When people lack emotion, sometimes we say they’re “made of stone.” Yet on a group of northern islands, I’ve discovered the power of stone to translate human emotion, connecting me to the people of the past.
When I planned this tour of Scotland with my husband, Dale, I included a trip north of the Highlands, to a place uew people see: the Orkney Islands. What lured me to this humble archipelago of 70 tiny isles were its dozens of ancient ruins, whispering messages from the Stone Age.
What lured me to this humble archipelago were its dozens of ancient ruins from the Stone Age.
THE GREAT SHIP OF DEATH
On a cloudy, windy day, our guide, John Grieve, drives us to a ferry bound for the island of Rousay (pronounced RRROU –see). John grew up in Orkney, and traces his Orcadian roots back seven generations. It takes all our concentration to pierce his accent. We’re stumped by comments like, “Talkin’ ‘bout bee’n a boo in Orphir.” Orphir is a local town—beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.
White mist buries the island, making Rousay seem like a ghost town. Hardly anyone lives here: about 200 people, a few herds of sheep and the spirits of the ancients.
Along the rocky seashore, we encounter our first ancient message: a Stone Age tomb called Midhowe Cairn. In the 1920s, a barn-like structure was built to protect the discovery. Inside, a stack of stones overwhelms the space, a burial cairn built 5000 years ago. The builders corbelled the walls: layering thousands of stones in stair-stepping fashion, until the walls curved together to form a roof. Although the rooftop is gone, the tomb still looks like a 100-foot-long boat, turned upside down. Some call it “The Great Ship of Death.”
The tomb looks like a 100-foot-long boat, turned upside down. Some call it “The Great Ship of Death.”
As we walk around the catwalk for a closer look, John’s blurts out, “In my opinion, it’s fuckin’ BRRRILLiant!”
It’s called a “stalled” cairn, because sandstone slabs divide the interior into stalls. The stalls line the 60-foot aisle like two rows of tiny beds. When the tomb was unearthed, it held the bones of 25 people, probably farmers of the Neolithic Period, or New Stone Age. I try to picture, not those 25 people, but the families and friends who mourned them. Did they bury anything else with their loved ones: a personal item like a comb, a bouquet of flowers, long vanished teardrops?
When the tomb was unearthed, these divided stalls held the bones of 25 people.
Archaeologists speculate the people who built this elaborate tomb might have worshipped their ancestors. Unless the ghosts of the dead speak, we’ll never know. But surely the culture that built this “Ship of Death” believed humans to be greater than the sum of their parts.
ANOTHER STONE HENGE
On a sunnier but windier day, John takes us for a ride into the prehistoric past of Mainland Orkney, which vividly intertwines with the present. Ancient stone circles, stone tombs and stone villages are as integral to the landscape as the homes, churches and shops of the living, also built with stone.
The Standing Stones of Stenness stand right in the backyard of modern farms. The three and a half stone monoliths are the remains of a ceremonial site about 5000 years old. The sheep are unimpressed, and placidly graze and poop amid the mysterious stones.
The stone monoliths are the remains of a ceremonial site about 5000 years old. The sheep are unimpressed.
The original circle measured 100 feet wide, with 12 stones. It’s ringed by the shallow remains of a henge, or man-made ditch. That makes this a henge monument, a term that refers not only to the Stonehenge in England, but any stone circle of that type. The circle at Stenness is the oldest henge monument discovered in Britain.
The tallest stone stands 16 feet above ground, but that’s only two-thirds of its total height; each 20 to 30-ton slab is sunk deep into the earth. The closest location where they could have been quarried is six miles distant. As with the stones of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the question is, “How did people move them?” John suggests people might have dragged the stones on mats of aspen and willow. That image is incredible—we’re talking about people who had only stone tools and brute strength to aid them, on an island that’s never seen large populations.
Archaeologists believe the circle was ceremonial, partly because of what lies within it: a horizontal stone slab, which might have been a de-fleshing table for human bodies. Ancient people might have used the table to allow animals and the elements to remove the flesh of the dead before burial, or to commit sacrifices. John lingers over the word “sacrrrifices,” as if he takes macabre delight in this theory.
HEAVEN AND EARTH
Just a mile away, we walk around the Ring of Brodgar, an even more visually staggering stone circle. Nearly 350 feet in diameter, it once boasted 60 standing stones, spaced an equal six degrees apart. Today, 27 stones still stand. John believes the theory that this four to 5000-year-old ring of stones was a lunar observation platform. It’s more hunch than theory, based on the mathematical precision of the circle, combined with a lifestyle dependent on the seasons—the Neolithic people were fishers, hunters and farmers.
John believes the theory that the Ring of Brodgar was once a lunar observation platform.
Neolithic people built similar stone circles throughout Scotland, England and Ireland. What reasoning, philosophy or religion made these circles so important to their culture? If they felt a sacred connection to nature, they couldn’t have picked a better place for the Ring of Brodgar. It’s in the center of a natural “cauldron”: surrounded by low hills, and seated on the Ness o’ Brodgar—a thin strip of land between the lochs (lakes) of Harray and Stenness. It’s surrounded by earth, water and sky.
I run my hand over one of the rough, sun-warmed stones. Although I don’t feel the transcendent spiritual vibe I’ve heard about, I do feel a connection to the “earthiness” of this place, what you might call the “everyday sacred.”
A MODERN STONE AGE FAMILY
At Skara Brae, the best-preserved prehistoric village in Northern Europe, it looks as if Fred and Wilma might return any moment. The stone village overlooks the sandy Bay of Skaill. Built around 3200 BC, it lay hidden until 1850, when a severe storm whipped the waves into a frenzy, blasting away sand and grass and exposing one of the houses beneath. The Laird of Breckness, once Lord of the nearby mansion, is credited with the discovery. The Laird’s children used that first stone hut as a playhouse.
The Stone Age village of Skara Brae lay hidden until 1850, when a severe storm exposed one of the buried houses.
Few playhouses were ever so well built. The one-room cottages still have stone cupboards, stone hearths and stone dressers with shelves. Beds are partitioned off with yet more stone. Although the beds look twin size, three or four people probably slept in each, piled together for warmth. These modern Stone Age homes boast the latest conveniences: a compartment dug into the floor and lined with stone may have been filled with cold seawater, to create a refrigerator. The cottages don’t look vastly different from today’s homes, just smaller. So, either their builders were advanced, or we haven’t evolved much.
The people of Skara Brae didn’t build with stone alone. They also recycled trash into construction material. The huts are sunk into mounds made from compost: old refuse, food scraps, bone and feces. The compost, called midden, acted as insulation, protecting the village from island winds.
A stone-lined passageway cuts through the midden. That tunnel still connects the half-dozen houses that have been unearthed, which sit close together. Archaeologists estimate about 20 families shared this tightly clustered community. Living in a neighborhood so linked together, I imagine they never had trouble remembering the names of the people two doors down, like I do.
The word prehistoric conjures images of a grunting, brutish, unthinking race of humans. But the old stones of Orkney suggest another story: of an intelligent, communal, spiritual people with a deep connection to the earth, and to each other.