Wonderful Wednesday Personal Blog
This is one of my favorite photos of Orkney. It's all hills and lochs and fertile lands--and hidden Pictish and Viking settlements and burial mounds. This day was cold but brilliant, giving us the very best view of this beautiful land. There are few trees here, and those we saw had been carefully planted and nurtured to withstand the wind and often severe weather. Archaeologically, there is evidence of trees, though it is buried deep beneath the peat.
How do I know this? Our guide for the two days we spent in Orkney was an Orcadian named Tom Muir, archaeologist and storyteller. Oh, how he could weave stories! He took us far, far back in time, and our first stop on Friday was the Maeshowe Chambered Cairn..
Maeshowe is the largest of the cairns in the area. Made of large cut blocks of sandstone, it sits on a leveled area of land. Peat from the surrounding ditch has been dated at nearly 3000BC, which makes the cairn likely a Pictish construction and contemporary with the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, and Skara Brae--places we also visited. But more on them later.
Maeshowe was first excavated in 1861, but the only artifact inside was a human skull of undetermined age. The nearly 50-foot long, 4.5 foot high passageway leads into a room created of hand-hewn sandstone with a soaring ceiling and a large column in each corner which look very much like the standing stones at the Ring of Brodgar and Stenness.
Also, during the three weeks before and after Winter Solstice, the narrow passageway captures the rays of the setting sun which illuminate the back of the chamber.
The tour guide was, of course, a wonderful font of information, though I think his favorite part (I know it was mine) was his mention of the Viking runes on the walls. Graffiti.
Remember, the cairn is dated to nearly 3000 BC. Vikings arrived in the late 8th century. By this time, the cairn had probably been abandoned, and it's possible the Vikings used it to weather storms, as noted in Orkneyinga Saga (a history of Ornkey from the ninth to thirteenth centuries):
"On the thirteenth day of Christmas they travelled on foot over to Firth. During a snowstorm they took shelter in Maeshowe and two of them (his men) went insane which slowed them down badly so that by the time they reached Firth it was night time."
Orkneyinga saga - Chapter 93
No photos were allowed inside, but you can check out this website if you wish a bit more information: http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/maeshowe/maeshrunes.htm
I'll just highlight a few.
"Holfr Kolbainsson cut these Runes (on) this cave high up”
"Benedict made this cross"
“It was long ago that great treasure was hidden here”
Though another states: “Hókon alone carried treasure from this mound”
A few refer to extracurricular (so to speak) activities that apparently occurred from time to time inside the cairn, one mentioning a fair widow who seems to have entertained a Viking or two.
Yet others mention 'Jerusalem-men', crusaders from Scandanavia who stopped in Orkney on their way to Jerusalem.
For such a rather non-descript mound with a very small doorway, its history is fascinating.
After our tour of Maeshowe, we visited the Ring of Brodgar, a large group of stones standing on a narrow strip of land between Lochs Stenness and Harray. The ring is estimated to have been erected some 3000-4000 years BC and is nearly a perfect circle, approximately 350 feet wide. There are only 27 stones standing, though it has been estimated the ring may have once contained 60. The stones are samples of rock found on all parts of Orkney, and bringing them here must have been quite a feat. One suggestion for moving such massive stones was to place wet seaweed on the ground and drag the stones across. To everyone's surprise (except the Orcadian who had seen his grandfather do this in years past), seaweed is quite slippery and would have made an excellent choice for sliding monoliths from one side of the island to the other.
The stones vary from 7 to 15 feet in height, and Tom, our guide, told us that some stones are buried as shallowly as 18 inches, others as deep as several feet.
We were kept from getting too close to the stones by a wide ditch and fencing at the two causeways. In accordance with the legends of standing stones, if you were able to touch one, would you be whisked away into the time of the Picts? Or would you prefer fast-forwarding to the time of the Vikings?
Enjoy the photos and imagine the wind humming through the stones, and the vast landscape beyond.
Our afternoon adventures were to a distillery and the Brough of Birksay. Learn about them on tomorrow's blog.
This is where I talk about things in my life outside of writing. Mostly gardening and dogs.
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