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.

The City and the Stars (3) – The City on the Ness

A ten-minute journey from Stromness, on Orkney, lies an ‘isthmus’ which recent excavations have shown to contain one of the richest archeological concentrations in the world… It is nothing less than an ancient spiritual city, lost to time until the early years of this century.

(1200 words, a ten-minute read)

An ‘isthmus’ is defined as ‘a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land’. It’s an old word, not seen often these days. Scotland – land of lochs, lochans and vast waterways has many of them. But this is a land beyond Scotland, yet just a few miles off its north-eastern coast.

(Above: the isthmus that is the site of five major archeological treasures from 5000 years ago. Picture Source)

We were in the final few days of the Silent Eye’s exploration of the land of the Picts, having reached the tip of the mainland and journeyed to the beautiful archepelago of Orkney – a place so far north you are on a line of latitude with southern Norway.

The arial image above, from the official archeological dig site of the Ness of Brodgar – one of several sites on this isthmus – says it all. It is a land within a land, a place whose location has such intense beauty that you can imagine why the ‘stone’ age priests who came here stopped and stayed to make it not just a home, but a spiritual city.

We have largely lost the sense and meaning of the word ‘Priest’. A priest was a wise one; a teacher of life, a way-shower to relationship. And that relationship was with the world around us. The heart of that relationship was our own individual sense of self, an ‘I’. Later, understood more deeply, the ‘I’ became an ‘I am’ and bore a deeper relationship with the beauty around us. Over time, organised religion has the unintended effect of taking away our relationship with what should be the vivid edge of our own existence. When that happens, we lose the chance to dissolve that barrier…

It is only with the advent of ‘object relations’ psychology’ that we are finally understanding the many facets of the ‘I’, and its importance in the development and maturity of the individual, transiting through separation to maturity… and for a ‘priest’, beyond.

The ancient priests of Orkney did not have the psychology of object relations; but they did have stories and myths; and for those of emotional maturity, they had ritual, an action they knew spoke to a deeper part of themselves, individually and collectively. It took a giant of psychology, Carl Jung, to show our modern age what we had lost in not talking and listening to our deeper minds, to translate the need and usage of ritual into modern language.

We can imagine families, grouped around a fire beneath a sky full of stars, sharing the wisdom stories that would act as a reliable canvas for the experiences of the maturing child, guiding her or him through play, then puberty and into sexual and societal maturity – each aware of their powers and their responsibility to the tribe, the land and, above all, to self. From that, all else flowed.

Thousands of years later, Shakespeare was to encapsulate that thought in Hamlet:

“This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man…” (my italics).

For the ancient priests, the truth was written by nature into the world – as experienced by a self-honest human. The land had the properties of earth: it was solid and held the seeds of that which fed them. These were farming people, and the seasons of growth, fullness, harvest and fallowness were profound truths, whose existence was self-evident. Their own bodies were sustained by the air and the earth and the earth in turn was sustained by the seasons, powered in shorter and longer cycles by the moon and sun. The moon was strongly linked with women, the sea and the shorter cycles of sex and fertility; the sun controlled the longer cycles of life-giving energy that flowed from the sky onto the earth… and specially for humankind, into the daily miracle of fire, something no other creature seemed to possess.

The great story of this relationship with nature was told in the heavens. The priests, as with any civilisation, were deeply concerned with the constantly unfolding saga within which life on their given and fertile ‘earth’ was set. People’s natures were indicated – though not entirely – by the placing of the mysterious ‘wanderers’ in the sky – what we now know as the visible planets – ending with Saturn, the limit of unaided sight without magnifying lenses.

(Above: the constellation of Orion, the Hunter)

Within the city of learning that was built here, the isthmus, surrounded on nearly all sides by a soft and gentle sea, had a special relationship with the constellation of Orion – the hunter, which is bright and easily visible at these latitudes. The symbolic link, and the stories told of its significance to the ancient people of Orkney is lost to time…

The Ness of Brodgar is the name of the isthmus that separates the lochs of Harray and Stenness. The name derives from the Old Norse nes – headland; brúar – bridge and garðr – farm, and translates roughly as the “headland of the bridge farm”.

