August 19 to 30, 2003

Day Trip to Orkney

*Skara Brae
*The Ring of Brodgar
*Maes Howe

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Wednesday August 27th

Got up at the ungodly hour of 4:30 am (luckily, I slept through the night with just a brief wakeful period at midnight), had a shower then we had a taxi arrive to take us the half-hour drive to the ferry terminal at Scrabster. Taxi driver a mumbler, so the conversation wasn't so easily understood, thought he tried to converse. The ferry ride over was lovely, a new ferry. We had breakfast in the cafe. Arriving at Stromness felt familiar and strange. It has been nine years since I was last there, but then I knew it pretty well, having stayed 10 days there with Christina in 1991 and a week on my second trip in 1994 with my parents and Jim. It hasn't changed much, but has a little.

We attempted to visit Mrs. Venus Hourston on John Street where we used to stay, but there was no answer there, though the tourist information said she still runs a B&B there, and the door was open. Failing there, we walked over to the care hire place to rent a car for the day and got a little red Rover, which I drove as Matt's license has expired and Christina hasn't had one in years. Driving in Britain really doesn't bother me much--I seem to be able to make the switch over to driving on the left without great difficulty. I don't know why; perhaps because I'm lefthanded. I hate roundabouts, but they're minor in a place like Orkney, and there's not much traffic, all of which helps.

Our first destination was Skara Brae, a neolithic village that was discovered in the mid-19th century, when a big storm cut into a cliff and revealed its stonework. The site is a cluster of houses, with evidence of even older houses beneath then, which even have stone furniture remaining in place--the walls of beds and dividers and shelves the guidebooks call a bureau. Since I was there last they've opened up a whole new visitor centre and a replica that you can walk through to get inside and see what the place really felt like. It was wonderful to be back there. It's interesting how you look at something amazing when you've seen it a few times, how things seem familiar but there are still things you don't remember and that surprise you.

House at Skara BraeHouse at Skara Brae. You can see the shelves, the square fire pit in front of that, and to the right of that, the stones that divide off the sleeping area.


Afterwards we went over to Skaill House, which is right next to Skara Brae, but which has only recently opened up. It's a lovely small mansion dating from the 17th century, I think. A Graham, a bishop, lived there at one time and left a lovely four-poster bed (can I claim some relation to account for my love of Orkney?). Some charming rooms, a secret cupboard in the library, a lovely embroidered vest worn by the smuggler who married Margaret Graham, lots of oriental pieces, pictures and tiles and Oriental rugs, the place a mix of eras, like a well-lived-in house of its age should be.

Spent time back in the Skara Brae bookshop and then went back to the Ring of Brodgar. It's just as beautiful as I remember. It's a huge stone circle with about 30 stones that have worn into such lovely textures. I could have spent all day looking at them--and the lochs beside them, and the clouds and light moving around there. Just glorious. I think that was probably my fifth visit to the site.

Ring of BodgarA portion of the ring of Brodgar.


Drove past the Stones of Stenness (three very tall standing stones with a few others remaining around them), and there were no signs to direct us to the Barnhouse (a kind of longhouse), which Mom and Dad and I had seen the beginnings of in 1994. I wish I knew why there was nothing there to indicate it was there. Went on to Maes Howe, first getting into yet more trouble in the gift shop there.

Seeing Maes Howe again is curious. It's a large round Stone-Age tomb now covered over with grass. It largest I've ever seen. You can only go in now in a group tour with a guide. This being my fourth time, much was familiar but some things I don't remember. I didn't recall that one of the Viking graffiti writers had used mirror writing to show off his runes. I did manage to find what is called the Maes Howe Dragon or Lion, or as the the guide said, perhaps a wolf from Odin's tales. It's still a place that just feels full of questions--why did the people who built it do so? What happened to the remains there? What did the Vikings see when they came? What was lost when it was cleaned out in the 19th century? And of course, who were the people and what did they believe and how did they live? It's the kind of place that makes me wish I had some sort of time window, like a TV that would let me see what it had been like in the past, what the people looked like and what they did.

Stopped for a quick cup of tea, then drove on (passing many lone standing stones, signs for a couple of cairns that I'd seen in 1994, various other sights that had we more time we would have gone to see) and went into Kirkwall. Parked the car, and did power shopping. Books. Presents for Jim and one for Christina. A couple of things for Jim to give me for my birthday.

Then we had to drive back to Stromness, drop off the car, and head back to the ferry to buy our tickets home. Then another ferry trip (the sun on the rocky cliffs of the Isle of Hoy was just stunning), another taxi ride, and home.

And now it's midnight, so I'm going to try to sleep. Very strange on this trip that I seem to have forgotten how.

03.08.26 § Les Semaines Index § 03.08.28

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