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.

The Last Post?

This may be the final post that I get chance to write for the Silent Eye… that decision has been taken out of my hands. I spent much of last week in hospital, having, as many of you know, been diagnosed with incurable small cell lung cancer last September. It has been an interesting and informative journey on so many levels as familiar things have been stripped away and a gift of love left in its place… rather like the tooth fairy leaving something of real value in place of a discarded incisor.

First to go was the illusion of near-immortality that gets us through life, one way or another. We know there is a certain inevitability about life leading to death, but we tend not to apply it to ourselves until we are forced to pay attention. Dealing with the situation that made me sit up and listen meant that the body came under attack. As its fitness levels diminished, my job went… and so did my face and figure. All core things with which I have identified myself over the years.

Well, you would, wouldn’t you? Even language conditions you to that… ‘my face’, ‘my body’… ‘my life’, forgetting that we borrow the raw materials of our physical existence from Mother Nature and that they will, one day, have to be returned.

Bit by bit, the human version of one’s identity is stripped away. You are too weak now to dance, couldn’t climb a slope, let alone a hill, if you tried and are going to have to be pushed in a wheelchair… the way you have done for your son all these years, in a complete role reversal. Except that he is still stuck in the wheelchair and you can’t even trade places to make it a good deal. Because there are no ‘deals’ at the end of life.

So, eventually you accept that you won’t make it to retirement. Your voice changes, disappearing every so often. Then, an eye goes… and not in some fixable way. So you can no longer drive the thousands of miles that have been your joy. Or see to paint or write with ease, or even watch the birds on the feeder. And while you are given lots of hope about the outcome while they wait for test results, it is not a surprise when you are told that the cancer that had started in your lungs has now set up multiple homes in your brain.

Or that the ‘months’ you had been given have now been reduced to ‘days to weeks… if you are lucky’.

If you haven’t started to let go of the identification of yourself by what you have done, the definitions of ‘self’ imposed by language, role and label, then having them forcibly torn away is really going to hurt. The human personality is programmed for survival, and the possibility of extinction… like a candle flame forever snuffed out… is anathema to the ego.

The ego… the personality we wear like a protective shell as we walk through the world…  wants to have mattered, to be remembered, to have made a difference. Sometimes it has… and may learn before life ends that it did. And that is a joy, although it comes with a certain regret. How would life have been different had you always known that you were so loved and made a difference? Yet each one of us, every one of us, does so…simply by being present in the world, we change it indelibly. By reaching out to a friend, by comforting a child, by simply being human, sharing life and love and laughter… and tears… we each make the world a different place, moment by moment. We may never see the ripples of what we do or say, or know how far we can shape a day or a person by our actions. We each have that power… and responsibility.

But if we had known how much we mattered in the world, or how much love might be out there waiting for us to let it in, would we have tried to become better at being human? A better vessel for the spirit that animates Mother Nature’s gift of form? Who can say? But I suspect that complacency could be a real danger.

And then you reach the real goodbyes, realising that letting go of the illusions of identity which have, inevitably, helped get you through life, was just a step towards learning how to look at someone you love and say goodbye for the last time. We say goodbyes all the time… it shouldn’t be so hard. But that ‘last time’ seems awfully final. You look at the spring flowers and know you will not see the heather bloom again, or look up at a full moon and know, with a fair amount of certainty, that it will be your last. That ‘tomorrow’ is now an uncertainty.

There is grief at leaving behind the human loves, the beauty and all the things that make our experience on earth so rich and varied. There is, for many, a clear roadmap of where we go next. For those who hold such beliefs close to their heart, there is no ego-fear of annihilation. Nor is there an ending…

Spring is the time of rebirth and the daffodils are in bloom here. I hold to an inner certainty of an existence beyond this one. It is more than belief, but if there are those who choose to call it an expression of that very ego-fear it erases, that is their privilege. I have experienced enough ‘otherness’ to know the difference.

I believe that we are all expressions of the One, by whatever name, story or symbol we seek to understand It. Talking with my son today, he compared us to a microbe on our skin trying to understand the workings of our universe. So much we may be able to deduce, sometimes we are granted a glimpse beyond the Veil… but for the most part, we are far too small to see the Design or know its reasoning in its entirety.

