Christina here and I have once again been travelling in search of inspiration for my stories – this time to the Orkney Islands! These are situated in the far north of the UK, in between the Scottish mainland and Shetland, and the journey involved a 12-hour road trip by car with another hour and a half by ferry. It was worth every second!
As always, I was on the trail of the Vikings and they settled in the Orkney Islands during the 8th and 9th centuries (possibly before that). If you sail in a straight westerly direction from the southern part of Norway you end up either in Orkney or Shetland, and it was an easy journey in a Viking longship, only a couple of days’ sailing. Therefore, it made sense that it was one of the first places the Vikings went to when they set off on their adventures.
We were extremely lucky with the weather and saw the islands at their best, green and beautiful and with bright blue skies. The light was out of this world! Although we spent most of the time on the largest island, the so-called Mainland, on our first day we braved a tiny open ferry to get to the nearby island of Rousay. I had already featured this in my latest novel and wanted to see it in real life and it didn’t disappoint. It was quite small and driving all the way round took less than an hour, but there were several Neolithic cairns, among them the Midhowe Chambered Cairn which was built 5,400 years ago and was a massive one with space for at least 25 people.
Nearby was the Midhowe Broch. As you probably know, a broch is a round Iron Age drystone-built tower that people lived in (and possibly used for defensive purposes) and there are over 500 of them in Scotland. They seem to have been high status buildings, showing that the owner had wealth and prestige. I found them fascinating, and the insides were divided into rooms with big stone slabs, and there were originally several floors with some staircases still intact. The Midhowe broch is situated by the shore and standing there I particularly enjoyed the peace and stunning views of the place.
Then we headed to the first Viking site on my list – the Brough of Birsay, a little tidal island reached by a causeway during low tide. We managed to time it right so that we could cross over and to my delight I found the remains of a substantial Viking settlement. It had apparently been one of their strongholds during the 11th century.
It was easy to imagine them settling there in a place that was easy to defend, and it was also quite simply beautiful. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how cold and exposed it must be during winter! (It was pretty windy even on a summer’s day). On the other side of the island puffins were said to nest, but not at the time we visited so we didn’t see any.
The following day we went to one of the most famous sites – Skara Brae, a Neolithic village near the seashore. It was built so long ago, people were probably living there before the Egyptian pyramids were constructed. Only nine of the dwellings have survived, but they were very impressive. Before you go and see them, you can enter a reconstruction of one of the houses which gives you a fantastic sense of what it was really like. Very cosy.
In Kirkwall, the main town, there was a historical museum and there I found the most fascinating item – a bear tooth carved with runes. I love seeing items that have been personalised in that fashion and could imagine someone wearing it, perhaps hoping for protection through magic.
We visited several other Viking sites – one at Orphir called Earl’s Bu and another at Deerness. The latter was reached via a long walk along spectacular cliffs that were part of a nature reserve. There had been a settlement on top of a 30 metre high sea stack on a promontory sticking out into the sea and it was absolutely gorgeous! Unfortunately we couldn’t go across to have a look, as there had been a landslide over the path, but we could still see the remains of the settlement from where we stood. Nearby was a beach and cove, perfect for Viking ships.
You simply can’t go to Orkney without visiting the Ring of Brodgar, a stone circle that originally consisted of 60 stones. There are only 36 left, but they are impressive enough. I felt in awe standing and walking among them as they were extremely tall and must have weighed a tonne. The brooding clouds above us added to the atmospheric feel of the place too and I loved it!
Nearby was another former stone circle, the Stones of Stenness, that now sadly only consists of four, but as they were about 6 metres in height, they were still extraordinary.
Finally, we visited Maeshowe, a chambered tomb built some 5,000 years ago. You can only go there with a tour guide as the place is kept locked up. It’s shaped sort of like a beehive and buried inside a huge earth mound. You enter via a 10 metre (30 ft) long tunnel that is only about a metre (3 ft) high so you have to walk hunched over. Once inside, it felt very intimate and it was easy to imagine the place used for rituals. The entrance is aligned so that for 3 weeks before and after the shortest day of the year the sun’s light shines straight down the passage.
What interested me the most, however, was the amount of Viking graffiti all over the walls. Apparently, a group of them had taken shelter inside the tomb one winter during the 12th century and they must have been seriously bored as they proceeded to scribble more than 30 messages on the walls. Some of it was very funny, for example the sentence written extremely high up that said “Eyjolf Kolbeinsson carved these runes high”. He literally did!
Anyway, I now have a lot of inspiration for my next Viking story!
Have you ever been to a Neolithic monument? They were clearly incredible builders and it’s impossible not to be in awe of their achievements!