Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A little about Kirkwall . . .

Maybe it's the clouds that remind me of Oregon, or the misty rain that comes now and then, but I feel absolutely at home in Kirkwall. The wind from the North Sea blows, at times fierce and constantly; today, we're told to expect near gale force winds but sun in the afternoon. Nothing stops the wind here. The land is mostly flat, neatly divided into fields. We can see, from our lovely second floor room at Mrs. Muir's Guesthouse, all the way past the town's edge and to the sea.

Yesterday we took an orienting tour to this island, joining a bus up from John o' Groats. Our witty driver told very bad jokes along with snips of history and culture as we drove past Scapa Flow, stopped at Stromness, and then on to the Neolithic Skara Brae and Ring of Brodgar. Scapa Flow, a very large bay, opens to the Atlantic, so we're on the far part of the Mainland (this main island of Orkney, which is norse for seal-land, though we haven't seen any seals -- yet).

We wandered around Skara Brae, a Neolithic Village dated to 3,100 BCE, some 5,000 years ago. This amazing stone settlement was discovered in 1850 after a fierce storm blew the protecting sand dunes away. Today, we can walk through one restored house and see the remains of some 7 stone houses built into the ground and connected by tunnels. The houses feature stone beds, stone dressers, even a stone cooking pot built into the floor, and a hearth in the center.

While researchers don't know what the roof covering was, the replica shows a kind of grassy covering, making the settlement nearly invisible from the sea. The doors are locking, which is somewhat unusual in Kirkwall, where no doors are locked, except for one house which was locked from the outside. The skeletons of two women were found inside; we can only guess why. And the mystery of why the people left is unsolved. Some say sea water contaminated the settlement's fresh water pool. Certainly the sea is much closer than it was so many years ago. But as we looked at the tiny bone needles, the strangely shaped stone ritual tools (function unknown), I realize this place must have been a good home, for its temperate climate, easy access to fishing, good farming and hunting.

We then visited the Ring of Brodgar, the northernmost such site in Britain, and walked around its remaining circle of 27 stones, once 60. The site, encircled by a deep trench, is tilted towards the rising and setting of the sun, with several important burial mounds nearby. We walked its 340 feet diameter path and could feel the power of this ancient place, so similar to Stonehenge, for the people came by water and in reverence.

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