ferry ride, so I photographed the information boards, which have been used above to illustrate the site.

(Above: through the reinforced glass roof, the start of the interior passage)

We were able to clamber up the mound to peer down through the roof (above), giving some idea of what lay in the interior, but, other than the mound itself, that was it.

But then, on the way out, I noticed that the ‘closed’ sign had a QR code on it. If you’ve not used one of these before they are amazing things. They link to a website related to what you’re looking at, and sometimes even contain a virtual-reality tour.

We couldn’t get a phone signal at Blackhammer, and the rest of the day was full, so I forgot about it… Until I was writing this blog! What I hadn’t expected was that the online link would work with a photo of the QR code just as well as being there. Please try it!

(Above: If you point your phone’s camera at the above QR code (top right) it should open a new link and take you to an excellent virtual tour – from which the two images, below, are illustrations)

Given the above, I’m content to move on. What happened next was quite sublime…

(Above: By the small car park and a long way above the site, this sign entices you to make the effort!)

A few miles along the coast road of Rousay lies a historic site information board. You are here, says the small, red sign on the photo. But ‘here’ is a long way above the ocean, and Midhowe lies close to the sea. I wasn’t too excited. Covid had put paid to any chance of a visit to anything ‘with an enclosed interior’. We knew the risks when we arrived.

The sad thing was that, at the foot the cliff, perched above Eynhallow Sound – with its famous ‘roaring’ tidal race – are two of Rousay’s most spectacular ancient monuments.

Midhowe Chambered Cairn is among the largest Neolithic tombs in Orkney. It was built 5,400 years ago. Neighbouring Midhowe Broch was the centre of a much later Iron Age settlement between 200 BC and 100 AD… And this latter site was open.

We made a slow and careful descent of the steep path, each lost in our own thoughts. We had seen so much during the past few days. This day had a slightly surreal feeling to it…

(Above: the 1930 hanger was created to protect one of the world’s greatest archeological treasurers. It was closed, of course, and the wooden shutters were pushed to, but not all of them bolted…)

The vast hanger that houses the 33 metre Neolithic Cairn was closed and locked. The windows were shuttered, but not all the shutters were locked into place. With a gentle pull (later reversed to restore their original state), several were happy to open. For a moment, I was reminded of the church at Nigg, and Sue Vincent’s famous trick of standing on tiptoes and pointing the camera at the glass, to see what the camera might just capture. The windows here weren’t as high. I tried it and looked at the camera image. Even in the sunlight something was visible.

(Above: where there’s a will…)

Motivated by this, I repeated the exercise at three other windows around the perimeter of the hanger. The side windows revealed the long sides of the chambered tomb. I wondered if I dared hope the remaining side had an open wooden shutter…

(Above: the side wall of the cairn is revealed)

I confess to having a small chuckle when the final shutter opened. At first I could see nothing, as the bright afternoon sun was streaming in behind me. Then, with adjusted eyes, the entrance to the long cairn came into focus. I found that if I blocked the sunlight with my body, I got a clear image – as clear as the dusty windows would allow.

(Above: Ah, this is the entrance!)

The ‘stalled’ chambered cairn of Mid Howe is an impressive example of a type of drystone monument known as an ‘Orkney-Cromarty’ cairn. Its entrance passage leads to a long central chamber, divided by pairs of upright stone slabs into 12 ‘stalls’.

Midhowe was excavated in 1932-3, again by Callander and Grant, who found the remains of at least 25 human skeletons, plus stone tools, pottery, and animal bone. In the mid-1930s it was enclosed by its present protective stone-built hangar, allowing the whole cairn to be appreciated. The outer layer of decorative stonework has been arranged in a herringbone pattern to reproduce the likely original.

The hanger was built from local stone. Rousay resident Walter Grant, co-excavator of Blackhammer, and owner of the Highland Park Distillery in Kirkwall, paid for its construction and, afterwards, gave it to the nation.

