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?


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.

Catching up…

Phew, what a few weeks it’s been. I’m happy to report that we’ve come through the  delight of both daughters simultaneously sitting ‘A’Levels and GCSEs, relatively unscathed. The emergency escape to a tent in the garden wasn’t required and now we have the prospect of a few tranquil weeks before the results arrive…

As you can imagine, I managed to do a lot of stitching (always my go-to method of stress reduction) while the exams were happening. Ever since I visited the Indian textiles exhibition at the V & A, I’d wanted to try out some new ideas and textures, and having also recently read Claire Wellesley-Smith’s ‘Slow Stitch’, I decided to free myself from the tyranny of the ‘one hole, one stitch’ edict to try something different.


I have to say this has been a revelation in many ways. It certainly takes a meditative stitch practice to a new place as far as I’m concerned. My only problem now is trying to decide when it’s finished.

In other news… I’m just back from a short trip to the Scottish Highlands and Islands courtesy of my extraordinarily generous flying friend. This time I achieved a huge ambition and visited some of the neolithic sites on Orkney.

Having been a rampant medievalist for most of my life, I’m something of a late-comer to things pre Anglo-Saxon, but I suppose having watched so many Time Teams over the years, it’s gradually crept under the skin. Also, I’ve read so much now about our Celtic past and much of that references theories about the people who preceded them, and so it is that before you know where you are, you’ve reached that wonderful hinterland where history melts into legend and legend into myth.

And I find that I am entirely entranced by this mythic realm.

Detail from the Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

This is where, I’m afraid to say, the history junkie in me ceases all scientific, factual thought and instead wholeheartedly embraces the possibilities of myth. Because, really, faced with something like the Ring of Brodgar, how much can you actually say for certain. But stop thinking and instead stand there and simply feel and I defy anyone not to be affected emotionally. To know that humans, so much like us, went to the effort to create these structures, but to understand so little about why they did so, is both baffling and mesmerising. The gulf between our time and their’s opens and all we have is our minds and tantalising traces of archaeology to bridge that gap.

I did rather max out on the photos on Orkney, so once I’ve sorted through, I’ll write a separate post about it.

So, relaxed and refreshed, it’s back to the needle now. I have some fairly nebulous ideas running around my head, which I need to get down to planning out. The textures of our wild places are, I’m pretty sure, bound to wheedle their way in.

What are you working on at the moment? Does history, myth or landscape influence how you work? Do tell.