on and on about Northeast Scotland (2005-09-09 - 4:20 p.m.)

Guess what – I get to work flex-time starting Monday! So pleased. I suspect I’ll always be the one stuck coming in at 8:30 am (I’m usually the first one here anyway), but that means if I stay late I can start building up some time. Sweet.

Anyway, going back to Orkney (and how I wish I was)… Having examined every standing stone within a two-mile radius (and this includes a few that were just standing on peoples’ lawns, and one example that had been used as a fencepost!) we checked out another Neolithic village at Barnhouse. This one was uncovered in 1980 but there wasn’t much left.

We walked over to Maes Howe, which is a (surprise) Neolithic tomb. You had to take a guided tour through this one, as it’s not just open to the public. From the outside it looks like a big grassy hill (though an abnormally regularly-shaped one). You crawl through a tiny hole into a passage that’s about ten feet long. Our tour group included a bunch of OAPs who did not enjoy that bit at all (I’m surprised some of them made it).

Once inside the tomb is a small, square room with three L-shaped side chambers. Interestingly, the roofs of the chambers are made of a single block of stone each, as is the roof of the entry passage – one huge freakin’ piece of stone. I have no idea how they managed that feat (and neither does anyone else, apparently.) One theory is that Orkney used to have trees (it’s now practically treeless except in the town) and they used logs as rollers to move bits of stone about. As our guide said, “Maybe that’s where all the trees went!”

Then the tomb wasn’t used anymore. They blocked the entrance up with stone and either covered it with turf, or spread earth over it so the grass would cover it. It then lay there for a couple of thousand years, until the time when the Vikings were out and about and living in Orkney. The story goes that some of them were coming back from the Crusades and got caught in a storm on the Orkney mainland. It being treeless, they didn’t have much by way of shelter. One of them noticed they were standing on an odd-shaped hill – an odd-shaped hollow hill. They couldn’t find the entrance so they dug down through the top and discovered the tomb. And, as they were bored, they carved graffiti all over it. The whole inside is covered with Viking runes saying things like “The man who carved these runes is the best rune-carver in the Western Isles” and others go on about treasure (obsessed Vikings!) There’s also a really pretty little drawing of a dragon or lion.

The most interesting thing about Maes Howe is that it was built using the dry-stone method, meaning the stones are held together only by gravity. Flattish stones are piled on top of each other sloping inward as they go up, and then a capstone is placed on top (wrecked by the Vikings in this case, sadly).

Anyway, after the tour we headed for the road and sat on a wall waiting for the bus back to Stromness. We must have been looking suitably pathetic, because a very nice English guy with a stutter stopped and offered us a ride back. Got us back to the ferry in lots of time.

We spent that night in Thurso and didn’t do much beyond look around the town and eat a takeaway dinner sitting on a disused slate quarry next to the ocean. I didn’t think much of Thurso really. There’s a nice town square, but apart from that it’s dingy and depressing. Lots of fishermen striding about in hipwaders eating fish and chips, though, for that authentic feel.

Next morning we were up bright and early again, only to have the B&B guy correct Brad’s pronounciation of his own name at breakfast. Being Australian he pronounces McKay exactly the way it’s spelled, whereas the approved Scottish pronounciation is McKy. Nothing like being told how to say your own name by a large dour Scot!

We set off down the road. First stop: Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on mainland Britain. It was all downhill (or South, at least) from there. There was a lighthouse and a nice view of the cliffs from Dunnet Head, but not much else except some old abandoned WWII bunkers.

Onwards to Mey, where we narrowly missed visiting the Queen Mother’s Scottish abode by being 15 minutes early. We continued straight on to John O’Groats, which I wanted to say I’d seen (though Brad was not enthusiastic). John O’Groats was quite something. I expected tackiness, but this “town” brought the concept to a new level. The high (or low) point was being told we couldn’t take a picture of the John O’Groats sign, because you can only have a picture if you pay the official photographer for one. So we went and found another sign that said “John O’Groats” and photographed it for free. Then we stopped at the loo (which won “Loo of the Year Award 2004”) and headed for the coast again.

Stopped at Duncansby Head, which (after a walk through some very sheep-infested fields) has lovely imposing cliffs of a dizzying height, as well as three sea stacks. Unfortunately it was a bit foggy, but we got a pretty good look at the stacks (and an excellent look at the sheep, who for some reason were all on the side of the fence closest to the cliffs – three feet from a couple-hundred foot drop). They all ran away when they saw Brad’s jacket. It’s just that loud.

