Scotland’s Orkney Islands: Of Storms and Stones, Of Trees and Treasure
Published by: Michael Turner | Dec 16th, 2019
Here in our village in the west we are little regarded. The lords of tilth and loch are quarrying (we hear) Great stones to make a stone circle.
They come here from Birsay to take our fish for taxes. Otherwise We are left in peace with our small fires and pots. Will it be a morning for fishermen? The sun died in red flames, then the night swarmed with stars, like fish.
The sea gives and takes. The sea devoured four houses one winter. George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), Skara Brae
In the winter of 1850, a great storm hit the west coast of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkneys. It exposed an extraordinary sight perched precariously at the edge of the dunes: the remains of an ancient village, ten circular stone houses, without their roofs, as well as others now tumbled into the sea. The washed away grassy mound under which the village had been preserved was known locally as Skerrabra, giving the site its modern name, the now world-famous Skara Brae.
Once the storm had passed, the local land-owner William Watt started digging, collecting many objects as he went. In 1861, the antiquarian James Farrer, who had recently excavated the chamber tomb at nearby Maeshowe, came to help. Unfortunately, little of what they found, or where, was recorded. Conventional wisdom at the time, and into the early 20th century, suggested that the village dated to the Viking era of about 750-1000 AD.
In 1924, another great storm hit with extensive damage being done to one of the exposed houses. In response, a sea wall was built to protect the site and in 1927, a team of professionals finally arrived under the leadership of one of the great characters of archaeology, the Australian V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957), alumnus of the University of Sydney, ardent Marxist, and recently appointed Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh.
Although one of Childe’s most famous excavations, Skara Brae was not a favourite. Most of his work was in Europe, where he espoused the system of digging through the strata of a site to expose its various stages of occupation. At Skara Brae he was only allowed to dig to the level of the village as it was at the time it was abandoned, similar to the excavation policy at Pompeii. There are even older structures underneath what you see today. The decision had long ago been made however to preserve Skara Brae as a visitor attraction rather than as a working archaeological site.
On the far curving shore of the bay lies Skara Brae, hazy through the sea-haar … George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), Rockpools and Daffodils
Childe was convinced that the dating of the site was wrong, preferring a connection with Picts rather than Vikings and a subsequent date of about 500 BC (elsewhere the Greeks were about to build the Parthenon). But due to his Marxism he was in personal and professional conflict with many of his conservative peers who still clung wilfully to a Viking connection. Sadly, Childe was not even close. In the 1970s, radio-carbon dating pushed the date of Skara Brae back a further 2,000 years, back beyond the Iron and Bronze Ages to the Neolithic (the ‘New Stone Age’) and the original post-Ice Age settlers of these northern Isles. The original source of this confusion, in true Agatha Christie fashion, was the extraordinary finds at another of the sites on Orkney, Maeshowe.
Maeshowe is a Neolithic chamber-tomb (or passage-grave) rising both eerily and majestically from its surrounding landscape. It is considered the finest chamber-tomb in Western Europe. The tomb and nearby standing stone circles at Stenness and Brodgar (pictured at the top) had attracted antiquarians to Orkney since the late 18th century when even Sir Joseph Banks visited and made sketches.
With Farrer’s excavation of the tomb in 1861, many inscriptions were found on the interior walls written in Runic, the alphabet of the northern Germanic languages (which included Anglo-Saxon and Viking variations) from about 150-1100 AD. Haunting to look at, several of the Maeshowe inscriptions tell a typical tale: ‘That will be true what I say, that treasure was carried away. Treasure was carried away three nights before we broke into this mound.’ Surprise, surprise. The treasure had gone! Others are timelessly typical: ‘Ingigerth is the most beautiful’.
The inscriptions were Viking. Therefore, the tomb was Viking. Therefore, QED, Skara Brae must be too. Of course, we now know that the tomb was Neolithic, contemporaneous with the other monuments in the surrounding landscape, and that Vikings, now the islands’ inhabitants, had broken into the tomb some 3,500 years after it was built looking for ‘treasure’. And so, the confusion re dating both Maeshowe and Skara Brae.