From its essence we are brought into manifestation, still part of the One… and when we depart this world, we are still part of the One. As the components of our bodies are returned to earth, so is the animating spirit returned to its source, carrying with it the fruits of our learning and adding to the store of Creation’s understanding. If the One is All, then it can be no other way and the separation we feel through loss or death is an illusion, painful to the human side of us, but perhaps with a purpose too. If we are here as ‘crystallised spirit’ as some have called it, then we are here to learn things that spirit alone cannot learn and we cannot do so without seeing both sides of life, bright and dark, joyous or sad. How would we know how deep love goes without the grief of loss?

Like many others these days, I have been given the privilege of being able to say goodbye. To leave those I love with memories of smiles and laughter, fierce hugs and gentle tears… for, when you know in advance, the grief of letting go works both ways.

I watch as those I love and am leaving find their own place within themselves and within the circle of love that surrounds them unseen, knowing that they will grow through the grieving, and that anything I could have done to help is done. In the end, as friends, teachers, partners or parents… we can only ever guide faltering footsteps and hold a hand along the way. Choosing the way forward and having the courage to take that chosen path is always down to the individual and when they realise that, they also begin to realise how strong they can be.

And now, for me, comes a time of gratitude, where I look back at what an amazing life I have been granted… for they all are, even when they seem small and pale against the big screen of fame or notoriety. And I can wonder at how much I have learned from the living of it. And how much love it has held… and then find that there was even more than I could possibly have believed.

This may be the last post I write for the Silent Eye, a school with which I have worked for years and which has given me so very much more in return than I could have dared to dream. I would not have missed this adventure for the world. And any time now, I will embark upon the next… and all I will take with me is love. And that is always enough.

Seeking Spirit

“You could find something spiritual in doing the dishes,” said my friend, as if this was unusual.

“He’s right. And although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it,” said Stuart, “ you could probably find spirituality in going to the toilet.” Half a dozen themes suggested themselves as he spoke.

“Disposing of the old and outworn…”

“…and how unhealthy hanging onto it too long can be…

“An illustration of how difficult it is to find personal time and peace in modern life… ”

“A meditative interlude…”

“One could talk about chemo constipation and how a breakdown in the system affects every other part of the body and mind…”

“…which shows how health is not static but a process. Nature has worked for thousands of years to create a process that works beautifully…”

“A perfect system. Recycling waste to feed plants and through them the animals that in turn feed us…”

“A completely self-contained system. And we think we can do better… and treat it with little or no respect.”

“We’ve only just got away, in evolutionary and social terms, from living with muck. Manure and its human equivalent were very much part of our everyday lives till recently… now we’ve moved away enough to become squeamish. “

“So we try to feel in control…”

“And fail miserably.” Because, when all is said and done, Nature is a bit bigger, a lot older…and a great deal wiser than we are.

So they were both right… you can find something spiritual in anything. Especially in Nature. It depends, really, on how you define ‘spiritual’.

For some, it is a side of life that is finer than mere flesh and earth. These are elements to be escaped, transcended, left behind as we strive for a higher state of being. For others ‘spiritual’ is something to do… attending a place of worship, perhaps… praying or adhering to the rules of a religion… following a moral code, meditating, or seeking the answers to the age-old questions that have beset the heart of humankind. And it is not by accident that the words ‘question’ and ‘quest’ share the same root.

There are as many ways of approaching spirituality as there are souls. None of them is right or wrong… each must fit the feet that walk their path.

For me, my approach to ‘spirituality’ changed decades ago when I first began to actively study the Tree of Life. I was reading The Mystical Qabalah, the best approach to this glyph and system that has, in my opinion, ever been written. Dion Fortune, undoubtedly one of the most important writers of the past century or so in the magical field, writes with a down-to-earth clarity that illuminates the stuffy corners of the academic approach to mysticism…. two concepts that do not really go well together, but knowledge is a necessary fuel for understanding.

When I read the words ‘God made manifest in Nature’, I knew what I had been missing in my own approach.