(Above: zooming in through the glass, the chambers emerge, blurred. But the phone camera was doing its best!)

I left smiling. I wouldn’t be able to evaluate the photos until I got back to the hotel, but I knew they had been worth taking. Perhaps we would come back, one day and take a proper tour. For now, the Broch and its wonderful setting beckoned. It was, literally, next door – though the two structures were not related.

Leaving the Chambered Tomb, my gaze was drawn towards the beautiful stratified rocks that led down to the sea near the Broch. I knew I had to get down there before we left the site.

(Midhowe’s Broch – a two minute walk from the Chambered Tomb)

The thickness of the Broch’s walls tells you that this was a defensive structure. Created long after the Neolithic people who made the temples at the Ness of Brodgar, the Iron Age people who lived here would have known little of their forebears, except perhaps for their stories and legends.

(Above: the incredible thickness of the walls illustrates their protective purpose)

Set behind a rock-cut ditch and rampart, Midhowe Broch was the first and largest building of a small, well laid-out village. It may have been built by an extended family demonstrating their power and influence in the area. Although the site would have provided some protection against sporadic raiding, the inhabitants were farmers, like nearly everyone else at this time.

(Above: the division of the interior)

On a clear day you can see the matching Broch of Gurness across the water. Midhowe is one of nine brochs that stand sentinel over the narrow and dangerous stretch of water known as Eynhallow Sound.

(Above: the call of the sea…)

Leaving the Broch and looking towards the sea, I had the sense that this would be the right place to finalise this series of blogs on Scotland and Orkney. By creating two streams, one going back in time, the other forwards, I could end up here. There was something very special about this place.

(Above: the end of the land, start of the sea… and in the distance, the mysterious and deadly Eynhallow tidal flow)

As I dropped down the descending levels of the layers of rock. I had the desire to let go of all the facts, all the history… They were important, academically, but they were the past. The consciousness in the landscape, the ‘I’ of each of us, was now and was real. In the next second, it too would become old and replaced with the next sequential part of the eternal now. To have that continuity was a gift of Life and memory, but what mattered was the now. The past was subjective history, the future was potential. Only the now had absolute reality.

That sense of letting go felt very good. Within a few minutes I was crouched, balanced on a wet slab of ancient rock, within inches of the lapping sea.

It was one of those, literally, perfect moments… There aren’t too many in a lifetime. The others in our group had left me to my exploring and were on their way back up to the car park. I was quite alone in a now landscape. This beautiful place had created an intense feeling of peace and objectivity. I crouched down on the rocks to make a recording of something very special. You can’t record that level of peace, but you can try…

The moment is here in the video, if you’d like to share it. It may not work within WordPress, but let’s see. If not, the photo above will give some idea of the moment…

This is the last blog in the Pictish Trail and City of the Stars series.

If you would like to be notified of future Silent Eye weekends, drop us a line to rivingtide@gmail.com, saying what your interests are.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part 8. This is Part Nine, the final part.

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye – a journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

The City and the Stars (8) : Longships

The traditional picture of the Vikings – looting, marauding, raping invaders – may not be entirely true of their time on Orkney, though they did rule this gentle archipelago with an iron fist for five hundred years… (1300 words, a ten-minute read)

(Above: the glory of St Magnus (Viking) Cathedral, Kirkwall)

History can be complex. Patterns of events that fit in one situation may not, even from the same peoples, dovetail into another. To understand why Orkney’s history of these times is likely to have differed from what might be expected, we need to put ourselves in the minds of the Vikings and examine what Orkney represented to them.

(Above: one of the ancient religious stones)

The sophisticated stone-age race that built the Ness of Brodgar temple-complex and neighbouring stone circles had long gone from Orkney. But the Norsemen did not immediately fill the gap.