The Orkney Islands lie just 10 miles off the north coast of Scotland, separated from the mainland by the Pentland Firth, the fastest flowing and roughest stretch of sea water in Europe (which is why you fly there!). About 70 islands make up the archipelago of which 20 are inhabited. The largest is somewhat confusingly called Mainland. One of the first thing you’ll notice on the drive from the airport is the lack of trees in the landscape. There’s hardly a one to be seen, which makes Scotland’s ‘Tree of the Year’ for 2017 all the more remarkable. ‘Small in stature, big in name’ is the Big Tree, a 200 year-old sycamore that stands on Broad Street in the centre of Kirkwall, the island’s chief town.
It was originally one of three planted in a walled garden at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Although the garden and its walls have long-since gone, the tree remains, rich in history and a much-loved meeting place for Orcadians today. Just down the street from the Big Tree lies 16th-century Tankerness House, now home to the must-see Orkney Museum, and behind which lies an old walled garden, one of the very few gardens on the island and one well worth feasting your eyes on.
To the south of Kirkwall, across a thin isthmus, lies Scapa Flow, one of the great sheltered harbours/anchorages of the world. Strange to tell, Skapa Flow, in Old Norse, means ‘the bay on the long isthmus’. Some 325 sq. kilometres in size, it is protected by a network of surrounding islands. Since the early 20th century, it has been the main base for the British Fleet. At the end of WWI, 74 ships of the German High Fleet were held captive in Scapa Flow pending a decision at the Treaty of Versailles as to what should happen to them. On the night of 21 June 1919, the German sailors scuttled their ships to prevent them falling into British hands: of the 74 ships, 53 sank.
By the beginning of WWII, the defences of Scapa Flow had both fallen into disrepair and were hopelessly outdated. On the night of 14 October 1939, the German submarine U-47 penetrated the bay and sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak. Of the 1,234 man crew, 835 were lost. Every October, survivors from all over the world have met in Kirkwall for an annual dinner. 2019 was to be the 80th and final dinner. One survivor, little more than a boy, was so traumatised that he moved to Australia after the war and never returned. This year, for the final dinner, he did. Across the table he caught the eye of an equally elderly woman and was puzzled for a moment as he thought he recognised the face. “Are you Elinore?”, he asked. “Yes”, she said. “You were the nurse that saved me.”
Following the disaster of the Royal Oak, Churchill ordered the building of 2.5 kilometres of causeways from Mainland to South Ronaldsay via Burray and two smaller islands to block off the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow. These so-called Churchill Barriers were built largely by 1,300 Italian prisoners-of-war interned on the islands. Shortly after their arrival in 1942, permission was given for the prisoners to build themselves a chapel. It was constructed using whatever materials they could lay their hands on.
First, two Nissen huts were joined end-to-end. The corrugated interior was then covered with plasterboard and the altar and altar rail were constructed from concrete left over from work on the barriers. Most of the interior decoration was done by Domenico Chiocchetti, a prisoner from Moena in the Dolomites. He painted the sanctuary end of the chapel while fellow-prisoners decorated the interior. A façade was created out of concrete, concealing the shape of the hut and making the building look like a church. The light holders were made out of corned beef tins. The baptismal font was made from the inside of a car exhaust covered in a layer of concrete. Outside, Chiocchetti created a statue of St George made from barbed wire covered in concrete. Today, the Chapel is one of the most beautiful and moving experiences on the islands.
And so, to our final storm. In June 1916, the Secretary of State for War, Field Marshall ‘Your Country Needs You’ Kitchener left London on a secret diplomatic mission to Russia. On the night of 5 June, his ship HMS Hampshire slipped out of Scapa Flow into a Force 9 storm. A kilometre out to sea, just north of Skara Brae, the Hampshire struck a German mine and sank. Kitchener and 736 crew and passengers were lost. There were only 12 survivors.
The sea gives and takes. The sea devoured four houses one winter …
Just as Childe suggested, there are so many strata to the story of human existence, so much wonder, joy and heartache to be discovered once we scratch below the surface. The Orkney Islands are an extraordinary experience and will justifiably be a highlight of our summer tour of Scotland in 2020.
Michael Turner is a cultural and garden historian. He has a strong personal and academic interest in the art, history, literature, and mythology of the Classical past and how these have shaped the gardens and landscapes of Britain and Italy – from the Renaissance, to the Grand Tour, to the present day. Michael holds a BA (1st class Honours with University Medal) from the University of Sydney. In 2009, he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in London and in 2018, a Fellow of the Linnean Society, the world’s oldest active biological society.