When you see divinity, by whatever name you wish to call It or in whatever form you choose to picture It, made manifest in Nature… pervading everything, from the sand on the beach to the plants, animals… and even into the works of humankind, because they are, in many ways, as much part of nature as the nest or mating display of a bird… then you see the world and indeed all creation, through a different lens. There is a rightness about it that even finds space for what we see as ‘wrong’ because, in the wider scheme, everything has a place. Even darkness, pain and evil have something to teach, for how could we choose between two paths were we only to ever encounter one?

And, when you see the world through that lens, then how can you see your own life through any other? The spiritual life is life, warts and all. It is not something to aspire to, nor something to seek… it is neither distant from nor alien to our base human nature… it is everything we see, feel or experience… from going to the loo to washing dishes, from watching the rising of the sun to holding a dead sparrow in our hand. You do not have to find the spiritual in your everyday life, It is already there. It is life… and It is you.

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.

The City and the Stars (6) : the twice-chosen

To build something so sophisticated, so designed, as the Maeshowe Chambered ‘tomb’, would have required enormous dedication from the people of Orkney. Seen alongside the emerging splendour of the Ness of Brodgar ‘spiritual city’, you get a flavour of the total commitment of these ancient people to their task…

(1500 words, a ten-minute read)

(Above: The long passageway that leads into and out of the Maeshowe structure

The dark-haired one shivered in the gloom, pulling his heavy furs around him, licking the sweet drink from his lips – as much in nervousness as thirst. He had not expected the call; had not thought, those months ago, that he would be crouched here, waiting for something unknown, in the late afternoon of a freezing winter day…

Ahead, one of the three who had guarded him began to crawl along the passageway, leaving two; each with a firm hand on one of his shoulders. At the far end of the stone tunnel, the now-distant figure knocked on the large guardstone with a rock. For a long few seconds nothing happened, then there came the sound of the heavy stone being dragged to one side.

The darkness revealed in that distant and narrow aperture seemed to swirl the more he looked at it. His eyes adjusted to its near-black quality, thick with hidden purpose. He gazed as he had been instructed, looking for something unknown, his eyes becoming more acute with each passing heartbeat. The momentary flicker of gold shocked him with its intensity. He blinked, in case it had been a trick of being so long in the darkness. When his eyes returned to their focus, it was stronger – an arc of gold and red at the left edge of the far hole into the world and moving visibly, as he watched, to fill the small, black space.

The beauty was so intense, he could hardly bear it, and tears streamed down his cheeks, vapour rose off his face in swirling clouds that mixed with the rays of light coming from the world, splitting the incoming beams into jewels. The guards relaxed their grip and bent to whisper things in his ears: some clear, some at the edge of meaning and seemingly garbled. When they had finished, his whole being felt turned inside out and he only wanted one thing – to be released to crawl towards that place of the most beautiful light he had ever seen.

“Go!” The command came in unison from both. “Now, while the hole in the world is made bright, for you have become twice chosen.” Strong hands propelled his stiff limbs and he stumbled, half running, half crawling, along the stone passage towards the gold and red that was filling it.

The great arms that pulled him from the neck of that passageway drew him nearly into the air before pinning him back agains the cold stone; but he never took his eyes from the intensity of the bright sun blazing dead ahead in the black sky. In language he did not know, but would come to, it was bringing him to life, filling his depths with a calmness, purpose and belonging that he had never dreamed possible.

The twin grips on his flesh had changed. With the force there was now reverence. The four arms were changed to two, one over his forehead, one over his heart.

“I name you Priest, once chosen by the tribe,” sang the man on his left.

“I name you Priest, twice chosen. By the tribe and by the Sun, symbol of all life,” sang the other, the man whose hand was over his heart.

Ixra, twice chosen and anointed priest, holder of the heart of his people, felt their hands leave his flesh. Still staring at the red and gold orb, whose brilliance had begun to fade, he stretched out his hands to take theirs, that they could share in the fire now streaming from him.


I didn’t really understand the Maeshowe ‘Chambered Tomb’ the first time I saw it. You can’t walk to it from the visitor centre, you have to be taken by bus to a vehicle park parallel with it. The main road between Stromness and Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, runs right past the Maeshowe site, so a guide walks you across from the bus park an onto the long walkway to the distant mound.

