The Western Isles, Day Two

1 Tarbert (2)

As we were checking out of the Harris Hotel in Tarbert I told the woman at the desk that we had an appointment with the weaver Donald John MacKay, and asked if she knew where his studio was and if she could give me directions. With a big smile, and in that lilting Scottish accent I love so much, she said, “Oh, aye! Take the right turn up the hill and not down into town and just stay on that road until you come to a cattle crossing with a bus stop and a phone booth; then, turn right and he’s just down that road.”

3.5 Marsha and Tweeds with DJMacKay (1.1)

We were early for the appointment time that I had set up with Donald John’s wife, Maureen. We saw no signs to indicate exactly where the MacKays lived, so we just drove to the end of the road. There we found one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. I found out months later that Luskentyre Beach has been voted the most beautiful beach in the UK, and understandably so. We walked on the soft powdery sands that must have gone on for miles and listened to the soft surf of the Sound of Taransay as we watched clouds move over the hills of North Harris and the island of Taransay while rainbows formed over the crystal green waters. Later, I read that there have been stories of huge paw prints seen on the beach, presumably left by a fairy hound. It makes the Fairy Pool we found nestled in the little hills by the beach even more intriguing.

Coming back up the road, we were at a loss as to how to find the right place until I noticed a man out trimming the hedges in front of his house. I swung the car up into his driveway. His amazement turned to curiosity as he heard the accent in my “Good Morning!” He answered my question by smiling and nodding to the next house up the road, saying that I was very close. The next question was his. “Am I to suspect from your accent that you are not in your own neighbourhood?” What followed was another of those wonderful and all-too-short conversations I have been fortunate to have with Scots in all parts of the country. They all make me want to sit and talk with them for as long as they’ll have me.

Luskentyre comes from the Old Norse Lios-cinn-tir “headland fort” (Losgaintir in Gàidhlig) although it doesn’t seem that anyone has ever found remnants of a fort near there. What the little settlement is famous for now is the Luskentyre Harris Tweed Company and one Donald John MacKay, MBE. By law all Harris tweeds are woven in the homes of the island’s weavers on treadle looms; no other tweed can use the name “Harris tweed”. (Read more about plaids and tweeds here)

When Marsha decided to take this trip to Scotland, and to have me be her guide, the first item on her “to do” list was to get a Harris Tweed coat. I expected that could be easily done. We’d go to Harris and get one. What I wasn’t expecting was that I would start an email conversation with Maureen MacKay that would lead us to be able to visit Donald John in his studio. During the research for the trip, I came across a few references to Donald John MacKay and how he was responsible for the resurgence of Harris Tweed as a modern fashion trend. His tweed designs have been used in both Nike and Clarks shoes and the demand became so great that he enlisted the work of every weaver on Harris to help him complete the orders. Due to his artistry Tweed is no longer the fabric of days gone by; it has become a modern trend that sets the style in all areas of the fashion industry. MacKay creates many custom tweeds; he showed us one that he had created for a wedding gown that was strikingly beautiful.

Despite all the fame he has had from his weaving, Donald John is both unassuming and welcoming. He was very gracious to us during our visit. Maureen had said that they would be leaving on vacation the day after we made our visit, so there was no weaving on the loom but he sat and talked with us for a while. MacKay is part of a generational line of Harris weavers. His father and grandmother both wove cloth. He started out his life in a Black House (Gàidhlig: t(a)igh-dubh), a traditional house of the Hebrides and Highlands built with earthen-packed dry-stone walls and a roof of thatch or turf over wooden rafters with a central hearth surrounded by a flagstone floor. He was one of many children and when the opportunity came, he was sent to live with his aunt in her White House of mortared stone walls (taigh-geal). It is that same house that is his home today, and just across the drive is his weaving shed.

He talked of being quite young and watching his father as he wove. As he got a little older, he was allowed to help and as he grew he took on more and more of the weaving. He’s been weaving in his own shed for nearly 45 years. He clearly loves to weave. He said that he couldn’t think of anything else he’d rather be doing or any other place to be doing it. “The land the sea and the thread all woven together”, he said.

We left the weaving shed and made our way back up Luskentyre Road to the A859, heading south along the coast of South Harris. The hilly landscape of Harris is markedly different from the rolling moors of Lewis. In fact, it is the landscape that separates the two. The name Harris is a Gaelicization of the Old Norse Hærri, meaning “higher”. Just about five miles down the road from Luskentyre is the community of Seilebost. We stopped in at Hebrides Art, an art gallery and café that sits on the coast side of the road. We enjoyed our snacks: lemon drizzle cake and decaf latté for me and a gluten-free and dairy-free orange and almond slice and hot chocolate for Marsha, and then enjoyed the works of various local artisans. I was told by the owner that “Seilebost” is from the Old Norse for “Sheila’s beach”.

