Stones and vestiges

The landscapes of Orkney and Shetland display the layered remnants of about 5,000 years of human habitation. I've only been able to set a few experiential anchors in my understanding of those layers, and most of what I've seen (with a few exceptions, to be mentioned in future posts) has concentrated on the ancient reminders in Orkney. I look forward to broadening my acquaintance, but I've gotten a start.  Even the oldest of the archaeological sites reflect the joint lives of humans and sheep in these landscapes.

Here are glimpses of some of that. As with all these posts, I'm only glancing past what I am doing, seeing, and thinking.

Orkney is, with notable exceptions, low and rolling and eminently farmable. Also extremely beautiful, in an understated way.




The Stones of Stenness is an early structure exemplifying monumental achievement, which is nonetheless human-feeling in scale.

Here's the monumental view: the stones are visible from far off, above the water and just under a third of the way from the righthand edge of the photo.


And here's the close view.


Not far away is the larger Ring of Brodgar. Under half the original stones remain (27 out of 60), yet the essence of the structure endures. It's a place full of spirit.



This stone was split by lightning.


From every angle and from every distance, the circle of stones intrigues.


It's easy to fill up with visions and impressions. Fortunately, it was possible to experience a handful of sites over a handful of days. So I was able to approach Skara Brae fresh.


Along the extended path to the site of this village (or, rather, village built on top of another village) have been set markers for other historical events, like the building of the pyramids (2700–2200 BCE). Skara Brae predates them by 400 to 900 years (3100 BCE). 

Today, the site is a sculptural combination of stone walls and grass mounds, of hard and soft surfaces, of open spaces and enclosures.


It's sited beautifully by a broad bay.



Normal life continues nearby. The more modern building below is part of the site administration and maintenance facility. Grazing land, and a working croft (farm), lies adjacent to the bones of the simple and functional dwellings.


Skara Brae was buried in sand, revealed by a storm, and is at risk of disappearing again.


A few days later it was time to visit Maeshowe, a neolithic structure with ceremonial attributes, most likely used in part as a tomb. It appears from a distance as a gentle mound.


The approach, again, is through active agricultural land.



Photography is not allowed inside, so you'll have to take my word for the fact that it's well worth seeing. That's the entrance just off-center to the left.


Within that mound is a stone structure carefully and cunningly constructed from large slabs, blocks, and stones.


The entry has been oriented so that at the winter solstice, light comes through a long passageway with a particular orientation to the internal space. After about 4800 years (construction estimated at 2700 BCE), the beams strike slightly off their intended locations, due to changes in the earth's rotation—but only slightly.


At some point, the place was abandoned. At a later date (middle of the 12th century CE), Vikings found the structure and scribbled runic and pictorial graffiti on the walls.


The shifting light brought a dark sky and an illuminated mound as we returned to the car park (parking lot), contemplating the fact that both people and sheep lived here when the stones were moved to make these domestic and sacred spaces.


6 thoughts on “Stones and vestiges”

  1. Orkney….and Skara Brae(!) Be still my beating heart(!!!) So very glad you were able to visit these wonderful sites, yes so full of spirit. This journey is sitting at the very top of my bucket list. Would love to chat with you about this next time we meet. Thank you so much for sharing your photos and explanations!

  2. Glad to see you’ve visited all my favourite places on Mainland. I was lucky enough to dig in Orkney when I was an archaeology student. I worked on Earls’ Bu at Orphir (which you may have whizzed past, it’s the place with the tiny round church ruin) and our prof took us to Skara Brae before it was all covered and prettified – I’ve been in those houses and sat at those hearths! I even lay in a bed!

  3. From Northern California, I’m now on board with your travels. Dreamily from afar I’ve seen & heard about these places, the Ring of Brodgar, Stennes, Skara Brae, wide open sheepy spaces, and that oh-so-wonderful northerly landscape. Your postings are hugely appreciated, thank you !

  4. Maeshowe sounds like Newgrange in Ireland, the interior of that is a wonder of piled stones and it faces the same way. And oriented the same way. Newgrange is a little touristed up, and someone did a silly reconstruction of white stones around the entrance, but inside it’s still amazing.

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