Within this small area of land are several ancient archeological sites. The image below gives an idea of the sheer scale of what has been recently uncovered.

(Above: one of the information panels from the Ness of Brodgar’s excavation site. These are freely downloadable as PDFs here. The site asks you to consider a donation to help it further its vital work)

The Ness is the centre of the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. The Ness is covered in, and surrounded by, ancient archeology. Until the start of the 21st century, this was best known as the location of the Ring of Brodgar. That changed in 2002 when, on the south-eastern end of the Ness, excavations revealed a massive complex of monumental Neolithic buildings along with associated artwork, pottery, bones and stone tools. The design of the dwellings here closely resembles that at Skara Brae, and hence my suggestion that they may have been tightly linked.

The Ness is only open to visitors at specific times of year. The Covid restrictions meant that it was closed during our visit. But the websitehttps://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/about-the-ness-of-brodgar/ is rich in information.

The Ring of Brodgar is an open site and was not subject to Covid restrictions, apart from social distancing. Situated on the isthmus between the Lochs of Harry 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. In the next post, we will examine it in detail.

(Above: The Ring of Brodgar)

To be continued.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, This is Part Three.

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, which offers a distance-learning program to deepen the personality and align it with the soul.

The City and the Stars (2) – Skara Brae’s Ancient Houses

Skara Brae’s modern story began in 1850 when a violent sea-storm tore off the layers of grass, sand and soil that had covered what appeared to be two ancient and completely intact Neolithic houses. For 4,000 years, they had been lost to history, having been mysteriously abandoned.

(1000 words, a ten-minute read)

The local landowner at the time was William Watt, who lived at Skaill Hall, which is located next to Skara Brae and can be visited in its own right. Watt explored the two exposed houses and collected many objects. Like several other local explorers, Watt left few records of his work. In the 1860s, George Petrie, an able Orcadian historian and antiquarian, made frequent visits to the site and discovered there were other buried houses. He made copious notes and left them to public posterity. By the end of 1867, this dedicated man had cleared and documented the contents of Houses 1,3,4 and 6. – See key below.

(Above: Professor Gordon Childe)

This foundational work paved the way for the detailed excavations carried out by Gordon Childe, the first Professor of Archeology at the University of Edinburgh. It was due to Professor Childe’s work that Skara Brae became one of the foremost Neolithic sites in the world.

(Above: a modern schematic of the eight houses plus a ‘workshop’) at Scara Brae)
(Above: a modern drawing (Jim Proudfoot) showing how the settlement of Skara Brea is likely to have looked 5000 years ago)

The far side of Skara Brae is adjacent to the present beach of Skaill Bay. The sea level has risen and gradually encroached. When the village was occupied the bay was fertile farmland. The new outer wall is massively reinforced to protect the site well into the future. Skara Brae has been classified as a World Heritage Site and is cared for by Historic Scotland.

The whole site is around 100 metres across. It’s compact, and most of the houses are connected by internal paths and what appears to be stone plumbing! You can simply ‘feel’ the quality of the dwellings, as though something of their ancient spirit survives…

The long path from the visitor centre brings you to Houses 10, 9 and 7. The path narrows but continues around the site. It has been constructed at a higher level allowing visitors to look down and into the ancient dwellings. You can’t actually go into the houses, but you can get very close.

(Above: House 7, showing the central hearth, the alcoves for the beds and the ‘dresser’ on which the family’s precious objects would have been stored… or was there another purpose? More on this, later)

The entire village of Skara Brae was set into a midden, which had been transported from another site as a prerequisite to building the house structures. The midden was essentially a rubbish tip for organic waste – food, shells, carcasses of animals. As it decomposed it gave off heat and warmed the houses. It might have been smelly but it was warm! Humour aside, it showed the sophistication of both planning and living in this ancient settlement.