After another ten miles of winding down the coast and admiring the jaw-dropping beauty of the landscape, we came to the village of Leverburgh (Gàidhlig: An t-Òb). I had found the Anchorage Restaurant at The Pier online and planned for us to have a bit of lunch there before we continued on around the Isle and back north to Tarbert via the Golden Road (nick-named for the amount of money it cost to build it). We sat at a table by the window, looking out over the water to the (uninhabited) island of Ensay (Easaigh). It was obvious that the restaurant was popular with the locals, and soon we found out why. First came the Ricotta Fritters which, had we not split the order, would have been a full lunch on their own. For a main course I had the Mushroom Risotto with Nutty Mountain Cheese and Wild Thyme and Marsha had the Chicken Burger with Goat Cheese. It was a leisurely lunch. The food deserved to be savored.

We needed to get back to Tarbert to check in for the ferry to Skye by 3:15 PM, and we had some very important shopping to do first, so we decided not to gamble on the longer way back and return the way we came. It was not a disappointment. We got to see everything again but the view was dramatically different going the opposite direction. We arrived back in Tarbert and went directly to the Harris Tweed store. At first, it looked like Marsha would be disappointed in her search for a coat. She’s a tall woman, and finding something with sleeves long enough can be difficult. As she perused the front racks, I pushed my way (literally) in to the rows of jackets and coats hanging tightly together in the back part of the store. I wasn’t even looking for color or style, just the correct size. “Found one!” I called out as I scrambled out from behind three rows of coats. The result of the search was a perfect fit in a wonderfully rich color and great style.

There was just enough time to have just a bit of tea at the First Fruits Tea Room right near the dock before it was time to get the car parked and get settled on the Caledonian MacBrayne, as we headed to the Isle of Mists.

I love fiber and textiles, so when I knew we were going to Scotland, I dreamed of buying a Harris Tweed coat or jacket. The coat Kate found in her foray into the racks is that dream made real. It is beyond perfect with the fit and style of a custom hand tailored garment. After the unforgettable meeting and talk with Donald John MacKay when I learned more about the personal history of the weaving of Harris Tweed, buying a coat took on a whole new meaning for me. My coat is not only stunning, but it is a piece of art imbued with the history, tradition and landscape of the Western Isles.

~~ Marsha, Fiber Artist

 

Posted in Ancestry, Donald John MacKay, Eco-travel, Gàidhlig, Harris and Lewis, Harris Tweed, Scotland, Scots Gaelic, Scottish ancestry, Self drive Scotland tours, Travel, Uncategorized, Western Isles, Women Writers | Leave a comment

The Western Isles, Day One

When they were under Norse rule, the Western Isles were called Innse Gall (“islands of the foreigners”) by the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders of mainland Scotland. First settled 5000 years ago, the Isles have been home to those who farmed and built monuments to their spiritual way of life. The Scots first arrived on the islands sometime during the first century CE, followed in the mid-first millennium by the Picts and Christian missionaries. After years of raids by Norsemen, Edgar of Scotland signed the islands over to the Norse ruler Magnus III of Norway in 1098. Magnus III had already conquered the northern islands of Orkney and Shetland as well as the Isle of Man, and with the addition of the Hebrides, the lands became the Kingdom of the Isles and were ruled by princes of the Norwegian realm. They were divided into the South Isles (Old Norse, Suðr-eyjar) of the Hebrides and the Isle of Man, and the North Isles (Norðr-eyjar) of Orkney and Shetland. More than one hundred years later the Western Isles of the Outer Hebrides remained under Norwegian rule and the Inner Hebrides fell under the rule of Somerled, (Gàidhlig, Somhairlidh; Old Norse, Sumarliði) a Norse-Gaelic warlord who claimed the islands in the mid-twelfth century. The islands of the Outer and Inner Hebrides along with the Isle of Man were ceded back to the Kingdom of Scotland in 1266 under the tenets of the Treaty of Perth which ended the wars for control over the islands. The Outer Hebrides, or the Western Isles (Na h-Eileanan Siar), are 200 islands that stretch for 130 miles along the northwestern coast of Scotland. I have been able to visit two of them.

2 Ferry Ullapool to Stornoway (11)

Ullapool

The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry left port from Ullapool, Ross-shire, Highlands (Ullapul “wool farm”) on Loch Broom (Loch Bhraoin, “loch of rain showers”) and headed out to sea past the Rhue Lighthouse (from the Gàidhlig “Rubha” meaning a promontory) and on towards the Isle of Lewis. Due to our unfortunate circumstances with the tire the day before, we did not get to spend any time walking around Ullapool; that was a great disappointment because it looks like a very charming little town. A couple of people had commented to us that we would be riding the “new” ferry. Christened in 2014, it was built to be more eco-sustainable than the older ferries in the fleet and to give a very quiet and smooth ride. It was indeed beautiful. We ensconced ourselves in the observation lounge on deck 6 and settled in for the two- and-a-half hour ride to Stornoway. We enjoyed a light snack, I napped for a bit while Marsha read, and then we had lunch before we docked. We passed a dozen or so islands, many of which had rainbows over them.

2 Ferry Ullapool to Stornoway (19)

Rhue Lighthouse

 

Stornoway (Gàidhlig, Steòrnabhagh, “steering bay”, from the Old Norse, Stjórnavágr) is located in the center of the eastern coast of the Isle of Lewis (Eilean Leòdhais), most often just called Lewis (Leòdhas). As we arrived in the harbor, Lewis Castle (Caisteal Leòdhais) made a picturesque backdrop for the town. It was built in the mid-18th century by Sir James Matheson to serve as a country house. He actually owned the entire island at the time. Interesting what a fortune made in the Chinese opium trade can buy.

