Landscape by Keith Ratcliffe © 2008
In the Presence of giants
I recently spent a week on the Orkneys and although the bird life made the most impact on me you cannot escape the ancients on the islands. Standing beneath the huge Stenness stones after waiting for the other visitors to go you begin to feel their enormity but you are only a hundred yards from the road. At Brodgar the scale of the site makes the impact but it is difficult to avoid noticing the surrounding loch with its fishermen and other visitors.
A visit to Skara Brae coincides with a party of visitors from a cruise liner in five coaches so it is difficult to soak in the atmosphere of this place even though the skill of the ancient builders shines through.
At two places I began to feel closer to the history of this time capsule island and both of those were experienced alone. At the Tomb of the Eagles I listened to the lovely presentation by the guides – so personal and unscripted in contrast to the more formal delivery of the Skara Brae interpreter. Then I was left to explore the Tomb on my own and managed to be completely unaccompanied by others. The quiet exploration of this site by pulling oneself into the tomb on a trolley was eerie and the sound of the sea rolling in outside added to the effect. Lying down on the floor and absorbing the aura completed the intensity of this experience.
The second place I felt close to the history was the island of Birsay. It was a miserable afternoon and I was the only person who braved the rain to cross the causeway and explore the old church site. Thorfinn the Raven Feeder established this kirk in his later days of moderation – having fed the ravens with enough corpses over the years he began to feel a need to prepare for his own afterlife and set up this church. The ruins are un-prepossessing but the location is superb and I began to feel closer to that time as I walked the site. The small chapel area and the sauna evoked the two worships of god & pleasure within yards of each other. No interpretation was necessary – just quiet contemplation and imagination.
At the end of the week I visited Maes Howe (Another Historic Scotland site – I got my value this week) and listened with 12 other visitors to a 45 minute exposition on the site – how I longed for a solitary exploration like that of the person who first identified that the winter sunset propagated its rays down the entrance passage or the one who discovered the runes and the exquisitely carved Maes Howe lion.
Just hours before my ferry departs I sit alone on the far side of the Loch looking towards the Ring of Brodgar. The Curlews & Oystercatchers call and a lark rises out of the tussocks, Peewits circle in alarm and cry adomonishingly. These sounds are ancient & modern all in one and will be the abiding audio memory to accompany the view of the stone sentinels of Brodgar.
© Keith Ratcliffe
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