(Above: House 9, adjacent to House 7)

All the surviving houses at Skara Brae are remarkably similar to each other. The main building material was stone, which was locally available. For all the houses, the outer and inner faces of the walls are dry stone, meaning without mortar. The spaces between the walls were packed with additional midden material, as detailed above. The resulting wall was over two metres thick. The midden core of the buildings not only provided heat, it kept the houses waterproof as well.

(Above: House 1, the nearest to the present sea wall)

Historically, it had been thought that the roofs – possibly constructed of whalebone and cloth – were kept low because of the winds. But recent evidence suggests they were conical, high, and lined with eel grass which absorbed smoke, allowing a much more pleasant interior space.

(Above: House 5, close to the centre of the village)

Detailed excavation has revealed that each house had at least one ‘storage cell’. The larger dwellings had a large storage cell that linked with a central drain with running water. This points to the provision of toilets at Skara Brae, their earliest known use in Britain.

(Above: a central covered corridor linked most of the houses from the inside. Stone slabs formed the doors, and could be locked into position from the inside)

(Above: Structure 8, or the Workshop)

‘House 8’ was the only building in the settlement which was not actually a house. Whilst there was a central hearth, it lacked beds and a dresser. Known as Structure 8, it appears to have been a workshop for making stone tools and perhaps pottery, bone tools and wooden implements. The walls were thicker than the other houses because they were not dug into the midden for support and heat.

(Above: Another photo of Structure 8, a more detailed view of its segmented interior)

To my mind, the ‘dressers’ are the most curious aspects of the houses in the settlement. The guide book admits they may have been individual shrines, something I hadn’t read prior to this visit. Being close to them, again, there came the strong conviction that the dressers were holy places within the houses. Moreover, given the opulent nature of the settlement, I strongly felt there was a good chance that Skara Brae did not house ordinary farming people.

(Above: the symbolic and all-important ‘dresser’)

I consider it possible that the whole of Skara Brae was a ‘school’ for a priesthood whose central authority was a few miles away at the Ness of Brodgar – next to the famous Ring of Brodgar. I will go into more detail in the next post. The picture of Orkney thrown up by the continued sophistication of the finds at the Ness of Brodgar has changed, dramatically, and there is world-wide interest in its potential to update the history of this part of the world.

The more you learn about Orkney, the more it is evident that, in Neolithic times, it was the centre of a pivotal civilisation. It is likely that these people were the forerunner of the Picts, driven south by some unknown force or, possibly, warring armies from pre-Viking Scandinavia.

The group, quiet with the depth of the experience, moved back to the cars. We had important things to consider, and the Ring of Brodgar was only a few miles away and our next stop…

To be continued.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, This is Part Two

The 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, which offers a distance-learning program to deepen the personality and align it with the soul.

The City and the Stars (1) – Skara Brae

With the Pictish Trail weekend a long car journey and a boat ride behind us, we had awakened in Stromness to the early morning of an overcast Orkney day – The excavated and intact Neolithic village of Skara Brae was a few short miles away…

(1300 words, a ten-minute read)

We had not expected to be here at all. Visiting Orkney for the second part of our Pictish Trail journey had seemed impossible because of Covid restrictions. But there were signs that things were relaxing and even re-opening. Our potential companions for the extended weekend had urged us to keep trying, so we’d put ourselves on every visitor ‘notification list’ possible.