We found our way to the car park by the wharf in Stornoway and set about discovering the town on foot. I had created the entire itinerary of our trip to make certain that we were on the Western Isles during the week, since Sundays are still held as Sabbath in the Western Isles and all the stores and restaurants are closed. Marsha was in search of a Harris Tweed jacket and while she wasn’t successful in the moment, we did have some conversations with some very nice people in different shops. I found the Hebridean Tea Store and bought some organic Madainn Mhath (“Good Morning” in Gàidhlig) hand blended Scottish breakfast tea for Kyle. It was 1:00 PM when the ferry docked so we knew that we needed to get on the road to make the three-hour drove up to the northern point of the island and then back down south to Harris to the town of Tarbert before dark.

The name Lewis in Scots Gaelic is Leòdhas, from leogach (“marshy”) and most likely refers to the peat fields that cover the island. As we drove there were waves of rain that heightened the fragrance of the peat, the sea air and the wet heather into a completely ethereal fragrance. Added to this were the magnificent clouds rolling across the sky accented with rainbows and playing their dark grey to white colors against the deep green earth. It was one of the best sensory memories I’ll ever have.

We drove the A857 west across the island and then turned north along the coast at the community of Barabhas (Barvas). The Western Isles have the strongest Gaelic influence in their culture than any other region of Scotland; more than 70% of the population is fluent in Scots-Gaelic,Gàidhlig, and 60% use it as a daily language. All road markings on the maps are in Gàidhlig first and in English parenthetically. As in the rest of Scotland, the road signs are bi-lingual in Scots-Gaelic and English. In 2005, the Gaelic Language Act was enacted by the Scottish Parliament to support the use of Gaelic which had fallen greatly since the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872 forbade the use of Gaelic in the classroom forcing the language to become almost extinct, the same as many First Peoples’ languages in the Americas. The other language of Lewis is a combination of Scots Gaelic and Old Norse with a blend of English that is called “Highland English”. With 64% of the population of Barabhas Scots-Gaelic speaking, the community has the highest concentration of Gàidhlig speakers in Scotland.

Just a couple miles north of Barabhas is Borgh (Borve) and the exquisite Borgh Pottery Studio where we spent some time admiring both the pottery and the gardens. Marsha bought a pair of tea cups that thankfully survived the trip home.

We continued on to the Rubha Robhanais, (Butt of Lewis) “the point of the whole headland” which is in fact the most northerly point on the island. Just south of the Butt is the community of Port Nis (Port of Ness) a harbor which was built in the early 19th century. In 1882 there was a report by a German ship sailing a few miles off the coast there of a sea monster that was about 44 yards long with several large bumps along its back which rose above the water. We did not see Nessie’s cousin, but the clarity of the water and the white, almost-like-powdered-sugar-sand reflected in the gathering darkness of the clouds made for a remarkable sight.

We drove south again on the A857 and joined the A858 at Barabhas and continued along the western coastline to the Clachan Chalanais (Callanish Stones). Standing on a hill above Loch Ròg (Loch Roag), the site is formed of a stone circle, a chambered tomb, and five rows of stones; two of the rows are in parallel, making an avenue out from the center. The main circle of the standing stones was built between 2900-2600 BCE. The central and largest of the standing stones is oriented north-south. There are thirteen stones in the circle around the center that is just over 37 feet in diameter. The chambered tomb is 21 feet long and was built in between the standing stones at a much later date than the stones themselves.

Excavations in the 1980s gave insight as to the placement of the stones. In the Historic Scotland guidebook (2002) it states: “The most attractive explanation … is that every 18.6 years, the moon skims especially low over the southern hills. It seems to dance along them, like a great god visiting the earth. Knowledge and prediction of this heavenly event gave earthly authority to those who watched the skies.”

There are two traditions associated with the standing stones from more modern times. Some say that they stones are petrified giants who refused to convert to Christianity; in the 17th century, they were called fir bhrèige, “false men”. There are also the stories of the “Shining One” who walks the length of the avenue at dawn on Midsummer morning.

We drove eastward across the island again and picked up the A859 to head south to the Isle of Harris. Driving along, we were made well aware of the poetry behind the name for the Lewis and Harris as “The Heather Isle”, Eilean an Fhraoich. Leòdhas agus na Hearadh (Lewis and Harris) share what is called “the Long Island”, an t-Eilean Fada, with Lewis in the North and Harris in the South. The landscape of Lewis is more flat, and it’s when the hills start to appear that it becomes the Isle of Harris. The boundary line stretches between two Lochs, Reasort (Resort) in the west and Shiphoirt (Seaforth) in the east. It may seem that the obvious boundary would be where the greater narrows are at the town of An Tairbeart (Tarbert, “the isthmus, or crossing point”) but there is much of North Harris to be seen and enjoyed before then.