Down the coast to Wick (nice place) where we drove to Old Wick Castle, debated walking the mile to go see it up close, decided we felt lazy and instead drove over to Castle Sinclair. Unfortunately it was closed for renovation, but we walked up to the gate and got a pretty good look. It’s perched on a cliff looking looming and ruined. Wish we could have got a closer look, but maybe next time.

Down we drove towards Inverness. Armed with both the Rough Guide to Scotland and the Lonely Planet, we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to see in the area. Next stop was the Whaligoe Staircase, which I can highly recommend. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but it was a winding set of 365 steps going down a cliff. They were just big flat pieces of stone set into the rock that you could walk down on. It led all the way down to a tiny harbour containing an old ruined stone house and a cave. Just like something out of the Famous Five! It was really pretty down there with great views out to the sea, and I wished we could stay longer.

Next stop was the Hill o’Many Stanes, which was exactly what it sounds like. It’s a sort of heather-covered slope with about 200 little standing stones, all lined up in rows down the hill. Apparently there were orignally about 600 of them, and nobody’s quite sure what they were used for. Quite a sight, anyway, especially in among the purple heather.
We took a bit of a detour at this point to see the Grey Cairns of Camster. I was particularly curious – what a great name! The Grey Cairns turned out to be more Neolithic tombs of a very similar type to Maes Howe. There’s an earlier round one and a long one with two chambers and a sort of platform at either end. These ones were not guarded and there were certainly no tours – you just opened the little gate and crawled down the TINY narrow passageway to get in. I had to hunker way down and Brad actually had to sort of slither through on his hands and knees. It was very creepy and very interesting. They were similar structures to Maes Howe, although there was a pile of rocks rather than turf covering the outside. Same drystone method, though no side chambers inside these ones.

Our last stop was Dunrobin Castle. Brad insisted we stop because the Sutherlands who owned Dunrobin were the ones who kicked his family off their crofts back in the day. He was planning to break a few windows or something (but I managed to restrain him). Dunrobin is quite something. It’s hugely imposing from the front, being one of those castles that was started in the 1300s and has had bits added on every century since. And it’s HUGE. Unfortunately it’s privately owned (not Historic Scotland), so we actually had to pay the entrance fee for this one, for the only time on the trip.

The inside was as imposing as the outside. Despite being so lavish it did sort of feel lived in. It has a lovely green and gold bedroom with a dressing room that’s as big as my whole bedroom, and a library that I would give my right arm for. Huge shelves of books and cozy couches… lovely. I especially liked the playroom, which had a lovely big dollhouse (though there was a grouchy-looking room-guarder standing there, so she scared us off pretty quickly). I would say the castle is defintely worth seeing. But unfortunately (with Brad’s rant ringing in my ears) I couldn’t help but thinking whose blood paid for all the extravagence. The Sutherlands were some of the worst landlords during the Clearances, from what I’ve heard.

We got there too late to spend too much time, but did have a look round the gardens. They’re very formal and therefore not really to my taste, but they did look amazing. Especially from above, out the castle windows. There is a falconry thingy on one side of the gardens, and though we were too late to see the display, I did see a huge Golden Eagle tethered to a log. I put my head on one side and moved forward to get a closer look and he did the same thing back to me!

By this point I had hit a wall and was completely exhausted. I sort of zoned out through the windy drive down to Inverness. We stopped at a pub there and had a cheap and yummy pub meal, and then poor Brad had to drive the four hours back to Edinburgh – the last two of them through an insanely heavy fog.

So yeah. One heck of a trip, cramming an insane amount of stuff into a few days. I think I am still recovering, because I’m completely exhuasted all the time now. Oh well, still worth it.

On the downside, I lost my glasses somewhere. Very unhappy about that. I am still working through my list of places to call and check if they’ve been turned in before giving up and spending too much money on new ones…

backwards ~ onwards

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Missed anything?
moved! - 2008-05-12
Sunday = time to ramble on - 2008-05-11
apparently I'm doing monthly updates these days. Sorry. - 2008-05-04
watershed - 2008-04-06
end of trip - 2008-03-31

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