A Flying Visit To Orkney…

It sometimes feels strange to live on an island where there remains considerable evidence of our distant ancestors in the landscape and in the monuments they built, but to know so very little about them. Developments in archaeology in recent decades have certainly lead to far more exploration of neolithic sites, but for me at least there is a huge gulf between what we now ‘know’ and what there is we’d really like to know.

So while the archaeologists carry on their painstaking work to uncover and discover facts, we’re left to fill the gap with our imaginations.

Having now become well and truly hooked on this pre-historic enigma, you can appreciate why I leapt at the chance to make a flying visit to Orkney – an island group off the North East tip of Scotland, rich in marvellous and mysterious neolithic sites.

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Scape Flow

It would have been difficult to imagine a more lovely day for our visit. A near cloudless blue sky reflected in the sea and the lochs, creating a sublime combination of emerald greens and sapphire blues beneath us as we flew over Scapa Flow.

This was my first visit to the Orkney and I wasn’t prepared for just how beautiful it is. It absolutely took my breath away. But we had just a few hours to explore, so we began by overflying the area we planned to visit on land – Skara Brae, Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar.

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Skara brae (bottom right, circles contained within a path)

Skara Brae had to be the highlight of the visit and it was the first site we headed for once we landed.

There’s been a lot of television coverage of Skara Brae in recent years, but nothing quite prepared me for seeing it in person. Built around 3000BC, it was a subterranean village, hidden under sand for centuries, but revealed in the 19th century after a storm removed some of the layers covering sand.

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As you walk around the village, looking down from the path above, your mind goes into overdrive, trying to mentally construct the village as it once was, seeing it with your mind’s eye, peopling it with men and women who looked just like us but about whom there is so much we don’t have a clue about.

Perhaps the most iconic view of Skara Brae is this one…

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Who is there of a certain age who isn’t thinking ‘The Flintstones’ when they see this?

But this is absolutely real! How did the residents use that stone dresser? I couldn’t stop wondering about it. What would you do with it if it was the centre-piece of your house?

Then look around – either side are the stone remains of the bed-spaces and in the middle, a hearth. In the walls are niches – what was kept inside them?

It would, I am sure, be entirely possible to spend weeks just looking at Skara Brae and trying to understand it, let alone uncover more (and yes, the archaeologists are fairly certain that much more of the site remains uncovered). But with only a few hours to spare, we moved on.

Our next stop was to visit the Ring of Brodgar.

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Here is a stone circle from around 3000BC, comprising stones from across Orkney – 36 remain of the original 60, laid out in a circle and surrounded by a henge. Strange mounds also feature in the local landscape adding so much to the mystery that already surrounds this amazing place.

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Where Skara Brae leads you to attempt to answer the questions, here I felt I was in quite a different place. For all the theories and there are many, nobody yet or perhaps ever will know why these circles were constructed. That it took a great deal of effort is evident, so why did people not so different from you and me undertake that task? What would make you do it?

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I admit that standing there, inside that circle, I wasn’t exactly trying to think about the logistics of building it, I was simply enchanted by being in the circle – standing there and turning 360 degrees, looking out at the landscape around the Ring, looking up at the sky contained by the Ring, touching the individual stones as I walked past each one.

That there was a meaning I’m sure, but what it was? Perhaps we all decide for ourselves…

Inevitably I suppose we began to run out of time to explore the rest of the sites in this sequence – the Stones of Stenness (just a mile from the Ring of Brodgar) and Maeshowe.

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Maeshowe from the air

In the end we found ourselves dashing back to Kirkwall with only a very few minutes to flit inside St Magnus’s Cathedral – so little time that I didn’t manage to take any decent pictures.

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One of the intriguingly carved tomb stones in Kirkwall Cathedral

But long enough to confirm that I must return to Orkney, this time with the freedom to explore much more of this mysterious and enchanting group of islands.

More guilty pleasures…

or ‘How what you read in your teens can scar you for life…’

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Last week, with the girls still at home for Easter, we found ourselves in need of some new books – as you do…

Naturally the first choice on these occasions is Hay-on-Wye, but as it’s over four hours away by car, it isn’t really an option for a quick mid-week fix. Instead we opted for Berkhamsted, (of Ed Reardon fame), where I have a soft spot for the Oxfam bookshop.

I really do think it’s the sort of shop where they should have lock-ins, like pubs once did. I’m pretty confident I could spend several hours (quite possibly days) working my way through the shelves there without ever getting bored.

I came away with an old Folio Society version of ‘Richard III The Great Debate’. It contains Sir Thomas More’s History of King Richard III, and Horace Walpole’s Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III.

I blame Rosemary Hawley Jarman for my Richard fetish. I read We Speak No Treason when it first came out in the 1970s, at that impressionable age, and have been in love with him ever since. Loads of history books, TV programmes and a car park exhumation later and I still enjoy reading anything about Richard and that era.

I’m looking forward to reading what More actually wrote. As a chief propagandist against Richard I’m naturally inclined against him – even studying Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons in the Sixth Form didn’t make him any more forgivable and Anton Lesser’s portrayal in Wolf Hall fits better with my view of More. But the great benefit of being a history junkie not a proper historian, is that you can happily indulge your own prejudices to your heart’s content.

I know next to nothing about Horace Walpole, so that section will be educational on several levels.

The useful thing about Berkhamsted, is that if there’s a book you want but can’t find in Oxfam, they’ve thoughtfully built a Waterstones just down the road.

I didn’t want anything else and was just browsing while the Daughter looked for a specific title when two more books leapt into my hands – as they do…

Mary Beard’s SPQR A History of Ancient Rome and Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey My Own Life.

My knowledge of Ancient Rome is best described as patchy, being the result of a few lessons about the Greeks and Romans which I had when I was about eight years old and from watching (avidly) and then reading (almost as avidly) I, Claudius when it was on TV in the 1970s. It feels like having a few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle without the picture to guide you and lots of bits missing. Hopefully Mary Beard will help me put it all together and fill in the gaps.

I hadn’t heard anything about Ruth Scurr’s book before I saw it on the shelf, but I have  been a fan of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, since I read it as a history obsessed teenager.

At the time, I’d only encountered history text books and historic fiction, so to find Brief Lives was a revolution, here were snippets of information about famous and now largely forgotten people in a style unique to Aubrey.

So to find a biography of John Aubrey and one written in such a delicate homage to Aubrey’s style, weaving history and biography together, is a fabulous treat.

Looking at the books when we got home, it suddenly struck how they all linked so much to the teenage me. I suppose some things never change.

Happy reading…