We arrived at the Harris Hotel just as the sun was setting (on what was a glorious day!) and were overjoyed to find that our wayward luggage was there waiting for us. After a bit of revelry at being reunited with our clothes after five days and a hot shower, we went down to the hotel restaurant and had a wonderful dinner. The hostess said she wasn’t a whisky-drinker, but showed me her grandfather’s favorite; the Clynelish was a wonderful way to end the day.

 

 

Posted in Callenish Stones, Eco-travel, Gàidhlig, Harris and Lewis, Scotland, Scots Gaelic, Scottish ancestry, Scottish Dialect, Self drive Scotland tours, Travel, Uncategorized, Western Isles, Whisky, Whisky tasting, Women Writers | Leave a comment

To Ullapool, Almost

Our little sunrise excursion to the cliffs of Duncansby left us a bit chilled; we returned to Bencorragh House for a warm shower and a good breakfast and then headed south along the coast of Caithness. The A99 runs from John O’Groats thirty miles or so south to Latheron where it joins the A9. The twenty minutes or so that it took us to get to The Hill O’ Many Stanes (that I have written about here) and have a good wander around the hillside was just enough time to be ready for a good cuppa, and I knew just where we could find one. The Laidhay Croft Museum is just another ten miles south and across the car park is their wonderful Tea Room with the best scones with cream that I have ever had.

Thusly satiated we continued south on the A9 through the Berriedale Braes, a steep drop in the road near the boundary line between Caithness and Sutherland. Berriedale (Gàidhlig: Bearghdal) is most likely named for the Old Norse berg, “rock” and dalr which means “valley”. Brae is a Scottish word for “hillside” which comes from the Gàidhlig word bràighe. Add it all up and it’s a very rocky hillside along which the road winds down in hairpin curves, across a bridge, and then hairpin turns itself back up the other side. I have driven this particular stretch of road a few times now and it’s always a bit of a challenge. When we had driven north a few days before, it had been nearly dark when we drove through the Braes; I was happy to have the morning light on the return trip.

It took nearly three quarters of an hour to make our way through the next forty miles or so. We reached the village of Dornoch (“the pebbly place”: Dòrnach in Gàidhlig; Dornach in Scots), located off the A9 via the A949, on the northern edge of the Dornoch Firth. It was granted Fair Trade Town status in 2005, and that only serves to make it an even better town in my book. We shopped for a little while, wandering along Castle Street until it was time for lunch at the Dornoch Castle Hotel. I’ve been to the tavern there for lunch on three separate trips and it has become a “must” for me. The food is always amazing. This time it was Squash & Coriander Soup, a Dornoch Cheese and Chutney Sandwich and a small Rocket Salad. The bartenders are always helpful and forthcoming with suggestions for a whisky to try. I got a wee dram of the Glengoyne for Marsha so she could try it, and got the Ardmore 12 Year for me, and loved it. I wish that there had been a fire in the 11-foot fireplace although the room is still full of ambiance even when it isn’t lit.

Located across the street from Dornoch Cathedral, the original building on the site was built for the Caithness bishops sometime in the 13th century. The present building may have been built by 1500; in 1557 it was gifted to the 11th Earl of Sutherland by his brother-in-law, Bishop Robert Stewart. After a few incarnations of use, some private and some public and one forced by fire, the building became a hotel in the late 1940’s. The tavern is located in the original kitchens area from 1500 with the original stone walls and Caithness stone slab floors.

It would have been faster to leave Dornoch and travel along the Dornoch Firth on the A949 to Bonar Bridge and then take the A836 north and west to Rosehall and then further west towards Ullapool, but speed was not our main goal for the day. We backtracked north on the A9 as far as The Mound at the head of Loch Fleet. Running alongside of the causeway of the A9 where it crosses the River Fleet is an older bridge that was built in the early 1800’s. The older bridge was built with a sluice to hold back the sea as it flows into Loch Fleet. If one passes at the right time and stops in the car park near the old bridge, it’s possible to watch salmon as they swim in from the sea and upstream to spawn. The Mound was also the location of the old Dornoch Light Railway which operated from 1902-1960.

4 Down the A99 & A9 (7)

From The Mound we took the A839 through Sutherland. Sutherland is named from the Old Norse: Suðrland, “southern land”; the Gàidhlig name for it is Cataibh. We drove northwest to the southern edge of Loch Shin (Loch Sìn) and the town of Lairg (An Luirg,”the shin”). Lairg is the largest village in the Highlands that is not located on the coast. Its location is pretty much in the center of the northern part of Scotland, specifically Sutherland, where four roads met giving it the nickname “The Crossroads of the North”. We connected with the A837 west of Lairg in Rosehall and continued west to Ullapool.

We had allowed ourselves plenty of time to stop and enjoy the scenery. This was my first time in that particular part of Scotland and I was not disappointed. The day was lovely, the hills were deep green, the clouds were objects of art in the sky, and the road was for the most part empty of any other cars than ours. The drive provided us with photo opportunities, one after another. It was all too perfect of a day, and we were looking forward to enjoying a leisurely meal in Ullapool before going out to Loch Broom for the night.