(Above: Jim, our driver, was happy for me to take his photo. He told me he, like many on Orkney, had moved there to find a simpler life. “I love looking at people’s faces when they come back to the bus,” he said. “They’re different…”)

Initially, there’s not a lot to see. As you enter the walkway, the mound of Maeshowe looks a long way off.

(Above: the distant Maeshowe structure from the bus park)

The walkway passes through the large henge that surrounds Maeshowe. The interior may have been filled with water in the time of its active use, adding to the ‘birth symbolism’.

(Above: the large henge that surrounds Maeshowe)

Maeshowe seems to have been built for one purpose: to honour and use the ritual power of the setting sun at midwinter – the solstice, the time of the shortest day and longest night. This point in the year is honoured in many temple structures in Scotland, including the remarkable ‘recumbent’ stone circle at East Aquhorthies, near Inverurie, a type only found in north-east Scotland. Allan Pringle and his wife, Ann, had conducted us on an excellent tour of the region three years prior.

(Above: waiting for the guide. Even close-up, it’s not particularly impressive… until you get inside)

You enter the interior the Maeshowe chamber by a long and low entrance passage on the south-western side of the mound. You have to crouch, uncomfortably, in the 28 inch vertical space, and the passageway is a long one – 36 feet.

(Above: the ‘solid’ entranceway gives some idea of what follows)

The entrance passage was constructed using clay and and large native Orkney stones, each weighing as much as 30 tons. The entrance passage is made up of two sections. The outer passageway has been reconstructed due to damage prior to its excavation, but the the inner section is original.

(Above: the guide begins his tour of Maeshowe. Sadly, photography was not permitted inside the structure. The images of the interior were taken from those on the information boards at the visitor centre).

At the point where the outer passage meets the inner, there is a recess containing a large stone that was used as a ‘blocking stone’, capable of being rolled back into the space to close the passageway.

The blocking stone doesn’t completely fill the aperture and this has led to speculation that this may be have been part of the design of the ‘light-entrance’ of the mound. Research has shown that it would have been easier to seal the mound from the inside. This underlines the widely held view that the chamber was used for rituals – and by a few people, only – a dedicated priesthood.

(Above: four section drawings of the interior of the Maeshowe chamber and the three side-chambers. From Wikipedia

The entrance leads into the large central chamber, from which three smaller side-cells branch off. The image below, taken from the information boards, shows what must be a rare occurrence – given the time of year – of a bright far wall at the Winter solstice.

(Above: The inner chamber. The entire purpose of the Maeshowe chamber was to focus the consciousness on the setting midwinter sun – the Solstice. The appearance of any light at all in December would have been a chancy thing…)

The skill of the Neolithic builders is evident once you are inside the main chamber. The drystone stonework is exact and of very high quality. The structure’s lower walls rise to a height of nearly five feet before they begin to slope inwards to finish in what would have once been a corbelled roof. Built into each of the three walls facing the entrance is a side chamber. It is thought these may have been used as depositories for the bodies of important ancestors… But no human remains were ever found here.

(Above: James Farrer’s sketch of the Maeshowe Chamber when it was first uncovered in 1861. Only the roof had collapsed. It was, after all, nearly 5,000 years old! Image Wikipedia

Maeshowe’s present roof is a modern one, installed in 1910, when the monument was taken into state care. Prior to this, and as confirmed by the above 1861 sketch of James Farrer, the chamber’s roof had not survived. The top of the structure was found to be already damaged during the excavation that year.

The excavators were only the latest in a series of visitors who had entered the structure by breaking through the roof! The most famous of these were a party of unknown but artistic Vikings who sought shelter here and left some spectacular graffiti on the sandstone walls.

(Above: Viking graffiti inside Maeshowe, including the famous ‘dragon’ reproduced as jewellery in the local shops)

Among this was a now-famous ‘dragon’, more likely to have been a wolf or lion, which has since become the basis of much Orkney jewellery…

(Above: the jewellery in the visitor centre shop helps visualise the Maeshowe ‘dragon’ – more likely a wolf or a lion)

I left Maeshowe feeling somewhat frustrated. A large group of us were packed into its compact space (remember this was 2018), but, more crucially for me, I was unable to take photographs, upon which I rely in my subsequent blog posts. Only later, when I reviewed my memories of how it felt, was I able to compose the thoughts of initiation that became the short imaginary piece that introduced this post. Maeshowe is one of the places where that was undeniably its purpose.

