10th July, 2008
There is absolutely no way I can put Skara Brae into words. The feeling of standing atop the walls of a five-thousand-year-old village, looking down into the spaces and passageways where people once lived and worked, where animals nosed and children ran and laughed; of treading paths laid out before Stonehenge was raised or the Pyramids laid stone on stone; of seeing the bait-pools and bed-boxes, and the shelved dressers where they kept their hunting trophies and their prized artworks – it’s simply indescribable. Even pictures are a poor imitation of the place itself, of the continuity and change it represents, sitting in its calm serenity beneath the grey skies and endless winds of Orkney. (At least, since they conspired to uncover it – these ancient buildings slept beneath millennia of sand and earth until a nineteenth-century storm ripped this protection away and bared them to the elements and archaeologists.)
You must, must, must, if ever you get the chance, go and see it for yourself; unfortunately, short of buying every one of you a ticket straight to Orkney (something I alas cannot afford), pictures are all I have – and here they are. (As always, larger versions are just a click away.)
The canonical Skara Brae shot, the drystone dresser still standing after five thousand years, flanked by bed-boxes and firepit.
The buildings are surprisingly intricate, tesselating quite neatly with each other, passages snaking between them.
– those passages, of course, would have been roofed over, as would the entire village – this iteration of it (there were several) sunk into the leavings of the last, dug in and covered over. Given the wind that day, I can’t say I blame them.
Baitpits, bedboxes and a fireplace; you can almost see them, sat around the fire, telling stories, singing songs, playing dice. I wonder how familiar the songs and stories and games would be today.
Some idea of perspective and surroundings. And German tourists.
Skaill House in the background – the stately home of the laird on whose land Skara Brae was discovered. Our tickets gave us entry there too, so we wandered round; it was pretty enough, but suffice to say I much preferred the neolithic village and its treasures to the landed gentry and their tapestries and crockery.
That’s the Atlantic Ocean in the bay. There’s nothing west of Skara Brae but the open sea, all the way to Greenland.
A quick journey (the buses are helpfully timed to give you just long enough at each place) later and we were at Brodgar, wandering around the great stone circle there (twenty-seven of sixty stones remain), and then on down to Stenness, where only four of an original twelve still stand – thanks to the efforts of one Captain W. Mackay, who in 1814 decided he was fed up with tourists traipsing across his fields to see the Stones and proceeded to topple several and blow up the Odin Stone, a holed monolith used as a trothing-place for couples and a witness for contracts. (Idiot.) Neither circle quite matches the serene splendour of Callanish (the breathtakingly beautiful – I’m on alliteration patrol today – stone circle which adorns the western coast of Lewis, and this blog’s header), but they are nevertheless impressive – the Stenness Stones tower over the surrounding landscape, bleak and almost forbidding, while the Brodgar ring feels almost mournful, lonely on its isthmus; if Stenness has outlasted both its creators and would-be destroyers, Brodgar definitely feels abandoned, as though waiting for the fires to be lit again and the old dances to be danced again.
Brodgar on the left, Stenness on the right. Those four stones in the Brodgar ring had a sense of companionship about them; so would you, I suppose, if you’d stood together for four thousand years!
Getting back to that isthmus – Brodgar and Stenness stand at opposite ends of a narrow strip of land running between the lochs of Harray and Stenness. What this place meant to the people who built these monuments, what it represented and why they venerated it, is a matter of complete conjecture – obviously little enough anthropogenic material (beside the monuments themselves) has survived these four-thousand-odd years, and any half-baked anthropologist (like this one) will tell you that inferring from material artefacts to cultural symbolism and so forth is a hugely subjective business; however, existing finds and more recent ones (do read this; it’s a fascinating piece on the recent discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar) suggest the whole isthmus may have been seen as a liminal place, a place where the worlds of the living and the dead came close together, guarded by watchstones and marked by stone circles, peopled with temples and, not far away, the mound that marks the burial cairn of Maes Howe – our next stop.
Unfortunately, as with several of the cathedrals I’ve been to along the way, photography is strictly enjoined within Maes Howe’s walls. (I can’t say I understand that – it’s not as if flashes cause erosion, after all, and the cynic in me can’t help seeing it as an attempt to get you to buy the innumerable guidebooks and illustrated histories these places carry. All right, so it’s often not their fault – rather an attempt to make up chronic funding shortages, and no doubt I’ve been spoilt too long by London’s free museums and open churches – but while I’m happy to pay entrance, I always think photography should be free.) All griping aside, though, the place is undeniably spectacular – crawling through the cramped entrance tunnel, it quite takes your breath away when it opens out into that unexpected space. In the absence of any photos of mine (aside from this one of the exterior), have some of theirs:
The interior, with the entrance tunnel leading off into the light.