5 Between Lairgs & Ullapool (27)

Unfortunately, it was getting late in the day when we reached the Knocken Crag, (Creag a’ Chnocain, ‘crag of the small hill’). Thirteen miles away from Ullapool, on the southern border of Sutherland with Ross-shire, the Knocken Crag is a geological marvel. The first thrust fault to be discovered in the world, tectonic plate shift had moved older rocks over the top of younger ones by some 44 miles. This made for quite a bit of confusion amongst geologists in the 19th century until two of them, Ben Peach and John Horne, figured the whole thing out in 1907. I had wanted to do a bit a hiking around the trails, but with the light fading in the glen, I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough of it to find my way back to the car safely.

Plans were made to be broken, I guess, even if they weren’t necessarily broken on our account. The account of the Great Flat Tire Adventure is here.

 

Posted in Ancestry, Dornach Castle Hotel, Eco-travel, Hill O'Many Stanes, Scotland, Scottish ancestry, Scottish Dialect, Sutherland, Travel, Uncategorized, Whisky, Whisky tasting, Women Writers | Leave a comment

Sunrise

Lighthouse on Stroma  Island in the pre-dawn light from Duncansby Head

Lighthouse on Stroma Island in the pre-dawn light from Duncansby Head

Sunrise was a 6:47 AM. At 6:00, we quickly dressed and quietly left the Bencorragh House, heading in to the pre-dawn mists and driving the narrow country roads out past John O’Groats to the single track road that crosses the Burn of Sannick (Old Norse, Sandvík) and leads to the lighthouse at Duncansby Head. When we arrived, it was still semi-dark; the large herd of sheep on the open field around the lighthouse looked at us as though we were nuts to be out there so early. We parked in the car park, looked across the Pentland Firth to Swilkie Point on the north side of Stroma Island (Old Norse: Straumr-øy, “island in the tidal stream”) and could just barely see the Stroma Lighthouse. We walked toward the Duncansby Head Lighthouse and found the path that leads out to the cliffs. The muckiest place of the path had been made in to a board-walk so we didn’t have to sink in to the soft earth up to our ankles. Still, it was in walking across the heath that I learned there was a leak in my boots, and by the time I reached the cliff’s edge, my feet were soaked. Not bothered by the discomfort, I continued on with my goal of standing at the most north-eastern point of the Scottish mainland and greeting the rising sun.

The view from Duncansby Head cannot be captured in a photograph, though many more people than I have tried. All of the photographs I have seen of the area had been taken in the bright sunlight. The soft, vermillion-hued light of the sunrise coming through the lifting mists, the muffled sound of the waves crashing to the rocky beach 210 feet below the cliffs, and the fresh salty air blowing over the field of musty wet grasses combined with the fragrance of wet sheep’s wool made for an earthy yet ethereal experience of natural beauty at its most rugged and breathtakingly beautiful.

Looking over the Geo of Sclaites to the Stacks with the coastline ofAberdeenshire in the far distance

Looking over the Geo of Sclaites to the Stacks at sunrise

Duncansby Head is located in the Caithness area of Scotland, which was named after the original Picts who were of the Cat or Catt tribe, the Catti. Ness comes from the Old Norse and means “headland”. The area was called Katanes (“headland of the Catt people”) by the Norse who settled part of the area starting in the 10th century and it slowly developed into Caithness. The Gàidhlig name for the area is Gallaibh (“among the strangers” or “land of the non-Gaels”, referring to the Norse).

In modern times, the Gàidhlig for Duncansby Head is Dùn Gasbaith (although sometimes Rubha Duncansby is used). The name for Duncansby Head comes from the Old Norse, Dungalsbær as it is written the in Orkneyinga Saga (“The History of the Earls of Orkney”). Dungals-bœr, “the farm of Dungall” is the Old Norse version of the Gàidhlig name Dùghall which in turn comes from Dubgall, dubh gall, (“black foreigner or Dane”). It seems that at some point, Dungall had a farm with an incredible view.

The Duncansby Head Lighthouse stands on the cliffs, just to the south of the Glupe, where huge areas of collapsed coastline called a “geo” have formed an arch of land between them. The lighthouse was built by David Allen Stevenson (cousin to Robert Louis Stevenson) in 1924 and is built as a square instead of the usual round structures. It looks over the Pentland Skerries, churning waters caused by the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, each moving in a different direction. The opening to the Pentland Firth has had the nickname “Hell’s mouth” since the days of the sailing ships.

Duncansby Head Lighthouse

Duncansby Head Lighthouse

Walking across the heath from the lighthouse, another bit of collapsed coastline called the Geo of Sclaites is to the south. Named from the Old Norse, Langa-gjá-sléttna (“long geo of flats”), the Geo of Sclaites is a collapsed portion of a cave with the cave still continuing beneath the cliffs. A little bit further south along the eastern coastline is a sea stack called The Knee (Old Norse, Kné “knee”). During the summer, puffins can be seen roosting on The Knee.

(roll cursor over photos to see captions)

We got our first look at the Stacks of Duncansby (Old Norse: Dungals-bœjar-stakkar) just as the sun rose. Also called The Stacks (Old Norse: Stakkarnir), they are probably the most impressive of any sea stacks in the Biritsh Isles. Certainly, rising out of the dissipating mists into the glowing sunrise, they were one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen. The largest of them stands higher than the cliff edge and over 650 feet from the shoreline.