It’s certainly true to say that a normal tour of Maeshowe does not do justice to the obvious spiritual nature of the structure. That would be difficult for Historic Scotland to achieve. But if they’d like a volunteer as to how this could be done…

(Above: the gentle Orkney light setting on Maeshowe returns some of its ancient mystery)

There was one more face to the area around the Ness of Brodgar: the Standing Stones of Stenness. We will visit them for our final post from the Neolithic part of Orkney, on Thursday.

Resources:

Wikipedia on Maeshowe

The excellent Orkneyjar website is a mine of information on Neolithic Orkney.

To be continued.

Other parts in this series:

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

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 (5) – Structure 10: pyramid

The more the Orkney archeologists uncover, the more it is certain that the settlement on the Ness of Brodgar was the hub of a dynamically influential and spiritual society, 5000 years ago… For example, what’s this pyramid…. yes, that’s right, pyramid?

(1700 words, a fifteen-minute read)

(Above: Illustration of Structure 10 by Kenny Arne Lang Antonsen and Jimmy John Antonsen)

That can’t be right, I thought, looking at the image, again…

Three thousand years BC… Five thousand years ago. That’s a long time, I mused. But I knew that Orkney was ancient, and that the importance of its early civilisation was only just coming to light…

What were the Egyptians doing in 3000 BC?, I wondered, reaching for the Google button.

‘Archaeologists believe Egypt’s large pyramids are the work of the Old Kingdom society that rose to prominence in the Nile Valley after 3000 B.C. Historical analysis tells us that the Egyptians built the Giza Pyramids in a span of 85 years between 2589 and 2504 BC.’

To set this Orkney time-frame into context, let’s imagine we go back to the Vikings – say 900AD, then back further to the time of Christ – year zero, then add on another move backwards as far as we are forward, now… then back another interval, equal to the time from Queen Elizabeth Tudor to today.

We’d still need to go back another five hundred years to match the age of this advanced Orkney civilisation… a staggering thought.

But looking at it with familiar ‘units’ like that helps to set the context and share the wonder of how and why I’m staring at a non-Egyptian pyramid with such interest. To be fair, Structure 10 (image above) is not a pyramid, it’s just shaped like one, with a steep roof. It’s really a ritualistic gathering place, with what appears to be a convention-shattering tiled stone roof – the oldest such structure in the world.

In 2008, the excavators uncovered the largest stone-built Neolithic structure in Britain. It was not a tomb… It was created around 2900BC and Structure 10 was the last major construction on the Ness of Brodgar site, which is why I’ve chosen to focus on it in this post.

The scale of the building was astonishing. Measuring 25 metres (82 feet) long by 19 metres (65 feet) wide, the four-metre-thick outer walls are still standing, though now only to a height of one metre.

Structure 10 had a single entrance. This was not a social building – it had a very specific purpose…

(Above: Structure 10 from above – taken from the Ness of Brodgar information panels )

A pair of standing stones flanked the entrance, which led to to a cross-shaped central chamber. The style of this combined different elements of both Neolithic chambered tombs (like Maeshowe) and houses, such as those at Barnhouse and Skara Brae which we had visited earlier in the Silent Eye workshop.

The central space – the focus of the whole edifice – was comparatively small and not designed to hold many people at a time. I couldn’t help comparing this aspect to the (later) King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid and the temples of Karnak, both of which I’ve stood in and ‘sensed’ the space.

Were these places of spiritual initiation – awakening?

One of the ‘stone dressers’ – identical to those we had seen at Scara Brae, was found in the centre – but not placed against a wall. This ‘dresser’ was free-standing and incorporated slabs of striking red and yellow sandstone.

(Above: the ‘dresser’ from Skara Brae’s visitor centre)

The Ness of Brodgar site is uncovering a Neolithic complex like no other in the British Isles. All this on a long and thin strip of land between two of Orkneys’s lochs (Harray and Stenness) that is only the size of five football pitches.

