To me Orkney is a place in which the echoes of past devotions take on powerful and tangible forms. I’ve already spoken of our journey to Orkney and some of the places we visited with our wonderful guides. In this post I intend to talk about some of the other places we visited both with and without our guides.
Our guides were adamant that we should experience a few of the lesser known and more unusual sites before we would visit Maeshowe on Thusday 7th July so the day before they took us to visit the Tomb of the Dogs also known as the Cuween Hill Cairn, Unstan Cairn and Rennibister Earth House. Many people visit Maeshowe and go away feeling that it is a good example of tombs in Orkney, and so it is in many ways, but it is also very unusual. It is one thing to accept this with your more logical mind but quite another to visit a wider range of tombs and see and feel the differences.
Our first tomb visit was to the Tomb of the Dogs or Cuween Hill Cairn. This is a small tomb a fair way up the side of a hill. It’s called the Tomb of the Dogs because there were a number of dog skulls found in it as well as human remains. To get to it you have to be fit to first get up the hill (which isn’t too bad) and then be flexible enough to get down and crawl thought the narrow passage way into the chamber beyond. The chamber is large enough for a small number of people to stand in but it is pitch black inside so a working torch is a must. It is an example of a chambered cairn with four smaller side chambers. the side chambers are virtually at ground level and you can look into them fairly easily. At Maeshowe the side chambers are well above the main floor level and would not be as easy to see into let alone access as the chambers at Cuween.
Personally I felt a sense of pressure while inside Cuween Hill Cairn. It wasn’t frightening but after a short while I felt as if the spirits of that place were telling me I had seen enough and it was time for me to leave now please. Definitely well worth a visit if you are physically fit enough to cope with the hill and crawling through the passage.
From there we visited Rennibister Earth House. A totally different experience. For a start it’s accessed via the yard to a working farm and via a metal ladder going down into the ground. This ladder is not the original access, that would have been the long sloping passage. Originally it would have been closed in and pitch dark but as it was discovered by a machine falling into the roof and now accessed that way it’s reasonably light inside. Human remains were found within the chamber but archaeologists are not certain of the original purpose of the structure. Around the walls are built in alcoves, not large ones and they look a bit like the alcoves seen in the neolithic houses and in the walls of the older section of Kirbuster farm museum.
To me this place felt as if it had been used for ritual purposes of some kind. I could see it being used for some sort of rite of passage perhaps. The atmosphere there was much lighter but mysterious too.
The last place we visited on that day was Unstan Cairn. This is a much easier place to access but still requires a bit of flexibility as you do need to bend a bit to go through the entrance passage. Inside it is a quite different style of structure. It has some features in common with chambered cairns in that it has a circular shape and a side chamber but other features are more like rectangular stalled cairns such as the one at Midhowe (which we didn’t visit). It is an odd place, very light because it has a modern concrete roof and unlike other tombs we visited very green from algae able to grow on the stones in the light. The stalls also add to the unusual atmosphere making it feel to me a bit like an animal barn even though it was very much a tomb still.
The following day we visited Maeshowe. This is a much larger tomb than the others we had previously seen and thanks to our guides we had a much greater appreciation for the design variations and the atmospheric differences. For a start at the other places it had been just us and the places themselves were much smaller. For Maeshowe you are in a tour group of about 25 people with a guide. Even though the place is larger you somehow feel more compressed due to the people around you all shuffling round to get a look at whatever aspect the guide is pointing at and talking about. It is an impressive place with a fascinating history both ancient and more recent. The Viking graffiti in it is interesting as well. Maeshowe is special and very well worth seeing but for me, in terms of atmosphere I much preferred the experiences of the lesser known tombs.
I’ve called this post “Echos of Devotion” and so far spoken of tombs, cairns and mysterious underground chambers. But if you think about the work involved in crafting these structures and the devotion to purpose the builders of them had I think you will understand why devotion is such a strong theme for me in reflecting about these places.
On Thursday after visiting Maeshowe in the morning we took a drive back towards the Churchill barriers and visited the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm. For anyone not in the know this is a chapel made using nissan huts and recycled materials by Italian prisoners of war during the second world war. It is an absolutely remarkable testament to the devotion of those involved in all aspects of the modification and decoration of the nissan huts. Although it was only completed just after the POWs were repatriated it has been beautifully preserved and cared for. From the information present at the site I believe there are occasional services held there. I absolutely loved this place! I found the atmosphere there highly sacred, a very special place and very accessible too.
Devotion of a different sort was our next stop as we sampled some of the wonderful offerings of the Orkney Wine Company, unsurprisingly after trying a few samples we purchased a few bottles to bring home. Very impressive products!
That afternoon found us in Kirkwell visiting St Magnus’ Cathedral. A wonderfully accessible venue for such an old cathedral. St Magnus’ Cathedral is a place that shows a different aspect of devotion again to me. In that place are the echoes of the devotion of craftsmen and women down the ages and the communities that have supported them as well as the echoes of the devotional use through many centuries. It’s a lovely example of Christian architecture through centuries too as different aspects of the building date to different time periods.
The last place I am going to mention in this post is the remains of an usual round church at Orphir that we visited on Friday, our last day on Orkney. The Orphir Round Kirk is the last remains of a medieval round church and the only one surviving in Scotland. It is found behind the Orkneyinga Saga Centre and the ruins of the Earl’s Bu. Another fascinating little place to visit with echoes of the past also surrounding these unusual church remains in the well kept and still used graveyard.
As always photos copyright and thanks to Neil Pitchford of Awen Photos.