Stacks of Duncansby with Thirle Door just visible at the center of the photo just at sunrise

Stacks of Duncansby with the Thirle Door just visible at the center of the photo

Smaller and closer to the cliffs are other sea stacks that form the Thirle Door (tirl, the upright axle of a waterwheel), so named for the churning of the surf as it is washed through the opening formed by two of the sea stacks and a geo.

1 John O'Groats (4)

John O’Groats

1 John O'Groats (6)

Canisbay Church, Canisbay near John O’Groats

On the way back to Bencorragh House, we drove past John O’Groats and saw it in daylight for the first time. Named for a Dutchman who ran a ferry from Gills Bay to Orkney in the late 1400’s by direction of King James IV, John O’Groats is Taigh Iain Ghròt in Gàidhlig (taigh, “house” and Iain Ghròt, “Jan de Groote”). John O’Groat’s house is believed to have stood where the John O’Groats House Hotel now stands. The history of the house is interesting because O’Groats had seven sons, and the story goes that they were in competition for control. O’Groats sent them all away, telling them to return in a year and he would have the answer then. They returned to find that he had built a house with eight doors and eight sides to the dining table so that each had his own entrance, and no one sat at the head of the table.

2 Duncansby Head (27)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Ancestry, Duncansby Head, Duncansby Stacks, Eco-travel, John O'Groats, Orkneyinga Saga, Scotland, Scottish ancestry, Self drive Scotland tours, Travel, Uncategorized, Women Writers | Leave a comment

Circles, Rings & Stones

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.

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The Watchstone stands at the Brig O’ Brodgar with the Standing Stones of Stenness in the background

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.

 

 

Posted in Maeshowe, Orkney, Ring of Brodgar, Scotland, Scottish ancestry, Self drive Scotland tours, Skara Brae, Stromness, Travel, Uncategorized, Winter Solstice, Women Writers | Leave a comment

Knitting Yarns & Weaving Tales

And so the long awaited evening at Lana’s arrived. After a little bit of confusion in finding her house, we were welcomed warmly by her husband, Billy. I immediately recognized him from my visit to their shop in Kirkwall nearly ten years ago. What followed were four-and-a half hours of some of the most pleasant, interesting and informative conversation I have had in a long time. Little bits about each of our lives were the warp into which talk of Orkney, its culture, history, and folk tales were woven.

Lana and Billy Fotheringhame own a shop on Bridge Street in Kirkwall called Orcadian Crafts. It is an homage to the hand-crafted goods that have been made in Orkney for generations. As previously mentioned, Lana is a master knitter, knitting intricate patterns from memory and with such ease that she was able to switch between patterns and techniques as she demonstrated them to Marsha. Under the name Glengarth Knitwear, the hats of hers that I have are variations on the Fairisle pattern Northern Star (yes, that’s plural; the next day we went to Orcadian Crafts and I walked out with another hat and a sweater).

Billy also knits, using wool from the Northern Shorttailed primitive breeds of sheep that live on the beaches of North Ronaldsay and eat only seaweed. He is also an award-winning weaver using the local specially-threshed and cleaned oat straw to weave baskets and other items. Called “straw coil work” from the technique of adding bits of oat straw as the weaving progresses to make one long coil, knowing just when and how much straw to add and when to tie it off with twine made from seagrass is an art. Billy’s work includes picnic baskets, cubbies, shopping baskets, and the famous style of Orkney chair. Known locally as stuls (stools), Orkney chairs were designed with a hooded back, a heided-stul, which gave protection from drafts and kept the warm air from the fire close to the person sitting in it. Sometimes the chairs have drawers in them underneath the seat; a nice place to keep one’s knitting, a book, or perhaps a flask of whisky.

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One of the other guests was Neil Leask who is the Custodian at Corrigall Farm Museum and Kirbuster Museum. Kirbuster Museum is the last un-restored firehoose in Northern Europe. Occupied until the 1960’s, Kirbuster house (near Birsay) dates from the 16th century, and is an excellent example of a central hearth croft house. There have been expansions and improvements over the years but the original dwelling housed the animals as well as the people, all warmed by the peat fire in the center of the building. Corrigall Farm Museum (near Harray) is an example of a 19th century but and ben house, from the Scots to describe a two room dwelling where the outer room was the kitchen, the but, and the inner room for sleeping was the ben.

Neil is an extraordinary teller of folktales. I first heard him tell a couple of tales on the CD that Lana had recommended to me, Orkney: Land, Sea & Community. Part of the Scottish Tradition series from the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, there are thirty-four cuts on the CD. Lana and Neil both contributed to this marvelous compilation of music, song, history, culture and folklore. He has that kind of storytelling voice that makes one want to listen, and I was happy that he had come prepared to tell a few more stories.

