I had not expected the opportunity to meet up with any standing stones or other historic sites on this trip, but to everyone’s delight India and Alison arranged a minibus and driver, designed a route, made sandwiches and off we went.

clever India had a folded book for us to make beforehand, an uphill and downhill island book, so that we could sketch as we drove along, preferably without looking down into our laps but taking in the stunning Orkney sinuous hills, lochs, sounds, firths and islands in a right brain drawing (that is, looking at the subject rather than the paper) the view changing rapidly meant that your hand had to swoop about, sometimes layering several viewpoints.

first on the itinerary was the broch of Gurness, just up the coast a little from Woodwick. it used to be the Knowe of Gurness, a green mound, until someone discovered a hole leading down into the remains of the broch.

probably trowes (Orkney version of troll) were thought to live in it before it was opened up, but in fact it was built by Picts in the iron age, and has the remains of many houses around the central tower

all built with slabs in a very similar way to Scara Brae in the Neolithic, which the Orkney stone lends itself to, splitting easily into large thin rectangular pieces

the entrance to the broch has many gateways and buildings stretching across the site. life here would have been crowded in a smoky claustrophobic environment.

we continued to Birsay, to the remains of a palace built about  two thousand years later, by a very unpleasant man, I think life might have been considerably worse than in the iron age for his peasants.

huge kitchens and brewhouse, plenty of chimneys, but this was fortified, and the Stewart earls, an illegitimate branch of the family, were hanged for treason in the 1600’s. by 1700 it was abandoned. a much shorter life than the broch.

just across the way

on a flat cap of land separated by a tidal causeway, the Brough of Birsay, (and how did our dear leaders know the tide would be out?) Thorfinn the Mighty, the viking earl who ruled Shetland, Orkney, nine earldoms of Scotland, and parts of Ireland from 1014 to 1065, had his base here. there are low walls designating the foundations of the settlement, complete with steam bath houses and drainage. it seemed quite basic and small for such a powerful man. but before the vikings wiped out christianity three hundred years earlier, there was a small Pictish church on the site.

then we had a scenic route around the coast

before turning inland for the climax of our trip

the Ring of Brodgar at sunset

the Viking story about these massive stones

is that a group of giants came to drink at the lochs and were caught out by sunrise, frozen into stone.

they are so huge that it’s hard to imagine how neolithic people got them there and stood them upright.

some are very tall indeed

and some are flat on the ground

we had wonderful light

it caught the heathery hills across the loch with a tinge of fire

and painted the sunward side of the stones

a lot of people have decided to leave their mark

including my initials ….

I would not dare to try to own them in such a way

even if I could

it’s like standing next to a remnant of a gothic cathedral

the mystery is clear and tangible

whether fallen or upright