ORKNEY Islands, SCOTLAND June 2015
I’ve just celebrated the Solstice and ten days thereafter way up above the Scottish mainland on the gentle green hills of the Orkney islands where the North Sea meets the Atlantic at a white tide line just beyond the Fowl Craig (crag) on Papa Westray, the northern most isle. Here in the wind and rain a young Ranger tramped me across a maritime sedge heath to where a flock of Puffins cavorted about on a black cliff face, their vermillion feet and chubby little bodies silly and wondrous at once. They shared the granitic ledges with breeding Guillemots–big black and white sea birds –all lined up facing the cliff and dropping guano generously down the rocks, while the airspace was patrolled by big orange beaked Oystercatchers and fleet Arctic Terns. The heath was alive with daisies, buttercups, the rare Scottish Primrose and two species of orchids–one pink, the other, a brilliant magenta and both standing about five inches high.
Here in Papa Westray (Papay)–land of the priests as it was a pilgrimage site long ago –is the oldest house in Northern Europe–the Knap of Howar–two structures made of perfectly laid flagstones with central hearths, cupboards and bed steads–and these dated at 3200 BC –before the pyramids at Giza, before Stonehenge.
On Mainland Orkney are many other stunning Neolithic sites.
I hiked for miles up the sodden heathered Wideford hilltop to a cairn hidden way above the verdant farms filled with new lambs and young calves. The cairn, a communal tomb, had a trap door leading to finely slabbed chambers where ancient peoples left their ancestors’ jumbled bones. The Cuween cairn had me crawling on hands and knees through puddles and muddy rocks to discover a fine korbelled roof and several cells.Two major cairns–Maishowe and Unstan– were more accessible and filled with Viking runes.
At 3am on the Summer Solstice I joined about 40 Druids and assorted pagans honoring the gods and goddesses of the Earth at the ancient Ring of Brodgar, 346 feet in diameter with 22 of its once 60 monolithic stones still standing in a perfect circle overlooking two lochs (lakes). The sun never appeared but we imagined its coming on the longest day of the year and celebrated its arrival by sharing cups of Mead and bites of Honey Cake.
Nearby the Ring are so many ancient stone structures that the area has been declared a World Heritage Site. For several days and for many many miles I rode a bike past the endless Kelly green pastures, stone farmsteads and sea inlets to visit stone circles, village remnants, standing stones, and the amazing Bronze Age Gurness Broch (a tower fortress with many rooms built on a promontory overlooking an exquisite white sand and Caribbean blue water beach). The most exciting of all was the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. A storm uncovered some of the many elegant homes here, each with a formal layout of beds and a central altar/dresser. Joined by covered passageways and serviced by a drainage system, these dwellings are so finely crafted in stone that I imagined Frank Lloyd Wright being inspired by the Stone Age peoples’ designs.
What was a big surprise in Orkney was that I arrived in the middle of a magnificent music festival–the St. Magnus Festival –which offered everything from jazz to grand scale choral works, lectures to folk music. Lest I lurked too long in the Neolithic, I was fascinated by Ian Crockatt’s poetry reading of Old Norse and his own English translations of compositions by the Viking Earl Rognvald, hero of the Orkney Saga. The PhD Crockatt looked like a hero himself –6′ 4″ at least, wild white hair and the fit bearing of a warrior come back to tell us how poetry was as important to a Viking Leader as was battlefield valor. I am reading his “Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claws” and his imagery is breathtaking–the title itself shows how, as it refers to what a valiant warrior does–his victims provide carrion for raptor’s repasts.
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Kirkwall Chorus presented a thrilling Mozart Vespers; a Celtic cum rock band The Chair had us all up dancing; and a Finnish band of harmonicas opened my ears to this instrument’s range of rhythm and sound–no simple blues riffs from Svang! At night at the local pub, The Reel, there was always music, the best being a band of young women–Granny Green–playing trumpets, accordion and tuba–no lie. And out on the street the day I arrived was a full dress bagpipe and drum band marching in their kilts up and down Main Street in front of the 12th Century Cathedral that Rognavald commissioned and in which there was a Festival Sunday service that was so full of wonderful hymn singing and inspirational words that I was transported into the joy I felt as a youth in the choir of our local Methodist Church in New Rochelle, NY. Back then I was an Anderson after all, a Scot somewhere in my lineage!
Music and Scottish folk dancing finally put a coda on my visit. With a friend I met bicycling I danced reels and rounds to a live band at the cathedral hall Monday night Ceilidh…complete with cookies and tea. Then early after the all night deep ultramarine sky gave way to another day of looming gray clouds, I flew back to London on a propeller jet three seats wide, thinking I’d like to come back next summer to participate in the new excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, where they’ve already unearthed 18 new buildings–larger than any found before. And of course there’s about eight more islands in the Orkneys left to visit……