I woke at 7.30 to Joan’s alarm, but snoozed until 8.20. Upon rising it was immediately apparent that my colitis was acting up. I went down to breakfast (taking my Vegemite with me) and enjoyed one of the best breakfasts I have had in a long time – a full Scottish cooked by Malcolm’s staff at Eastbank House. The only thing I didn’t eat was the black pudding – I’ve never been able to bring myself to consuming it – but I was unable to finish, as there was so much.
Our first stop of the day was to be Maeshowe. We arrived at the visitor centre and Neil disembarked to speak to the staff about booking in a time. As he did so, I had to make use of the facilities and I saw that the earliest slot was for 14.00, so I presumed we were to go elsewhere and we did. Straight to the Standing Stones o’ Stenness, where I realised I had been wrong in an argument I had with someone over a picture I took on my previous trip to the Orkney Islands. If you are reading this, Hazelbrook, you have my sincerest apologies.
The Standing Stones o’ Stenness were to be a revelation; not the stones themselves, but the behaviour of one member of our group – lets call her Crystal Tits (a name bestowed by her fellow passengers because she stored her oils and crystals in her brassiere). As can be seen from the photograph below, she immediately left the bus, ran up the little track to the stones and started spraying them with some awful essential oil blend, before anyone could take a clear photograph or have time with the stones alone, as was the want of several of us. Crystal Tits then plonked herself down on the cairn, laid out her crystals, including what appeared to be a dyed pink crystal skull and started meditating.
This behaviour was to repeat itself at every single site we visited, where it encroached not only on the enjoyment of our tour group, but several other tourists as well. So much for being sensitive to the world around you, and this from a bereavement counsellor.
We spent a bit of time there, and I managed to get the photographs I wanted to take on my last visit (in 2004 when I did a 9 day tour with Wild About Scotland), but couldn’t owing to the vast amount of tourists at the site. I’ll say this for Neil: he does get the timing right so that we had nearly every site we visited to ourselves.
From there, we moved on to the Watchstone, which stands beside the causeway a short distance down the road from Standing Stones o’ Stenness. I took three pictures, but was more interested in the Swans on Stennes Loch. Some of the group trudged around it getting the lay of the land, but it was too crowded for me, so I visually absorbed the landscape surrounding it.
We then moved on to Ring o’Brodgar, noticing on the way that there was an archaeological dig going on, but Neil was reluctant to stop and who can blame him? There is so much to see on the islands, we could not have possibly stopped for everything with the limited time budget we had. It didn’t matter, as when we arrived at the Ring o’Brodgar, there were two digs in the ditches surrounding the henge. I took a few pictures and this is one of them.
I walked around the stones for a bit, but the area was teeming with tourists of every kind, mostly the American kind. I didn’t go the whole way round, but stopped to take pictures of the two stones I photographed once before and now use as my avatar on various internet message boards. Being an overcast day, the photographs I took this time were poor in comparison to those I had taken in 2004.
I soon found myself feeling unwell and headed back to the van, hoping the others had returned; they hadn’t. I ducked into the van that acted as the information point and asked for the nearest facilities, only to be told it was Maeshowe. This was distressing as Maeshowe was a considerable distance away and my group were scattered all over the site and not likely to return for some time. I tried to distract myself by talking to the two archaeologists, both of whom were very kind, not to mention full of information and interesting conversation, and they gave me some items to take away and, of course, recommending I read the Orkneyjar website, which I explained was already on my favourites. The young lady also recommended some books and told me that members of Historic Scotland got 20% off all purchases at their shops. I made a note of one particular title for our visit to the visitor centre at Maeshowe.
I went outside to sit on the step of their van and hope that I could “hold it in”, whereupon Fae returned and took me to see some alignments she had discovered while exploring the Ring o’Brodgar. This distracted me long enough for the rest of the group to return. However, we did not go directly to Maeshowe, but rather into the small town of Stromness for lunch. Stromness was in the middle of an event called Stromness Shopping Week and it was buzzing with people; it had quite a festival atmosphere that was lively in comparison to the sites we had been visiting.
Fae and I made our way up to the high street to look in the windows. We had no idea that Crystal Tits had done the same thing. We bumped into her and she asked to borrow money as she had inadvertently left her purse on the bus down by the harbour. I gave her £10 and, having ducked into a gallery to use their facilites, Fae and I proceeded to find the Argos Bakery Café, where we had a wonderful, healthy light lunch outside overlooking the harbour. It was very reasonably priced and the young lady serving us could not have been more accommodating.
We returned to the bus and it was off to our appointment at Maeshowe. Before crossing the road to the actual chamber, I took note of a wonderful floor to ceiling timeline on the wall of the visitor’s complex. If anyone at Historic Scotland is reading this, I strongly suggest you put that timeline in a book, on a postcard, or turn it into a poster as it is very helpful in putting the Orcadian and Shetland monuments in perspective with other monuments around the country and, indeed, around the globe.
We set off across the road to meet our guide, Lisa, at the entrance to Maes Howe. I didn’t get much of a chance to read the information outside or take any photographs of the boards on which it was printed, and I was a little disappointed as I had not been to this particular monument before. Just behind us in a field were some black bulls and the contrast between their hides and the fluorescent green of the grass nearly made my eyes water – it was so intense that even Neil commented on it.