The site has changed history’s views of the culture and beliefs of Neolithic Orkney… and just as importantly, beyond… The learned and skilled people who were here mysteriously disappeared during the second millennium BC. Where did they go? The Picts did not emerge until the second century AD, so are unlikely to be direct descendants…

Without parallel in Atlantic Europe, the Ness of Brodgar’s mere three hectares are literally chock-full with massive stone structures containing unique and spectacular finds.’

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

Despite my two trips, I’ve never been able to get inside the Ness of  Brodgar excavation site, other than staring at its tarpaulin covers over the archeological fence. It’s frustrating because I’ve spent hours wandering around the Ring of Brodgar, the nearby Standing Stones of Stenness and even had a tightly chaperoned crawl through a long and low entrance shaft into the chambered tomb of Maeshowe… 

During the Silent Eye’s extended weekend, we had just completed what was our second trip to Skara Brae; but the Ness of Brodgar, the place that now seems to have been the creative and administrative centre of the entire ritual landscape of Neolithic Orkney, had eluded me. The dig and the corresponding visitor ‘walk’ are only open in the summer months, and then, for obvious reasons, not in the time of Covid-19.

(Above: the complete timeline of the site… so far. Image from the online information boards referenced previously)

The story of the Ness of Brodgar began in 2003 on a field at Brodgar belonging to farmers Ola and Arnie Tait. Their plough caught on something hard and large. They sought help and a huge stone was revealed. Local archeologists were called in and an initial trench was dug, which revealed the corner of a building. This bore a resemblance to ancient houses at the nearby Neolithic village of Barnhouse. The team dug another eight test trenches, and seven of them discovered more stonework. Things were getting intense…

Using all the available information, the team created a plan for two large trenches to cut through different parts of the site – Trenches P and T. The information board describes the results:

Opened in 2008, Trench P is one of the two original trenches on site and home to the series of monumental buildings that are now known worldwide. 

The buildings you can see in the trench today are from the last major phases of the site, with construction started on the tiered Structures One, Eight, Twelve, Fourteen and Twenty-one around 3200BC and initially abandoned around 2900BC.

(Above: the story of Trench P – another extract from the Ness of Brodgar’s Archeological website downloadable PDFs, showing the main dig and the home of the massive ‘pyramidal’ Structure 10)

The Ness of Brodgar site is now world-famous, and dramatically larger and more significant than anyone could have imagined. Thirty-six ‘structures’ have been excavated so far. There are many more waiting to be started. Further experts were co-opted and a picture of the sophistication of construction began to emerge, with the use of stone piers and corner buttresses.

Some of the early work revealed structures with tall support stones, named orthostats, which were comparable in size to those at nearby Meashowe (see next post). The accuracy of construction was far ahead of what had been expected; for example, the tops of the orthostats were all within 20 mm of each other – all this with stone tools…

Together with the rich, large assemblage of prestige items (such as mace heads and polished stone axes) this suggests it was more than a domestic settlement.

Structures 8 and 10 were constructed with steeply sloping flagstone roofs – the earliest instance in the archeological world. Structure 10, with its pyramidal roof, is the longest lasting, and survived through to the end of the site’s use. It seems to have been a temple; the very heart of the Orkney civilisation for thousands of years. A large collection of animal bones indicate that its use was terminated, ritually, with a feast, and then the site – like Skara Brae – was ceremonially closed down and demolished.

These people wanted to leave nothing of their spiritual selves behind…

The inference is that the people moved on, migrated south. But no-one knows where…

Detailed work on the site continues, and only a fraction of the total buildings have been excavated. Nearly a thousand stones have been discovered that show markings of various kinds; cut, carved, picked or ‘pecked’. This is one of the largest such groups found in Europe. About a third of them had been ‘pick-dressed’, their surfaces worked with a sharp point and repeatedly tapped. This process has only ever been found in a few other places in the British Isles, including nearby Maeshowe, Anglesey and the great Irish tombs on the river Boyne.

Although the Ness buildings are architecturally similar to houses at known Neolithic settlements in Orkney – such as Skara Brae and Barnhouse – they are much larger and more elaborate.

One of the key analyses carried out revealed the use of peat for fuel, and sophisticated pottery-making styles using high temperatures. Organic micro-material from floors and hearths reveals barley, wheat, wild plants like crowberry and chickweed, and also charred crab apple pips.

