Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Historic Scotland side of Orkney

stone steps broch of gurness orkney historic scotland

Orkney is so stuffed full of historically significant places that it's hard to turn around without falling over a standing stone or an ancient burial cairn.  Being as history obsessed as I am, I was excited to find so many sites maintained by Historic Scotland.  A flash of our membership cards meant we had a bunch more places to explore between cake and birdwatching stops.  Here's a rundown of everywhere we managed to see on the Orkney mainland...

Broch of Gurness
broch of gurness orkney historic scotland

stones broch of gurness orkney historic scotland

Our first stop, and easily the windiest, was the Broch of Gurness, an Iron Age settlement by the sea.  The main tower was surrounded by a village that was abandoned around 100AD, after being in use for 300-600 years.  Now, unless a year has quadruple figures, my brain can't comprehend what life was possibly like that long ago - i.e. before paintings, photos, films and books.  You know, visual aids.  If I can't see it, I have a hard time imagining it.  Yup, I'm a terrible historian.  So this place sort of blew my mind.  Seeing sleeping recesses and communal living areas made it easier to get an idea of life back then, but the version in my head (a 'survival of the fittest' type scenario) is probably miles from the real thing.

Earl's Palace, Birsay
earls palace birsay orkney historic scotland

taking photos orkney earls palace birsay historic scotland

This place made so much of an impression on me that I forgot we visited until I was looking at pictures for this post!  Eh...  I'll use the excuse that there are two Earl's palaces on Orkney...  It was cool for a quick wander around after lunch at the nearby Birsay tearoom though.  This one was built by Mary Queen of Scots half brother who became the Earl of Orkney, which sounds like a fun title.

Skara Brae and Skaill House
skara brae orkney historic scotland

bird skara brae orkney historic scotland

skaill house orkney historic scotland

Possibly the most well known of Orkney's historical sites, Skara Brae dates from around 3000BC and claims to be 'Western Europe's best-preserved Neolithic Village.'  Remember what I said about my mind being blown over ancient history?  It was in pieces when I found out how old this place is.  Until recently, it was possible to walk around inside the structures but now (in what I'm assuming are measures to protect the area) they can only be seen from above by following paths built along the tops of the dividing walls.

Skaill House sits a short walk along the path from Skara Brae and was home to the laird who discovered Skara Brae in 1850.  Imagine having all that history on your doorstep and never knowing it until then!  The house is a mere 395 years old, but the artifacts in there were much more relatable to my brain.  Even the pink bathroom.

Brough of Birsay
brough of birsay orkney historic scotland

brough of birsay historic scotland orkney

The Brough of Birsay sits at the foot of the rock where the puffins hang out.  It was similar to Gurness, although more spread out and less built up (now anyway - it was likely very similar in scale at the time).  Birsay is only accessible at low tide for a few hours every day, and Birsay Tearoom handily had a list of the timings when we had lunch there a couple of days before.  The day we chose to visit was calm, sunny and warm.  Not what we were expecting!  One of us was even wearing two pairs of tights under her leggings...  The land itself can be accessed without going through Historic Scotland's site (where the brough lies) but this wasn't terribly clear since the visitor centre sits off to the side.  Dogs weren't allowed in the area because of the wildlife but we saw a couple walking their dog through a gate that clearly explained this, so that's also a bit vague...

Ring of Brodgar
ring of brodgar standing stones orkney historic scotland

ring of brodgar stones historic scotland orkney

I had a small tantrum here.  A bus full of tourists showed up right after we did and I realised it would take a lot of skill to keep my pictures people-free, and find space to look around properly.  I know,  It was fine though.  They were much slower than me so I got around half the site before they even reached it.  Plus there was the added bonus of seeing a bunch of Spaniards hugging the stones.  To release their magical powers I guess?  Because the site was unmanned I didn't learn a whole lot at the time, but it was easy to work out that the stones are both super old and sacred.

Bishop's and Earl's Palaces, Kirkwall
earls palace kirkwall orkney historic scotland

earls palace sign orkney kirkwall historic scotland

palaces kirkwall orkney historic scotland

bishops palace historic scotland orkney

These two sites sit across from each other in Kirkwall, next to the cathedral.  They were much more like the typical places we visit at home, and I liked that there was lots of wandering to be done in each place.  The Earl's Palace was built by the evil Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney, which I found amusing.  The fact he used slave labour though, not so much.  This was the only really rainy exploring we did, but it was probably one of our better timed outings, since there were plenty of bits to shelter.  In Bishop's Palace we found a fireplace taller than Tam, so I had to get a picture.

No pictures of this one because it looks like a little grassy hill (or Hobbit house) from the outside and was pretty dark inside.  Tours of Maeshowe are arranged as pre-booked guided tours only, and I'd heard they filled up fast in the summer, so Tam and I scooted along to book one when we got off the ferry.  They turned out to only be full a couple of days in advance and we managed to snag a handy noon slot.  On the day we checked in at the visitor centre then headed along to the cairn, where our tour guide talked us through the history of the area.  Then it was time to go in.

The tomb is accessed by a low tunnel that involves crouch-walking along until you reach the main chamber.  I still have no idea how Tam got in there.  Inside, the talk continued and we saw some fascinating runes scratched into the stones - leftover relics from when Vikings broke into the place in the twelfth century.  I won't spoil the translations for anyone but they're pretty hilarious.  Another interesting thing about Maeshowe - every year on the shortest day, the sun shines right along the entrance tunnel and into the furthest away burial chamber.  They even rig up webcams these days so it can be watched around the world.

historic scotland members book stamps orkney

I'm pretty proud of the stamps in our membership book, even if we didn't get one at Gurness because it was shut for lunch.  It's filling up quickly this year!

See more Orkney wandering here.

Who's visited any of these places?  What's the favourites?  I can't decide on mine...


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