Thursday, October 04, 2007

Old stones

On the road from Stromness to Kirkwall is a handsome stone mill signposted with some historical features. The primary attraction is across the road in a field, a rather inauspicious looking grassy mound. This is Maes Howe (or Maeshowe), one of the most impressive chambered tombs in Europe, dated to about 2750BC, several centuries before the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Photography of the internal passage and chambers is not permitted for most visitors, but you can see some here.

Maes Howe is a lot smaller than the passage tomb at Newgrange but it has some unique features. Firstly, there are some really huge stones laid like timbers around the central chamber. Those at Newgrange were more bricklike in their relative sizes. How these stones were transported from the quarry is still debated: Orkney is bereft of trees that could be used to roll them like the Stonehenge blocks, so perhaps they were shipped around the island and then slid over seaweed or winter ice.

Secondly, the tomb has one of the largest collections of runic inscriptions in the world. Having been visited several times by the Vikings who colonised these islands, their graffiti is all over the walls. Different writing styles enable this graffiti to be dated fairly precisely. There are also a handful of animal drawings such as the so-called "Maeshowe dragon" shown above left, which looks to me more like a gigantic midge attacking an animal than anything else.

Turning off onto a side-road, one quickly reaches the Standing Stones of Stenness, 4 remnants of a ring of 12 tall stones. A number of the stones had been toppled in 1814 by a farmer who disliked having to plough around them. The same man also destroyed a solitary stone nearby known as the Odin Stone, which like many of these objects was contemporaneous with Maes Howe and had stood for 5000 years.

Another mile up the road, the Ring of Brodgar (or Brogar) is a henge with 27 out of 60 original stones standing in a circle of diameter just over 100m. In the British Isles, it is only exceeded by the Avebury and Stanton Drew circles.

Some of the stones have succumbed to lightning strikes, shattering or toppling them as seen above.

I first read of Orkney as a child of about 8, when I was given a copy of Kathleen Fidler's The Boy with the Bronze Axe. In its pages I learnt of a neolithic village uncovered by an Orkney beach in 1850 by storm winds that tore the grass off a sandy mound.

That village, Skara Brae, consists of 8 dwellings or work-rooms linked by passageways. Originally some distance from the sea, encroaching sand dunes eventually drove the inhabitants away, leaving these rooms intact with stone furniture and other household items.

With grass now covering the area between the unroofed chambers, the village seems like a cross between Hobbiton and a mini-golf course.

Had a late lunch back in Stromness. Amazingly I have yet to have a bad cup of coffee anywhere on Orkney. I was sitting at an outdoor cafe table, and in conversation with some other dog owners, was prompted to check Bondi's eyes. I saw some pinky clouding in his left eye which looked as if his cornea had been scraped or become infected. I was referred to a vet in Kirkwall and made an appointment for that hour. It's only 20 minutes' drive between the two towns, so that was no hassle. The vet put some stain in his eye, and noting that the pink region did not hold onto it, said that this indicated the cornea was not compromised, and the cloudiness could be attributed to a build up of some sugars, and would likely disperse within a week.

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