No-one knows if anyone did, though farming continued – but without the intense spiritual concentration of former times. During the late Iron Age and for at least 400 years, the dominant cultural force on Orkney was Pictish. It’s likely that they came north, expanding their successful base centred on Inverness. They ruled Orkney for almost as long as the Vikings did, after them. Orkney had its own Pictish Kings, but, though powerfully autonomous in the islands, they were subservient to Inverness in wider Pictish affairs.

In many ways, our own journey over this extended weekend had mirrored that of the Picts. But we had already covered their achievements and culture further south, and they are documented in the earlier blogs (see below). The much more ancient wonders of Orkney had been our focus here. But, now, the story of the Picts had come into view, again, if only in the way they were subsumed into the Viking future, here on Orkney. There seems to have been little warfare, so perhaps they co-existed for a long time, Eventually, the Viking tribes emerged as the stronger cultural force, in line with the expansion of the whole Norse culture, driven by the ambitious Kings of Norway.

In many ways, Orkney was already theirs…

(Above: the pulpit at St Magnus Cathedral)

The Vikings were, essentially, seafarers. They were brave and fearless warriors and mariners of great skill. From their native bases in Scandinavia, they expanded across the world, following oceans and river systems deep into Europe and along the northern and western edges of Britain. Whenever they made these western journeys, they had to sail past Orkney. Its gentle hills and safe harbours were a haven to them. It was a natural stopping point on their outward and return journeys; and there are records (and sagas) of Norwegian royalty being entertained on Orkney, by their Earls – a measure of how important this place was in Viking times.

I hadn’t realised that the Vikings built Christian cathedrals, or that they had Earls, like the English. But both were here in Orkney during the height of their power. It’s confusing when you first look at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, and the place which became their power base in the later years of their reign. The location of the Cathedral is co-existent with the Earl’s Palace and the Palace of the Bishops across the street. So your first reaction is why there was so much ‘British hierarchy’ so far north?

(Above: the ruin of the Earls’ Palace, opposite the Cathedral)

But it’s not. Both the Cathedral and the two palaces are from the period when the Vikings ruled Orkney, administering it under the control of their own, powerful Earls – often two at a time, which was the gravitational force that created St Magnus Cathedral.

(St Magnus Cathedral: the main East-West axis)

The story of how St Magnus Cathedral came to be, and came to be here, is one of internecine warfare and a touch of Viking opportunism.

In 1103 the Viking cousins Magnus Erlendson and Haakon Paulson succeeded to the Earldom of Orkney. At first all went well, but, by 1117, major disputes had arisen. It was agreed that these would be resolved by a meeting on the island of Egilsay on 16th April of that year. Rules of engagement were drawn up, the core of which was that each Earl would take only two ships.

Haakon arrived with six, overwhelming the honest Magnus, who, though threatened with his life, refused to give up his Earldom. Haakon ordered Magnus’ own cook, Lifolf, to kill his master with a meat cleaver blow to his head.

A cenotaph now stands on the spot where this happened. Magnus was buried at Birsay, in the north of the ‘mainland’. Birsay was the Viking Earl’s base at the time, from which they could watch the northern waters. Magnus’ fame and the horror and dishonour of his death meant prayers were said for his soul and pilgrims began to visit his grave. Miraculous cures were reported and soon the place assumed legendary status.

Earl Haakon, now politically secure, became worried by this notoriety and made a pilgrimage to Rome to stabilise his position with the Christian church. He seems to have been successful. He was succeeded as Earl by his son, Paul… and now the tale gets interesting…

(Above: Rognvald Kolson holding a model of the original Cathedral dedicated to his uncle)

Paul was deposed in 1135 by the murdered Magnus’ nephew Rognwald Kolson, who declared his uncle a saint and vowed to raise money from the farmers of Orkney to build a vast cathedral dedicated to St Magnus. Durham masons – among the most skilled in Britain – were drafted in to supervise the design and construction. The new generation of Christian Bishops were a powerful force, and Rognwald Kolson, St Magnus’ nephew, made sure that the three buildings sat side by side. We can assume his political skills were as astute as his military prowess…

The cathedral was consecrated in 1150, when St Magnus’ remains were transferred from Birsay to a shrine in the east of the new church. The building was lengthened and extended in the next two centuries, and was completed to its present form in the 14th century.