Another guest, Christopher, is a native of Orkney who works as an archeologist (MA, Orkney College, UHI) and tour guide at the Ness of Brodgar site. He is a wealth of information about the history of Orkney and we enjoyed being able to hear him talk about some of it with us. The Ness of Brodgar excavations began in 2003 and cover nearly 6.5 acres. By all accounts, the site could end up being more important than Stonehenge. It dates from 3000 BCE and is believed to be the largest structure of its kind in northern Britain, and possibly the center of ceremonial life of the Mainland. Unfortunately for Marsha and me, the dig had been closed for the year in August.

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St Magnus Cathedral

One story that was very intriguing to both Marsha and me was the telling of the story and the history behind the Kirkwall Ba’. For over 300 years the men of the Mainland have gathered in front of St. Magnus Cathedral on Broad Street in Kirkwall on New Year’s Day (now on Christmas and New Years) and then spent the rest of the day and into the night vying for control of a three pound leather-covered, cork-filled ball. The teams are divided in to two factions: the “Doonies” originally hailed from north of the Cathedral and the “Uppies” from south of it, although now it’s more a familial bond and less a geographic one. There is some reference in this designation to a rivalry between the King’s Earl who lived in the north (“The Burgh”) and the Bishop who lived in the south (“The Laverock”). The goal of the game for the “Uppies” is to get the ba’ to the wall in the south end of town, and for the “Doonies” to get it in to the water of Kirkwall Bay in the north. The game begins at 1:00 PM with the Cathedral chiming the hour. The ba’ is thrown into the crowd from the Mercat Cross at the edge of Broad Street in front of the Cathedral. After that, there do not seem to be any rules except against blatant misbehavior. The game lasts for hours while the teams scramble up and down the town trying to get the ba’ to their goal by any means possible. Windows and doors along the streets have been boarded and bystanders are well advised to keep their distance.

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The plaque for the Kirkwall Ba’ at the Mercat Cross in front of St. Magnus Cathedral

This yearly pandemonium is based in folk tale which is based in history. There is a folktale of an Orcadian traveling to Scotland to kill a tyrant named Tusker and then, having done so, tying the severed head of the tyrant to his saddle while riding back to the Pentland Firth (Pettland, “the Firth of the land of ‘the Picts). On the way, he was scratched by one of the teeth and by the time he crossed the Firth again and reached Kirkjuvagr (Kirkwall), he was near dead from the infection. With his last bit of strength, he reached the Mercat Cross and threw the head into the crowd standing there. They took their rage about the death of one of their own out on the severed head by kicking it all over the town. There is an historical account from the Orkneyinga Saga (“The History of the Earls of Orkney” written c.1230) about Orkney’s first Earl, Sigurd Eysteinsson, traveling to Scotland and killing his enemy, the Scottish Earl Maelbrigte Tusk. The account of the severed head, the scratched leg, and the death from infection is the same.

We then segued into talking about traditional dancing and music, and how it has woven its way over to the US from Scotland via the immigration patterns. This is a rich traditional culture that I became very familiar with during my summers in the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of my aunts was well-known for her singing and guitar renditions of the old songs. Lana had invited us to stay over the weekend and join them all in the weekly dances held on Monday nights by The Orkney Traditional Dance Association, of which they are all members. We wished we could have, but our travel schedule wouldn’t allow for it. As the clock neared midnight and the time for leave-taking, we got to quickly meet Lana and Billy’s two dogs, a beautiful white Samoyed and a Parson Russell Terrier.

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The next morning found us in Orcadian Crafts with Marsha getting another knitting tutorial and buying one of the little stools that they had woven with seagrass, and me just enjoying the last bit of time with these extraordinary, and extraordinarily kind, people. I bought one of Billy’s woven baskets as well as a sweater. Oh, yeah. And that second hat.

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Posted in Ancestry, Eco-travel, Kirwall Ba', Orkney, Orkneyinga Saga, Scotland, Scottish ancestry, Self drive Scotland tours, Travel, Uncategorized, Women Writers | Leave a comment

The Mainland, Orkney

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The “Orkney Hat” from 2006

Orkney is a special place filled with ancient sites and the peacefulness that island life creates. Orkney gets its name from the Old Norse name Orkneyjar (Orc-nee-yahr), “Seal Islands”. When they arrived in the ninth century, the Norsemen heard the Pictish word for the place, Orc (“wild boar or wild pig”, possibly referring to a tribal totem animal), as orkn (Old Norse, “seal”) and then added the suffix eyjar for“islands”. The Norse Orkneyjar became shortened to Orkney over time. With its history dating back as far as the Mesolithic and continuing on through to the era of the Picts and then the Dalriadic Gaels, to Norse rule and then to Scottish, the archipelago of Orkney holds thousands of treasured sites and its history weaves through its modern day culture.

In the beginning stages of planning this trip, I sorted through the memorabilia from my three previous trips to Scotland. In the assorted papers, pamphlets, and notes I came across the retail tag from a hand-knit hat that I had purchased in Kirkwall in 2006. It’s been one of my favorite hats over the years, special to me not only because of its intricate design but also because of where I got it. I’d worn the hat as I continued to travel around Scotland, and several times people remarked that it was obvious I had been to Orkney because the design on the hat is specific to the island. I have always referred to it as my “Orkney Hat”. Since the friend that I was traveling with this time is a knitter, spinner, felter, and lover of all things woolen, I thought that it was fortuitous that the name of the person who made my hat was on the retail tag. “What if,” I thought, “I could somehow arrange for Marsha to meet with the woman who knit this hat? Or, at least perhaps find out about good places to buy wool on Orkney?” (A note here, it’s “yarn” in the US, “wool” in Scotland.)