In the end, we couldn’t call it with any certainty, and simply contacted everyone who was interested and asked if they’d be prepared to risk it… Everyone said yes; that it was worth it just to go to Orkney, regardless of what was open or not… In the largest sense, there was an act of faith, here…

Our ferry tickets and accommodations in Stromness were booked. There was no going back; we’d just have to make do with what we could achieve on each day. Stromness and Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, were worth at least a day each, and we only had three. Then we got a message saying the Neolithic village of Skara Brae had opened for a limited number of bookings which were to be strictly time-controlled. Within minutes, Bernie had responded and we had our visit: 10.00 am on the morning after our arrival. Getting off the ferry, with our hotel just at the end of the quay, one of our party was so excited, she was literally hopping from foot to foot…

We had only a few days to give our group a taste of this wonderful archipelago, situated just a few miles off the coast of north-east Scotland. It’s a world of its own – especially in terms of its ancient history. We’d been here once before and couldn’t wait to share it. In addition, since I was here last, work done on the Neolithic civilisation on Orkney was being revolutionised by the new findings at the Ness of Brodgar. I had my own views on some of it…

Now, we were at Skara Brae, just a few miles from Brodgar, on the Orkney Mainland. There was a queue to get into the visitor centre of this 5000 year old ‘village’. We’ll come on to why I’ve put that in quotes, later…

We were awaiting our timed entry to access the walkway to the actual village when I read the graphic above. It puts everything into perspective. I’ve reproduced it below:

You have come to a village which started life around 3100 years BC. Before Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, and the Pyramids of Egypt were built. This is the oldest village in Europe where you can still see the houses with their original stone furniture intact.

For reasons I’ll go into later in these posts, I’m not sure it was an ordinary village. I think it was something far more exciting.

Then the hour turned and we were socially-spaced and walking through the descriptive graphics, towards the sophisticated reconstruction of one of the eight houses beyond. The visitor is not allowed to descend into the real dwellings, but a landscaped walkway around the entire village has been constructed to allow close visibility – from above, in most cases.

To compensate for this, the reconstructed house at the entrance of the site is an exact reproduction that you can enter to immerse yourself in Neolithic life. I had been fascinated by it on our visit in 2018 and couldn’t wait to see its effect on our companions.

But, sadly, it wasn’t open…too small an enclosed environment to accommodate the restrictions on social distancing. However, I do have photos from our first trip, so here’s a visual journey through what would normally be available.

(Above: The replica house at Scara Brae is modelled on House 7 (see map) and gives the essential feeling of height not apparent from looking down at the real houses from the walkway. House 7 was excavated by Professor Gordon Childe in 1928 (below). When he found it, it had no roof. He dug down through the sand to find the layers where people had lived)

(Above: Gordon Child, the principle archaeologist who excavated Skara Brae in the years 1928 to 1931)

(Above: The real House 7 is shown on the site map: bottom row, middle. We would be visiting that next)

(Above: the reconstructed ‘sail-cloth’ and timber roof)

(Above: the central hearth contained ashes and red clay)

(Above: there are two box beds, The fireside slab of one of the beds had carvings on it, worn away in the middle, as if by people climbing in and out of the pen. A decorated pot was also found in the bed. Above the beds are cupboards set into the wall. Intriguingly, skeletons of two women were discovered buried partly under the house wall behind one of the beds…)

(Above: the ‘dresser’ – my italics – The top shelf of the dresser was found to be bare, but on its lower shelf were pieces of pottery and burnt bones. There was a storage cell in the room, but it may have been linked to drains found under some of the other storage cells in the village. The astonishing possibility that they may have served as indoor toilets cannot be ruled out)

Near to the ‘model house’ is an information board that sets the scene for the actual village, which lies a few hundred metres away, on the edge of the sea. Here are two useful excerpts.

(Above: a more detailed scale map of Scara Brae)

‘5000 years ago the villagers who decided to settle at Skara Brae did so for good reasons.

This was a land of plenty, with rich fertile soil for grazing cattle. The temperature then was a few degrees warmer than it is now, making it easier to grow crops. In the uncultivated land wild deer and boar roamed.

Birch Hazel and willow trees formed sparse scrubland. Wild berries and herbs grew. The lochs and sea were stocked with fish. Driftwood from the virgin forests of America was regularly cast up on the beach.

