Sunday morning was bright and sunny; after we left Lana & Billy’s Orcadian Crafts shop in Kirkwall, we drove around the Mainland to continue our tour. The objective for the day was to avoid the tour buses which were out in great number since there was a cruise ship in the harbor. We drove west on the A965 past Maeshowe and the Barnstone (that I have written about here.) We turned right onto the B9055 and up to the Standing Stones of Stenness on the south-eastern shore of the Loch of Stenness (Old Norse Stein – nes, “stone point” and locally pronounced Stane-ness). Like the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness are encircled by a henge; this one is 13 feet across and 7.5 feet deep with a diameter of 144 feet. It was rock cut circa 3100 BCE and is one of the oldest stone circles in Britain. Although there are only four of the original twelve stones left standing now, their height of nearly 19 feet makes them an imposing mark on the landscape. Just down the road, but a bit separate, is the Watchstone.
A solitary monolith to the north-west of the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Watchstone stands where the saltwater Loch of Stenness is joined to the freshwater Loch of Harray (Old Norse, Heraðvatn) by a small stream. The narrow road that goes across the Brig O’ Brodgar to the Ring of Brodgar goes right beside the Watchstone. The stump of a companion stone that stood about 40 feet south-west of the Watchstone was unearthed in 1930. It is thought that perhaps the pair of stones marked the entrance to the Ness of Brodgar. Observing the Winter Solstice from the Watchstone, the last rays of the setting sun shine from the notch formed by the hills on the island of Hoy (Old Norse, Háey, “high island”) making the same “flashing” phenomenon that occurs at Maeshowe on the Solstice, but a few days later.
We had pulled to the parking area just as a tour bus was leaving, and were fortunate to have the area to ourselves except for a couple who had bicycled to the site. Each of us was considerate of the others and we kept still and unobtrusive when photos were being taken. I saw another tour bus approaching and signaled to Marsha that it was a good time to move on. We passed by the Ring of Brodgar, saw that it was filled with people milling about from the three buses parked in the car park, and decided to go over to Skara Brae and come back later.
Staying on the B9055, we drove for ten minutes, going past the Loch of Skaill and then to the Bay of Skaill (Old Norse skáli, “a hall”, probably referring to former sites of the post-Viking era). At the southern edge of the Bay are the remains of a Neolithic village that began its existence farther away from the water than it is now. Centuries of erosion and sandblow have brought the Bay closer to the ruins, and are putting them in danger. The ruins were exposed by a storm in 1850 after forty centuries under the sands and serious excavations began then, even though there were written references to the “catacombs” at the “Downs of Skaill” in 1769 when a skeleton was found within them holding a sword and a Danish axe.
Originally called S(t)kerrabrae, and then Skerrabra until the 1950’s, the village of Skara Brae has eight remaining houses which are connected by low stone slab-covered passages much like the one leading in to Maeshowe. Built entirely of stone, Skara Brae was inhabited for 600 years between 3200 BCE-2200 BCE. The homes were large square shaped rooms each heated and lit by a central fireplace. Beds were made from stone slabs and most likely covered in furs for warmth. Shelves of stone slabs make dressers that stand on the wall opposite the doorway, perhaps to welcome guests with displayed finery and goods.
We drove back east on the B9055 until just past the Loch of Skaill and then turned south onto the B9056 until we joined the A967 at the north-west shore of the Loch of Stenness. Heading further south, we drove in to Stromness to find some lunch.
Julia’s Café and Bistro is located across the street from the Northlink Ferry Terminal (where I had traveled to/from Orkney twice before) and its easy-access car park. Julia’s serves fresh, local and extremely delicious food and coffee drinks. Marsha had the Orkney salmon cakes with rocket salad, and I had the nut roast with cranberry wine sauce and a rocket salad. It was one of those meals that one doesn’t want to end because they taste so good. Fortunately, we segued into a small sampling of the baked goods accompanied by a latte for me and hot chocolate for Marsha.
Thusly satiated, we headed off to the Ring of Brodgar which I have previously written about here. We drove out of Stromness on Back Road, around the southern shore of the Loch of Stenness on the A965 until we made the (now) left-hand turn on to the B9055. We drove past the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Watchstone, across the Brig O’ Brodgar and the Ness of Brodgar (with its archeological dig well covered for the season) to the car park. A short walk up the path and we found ourselves alone for the most part at the Ring. As Marsha slowly walked counter-clockwise around the circle, I chose this time to just stand in one place and spend my time taking in the view that surrounds the hill on which the Ring of Brodgar stands.
Across the Loch of Harray and a bit to the south sits Maeshowe; the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Watchstone are just to the southeast across the Ness of Brodgar. The Ring of Brodgar is surrounded by a number of prehistoric earthenworks, cairns, burial places, and mounds, of which Salt Knowe is one (Scottish: knowe, “knoll”). Standing to the south-west of the Ring, Salt Knowe mimics the shape of Maeshowe. It dates from 2500 BCE-1500 BCE and measures nearly 20 feet high. It stands adjacent to the salt water Loch of Stennes which is probably how it got its name. Unlike Maeshowe, the Salt Knowe was not made to cover a structure. It is a mound of earth for which the significance has yet to be determined, although this is some evidence that it may have been a place where ritual was performed at the top, or it was a mound that held no actual bodies and was instead dedicated to the ancient ones.
We were due to check in for the Pentand Ferry just after 4:00 PM and so we made our way back across the Mainland through Kirkwall and south on the A961 across the islands and the Churchill Barriers to St Margaret’s Hope for the ferry to Gills Bay. We had our last night at Bencorragh House and then special plans to greet the sunrise in the morning.