We made our way into Maeshowe chamber itself, after Lisa gave us some saftey instructions which included telling us we should not stand up straight until she tapped us on the shoulder. I never felt her touch, but waited until I was practically standing on the feet of the other tourists before uprighting myself. It was a bit of a pain bending over so severely to traverse the entrance chamber, and my knees ached a bit after leaving the same way, as did my back. Once everyone was inside, it was obvious that Crystal Tits had been spraying her noxious gases again, or so I thought. Lisa piped up and asked if the candle on the floor (which I could not see) was hers. Crystal replied it was whereupon Lisa asked her to extinguish it and then launched into a spiel about the rules of being allowed inside the site.
One was not to touch the stones or any of the Viking graffiti and to remain inside the barriers, which everyone in the group complied with, apart from Crystal, who, upon noticing Lisa was otherwise occupied (using a torch to show a particular chamber to the group one by one), rubbed the lintel above the entrance with her candle. Now, I presume I was not the only one who saw this because a little boy tried to reach out and touch a stone at one point whereupon Lisa kindly said: “Please don’t touch the stones beautiful peedie“. The boy immediately looked back to Crystal with a quizzical look upon his face as if to say, “Why can she touch them and not me?”.
Lisa’s talk went on for about 40 minutes and she was very informative, funny and patient. A better guide I’ve never had on any tour. Just enough information to whet your appetite, and happy to answer any question, briefly and concisely. Lisa also provided us with a few of her personal theories and we learned she had an interest in geology, which led to some of her theories. What I particularly liked about Lisa is she offered plausible explanations, but gave no definitive statements about why or how things were done, leaving us to make up our own minds about current and past research and even advising we might like to form our own theories. In other words, Lisa is my kind of historian: open minded.
Lisa informed us that they were currently taking bookings for Winter Solstice – it was still July! As we had entered the cairn, the fog was still hanging over the island, but when inside, Lisa promised the fog would lift before we departed and she was right. I think Lisa may have some hidden weather reading skills. As we exited the tomb, the sun returned to the Orkney Isles. We made our way over to the Visitor Centre and, once again, I was confronted with Sheila Fleet’s amazing jewellery. I had seen it on the ferry and temptation would follow me throughout the trip as I continued to encounter her artistry. On this occasion, however, I was more concerned with the books recommended by the archaeologist at Ring o’Brodgar. I found some of the books, including “Between the Wind and the Water” by Caroline Wickham-Jones. To my dismay, however, no-one in our group was a member of Historic Scotland, so I had to pay full price. I bought some post cards and some worldwide postcard stamps (which my local post office in Kent had informed me did not exist) and we made our way back to the bus.
We returned to the Standing Stones o’ Stenness to take some pictures of other alignments that Fae had noticed. These were much clearer now the fog had lifted. We drove on to Skara Brae, the neolithic village. I had some particular items I wanted from the souvenir shop here that I had missed back in 2004 as well as certain books. While the others went in and watched the introductory film on Skara Brae, I scoured the bookshelves before realising I could not cart them all with me on the tour, and then back to Kent. So, I wandered into the replica house with some Dutch (I think) tourists and then on down to the main excavation site. It was practically empty and I got some lovely photographic shots. What was surprising was the people down on the bay wading in the water. By now, it was a spectacularly sunny afternoon and the water looked enticing. I think it was then I realised I was wandering through (what must have been) prime neolithic real estate.
I spent a bit of time getting those shots I had missed on my previous visit in 2004 with Wild in Scotland. I did notice none of our group were about, but I strolled back past Liz who was making her way to the houses. I went back into the souvenir shop, only to see most of our group sitting in the coffee shop. Apparently, it was about to close, so I grabbed a small bucket of ice cream and hoped for the best with my colitis.
Once that was finished, I found a stone with the pictish triskele design on it, and asked the assistant if they had any more, and she kindly brought out some from storage. I picked up some more postcards and a nice tea towel and figured that was all I could carry for the moment. I never did buy a hairy coo (stuffed highland cow), despite trying to find a nice one at every shop we visited. Eventually, the rest of the group meandered back, and dear Liz retrieved her sunglasses from the beach where she had inadvertently left them, and we cruised back to Eastbank House.
The group decided to head into town for dinner. As I had been ill for most of the day, I couldn’t face the walk down the hill to eat, especially since the walk back would be uphill and I had no idea of the whereabouts of facilities. What’s more, the group were talking Indian and that was the last thing I wanted. I decided to seek out Malcolm, the owner of Eastbank House, to see about ordering in from a takeaway. It seems the group had already informed him of my trouble and he offered to take me to the kitchen to find something suitable. I opted for some plain white toast as it was all I could face.
Malcolm was waiting for a taxi, as he was off to Glasgow that night. Before he left, though, he sat and chatted to me about history, Orcadian archaeology (in particular, the Tomb of the Eagles) and archaeology in general. He mentioned the programme “The Face of Britain” and the DNA studies that had been undertaken, which fascinated me as I had watched the programme and, subsequently, bought the book which accompanied the series.
I learned that Malcolm is an artist and he often made the replica pieces for Historic Scotland. In fact, the room in which we were sitting was filled with his work. He also offered me the loan of a few of the books he had there on history, etc. – a kind offer I could not take up as I had postcards to write and a book to read and only one night left in Orkney. Eventually, after much stimulating conversation, he had to leave and I returned to my room to write my postcards and update my journal – sadly the journal would never be finished.
If you ever read this Malcolm, thank you for that wonderful, if short, chat.
Joan returned a few hours later and we retired to bed after repacking our bags for our overnight stay in cabins on the ferry to Lerwick in Shetland.