The cliffs supported colonies of sea birds important for their meat and eggs. Seaweed provided a plentiful supply of fuel. The abundant stones, clay and pebbles were useful building materials.

Today the landscape differs in one important respect: 5000 years ago the sea was much further away from the village. Land once covered the area which now forms the adjacent Bay of Skaill. This area of land held a loch or lochans which gave the people a vital supply of freshwater. Over hundreds of years the cliffs were gradually eaten away by the sea and sand dunes formed. This process of erosion was already beginning in the early life of the village…’

(Above: the elevated walkway snakes around the Skara Brae village, allowing a thorough visual exploration without actually entering the 5000 year old dwellings)

The reproduced House 7 and the information boards had served us well. Everyone had taken what little time the visitor centre would allow to study what was coming. Now we had a few hundred metres to walk to get to the real Skara Brae. As we walked, there was a palpable but delighted feeling of disbelief that this was actually happening…

To be continued next Tuesday.

To be continued…

This is Part One of the City and the Stars – a continuing mystical trip through north-east Scotland and Orkney on the trail of the Picts.

The 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, which offers a distance-learning program to deepen the personality and align it with the soul.

Rambling Rocks

(But what is it?)

I thought it might be interesting to take some of the less relevant episodes – the ‘out-takes’ – from the just-completed Scottish workshop (and subsequent journey to Orkney) and run them in reverse time-sequence. The Thursday blogs, here, will continue with the linear sequence of the Scottish and Orkney explorations.

That way the odd bits of the journey and the main storyline would meet somewhere in the middle – I have no idea where! Let’s see what happens…

The above image worked better than I thought it would. At face value, it could be a giant slide attached to a hotel on a headland, with a sandstone rock hitching a ride and about to decapitate the observer!

But it’s not, of course. It’s part of a sculptural installation on the headland at John O’ Groats, the most northerly point on the British mainland, and a few sea miles from the archipelago of Orkney, from which we had just sailed… at 06:15 in the morning.

North of John O’ Groats – between the coast and Orkney – is the Pentland Firth, famous for its fast and ferocious tides and cross-currents. Dire-sounding weather and tidal warnings for Pentland Firth are regular features of BBC weather broadcasts.

The deadly tidal rapids on the surface of the Pentland Firth are common knowledge, but less well-known are the resulting activities beneath the sea. Recently, a new insight was gained when researchers, supporting the growing commercial interest in the harnessing of some of the Firth’s vast tidal power, began surveying the seabed with a view to locating permanent turbines on the ocean floor.

During this exercise, it was discovered that large rolling boulders of up to 1.5 tons in weight – similar to that of an average car – were regularly moved great distances across the seabed by forceful currents!

This fascinated local artists Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion, whose work focusses on art and sculpture inspired by ecology and natural phenomena.

(Above: Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion, creators of the Nomadic Boulders sculpture. Their website is here. Image taken from their website)

They put forward a proposal for a sculptural installation that mirrored their own delight at the thought of large deep-sea boulders wandering along the sea bed, powered by the stormy waves above. The result is what you see in the above photographs; something that puts John O’ Groats on the modern artistic map.

(Above: close-up you can see how heavy the boulders are. The ones used in the installation were washed up on a local beach during a violent storm)

The information board sets the context:

Across the world, boulders that defy the weightiness, their solid stability and static nature and hint instead at a more animated past are often celebrated. Small pilgrimages are made to visit them and share in their unusual power...

(Above: the ‘Nomadic Boulders’ information board)

… While the Nomadic Boulders of John O’Groats will forever remain shrouded in the deep and stormy depths of the sea, this monument serves to bring them to our consciousness, perhaps affording a tantalising glimpse of the world beneath the sea.’

Having sailed from Orkney on the early ferry, we were hoping to break the trip around the coast with a hot drink, before the long drive south. But at nine in the morning, on our first ever visit, John O’Groats was closed. We couldn’t even get a a cup of coffee. Scenic, though, and Larissa, one of our travelling companions and a skilled photographer, did gift us a fine portrait at the famous signpost.