Analysis of traces of animal fats shows that some pots may have been used for cooking beef, and others for storing or serving milk. Analysis of the many animal bones shows prime beef cattle, and also red deer, and strangely, a white-tailed sea eagle.

Surprisingly, perhaps, fish bones in contrast are fewer, with the eel, salmon and trout common, but also the consumption of cod, halibut, saithe and turbot. It seems that, despite being surrounded by the sea, meat was the preferred option.

Our investigations have expanded greatly since their modest start over a decade ago., but the excavations still only cover less than ten percent of the complete complex of buildings

We have pieced together a site biography that spans millennia, from traces of Mesolithic activity to the site’s Neolithic heyday, through to the early Bronze Age, with a later episode of use in the Iron Age.

(Above: the Ring of Brodgar site offers a free set of PDFs directly downloadable from the site)

Professor Mike Parker-Pearson of University College London, who is an expert on Stonehenge said: “We’re looking at a fairly major transition across Britain, the impact of a whole way of life, spiritual and social, which comes out of Orkney … Orkney was a place of synthesis, where whole Neolithic worlds came together.”

In the next post, we will examine the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Chambered Tomb of Maeshowe before leaving the Ness of Brodgar to visit other areas on Orkney.

To be continued.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, This is Part Five

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 (4) – The Ring of Brodgar

You turn to take in the landscape… This magnificent place, where the natural features are as spectacular as the Neolithic discoveries, lies between two lochs surrounded by a natural amphitheatre. You are encircled by the hills and the monuments that make up the heart of Orkney’s Neolithic World Heritage Site. Welcome to the Ring of Brodgar, in the valley of the stars…

(1500 words, a twelve-minute read)

The Ring of Brodgar lies on the isthmus between the Lochs of Harray and Stenness. It is one of the best stone circles in the world and originally comprised 60 megaliths, of which 27 remain upright. It is a perfect circle, 104 metres in diameter.

It is breathtaking, and unlike many ancient circles, if you go at the right time, you can have it all to yourself… When we visited, in September 2020, there were less than twenty people there.

It used to be that theories of Neolithic Orkney were based around the Brodgar stone circle, but now, an entire complex of temples and dwellings, located just a few hundred metres away, have been added to the list of treasures to be found here. The Ring of Brodgar is likely to remain the central attraction, but with Skara Brae within a day’s return walking distance and the new discoveries matching the latter in style, the entire Ness of Brodgar is now being seen as a ‘spiritual city’, rather than just the place of the stone circle.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve been here twice. I’ve documented many of our explorations of Scottish islands in these pages.

In May 2018, we fulfilled a life-ambition and, came to Orkney for a five-night spring break, travelling with some friends by train to Thurso, then by ferry across to Orkney – as with this present Silent Eye trip. Bernie had spotted, online, that there was a local pagan group who would be celebrating the Beltane festival at the stones. They had invited anyone interested to join them, asking for a few details prior to our arrival.

I count myself more a mystic than anything else, and wrote to tell them that, but they were pleased to have us present, and, in view of my personal history, offered me a small part in the ceremonial proceedings. It was a great honour.

(Above: from May 2018 – the Beltane ceremony)

This was on our second evening, and we hadn’t yet collected our rental car, so we took a taxi from Stromness to the Comet Stone, which marks the beginning of the Brodgar site. From there, we were inducted into the ceremonial process. It was a lovely event, with an open spirit and a celebration of the magnificence of the location and its importance to Orkney – past and present.

I will remember it most for the sunset. It was early May and we had expected little in the way of decent weather. But Orkney surprised us with the most golden sunset I have ever seen. Even after leaving the site, standing at the bus stop a mile away, we were still gazing mutely at the sky, enraptured that this could have happened.

The Orkney weather on the 2020 trip was overcast, so I have included shots from both visits to give the reader a flavour of that splendour in this most powerful of locations.

The Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic henge and stone circle. It is rare to find both in the same site. It is the only stone circle in Britain which is a perfect circle. Brodgar ranks with Avebury and Stonehenge as among the greatest of such sites. These are the northernmost examples of circle henges in Britain.