Over the years that followed, it fell into disrepair – the Viking rule is not remembered here with fondness. But, in the past twenty years, extensive repair work has been carried out, which has made the St Magnus Cathedral more a more positive part of Orkney’s emotional future. It’s a very beautiful building, and a thriving centre of Kirkwall, which is a feature-rich place to visit.

Our time on Orkney was nearly over. We had one more day to explore, and we had chosen to leave the ‘Mainland’ for the first time and visit one of the neighbouring islands – Rousay. There, we knew, was an extensive defensive structure from the Iron Age. But first, we had to face a tense time on the ferry crossing!

The humorous and terrifying short ferry journey has already been written up as part of the parallel ‘incidentals’ blogs. The link is here.

The story of our final full day on Orkney and its visit to Rousay will be published on Thursday’s blog.

To be continued.

If you would like to be notified of future Silent Eye weekends, drop us a line to rivingtide@gmail.com, saying what your areas of interest are.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, this is Part 8.

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye – a journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

The City and the Stars (7) : The Standing Stones of Stenness

The Standing Stones of Stenness are reduced in importance compared with their former status. But 5,000 years ago, they were the stone circle for the Ness of Brodgar spiritual city. Only later, in the period culminating in the deliberate act of self-destruction of the Ness of Brodgar structures, were these stones eclipsed as the ‘guide to the heavens’…

(1300 words, a twelve-minute read)

The Orkney site of the Standing Stones of Stenness is overshadowed by its neighbour – the Ring of Brodgar, which is just a few minutes away by car, or fifteen minutes on foot. We had done it both ways… the first time was under a spectacular golden sunset, in 2018. This was the second, and our final visit to the Ness of Brodgar area. 

There were other reasons to visit Orkney, but seeing the entire Ness of Brodgar area – in light of the implications of recent excavations – had been the main reason for extending the Silent Eye’s weekend onto Orkney.

For a long period of time at the start of what we now call the Neolithic era – the new stone age, the stones at Stenness were the major stone circle on Orkney, and a key component of the life of the ritual city centred on the Ness of Brodgar, whose sophistication is just coming to light, as detailed in a previous post. 

The Standing Stones of Stenness were raised between 3,000 and 2,900 BC. Originally, the circle consisted of no more than 12 stones. Today, only four survive. They were surrounded by a wide ditch and raised circular bank (a henge) which was crossed by a single causeway. The whole is reminiscent of how the interior of the Ness of Brodgar’s Structure 10 led only to one point at the centre of the building…for those granted the privilege of being there. In both cases, the recipients are likely to have been carefully selected, and few in number.

(Above: across the lochs of Harray and Stenness, the neighbouring island of Hoy in the distance. The valley between the far mountains is a key alignment of the Ring of Brodgar at the winter solstice – see post)

There were several related stones that lay outside the stone circle. These include the Stone of Odin, which features in local legends but was destroyed by a local farmer in 1800s, and the Watch stone, which marks the land bridge to the area which contains the Ring of Brodgar, though the latter had not been constructed at the time the Stenness Stones were erected.

(Above: The Stenness Watch Stone, photographed in 2018)

At the centre of the Stenness circle was a large hearth. In Neolithic houses, such as those we had seen at Skara Brae (and, though not visited, Barnhouse, next to Stenness) the hearth formed a ritual focal point. The fire there would have been viewed as sacred, and as demonstrating to ‘nature’ that the tribe understood there was an inner fire possessed by all of life, and passed down to it from the ‘stars’.