To be fair, John O’ Groats is a fine and symbolic place, The harbour is lovely, and a pleasant place to wander around. The main view, though, is the sight of the Pentland Firth, and, beyond that, the outline of the Orkney archipelago.

(Above: John O’ Groats harbour)
(Above: The Pentland Firth and (distant right) the outline of Orkney)

©Copyright Stephen Tanham, 2020.

An Orcadian Diary (4) – The light of the North

 

St Magnus x Cathedral keyarch

We could be in any of the great cathedral cities of Britain. If someone took off the blindfold and asked, we might say Salisbury, York, Lichfield or the wonders of Durham Cathedral. The latter is significant, because they who built Durham came here to add their skills…

We are in the capital of Orkney – Kirkwall (reference ‘F’ in the Northlink Ferry’s map, below), in one of the most splendid cathedrals I’ve every visited. And yet this town of Kirkwall, the commercial centre of the archipelago of Orkney, has a population of only 10,000 people. The rest of Orkney is compact, beautiful, and infused with a sense of ancient mystery. So why is this magnificent building here, so far from the rest of British ‘civilisation’?

Orkney 11Jun18 - 1

It’s a story involving Earls

Aha! I thought to myself, upon hearing this – some medieval outpost of early Britain, strategically important – as it was to be, a thousand years later, during WW1, when the British fleet was based in Scapa Flow. But these were not English earls; they were Vikings, albeit Vikings who had adopted Christianity.

St Magnus x Cathedral Full central view ace - 1

St Magnus Cathedral is referred to, historically, as The Light in the North. It’s not hard to see why when you stand in the west and look along the nave towards the chapel in the East.

St Magnus x Cathedral Lamps better

The Earls of Orkney were from Norway, and had settled in these fertile islands, as part of their vast and successful expansion. Modern Stavanger is a mere 300 miles to the East – no problem for a nation with the seafaring expertise of the Vikings. The Old Norse name was actually ‘Jarl’, rather than Earl; and the two terms only became synonymous during the 15th century when, under the Sinclair family, control passed to mainland Scotland.

St Magnus Cathedral x Full Arches

Until that time, the ‘Jarls’ of the combined territory of Orkney and Shetland (Norðreyjar) had a great deal of independence and local power. The office of Jarl of Orkney became the most senior rank in medieval Norway except for the king himself.

St Magnus x Cathedral side chamber1

Magnus Erlendsson was the Earl of Orkney in the early 1100s. He seems to have been a very spiritual man, which many contempory Norwegians saw as a weakness. Magnus once refused to fight during a Viking raid on Anglesey, staying on his ship, praying and singing psalms.

He shared the Earldom with his ambitious cousin, Hakon. The two men fought a series of battles, damaging the land. To settle this, it was agreed to hold a council of peace on the Orkney island of Egilsay. Each Jarl would bring only two ships, containing unarmed men. Hakon broke the agreement and arrived with eight ships, each fully armed. On his orders, in an act of humiliating barbarity, Magnus was executed by Hakon’s reluctant cook, using an axe.

Magnus prayed as the axe was swung towards him… He was buried at Birsay, in the north-west of the Orkney Mainland (see map, above). Over time, stories of miracles associated with the royal grave began to circulate. During this time, Hakon’s reign seems to have been blighted by misfortune.

St Magnus x Cathedral Font

Eventually, Magnus’ nephew, Rognvald, came from Norway to claim his uncle’s Earldom. He promised the people of Orkney that he would build a ‘great stone minster’ in honour of his uncle; and that he would turn it into a place of pilgrimage.

St Magnus Cathedral x East window

The Cathedral was founded in 1137 and inaugurated as part of the Archdiocese of Nidaros (now Trondheim) in Norway. Orkney became part of Scotland in 1468. A few years later, the cathedral was given to the people of Kirkwall by King James III.