Sunlight shining down the passage. On midwinter’s day, the sun, setting behind the hills of Hoy across the bay, strikes over the Barnhous Stone 700m away, down the tunnel and off one of the stones built into its wall, illuminating the interior of the howe.
Anyway. I took three things away from Maes Howe – three major things, that is, besides amusement at the necessity of closing the gate behind us (to prevent inquisitive sheep from following you in) and amazement at the tour guide’s delivery (unnervingly sardonic, as though we were all retarded five-year-olds):
One: those neolithic people could build. Dry stone walls are well and good (I’ve built a few myself), but these were twelve feet high and more, composed of gigantic flagstone slabs staggered to form four great arching walls around a space big enough to hold the thirty of us comfortably. (This on islands with no trees to provide rollers; they reckon they used seaweed as a lubricant, to help them slide the slabs along.) Each wall contains a chamber for the dead or, in the case of one, the entrance tunnel – long enough to give even my mild claustrophobia a twinge. The door-stone, recessed in the tunnel wall, weighs half a tonne; despite this, it’s so finely balanced that a five-year-old can shift it into place. If you beat a drum at about 2Hz (enjoined on conservation grounds, alas), the resonance means a pool of silence forms in the chamber and the drumming seems to come from deep inside the chambers – the music of the dead, perhaps. And there’s the aforementioned midwinter spectacle, as well. All this with no surveying, no JCBs, no computer-aided modelling: nothing but brain and muscle power – and the whole thing, they reckon, was two generations’ work at least. It boggles the mind.
Two: humanity doesn’t change a lot. Two sets of Vikings – one ninth-century, one eleventh – broke into this amazing place (through the roof), stole everything they could – and wrote all over the walls. “Ofram the son of Sigurd carved these runes.” “These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes on the Western Ocean.” “We stole great treasure from this mound” (subtext: aren’t we great?). High up on one wall: “Tholfir Kolbeinsson carved these runes high up; wasn’t he clever?”. “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women”. And, believe it or not, “Thorni f***ed. Helgi carved.” I half-expected to find ‘Vikings rule OK’ amongst the long-legged runes.
(It seems they got their comeuppance, though – two of them went screaming mad, babbling about ghosts, and the place was hurriedly abandoned amidst rumours of a curse. Stone Age vengeance, perhaps?)
Maeshowe’s trials weren’t over then, either – the Victorians who rediscovered the place also broke in through the roof, destroying it in the process, and threw away pretty much everything they dug out, since none of it was of any monetary value. D’oh.
Three: I have very little sense of history. I hate to generalise, because I have no idea if other people do, but it seems to me the human brain just can’t envision history in all its four-dimensioned span. Conceptualise, yes; I can walk through a cathedral or around a stone circle and know, intellectually, that people have trodden the same path for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. I can walk along a museum’s timeline and recognise the span of history, from neolithic through to present-day, and think about how many people must have lived and died throughout those years. But to picture that, to visualise those people, not just for a moment or one day but for all their lives; to see those years not just as numbers, but as spans of time…I just can’t grasp it. The difference between a museum’s snapshot reconstruction and that visualisation is to me like the difference between knowing the scale of the universe and trying to picture it, or knowing there are six billion people on the Earth and trying to imagine them all. Numbers are not reality; a few facts about the Stone Age or the Tudors or the Mayans or the Mongol Khans are not history. But how can we ever hope to know the whole?
…and I can’t put it properly into words. The world was not meant to fit inside a human head, but I go crazy trying. There. That will have to do. But this whole day, wandering around and inside monuments older than any I’ve ever seen, has given me a glimpse, not only of my own insignificance (as all the best days out do!), but of the greater whole, the continuity of human experience, the needs we all face and the questions we all ask. Only a glimpse (because that’s all you can ever have), but still…
…ah, and as ever, Pratchett says things better than I ever could. Tiffany and the hiver, from A Hat Full of Sky:
You look at a tree and see…just a tree, a stiff weed. You [can’t] see its history, feel the pumping of its sap, hear every insect in its bark, sense the chemistry of the leaves, notice the hundred shades of green, the tiny movements to follow the sun, the subtle growth of the wood…do you know what it feels to be aware of every star, every blade of grass? Yes, you do; you call it ‘opening your eyes again’, but you only do it for a moment…
Well, today was one of my moments.