(Above: Ring of Brodgar – September 2020)

There are no known stones within the circle (unlike Avebury, for example) but there has never been a detailed excavation of Brodgar, and wooden structures may have been located within. The Ring of Brodgar was created later than most of the surrounding sites, such as the chambered mound of Meashowe and the nearby settlement of Skara Brae. It is likely that it represented the pinnacle of the work of these mysterious people, who may well have been the forerunners of the Picts.

The Ring of Brodgar is managed by Historic Environment Scotland, whose ‘Statement of Significance’ for the site describes its significance better than I could:

The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places. They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt (first and second dynasties), the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China. Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkably rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early peoples away from the traditional centres of civilisation…The Ring of Brodgar is the finest known truly circular late Neolithic or early Bronze Age stone ring and a later expression of the spirit which gave rise to Maeshowe, Stenness and Skara Brae’

(Quoted from Wikkipedia)

The Ring of Brodgar’s natural setting did not function alone. There is a final addition to the story of Brodgar’s sacred landscape. The mapping of the heavens carried out by the ancient priests required they mark the position of the winter solstice sunset… ideally against a feature on a hill in the landscape, as used throughout the Scottish Pictish world.

(Above: The Brodgar stone marking the winter solstice setting sun points to a valley on the neighbouring island of Hoy)

The chosen position (above) – a valley between two mountains – looks close to Brodgar, but is in fact on the neighbouring island of Hoy. A mysterious shrine, now known as the ‘Dwarfie Stane’ was constructed at the exact spot on Hoy corresponding to this line of sight from the Ring of Brodgar.

(Above: the mysterious Dwarfie Stane on the island of Hoy)

The information board at the Dwarfie Stane reads:

Dwarfie Stane

This unique monument has attracted attention for centuries and many scholars have visited it and theorised. It has been described as the dwelling place of giants, of dwarves, and as the home of an early Christian hermit.

It was actually a tomb, related to the many chambered cairns found throughout Orkney. It dates to between 3500 and 2500 BC. Its construction, carved from a single enormous block of stone, is without parallel in the British Isles. 

The labour involved, given the lack of metal tools, suggests that although small, it may have been of special significance.’

During the 2020 workshop, we did not have time to visit Hoy. But we were fortunate to have stumbled across it on our 2018 personal trip, during which we had visited the neighbouring island. Then, we had no knowledge of the link between Brodgar and the mysterious ‘natural shrine’ we came across on our way to the far side of that mainly uninhabited island.

(Above: from 2018 – Hoy’s dramatic west coast – the Old Man of Hoy is an hour’s walk from here)

(Above: Hoy is beautiful but bleak)

(Above: from 2018, the Dwarfie Stane looks back towards the Ring of Brodgar – lone sentinel of the winter solstice sun)

We took away some wonderful memories of that earlier trip to Hoy. Two stand out in memory. The first was a Persian inscription on the walls of the ‘Dwarfie Stane’, left by a Victorian artist, soldier and traveller, Willam Mounsey. On the outer wall of the tomb, he wrote ‘I have sat for two nights and have found patience’. To me, this immediately suggested a Sufi thought.

No-one knows what its meaning is. But Mounsey was a learned scholar who could speak and write in several middle eastern languages, including Persian and Hebrew. He is believed to have operated as a spy for the British Army. He was an accomplished historian and an authority on the Celts. His work suggests to me that he had a ‘mystical bent’. It’s entirely fanciful, but I like to think he may have sat there, looking back along the line of sight to Brodgar and musing about the spiritual nature of the Celts who created this ‘line of light’.

The second memory is of a startled Bernie seeing a golden eagle minutes later, in the telescope of a bird-watcher parked in the lay-by. He had been watching the eagle on its nest for many hours and offered us each a viewing. Only Bernie saw it… but what an end to the day it had provided.

At the time, we knew nothing of the visual link across Scapa Flow to the Ring of Brodgar, but, now, two years later and standing at the Brodgar marker stone, looking across at Hoy and remembering, I marvelled at how connected our human experience can be…

In the next post we will look at the remaining sites at or near to the Ness of Brodgar and summarise the incredible story of this heart of Sacred Neolithic Orkney.

To be continued.

Notes:

Link to William Mounsey.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, This is Part Four.

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.