Orkney: Skaill House and Our House

Remember, remember — fireworks tonight. Up in the northern isles they may just go with the Aurora Borealis

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Skaill House where the folks who discovered Skara Brae lived.

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A harsh but beautiful location on the bay.

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Even in the off season, there’s a beauty in the formal(ish) garden.

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The high-backed chair to guard from those pernicious drafts.

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Most of the stuff in this house was the fancy frou-frou I’m not particularly fond of, but they did have Capt Cook’s china in the cabinet of the formal dining room.

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A library! Now that’s more like it.

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A Norse calendar stick with runes.

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What’s a library without a hidden compartment?

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…and a fancy window?

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Ah, the explorer’s room.

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The bishop’s bed when he lived here in the 16th century; there’s a small reproduction of St Magnus’ Cathedral in the room which I forgot to take a picture of.

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Not *that* John Peel. I think.

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The laird of the house received the order of St Magnus from King Olaf himself.

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Here’s his formal wear.

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The cattle seem to thrive in the blustery conditions.

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Our lodgings with the Harray Potter, where Amy was apprenticing, were a bit simpler but more comfortable. Nice pottery, too!

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Like Austen heroines, we were diligent in our correspondence.

I am eager to go back to Orkney. It’s quite a striking place. The people who choose to live there are extraordinary. In the meantime, I’m NaNo-ing and getting ready to head south for the Weird Conference on Wednesday, where I’ll talk about Weird Noir. The days are just packed.

Orkney: Skara Brae

I didn’t get a picture of the seal who was bobbing up and down in the waves, but it was a sunny blustery day and I found Skara Brae very inspiring as well as fascinating. We had a lovely day there, including lunch in the café (mmmm, salmon). I was less interested in the manor house, but even there I found things to interest me (but that will have to wait as I chose so many of the site today). Thanks to Mary and Amy for a wonderful trip.

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A reconstruction of House 7 to give a sense of what the homes would look like.

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You may not think of stone as a warm hearth but the houses were large and cozy, and on a wind-whistling day like we had, warm.

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Spacious, too!

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Museums have embraced the idea of narrative as an organising principle. The walk shows how far apart in time many “old” events are — and how much beyond them Skara Brae is.

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Yep, older than Stonehenge.

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The sea has claimed some of the settlement (and rising ocean levels threaten more), but you get a sense of the organisation of it here.

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The turf protects the stones from the elements; the preservation efforts fight a slow losing battle.

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There’s such a beauty in the graceful curves.

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No wonder my imagination tries to bring it all back to life.

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Imagine this as your front garden with seals and seabirds.

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All the houses follow the same model but each one shows a variation on the theme.

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Four rainbows that day: a natural phenomenon that nonetheless delights.

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The stone shelves were used for storing food but also for displaying objects that meant something to the folks who lived there.

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In the distance Skaill House, where the modern people lived.

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How you know you’re not in America; people are trusted to be sensible.

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We were lucky with the weather; although cold and blustery it stayed dry — not bad for late October in the north.

Orkney: Ring of Brodgar

There’s nothing quite like these amazing old monuments, is there? Mary and Amy brought me by here the night I arrived in Orkney. I tried to take a picture in the moonlight but my camera wasn’t really up to it. But it was magical to be sure.

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“Because the interior of the Ring o’ Brodgar has never been fully excavated, or scientifically dated, the monument’s actual age remains uncertain. However, it is generally assumed to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC”

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The wind was coming on strong and later would howl wildly around the house. It kept most of the tourists away, too.

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Mary waited in the car (since she’d been there many times already and it was really cold) so forgive the selfie; wondrous light though, eh?

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I don’t think I got a shot that showed the whole of the ring, but I love the light of this one.

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The individual stones are all so singular; many have cracked as the fierce winds batter them.

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They wear in fascinating ways.

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A few have fallen, or layers of the stones have split and fallen.

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The same slabs are used in construction all over the islands, but they are prone to splitting in this manner.

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But the glory of walking among them has a cost; there are jerks who still carve their stupid names on these stones that have stood millennia. Morons.

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Some destruction is natural, like this stone felled by lighting.

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The wind leaves its story on the stones’ surfaces.

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What can I say? The same word returns: magic.

Orkney: Maeshowe & John Rae

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The wonderful mesolithic mound, raided by vikings and other adventurers, but still containing treasures.

