Breakfast at our accommodation was excellent and very good fuel for the day ahead.
At 9am our wonderful guides Helen and Mark Woodsford-Dean of Spiritual Orkney joined us. We hadn’t met them face to face before although I had known Helen online for a while. I’d contacted Helen while we were planning the honeymoon trip to ask if she had availability in her calendar for the week we were going to be in Orkney. She did and we had an exchange of emails and Facebook messages to arrange things during which she planned an itinerary for us based on what I’d told her about the sort of things we wanted to see.
It is possible they might have shown us a couple of places if we’d asked out of friendship but personally I would have felt guilty taking up their time and expertise during the peak tourist summer season when tour guiding is one of the ways they make a living. Besides we wanted to see lots of places and having experts showing us around was something we wanted to do. And not just expert tour guides but fellow Pagans and people we knew a bit about. I can not stress enough how delighted we both are that we went down this route. Helen and Mark are lovely people and great guides.
Our itinerary for our first full day included the Stones of Stenness, Barnhouse Neolithic Village, Ness of Brodgar, Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae and a couple of hours on the Brough of Birsay.
As we journeyed around we were treated to a wonderful combination of archeological information, including from their own experiences digging at the Ness of Brodgar, and local folklore.
I’m not going to write huge amounts here about these wonderful places for a couple of reasons. One is that so much has already been written about them, the other is that the experience of being at these places is unique to each person. What I do have is a few of my husband’s photos to share as a picture can be worth a thousand words.
One of the more profound experiences for me visiting these places was that, thanks to Helen in particular, I could understand more about these places than I would have done otherwise. Little details that helped me see something more of that ancient way of life that I’m pretty sure I would have overlooked without her explanations. Encouraged by Helen to really look at the houses of Skara Brae for example I could see not only the similarities between each structure but also the little differences that made me think of the way we all like to personalise our own spaces when we can.
On the Brough of Birsay (which is reached via a tidal causeway) we saw puffins, fulmars, razorbills and skuars flying from nests and resting places on the cliffs. We also saw the Viking ruins there with their excellent drainage systems (again I’d never have realised what we were seeing without Helen pointing them out). We also had the opportunity to scramble through a cave towards the top end of the Brough which Helen referred to a rebirth cave. It was a couple of steps down to the entrance and then as you made your way through the cave it narrowed until you came to the opening at the other end and had to crawl to get out. While we didn’t have the opportunity to make a full formal ritual around doing this it still had that rebirth effect for me at least.
Our second day was also spent with our lovely guides and on that day we visited the cliffs at Yesnaby, Kirbuster Farm museum, the Broch of Gurness, the Tomb of the Dogs, Rennibister Earth House, Happy Valley and Unstan Cairn. Again I’m using some of my husband’s photos to help show something of our experiences but as there’s less written about some of these places I’ll try and write a bit more too.
The cliffs at Yesnaby are wild and parts of the landscape look like they have been transplanted from another world.
On the heath before the cliffs you can find the rare primula scotica. This is a tiny little plant and not easy to spot unless you know what you are looking for so it will probably be no surprise for me to tell you that Helen found them and once we had been shown them we were able to find more in that area.
Kirbuster farm museum is a fascinating place. Part of the buildings date back to the 16th century and there are recognisable features from the styles of buildings at Skara Brae and the other neolithic sites that have clearly been continued through the ages such as the sleeping alcoves and built in wall niches. This is also a free museum with very knowledgable and friendly guides – well worth a visit.
By a narrow margin I think my favourite part of that day was the visit to Happy Valley. This lovely place has very unusual gardens by Orkney standards that were planted by the former owner who was something of a recluse during his life. Luckily the building and gardens are being preserved and cared for by the Friends of Happy Valley group. It is a beautiful place and has a magical atmosphere to it. I wish we could have stayed there much longer but my need for certain facilities meant we had to move on as the house was locked up.
I think I will write a separate post about experiences with tombs, cairns and the Rennibister Earth House and bring this section of our Orkney experiences to a close.
All photos copyright Neil Pitchford, Awen photos.