By Ian S. Grosz:
I am headed north for Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a landscape both largely devoid of trees and deeply sedimented in vast layers of human history. I surge up the A9 from Inverness, skirting the bleak seascapes of Caithness, and eventually reach Gills Bay. Here I will catch the ferry for the short crossing to St. Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay, the most southerly of the Orkney archipelago.
On South Ronaldsay I camp at the wonderfully eclectic Wheems Organic Farm – just the right side of hippy - and fall into an easy sleep listening to the calls of oystercatchers and the swooping chirrup of swallows in the dusk. The next day, I head out on my bicycle to see the evocatively named Eagle’s Tomb, and the less compelling but well marketed Tomb of the Otters. That night I dream of bones.
What I have really come for, like most people, is the enigmatic group of monuments centred around Brodgar and Stenness - the latter the site of an ancient stone circle that pre-dates Stonehenge by a thousand years - and the mysteries being uncovered at the Ness of Brodgar, where a five thousand-year-old complex of ceremonial buildings has been unearthed. Approaching the head of the isthmus that separates lochs Harray and Stenness, linking the dark and brooding Ring of Brodgar with the other sites, I find myself in a natural amphitheatre dominated by the two peaks of Hoy to the west. At mid-winter the sun sets between these hills and, for three weeks either side of the solstice, illuminates the deep interior of the incredible feat of engineering that is Maes Howe Chambered Cairn.
This is a liminal place, a portal between worlds: between our time and theirs, between the setting sun and the mountains, and the shimmering waters of the lochs. It is a place between life and death, and not without atmosphere. Taking in the monuments in context with the surrounding landscape makes sense of the location of these sites, and bridges the vast gap in time between the people who built them and us. Here, in the low lying fertile ground, where fish and wildfowl were plenty, and the sun’s light fell at year’s end, was where they found and made their place.
Maes Howe, still a striking feature in the landscape today, pre-dates the Great Pyramid at Giza by several hundred years, and commensurately, to view it I must join an official tour that needs to be booked in advance. No photography is allowed inside the tomb. Pictures of it for a keepsake are available as part of the official brochure. Still, it is worth the expense, and the unwanted chitchat with other tourists on the bus from the visitor’s centre to the tomb itself.
Once inside the tomb, we crowd around the guide in a reverent hush, as ages layered on ages are revealed in the light of her torch: from the standing stones re-used in its construction and the Viking graffiti on the walls, to the Victorian roof repair. Swallows nest above our heads while the ages are unpicked for us, and once or twice the lights are dimmed to bring the tomb-dark that bit closer. The earthen smell is both sobering and strangely comforting, and the now empty spaces where the dead once would have lain seem no more than generic storage places. Those people of so long ago are absent, and yet moment-by-moment their presence seems to come closer.
Between the layers of larger facing stones that make up part of the walls are many smaller pieces, wedged in to level each course in the wall. Seeing this calls to mind the dry-stone walls that still criss-cross the countryside all over the British Isles. I begin to feel a connection to the people who built these impressive monuments, building with hands just like ours, looking out at the Universe, and trying to make sense of it all.
Later, in Stromness, I visit an exhibition entitled Conversations with Magic Stones that is part of an island-wide collection tracing our relationship with stone: from those who work it, collect it, or simply have special pieces that have been passed down in the family or come to them by chance. How many of us pick up pebbles on a beach, are drawn to stone sculpture, or seek out these ancient memorials in the landscape? Stone is aeons old, constituted in stars, formed in the earth, shaped by ice and water, and worked by people. In them is an impossible journey spanning time we cannot imagine.
Whilst camping at the Sands of Evie, I take a walk along the crescent moon-shaped bay as the sun dips toward the horizon. There, amongst the many stones and pebbles grouped and sorted by the tide along the beach, I spot a long, pale, tapered stone. It is smoothed and rounded at the edges like many of the other stones gathered by the waves, but has a shape I am drawn to. I pick it up and turn it in my hands. It has a weight and a presence that communicates with me. It fits in my palm perfectly. It seems made for my hands: for pounding or hammering. It has a feel, a life: imminence. Although smoothed by wave action it has an overall size, shape and balance that cannot be accidental. The Broch of Gurness - occupied between 500 BC and 100 AD - lies just beyond the headland. It could be wishful thinking, but perhaps this stone in my hands is a once discarded Mace Head, now washed to the shore on to this beach.
Barbara Hepworth said that ‘…it is a perfectly natural feeling to wish – to take a rock and turn it into life and to make, in that way, an image which has a magic to preserve life in one’s own personality.’ In this stone I now hold in my hands, I feel a personality coming through; as though someone is speaking to me from a time I had thought unreachable.
About the author:
Ian is a writer interested in the themes of Place, Landscape, Belonging and Identity. He writes both poetry and prose and uses photography to supplement his non-fiction work. He has recently completed a Post Graduate Certificate in Social Research and is now enrolled on an MLitt in Creative Writing at the university of Aberdeen. He is currently planning a trip for a project in the Outer Hebrides.
A companion piece to this essay was published by our friends at The Island Review. You can read 'Orkney: a sense of time and place' here.