(Above: a hearth at the centre of the circle would have held deep symbolic significance. This hearth is at Skara Brae)

We have lost the sense of ‘specialness of fire’. To us, fire is commonplace and practical. Unless we are young children there is no wonder in it, even though, if civilisation ended and we found ourselves freezing, few would have the ability to make it, again. The comforts of the modern world have their benefits and their disadvantages. One of the latter is the loss of contact with the vital forces of nature…

(Above: the key alignment with the line of the midwinter solstice sunset)

Like Struture 10 at the neighbouring Ness of Brodgar, the single entrance at Stenness created a hallowed central space where access could be controlled. Its use can only have been ceremonial and ritualistic: the birth of a child, perhaps; the survival of that child beyond seven years; the coming of age as an adult; the passage of a trainee into the priesthood… perhaps all these things took place here.

(Above: Bernie demonstrates the size of one of the largest stones)

There is also celebration. The coming together of the people – probably from far away, as this was such an important centre of Neolithic life. You can stand on this place, look back at Lochs Stenness and Harray and feel how they might have rejoiced at such a gathering.

There was in all probability an earlier building at the site partially represented by sections of masonry, empty stone holes and an earlier central hearth setting.

(Above: The Stenness stones are slender, and look quite fragile; yet they have withstood five thousand years of weathering)

The form of the stones themselves is of architectural note in that they are very tall and very thin blades of stone i.e. they are structurally very slender and probably at the very limit of structural stability. The stone monoliths were derived from at least five different sources, one of which was Vestra Fiold, on the west coast of Mainland, north of Skara Brae.

A leading archeologist writes:

“The Stones of Stenness speak of an early and sophisticated society in northern Britain: it is a rarity to have evidence for contemporary and adjacent ritual and settlements sites; it is an added bonus that their stories appear to weave together to present an imaginative and new appreciation of life in early prehistoric times.”

We had run out of time… No-one wanted to leave the Brodgar area. We gathered to review what this landscape had taught us about the sophisticated people who had lived here, so long ago.

  • The excavations at the Ness of Brodgar have shown that all the sites here, plus the ‘village’ of Skara Brae, were part of a single, spiritually-focussed landscape that involved both a trained priesthood and a dedicated (and hugely ‘expensive’) temple-building programme. The ritual chamber at Maeshowe is a foremost example of this.
  • The so-called ‘Dressers‘ – see image below – were the central edifice in the kind of worship these people performed, and we should examine them accordingly. From this perspective, we can see that there is a significance to the three legs. The idea of ‘threeness’ was central to much of the Celtic world, and invokes the idea that an impelling higher will uses the ‘descending’ power of duality to achieve its purposes. Mankind, as an intelligent recipient of a creative Nature, can come full circle and project this back to the Creator to demonstrate understanding.
(Above: the ‘dresser’ turns out to be the ‘altar’ of the ancient priests)
  • The excavations at the Ness of Brodgar uncovered ‘shelves’ of these dressers decorated in bright reds and yellows – very likely solar in their representation.
  • The use of the midwinter solstice as the most sacred time of the year (rather than the midsummer) indicates a subtle comprehension of the ‘tension of cycles’. In my previous ‘fictional’ example, the new priest is chosen and ordained by an appearance of the last sun of the ‘old cycle’ i.e. before the start of the six months in which the sun gets brighter, and the days longer. The priest is thus associated with the power of light over the darkness…
(Above: a sad farewell to the Ness of Brodgar area, and a certainty that we would be back for another workshop…)

The day was ending. The following morning, we would sample the best – rather than the worst – of the Viking culture that eventually overtook Orkney, bringing a long period of imposed feudalism to its occupants. But, even within that, there were elements of great beauty.

(Above: Viking beauty…)

To be continued.

If you would like to be notified of future Silent Eye weekend workshops, drop us a line to rivingtide@gmail.com, saying what your areas of interest are.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six. This is Part Seven

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye – a journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.