Wideford and Cuween Hills

Bay of Firth from Wideford Hill
Bay of Firth from Wideford Hill

We spent one morning finding holes for John to climb in and out of! The cairn half way up Wideford Hill is a communal tomb dating back to 3000 BC. There’s a box with a torch to help you down the ladder, but I didn’t like the idea of that trapdoor accidentally closing over me so stayed outside. Our intrepid explorer had no such worries:

It’s not a very pleasant climb from the tomb to the top of the hill – lots of stumbling over huge clumps of heather – but the views are rewarding. It’s interesting that the hill was part of an ancient communication system – the site of one of a chain of beacons which would be lit to warn of attacks – and serves a similar function today (well, communication not the attacks). The engineer took a great interest in the different antennae at the radio transmitting station. I continued to enjoy the views.

At the other side of Bay of Firth is Cuween Hill with another Neolithic chambered cairn. Again, I declined to enter – too low!

As we approached the hill, it had looked as though there were standing stones on the top. This seemed odd as we knew there weren’t anyway – it turned out to be a large number of modern cairns built behind the tomb. Who made them and why are they there? I have no idea – I can’t find an explanation online (though admittedly, I haven’t spent too long looking) or in any of the guidebooks.

In my next Orkney post I terrify myself with memories of 19 years ago.

Advertisements

Ness of Brodgar and the standing stones

Ness of Brodgar
Ness of Brodgar excavations

Here’s something that wasn’t there on our last visit to Orkney! Well, it was, but it was buried under a farmer’s field. Ness of Brodgar is a thin finger of land between two lochs – to the south lie the Stones of Stenness and to the north the Ring of Brodgar (see below for more on both). The area is known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999 (Skara Brae and Maes Howe are also nearby.) In 2003, a plough uncovered a large, worked stone and subsequent excavations revealed that the entire area of the Ness was covered with 5000 year old structures. We were lucky enough to visit the site on a day when an archaeologist was giving a tour and we spent 90 fascinating minutes having it explained to us and viewing some of the artefacts. The dig only takes place for a few weeks each year – if you are visiting Orkney in 2016, try to be there between 6th July and 24th August.

Ring of Brodgar

Ring of Brodgar is a 104m diameter circle with 27 of (possibly) 60 original stones still standing. It’s very dramatic.

Stones of Stenness

This is a smaller circle with four of its original 12 stones – the tallest is a slender 16 feet.

Nearby is Barnhouse, a Neolithic village which was occupied c 3200-2900 BC. What a beautiful place to live – I’d love that view, but only with 21st century living conditions!

Maes Howe

Maes Howe
Maes Howe

Maes Howe is one of Europe’s most impressive Neolithic burial chambers (3000 BC). There’s not much to see but a mound from the outside and photography is not allowed inside. You enter down a long, narrow passage which is aligned so that at the winter solstice the light of the setting sun shines straight down it and illuminates the back of the central chamber. Fortunately for my back, although it’s a small chamber, you can then stand upright. The tomb was discovered in 1861, but was more or less empty by then thanks to centuries of grave-robbing. Some intruders had left their marks – there’s a lot of Viking graffiti! Our guide said they used to call one section the postcard wall, but now she felt it was more like Twitter with its brief updates such as “Thor and I bedded Helga”.

Maes Howe operates on a timed-ticket system and you might have to book a couple of days in advance to get the slot you want, but it’s a must-see. It’s probably one of the two most famous sites on Orkney, the other being Skara Brae. I’ll tell you about it in my next post.

Shetland’s Westside

Sandness
Sandness on Mainland Shetland’s Westside

After a few days in Lerwick we moved north to Busta House, exploring the Mainland’s Westside on the way. It has a couple of Neolithic sites – Scord of Brouster, a settlement from c 2000 BC, and Staneydale Temple from c 3000 BC. The latter name was made up by the archaeologist who excavated it, but it almost certainly wasn’t a temple – more likely a communal building or the house of a chieftain.

After exploring the ruins, we had worked up an appetite but there aren’t many cafés on the Westside – in Walls, the café is a moveable feast and that day it was based in the Methodist Church. It was so busy that we couldn’t find anywhere to sit, so we headed into the village and purchased a typical (?) Scottish lunch from the bakery. Macaroni pie! Surprisingly tasty. There had also been a wedding locally and we admired models of the happy couple.

The Westside coast is beautiful, as we found on a circular walk from Huxter. (See Sandness at the top of the post for another example.) We started at a row of ruined watermills, such as this one:

Huxter mill
Huxter mill

We then walked along the cliff tops till we could go no further without climbing higher and higher…

…until we could look down over Banks Head.

Banks Head
Banks Head

From there, we made our way along the ridge and dropped back down to Huxter via Scammi Dale, savouring the great views to the island of Papa Stour.

Scammi Dale
Scammi Dale

The Westside ends at the pretty harbour of Voe – you couldn’t walk too far along the pier for fear of disturbing the inhabitants.

Voe
Voe
Voe
Voe

Busta House, our home for the next three nights, is somewhere we have stayed before. Nineteen years ago, it felt as though it was in the middle of nowhere. Now the town of Brae, home to many of the workers at Sullom Voe Oil Terminal, is creeping out to meet it.