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A brisk day indeed, but we were prepared. Of course by the end of the day it was clear a storm was on its way. A wild night of wind!

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Maeshowe is one of the greatest treasure troves of runes; bored vikings + a long storm = a fantastic collection of runes and a dragon.

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Of course you can’t take photos inside, as our guide Sarah reminded us, so you’ll have to imagine it – or go to maeshowe.co.uk and see how the winter solstice light shines through the entrance.

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All the cats in Stromness seemed to be ginger; maybe there’s a single ginger matriarch a few generations back…

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John Rae’s Close, commemorating the Arcadian explorer, whose effigy can be found in St Magus Cathedral. Vilified by Lady Franklin and celebrities like Charles Dickens, Rae has been proved right by history.

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The Stromness Museum featured an exhibit of Rae’s artifacts on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth including this bear claw crown. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Rae met the Inuit and other first people with respect.

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Rae learned from the Inuit of the failure of Franklin’s foray to find the Northwest Passage; his wife didn’t appreciate the news or its source and fought to send numerous expeditions to ‘prove’ his discovery all of which came to nought of course.

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I had to share this one just for the initials 😉 From a bootlegger ship that went down; ‘spirits’ that were poisonous to drink but sold during Prohibition causing blindness and even death.

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Stromness is a lovely town with houses jumbled close together for warmth and protection against the wind. Be sure to lunch at Julia’s Café when you get off the ferry.

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We drove to Orphir to see the area where Rae grew up, which he described as a boy’s paradise of hunting, fishing and rambling. A rainbow showed us it was truly golden.

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Dramatic skies; the weather was about to change for the worse, but it was lovely nonetheless.

More on John Rae

Maeshowe Official Site

Be sure to drop by A Knife & A Quill to read my Allan’s latest review

Orkney: Birsay

Only accessible at low tide, the island of Birsay was a viking stronghold offering safety and seclusion and gorgeous views.

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Here’s how it looks from the mainland at low tide. A slippery walk!

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Skies by Turner

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The stones piled up all over the island in situ

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The remnants of the viking homes; sheep still graze there.

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Surprising how much has survived the elements, let alone later visitors.

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What a view to wake to every morning, eh?

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The original pictish stone has been moved to a museum but this looks beautiful.

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I take far too many pictures of seaweed, bu I like how this looked like a hand coming up.

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The view to the next promontory south.

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The skies reminded me a bit of Galway, the western shores have that in common.

It’s also John Peel Day: share the music by keeping it Peel!

Orkney: Churches and Stones

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The St Magnus Cathedral: love the red and yellow stone

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The impressive doorway

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Of course I have to snap any image of my buddy Olaf, the viking saint

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He mostly seemed more viking than saint, but hey — it was all in the name of religion I guess

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Magnus is better known as a viking too, Orkney’s fine with that.

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In fact they’re proud of their viking heritage: I saw more Norwegian flags than saltires flying.

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This monument to St George marks another even odder church

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This church was built during WWII by Italian POWs.

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Hard to believe it was once a quonset hut!

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Photographing Amy photographing something else.

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We saw what looked like standing stones on top of a hill and investigated to find the Cuween Hill Cairn where prehistoric people and their dogs were buried.

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You get a lovely view including two islands famous as viking arenas for battle.

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The ‘stones’ ended up being stacked stones of varying sizes.

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When you have a lot of rocks, you incorporate them into your constructions.

Orkney Bound

No Nessie to be seen in the loch

No Nessie to be seen in the loch

It was hard tearing myself away from Dundee, as I had just got back from NY (or so it seemed) and Allan had just built me a brick wall that spelled out “Angry Birds” in Minecraft


But I had a great opportunity to go stay with friends Mary and Amy, while the latter takes up an apprenticeship with a potter here. So I was on my way Monday morning in the usual manner: a bus, a train, another train, a third and much slower train that sometimes went backwards, a ferry and then a car when they picked me up in Stromness. Orkney!

Heading into the highlands: too beautiful to capture from the train

Heading into the highlands: too beautiful to capture from the train

Lovely Inverness

Lovely Inverness

Standing in the ring of stones in the moonlight (take my word for it)

Standing in the ring of stones in the moonlight (take my word for it)

The view I woke up to

The view I woke up to Tuesday morning

The view behind the house

The view behind the house

Our alarm clock, Chaunticleer and Pertelote

Our alarm clock, Chaunticleer and Pertelote