"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Monday, 28 March 2011

Orkney Archaeology and Landscape

A trip to Orkney wouldn’t be complete, or really even possible, without seeing some ancient monuments.  5,000 years of human habitation can be seen across the landscape here and much of it shows the resilience of people living on the margin of the sea, in a land swept by North Atlantic storms that have both shaped, and in some cases preserved, the structures that they lived in or were the focal point for their communities.

Atlantic waves wash the shore beside Skara Brae
I will never get back to distilleries if I allow myself to be too distracted by the intriguing evidence left by Neolithic people so I will just give a brief mention to a few key places and hope that if you have not already been there you will one day have the chance to see these unique monuments and let the ghosts of the past whisper their story on the breeze.  Actually it was more of a winter gale for me so some of the voices and echoes were lost as I tried to avoid being blown off the various cliffs I ventured near to.  My car did get a good wash on the Churchill Barriers as well, more on which later.

Hearth and internal fittings at the Broch of Gurness
I mentioned Brochs in my report on Scapa Distillery and there are numerous remains of these Iron Age structures around the Orkney shoreline, central to farming communities around 2,000 years ago.  Many have disappeared, either through modern farming or just having their stones removed for the building of later dwellings around the islands.  The Broch of Gurness is the best preserved here, others marked on OS maps you wouldn’t otherwise know were there, even standing on the low grassy mound covering the foundation stones.

Standing Stones of Stenness
I also mentioned the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, in my Stromness report.  These are monuments of celebration, burial grounds, time keepers or markers of a community’s place in the land.  The stones here are not as massive as those at Stonehenge but they do predate them, Stenness from around 3100 BC and Brodgar more contemporary from around 2-2500 BC.  The scale of the Ring of Brodgar offers a different perspective as well, Stonehenge being quite an enclosed, exclusive space (even today) and Brodgar being an open expansive area measuring almost 104 metres across.  The area around the Ness o’ Brodgar has many burial mounds and there is an appropriate silence to the atmosphere.

Ring of Brodgar looking towards Stenness

Maeshowe chambered cairn
The best known of these mounds is the chambered cairn of Maeshowe, although how it was used for burials is not really known.  Dated to around 2,700 BC its shape was changed slightly in 1910 to help preserve the structure and it is now around 35 metres wide by 7 metres high and is entered by a single passageway.  At the winter solstice the setting sun illuminates the passage and strikes the back wall of the inner chamber.  Now run by the Historic Scotland you can take a tour into the inner chamber where Viking rune ‘graffiti’ can also be seen, the largest single collection of runes outside Scandinavia and some of which suggest that treasures were once removed from within.

Skara Brae Neolithic housing
Contemporary with the landscape markers of Maeshowe and Stenness was the Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae on the west coast of Mainland.  Preserved under sand and turf it was uncovered in a storm in 1850.  The initial excavations were not extensive and it was left to the elements for over 75 years.  It was first properly excavated in 1928 with further re-evaluations since and occupation of the houses dates from 3100-2500 BC.  The site is now run by Historic Scotland and there is an exhibition and visitor centre here.  Together with the three previously mentioned sites they form the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’, one of the five Scottish UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


Looking at the construction style of the Brochs and Skara Brae I noticed something familiar.  The many layers of flat stones in the buildings of Highland Park Distillery echo those buildings of antiquity.  Broken seams of rock are plentiful around Orkney, Old Red Sandstone being the dominant geology of the islands and easily cut into flagstones.   These flat and wide stones are ideal for strength against the wind and the thick walls from this style of construction also offer insulation.

Orkney building material for generations, shaped by nature and by hand
The Vikings who inhabited these islands around 1,000 years ago built their own style of settlements and the remains of one of these can be seen on the east slopes of the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island just of the northwest tip of Mainland.  The settlement may have been abandoned as the coast eroded, and parts of it have fallen into the sea.  The causeway can normally be crossed for two hours either side of low tide, although often less when the winds are high as was the case when I visited, this picture taken just 90 minutes after low tide with the causeway already covered.

Brough of Birsay
To the south of Mainland a 45 minute drive will take you to the closest point to mainland Scotland and past some interesting features from the last century.  The route takes you over the four Churchill Barriers built between islands to protect the fleet stationed in Scapa Flow during WWII after the sinking of HMS Royal Oak by a U-boat that had crept passed the earlier 'Blockships'.  There are many wrecks in the Flow that attract divers from all over the world and the masts of some Blockships can be seen above the waves.  The barriers were constructed from concrete blocks and were built by Italian POWs who also built the ornate Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, converted from two Nissen huts.
Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm
One notorious corner at the north end of barrier number 2 often meets the full force of the waves in Holm Sound and even a curved breakwater fails to stop the surf storming over the road on a wild day.  You have to time your crossing well to avoid being temporarily blinded by foaming water and it is definitely not safe for cyclists on a windy day.  Still, I had driven almost 1,000 miles by that point of the week so my car needed a wash that was duly delivered just before making it back to dry land.

Churchill Barrier car wash
That concludes my visit to Orkney where three very different distillery experiences were accompanied by over 5000 years of history, some pretty wild weather and the wise words of one of Scotland’s celebrated writers.  Barnard returned from Scapa Bay in stormy weather that delayed his crossing by 2 hours and he was very glad to reach Scrabster and an unnamed hotel, likely now the building converted into the Harbour Trust offices.  I returned the way I had arrived, by ferry from Stromness, passing the sentinel of the Old Man o’ Hoy on the way.


I found a hostel room in nearby Thurso and the next morning, before visiting Pulteney Distillery, I drove up to the most northerly point of mainland Britain, Dunnet Head, for no other reason than to say I had been there.  It’s a lovely drive though and there are some dramatic sea cliffs at the end of the road, the southern tip of Orkney just visible across the waves.  Due to time constraints (I had slept in) I didn’t make it to John O’ Groats for now I had to press on with a trip down the far northeast coast of Caithness and Sutherland.