St Magnus' skull
(And early photograph of St Magnus’ split skull, now interred in the cathedral)

After the Scottish Reformation in 1560, the cathedral was used for Protestant worship. Nowadays, it belongs to the people of Orkney. It is maintained by the Orkney Islands Council. It has a Church of Scotland congregation and can be used, by arrangement, by any Christian denomination.

St Magnus Cathedral x Roof thru pillars

Restoration work took place in the 1850s and again, following a large bequest from Sheriff George Thoms, during 1913-1930. Because of its great age, the cathedral structure is constantly monitored for stability.

St Magnus x Cathedral EntranceAA

The exterior of the building shows off the local sandstone, from which most of the cathedral is constructed.

St Magnus x Cathedral HMS Royal Oak - 1 (1)

The north choir aisle is home to the brass bell from HMS Royal Oak, the battleship sunk in Scapa Flow in 1939. The case holds a Book of Remembrance to honour those who died. The pages are turned every week by the cathedral custodians.

St Magnus x Cathedral HMS Royal Oak panel

The chapel at the east end of the building is dedicated to St Rognvald, the founder. It was redesigned in 1965 by the Orcadian artist Stanley Cursiter. The wooden communion table and lecterns, incorporating medieval panels, were made by a local craftsman, Reynold Eunson. The left figure is Rognvald’s father, Kol Kalisson; the right is William the Old, Bishop of Orkney when the cathedral was built.

St Magnus x Cathedral East 3 fi

The central figure is that of St Rognvald, the founder of the cathedral. He is seen holding a model of the original cathedral building.

St Magnus x Cathedral East Rognvald - 1

The right side of the chapel is home to Dr John Rae, a resident of Orkney, who worked for the Hudson Bay Company, which explored the Canadian Arctic. He discovered the vital Northwest Passage, enabling the shipping of goods between Europe and northern Canada by a much shorter route. His remains are buried in the cathedral’s graveyard.

St Magnus x Cathedral John Rae Arctic

Sadly, the chapel area was being used for a lecture, which meant I could not get close to:

  1. The cathedral’s oldest gravestone, thought to date from the 13th century. Its golden sandstone face depicts a carved ‘morning star’ symbol and a sword, possibly indicating a crusader or a Templar Knight. Initials P and C were added at a later date, according to the guide leaflet.
  2. The chapel also contains some of the oldest carvings, including dragons, a small hooded imp, and a squatting female Sheela-na-gig. At the top of a column there are two Green Men, ones with distinct foliage coming out of his mouth – a deeply mystical symbol and one emotionally linked to my personal past…

The majority of the present stained-glass windows were designed by the Glasgow artist Oscar Paterson. They depict a variety of saints and biblical figures, as well as characters from Orkney’s Norse past.

St Magnus x Stained glass windowsAA

I have, therefore, many reasons to go back… something I look forward to very much.

Other parts of the Orkney series:

Part One    Part Two

Part Three


Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised.

His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics.

©Stephen Tanham

Rings of Earth and Sky

To find that time and circumstance

Had placed us in an isle of fertile space

Where others led us to a place

A ring wherein the sky and earth would quarter meet

There is no sense of wonder deeper

Than that of being ‘brought’ and left

To gaze as heavens’ hand caress the land and sea

And consciousness completes the longing three

Strange markers lined the way

As if to say: be sure; discretion is required

Before that letting go of owning self

Surrenders to the land of higher health

And then the ring of bright companions forms

Called, named and present

From far and distant lands

To be here, to be now, to be

Brought forth: the moment birthed

For which no words have face

Where vision sees the depth of beauty’s kiss

And all are silent, knowing touch of grace

A sharing cake and golden mead

A silent, spellbound walk along the road

A bus to catch – mundane but vital in the gathering cold!

No-one speaks… we are so lost in gold

©️Copyright Stephen Tanham

Images taken at Beltane, Ring of Brodgar, Orkney.