Once inside, you are surrounded by history. The earliest part of the house was built in 1588 by the Gifford family, who gained in wealth until the 18th century when a death and a disputed marriage dissipated their fortune. The wronged wife, Barbara Pitcairn, allegedly haunts Busta, though I never saw any signs! You can read the full story on the hotel’s website.

The house was bought in the 1950s by Sir Basil Neven Spence, the local MP. He rescued some gargoyles from the House of Commons in London which were about to be discarded because they were damaged by wartime bombing. These gargoyles are still in the gardens of Busta House – you can see one in the gallery above.

The northern part of Shetland’s Mainland is lovely for walking (isn’t it all?) as you’ll find out in a later post.

 

Jarlshof to Sumburgh Head

Medieval farmhouse
Jarlshof and the Sumburgh Hotel
On a glorious morning we set out for the southern tip of Mainland Shetland to visit Jarlshof and Sumburgh Head – there’s a lovely cliff walk between the two sites. We started off with morning coffee in the Sumburgh Hotel and thought we might be back in time for lunch, but there was so much to do that we only made it in time for afternoon tea and cakes. Not complaining….

You might think Jarlshof sounds like a Viking name, but it was actually coined by Sir Walter Scott. It’s my favourite of all the archeological sites we visited on Orkney and Shetland because its multiple layers cover such a long period from the late Bronze Age to the Middle Ages. The picture at the top of the post shows the remains of a medieval farmhouse. There are also oval-shaped Bronze Age houses, an Iron Age broch and wheelhouses, Viking long houses and a 16th century laird’s house. The site is run by Historic Scotland and includes a small visitor centre.

Wheelhouses
Wheelhouses

Norse house
Norse house

Laird's House
Laird’s House
After a wander round Jarlshof, we set off along the cliff-top path, with the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head clearly in view ahead of us.

It’s not very far, but there were many stops to look over the cliff edges (safely!) to see birds – so many birds. The puffins are my favourite – and presumably John’s too as he took umpteen photos of them.

We spent a lot more time at the lighthouse than we expected – I don’t remember there being such an extensive visitor centre last time we were there. You can even rent holiday accommodation there if you wish (though not in the tower itself).

Finally, it was time to turn round and return to the Sumburgh Hotel via the other side of the Head. As the lighthouse retreated into the distance behind us, Sumburgh Airport came into view ahead, and from there it was a short drop down to the hotel.

I’m linking this post to Jo’s Monday Walks. I wonder where everyone else is taking us this week?

Torwood Castle and Tappoch Broch

Tappoch Broch
Tappoch Broch
I have Paul at Through the lens to thank for alerting me to this walk – I had never heard of either Torwood Castle or Tappoch Broch before he wrote about them. Not long after I read his post, we set out to explore ourselves.

From the village of Torwood, we headed up Castle Loan to the castle itself which dates from 1566. It’s now in the care of a trust but from 1957 until 1998 it belonged to Gordon Millar, a chartered accountant from Glasgow. He spent all that time renovating the ruin but died before completing his project. I’d say there’s not much left to show for it really! Poor Mr Millar. The cows don’t seem impressed.

We carried on past the castle in search of the Blue Pool, a Victorian brick-lined tank with clear, turquoise water. No-one seems to know what it was used for but the colour is thought to be from the high levels of aluminium sulphate found in the local fireclay.

We then retraced our steps back to the castle and headed up to the broch, one of the best-preserved in lowland Scotland. Brochs are Iron Age dwellings consisting of two concentric drystone walls forming a hollow walled tower with galleries and stairways in between. There’s just enough left to get some idea of that – see the panorama at the top of the post and the pictures below.

From the broch, it was a pleasant walk back through the woods to the car.

Linked to Jo’s Monday Walks – meet walkers worldwide at her site.

Cornish Chronicles: prehistoric sites

The Penwith peninsula is as rich in prehistory as it is in industrial archaeology. We spent a morning walking round Mên-an-tol and Nine Maidens, also visiting Lanyon Quoit and Malden a short drive away.

Mên-an-tol

Mên-an-tol means “stone of the hole” in Cornish. It consists of two menhirs (monumental stones) on either side of a hollow stone. Crawling through it was said to be a cure for infertility and rickets, according to my Lonely Planet guidebook. We stayed firmly on our feet.

Nine Maidens

Nine Maidens stone circle was a short walk away. Maedn is another (older) Cornish word for stone, so the name has nothing to do with young women.

Lanyon Quoit

Quoits (known elsewhere as dolmens) are three or more uprights topped by a capstone and built on top of a chamber tomb. This capstone weighs 13.5 tonnes, and in the 18th century a man on horseback could have sheltered underneath. A storm in 1815 blew the quoit down and damaged it, but the version rebuilt nine years later is still big enough to stand under.

Madron Chapel and Holy Well

Madron’s Holy Well was a sacred site for pre-Roman Celts. It still is, judging by all the offerings and prayers hanging on the tree. The nearby chapel ruins date “only” from the early Middle Ages.

After an enjoyable pootle round ancient sites, in the next instalment, we go back to the coast.