I was able to find Lana online and what followed was a wonderful back-and-forth discussion over the next few weeks in which she gave me good advice about the Pentland Ferry, talked about wool crafts people that we could find on Orkney, and the best thing of all: an invitation to spend the evening at her house enjoying conversation and storytelling with some of her friends.

After arriving in Orkney and having our tea, we drove onto the Mainland (Old Norse: Meginland, “the largest island”). Our first priority was getting to our 1:00 PM appointment to tour Maeshowe (also sometimes spelled Maes Howe; I have written about it here). We were just early enough that we had time to stroll out to the site and enjoy the view for a bit. There is no way to adequately describe the winds on Orkney. I forewarned Marsha, but the full realization of it showed on her face as she stood out in the middle of the moor with the winds and the not-quite-ready-to-rain clouds overhead.

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Marsha, outside Maeshowe

The Old Norse for Maeshowe was Orkahaugr, ”mound of the Orcs” or perhaps “mound of power”. The inner chamber is softly lit, showing the depth of shadow off the drystone construction that dates from 2700 BCE. The huge slabs of stone are impeccably placed to create the chamber. Scratched into the stones are various lines of runic writing; nearly thirty separate inscriptions make up one of the largest collections of runic writing in the world. Written in the 12th century, the runes are a comparatively modern addition to the site. The full meaning of the chambered cairn at Maeshowe is not clear, although there is evidence that it was build over another site, most probably a stone circle. What is known is that the sunset of the Winter Solstice shines down the entrance passage and directly on to the back wall. Just to stand in there with the realization of all those (pre-tourist era) people who stood there over thousands of years, for whatever reason, is an honor.

Our tour completed, we drove off to the northwest part of the Mainland, staying on the A966 as it follows the coast up to Tingwall (Old Norse: Þingvöllr, “field of the parliament”) and then past the Loch of Swannay and over to Birsay (Old Norse: Birgisherað, “the fortress district”). The village takes its name from the island Brough of Birsay which is joined to the Mainland during low tides. In the 7th and 8th centuries, the area was a Pictish stronghold; by the 9th century the Norse had taken over, and it was the seat of the rulers of Orkney up until the 12th century when Kirkwall became more prominent.

Our destination was located on a small hill overlooking Birsay Bay. I had found a few possible places for lunch, and I am glad that we decided upon the Birsay Bay Tea Room. The people there were cheerful and the food was delicious. I had the farmhouse cheese quiche & sweet potato rosemary soup which was excellent; and Marsha had the soup and a turkey sandwich with Orkney chutney and Redbush & Vanilla tea to drink. We sat looking out over the Bay to the Brough of Birsay with soft waves of fog drifting overhead. It would have been a great place to hang out for a while longer, but we had places to see before we went to Lana’s house for the evening.

The first one on the way was the ruins of the late 16th century castle that was built by Robert Stewart (1533-93), half-brother to Mary Queen of Scots. He was created Earl of Orkney, Lord of Shetland and Knight of Birsay in 1581 by James VI (Mary’s son). He built the castle as his primary residence on Orkney. It was not used as a primary residence by his heir, and by the late 17th century it began to collapse. The castle is located just down the road from the tea house on the northern edge of the village of Birsay.

On our way back in to Kirkwall (pronounced “Kirkwaa”, from Kirkjuvagr ,pronounced “Kirkvoe”, “the church bay”) we were met on a single lane road by twenty or so head of cattle being herding down the road by an SUV and a man on a bicycle. All I could think of to do was stop the car. I thought that if I kept the car still, they would just pass by and none of them would get startled and possibly hurt. Just to the right of where I stopped was a driveway, but there was a chain across it so it wasn’t going to be any help to me. And then, a man came out of the house, un-hooked the chain and motioned me to quickly drive in to his driveway. I rolled down my window to thank him and here again came the recognition of a foreign accent followed by a pleasant conversation. He was so welcoming and kind, he almost had us in for tea. With the immediacy of the situation gone after cattle passed by, we thanked him once again and set off down the road.

Since we wanted to be able to spend a lot of time at the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stennes, and we had decided to go into Kirkwall and find a shop to buy fresh clothes to wear to Lana’s, we drove straight to our accommodations for the evening, The Ardconnel B&B just outside of Kirkwall. Margaret was very helpful and once we got settled, she directed us to M&Co where we were able to find new jeans and tops. The sales ladies were very patient with us as we ended up keeping them a few minutes past closing. As we apologized, we explained our predicament with the luggage, and they were very understanding and helpful. A fast trip back to the B&B for showers, and then, just as the sun was setting, we were on our way to our evening of storytelling.

Posted in Eco-travel, Maes Howe, Orkney, Orkneyinga Saga, Scotland, Scottish ancestry, Self drive Scotland tours, Travel, Uncategorized, Winter Solstice, Women Writers | Leave a comment