An announcement came over the Tannoy – our ferry would just make it in to Stromness, but its return journey to Scrabster would be cancelled. The other passengers took in this information without a murmur. Orcadians know that they are cut off, that they live in a world apart.
The gusts blowing in off the bay gathered momentum, and the roar of the waves against the shore was lost in the hum of the engines. Across the water the oil terminal on the isle of Flotta sparkled in halogen blasts of orange and yellow light.
Once ashore, I drove along darkening roads towards the parish of Orphir. I pulled up beside a byre – steaming cattle munching on winter fodder – and stepped out into the afternoon darkness. A path led past the turfed foundations of an old Viking drinking hall and up to the ruined shell of a church. Only the apse of the church remained, thick-walled and rounded, cut with a narrow slit window like an archer’s turret. Its masons must have been masters of siege-craft. The apse walls seemed impossibly ancient, a crumbling reminder of a vanished world. Pebbles had been spread out in a crisp horseshoe to mark the line of its hidden foundations – the walls of this church had once run in a circle. A notice riveted on a wall nearby read: “This is the only round church known to have been built in Scotland, although several survive in England and Europe … the Orkneyinga Saga mentions the church here in 1136.”
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Walking around the foundations, I thought of the thick walls that once stood on them and the men and women that had built them. Other round churches in Europe have been linked with the Templar Knights, the order founded at the beginning of the 12th century to protect pilgrims who went on Crusade. Their churches were round in imitation and veneration of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which their order was sworn to protect.
Jumping down into the apse I wondered how many of its Orcadian builders had themselves walked in Jerusalem. Its floor lies a few feet below ground level, and its narrow window faces east in the style of the first Byzantine basilicas, the direction from which St John Damascene said that Christ would return. There was no life in there now, only the cold, clay smell of the earth. The space held no memory of the wine and incense that for centuries would have perfumed its air.
Five miles to the north stands another memory in stone, the neolithic burial mound of Maeshowe. The following day I made my way there. It is at least 4000 years older than the church at Orphir, but it is not ruined yet. It was already ancient when the Pyramids were new. The people who built it had a skill that still baffles archaeologists. They had no iron, no wheels, and yet they dragged vast slabs of stone through bog and field to build a structure that seems to speak of magic, of a forgotten power. Maeshowe is precisely orientated so that in the days around midwinter rays from the setting sun slide across the low Orkney hills before shining directly up the entrance tunnel. The light forms pools on the back wall of the inner chamber, a golden promise of the sun’s returning. The structure is the ultimate expression of rootedness, built by a people inseparable from their land. You can come to Orkney to experience it or you can watch it by webcam from the comfort of your own computer. Five thousand years ago death, darkness and hunger must have been urgently present, and it seems that keeping them at bay demanded complex rituals. Maeshowe would have been a focal point of people’s lives, a living symbol, part of the cultural landscape. It contained the bones of the dead and, each midwinter, the promise of new life and the return of the sun.
Driving up to its visitor centre I hoped that the severe weather had stranded some of the pre-booked visitors on the mainland. Around midwinter Maeshowe can be booked up for days at a time and it can be difficult to get an entrance ticket. But I was in luck.
To enter I had to crawl and fumble my way through a tunnel of rock. After about 10 metres of narrow darkness an inner chamber unfolded in a sudden surprise of space. I stretched upright and looked around. The darkness was softened by halogen lamps, bolted to the sandstone slabs. Where they shone algae had grown in the pallid light, nourished by condensation from the breaths of tourists like me, come to stand in this ancient space. The shriek of the Orkney gale was silenced by the immensity of the walls. Seen from the outside, Maeshowe is just a grassy mound among green fields, where sheep graze and gulls wheel. But inside the air was still, heavy with age and pregnant with a meaning that felt just out of reach. Three dark cells led off the main chamber, like portals to another time. The walls had been scrawled with strange symbols, runic writing, and each stone was shaped and placed with precision. The Historic Scotland guide switched off the lights and gradually our patience was rewarded; golden light poured slowly along the floor of the chamber, viscous as honey. We don’t know what language those neolithic builders spoke, but each midwinter the walls must have echoed with mutterings of fear, sighs of relief.
The guide’s voice began to conjure other shadows from the past. The neolithic people crept away as she switched on her torch and began to tell us about the runic writing on the walls, now known to have been written by Norse inhabitants of Orkney some time in the 12th century. The tension dissolved and laughter broke out as she translated:
“Ingibjorg the fair widow; many a woman has had to lower herself to come in here, despite her airs and graces.”
“I bedded Thorni. By Helgi.”
And then some boasting about how well-travelled these Norsemen were:
“These runes were carved by the greatest runester in the Western Ocean.”
And close to a rude carving of a crusader’s cross, “Jerusalem-farers broke into this mound.”
I was not thinking about the winter solstice any more, but remembering teenage scrawls on school desks, trees and toilet cubicles. I instinctively liked these Vikings; they felt so much more free and recognisable than the neolithic people with their immoveable cult of death and stone. Moving on, the guide tried to interest us in Victorian archaeologists (they built a roof for the chamber which is already crumbling), but somehow the spell was broken and we all filed back into the tunnel.
The day before it had felt as if the weather forced isolation on the people of Orkney, but it seems that 800 years ago Orcadians had very different ideas. Some of them felt at home “throughout the Western Ocean”. The round church at Orphir was inspired by far-travelled Templar knights, based on a church one of them must have seen over 4000 miles away. The proud Viking boasts on the walls of Maeshowe too spoke of the long journey to Jerusalem, the survival of which was no mean feat in the 12th century.
Unravelling from the dark tunnel back into the wind was like being reborn into a living land of flung grasses and calling birds, made all the sweeter by the promise of a warm pub. Orkney did not feel so isolated after all.
Gavin Francis is the author of True North, Travels In Arctic Europe (Polygon, £10.99).
Getting there: Flybe (www.flybe.com) has flights, operated by Loganair, from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness to Kirkwall Airport, from about £110 return from Glasgow. Northlink Ferries (www.northlinkferries.co.uk) operates ferries from Aberdeen and Scrabster. The ferry from Scrabster is 90 minutes, and cars can be taken on board. From £44.60 per car one way from Scrabster, £68.30 from Aberdeen. Pentland Ferries (www.pentlandferries.co.uk) runs a ferry from Gill’s Bay, in Caithness, to St Margaret’s Hope, about 40 minutes south of Kirkwall, £30 per car. By train and bus from the main cities, you can travel to Thurso, where a bus connects to the ferry from Scrabster. In summer, The Orkney Bus (www.jogferry.co.uk) runs from Inverness to John O’ Groats to catch a foot-only crossing to Burwick, Orkney, (£28), where a bus will take you to Kirkwall.