from PhilipCoppens Website
It is rumored that one inhabitant once wrote “Bergen, Norway” as his nearest train station, rather than Edinburgh - let alone London as the nearest capital. The islands seem remote and yet they are the centre of a megalithic community whose traces remain clearly distinguishable in the landscape.
Though Europe’s western facing Atlantic coasts, from Orkney down to Morocco, are known to have communicated throughout Megalithic times and are considered to be “one”, the question remains why this civilization stretched so far north.
Or to rephrase the problem:
For some, it has lead to theories that suggest that the Orkneys were a staging post for ancient sea routes to the Americas - in Megalithic times - which is not that farfetched as the islands were indeed such posts in post-Columbian days.
Today, it is known that this megalithic
civilization, from at least 3000 BC onwards, used the boat as the
main means of transport and communication. Though it is thus
possible that Atlantic crossings occurred, what is missing so far is
proof that they did.
The name has been traced to the Picts, where the name is believed to come from Insi Orc, the islands of the tribe of the wild boar. This may be a clue - then again, it may not be.
Though Skara Brae is the most popular, the earliest house site was at Knap of Howar in Papa Westray.
Skara Brae itself was inhabited from around 3100 to 2500 BC, an impressive 600 years. It now sits on the edge of the beach, but in olden days, would have been more inland and thus offered more protection from the elements that so often do not look benign on the Orkneys - the god of wind being the one that toys most with the islanders.
The stone structure must have offered some protection, even though the weather in 3000 BC is believed to have been a few degrees warmer.
The rooms of the Skara Brae houses contained cupboards and storage spaces, large dressers, seats and even box beds made from split stone.
As the houses were interconnected, it was suggested that the people had a communal way of life - which is largely typical of island communities. In winter, when life is played out more indoors then outdoors, it must also have meant that the families were not tortured by the elements to meet each other - or keep the homes warm - a more difficult task than elsewhere because of the absence of wood.
Bone dice and jewellery were found as well,
suggesting life was not all work, but also play.
Along a similar vein, Euan MacKie suggested that Skara Brae was no peasant village, but a “palatial structure” housing wise men engaged in astronomical and magical work - a college of priest. Though these theories have found a willing ear in some corners, the archaeological evidence on the ground does not correspond with these conclusions. Of course, it does not exclude the likelihood that amongst the people in Skara Brae some were indeed priests.
The conical mound of Maes Howe is 1½ miles to the ESE.
First, a deeper look into the rings themselves is required.
In 1694, James Garden wrote to the famous “archaeologist” John Aubrey about,
Though Garden could probably have never fathomed it, it is believed to date from 2700 BC.
Of this Ring of Brodgar, only 29 of an original sixty stones remain, with a small stone in the middle. As to a “Temple of the Gods”, Dr Robert Henry in the 18th century stated that the stones were known as the Temple of the Sun, and Stenness was known as the Temple of the Moon.
Intriguingly, Thom also said that the structure was perfect for observations of the sun and the moon, thus underlining the old name chosen for the ring - Temple of the Sun.
Burl thus concluded that the ring was used as “a church”, where the community convened to partake in religious ceremonies.
Where did this leave
the other rings?
Within the ditch are a number of stones and a rough mound.
It has been suggested that this is the remains of a cairn, but this remains speculation and others argue for the presence of a platform.
We should not concentrate just on the rings.
There are intriguing standing stones nearby, such as Barnhouse Stone. The most intriguing stone, the Stone of Odin, was holed, but destroyed in 1814. It was known as the Stone of Sacrifice and was used by young couples who plight their troth by clasping hands through the stone.
Like a number of other solitary standing stones in Orkney, local tradition has it that the Watchstone dips its “head” to drink from the loch at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Just over 5.6 meters high (around 19 feet), the Watchstone was originally one of a pair of standing stones, outliers to the main Ring of Stenness, that perhaps marked the approach to the entrance to the Ness O’Brodgar.
possibility of a ceremonial route connecting the two rings is
intriguing, but a series of geophysics surveys carried out across
the Ness o’ Brodgar have found no evidence of any such stone avenue.
Therefore, it is now believed that the twin stones may have
represented a symbolic “gate” between the two stone circles. Similar
“gates” have been found in the
Lake District, in Kirksanton (the
The two wide causeways of the rings are aligned
with the rising of the sun on the summer solstice, and the setting
of the sun on the winter solstice, underlining the astronomical
connection. But that is not all.
At this time, the sun sets in its most southerly position.
From the Watchstone, viewing the winter solstice sunset, the sun disappears behind Ward Hill on Hoy for a few minutes. But that is not all: it then becomes visible again, as if “reborn”, at the bottom of the hill’s northern slope, before finally setting for the night. On the midwinter solstice, from the Watchstone, we can thus witness a double sunset.
As the date marked the death and revival of the sun king - the shortest day of the year, which in these northern latitudes is very short - such “rebirth”, his victory over death, must have been an impressive visual display, which may have been one of the primary reasons why the site was selected for religious worship: the myths were imprinted on the landscape.
This phenomenon prompted the idea that the stone was perhaps a marker for watching the sun’s progress as it sets further and further south - hence its name “Watchstone”?
The various marker points afforded by the Hoy
hills would allow the watcher to gage the approach of the solstice - thus making sure that the main event itself would not be missed.
In many creation myths, as reported in Giorgio De Santillana and Hertha Von Dechend’s Hamlet’s Mill, specific emphasis is placed on the separation of salt from fresh water, symbolizing chaos and order respectively.
Where salt and fresh water met, religious centers came about that formed part of a ceremonial landscape (for discussion of this symbolism, see Hamlet’s Mill, but specifically my own The Canopus Revelation).
The same seems to apply to the Orkneys, and the connection with the creator god, visualized by the sun god, is equally present.
These creation myths also speak of a land of the first time, an island, in the form of a conical hill.
And the ceremonial landscape of the Orkneys has just the thing: Maes Howe. The conical mound of Maes Howe was broken into by Norsemen and Viking crusaders in the mid 12th century. Afterwards, the chamber top collapsed, filling the main chamber wit hearth and stones.
When the Rings began to become appreciated, the mound was lagging behind in receiving its due attention. It was not inspected until 1852, when it was referred to as M’eshoo or Meashowe.
It was broken into in 1861 by J. Farrer, who has been described as,
What they found was a seven meters high hill, containing a chamber. No mortar was used, yet the stones fit so well together that a knife cannot be inserted between them.
The winter sun strikes the back
wall of the chamber near the shortest day of the year, though the
sun shines directly into the chamber for forty days on either side
of the solstice. As such, Maes Howe is often labeled as one of the
finest examples of prehistoric architecture - yet in remains a
second-rank citizen in Orkney’s megalithic list of fame.
As early as 1894, a local schoolmaster, Magnus Spence, found that the passageway of Maes Howe was not only “roughly” orientated to the winter sunset, but also aligned with a standing stone at Barnhouse. This stone, together with the Watchstone, and the centre of the stone circle of the Ring of Brodgar, were aligned to the axis of the setting sun on the winter solstice. It is definitive proof that we should not look towards each structure in isolation, but see the entire area as one religious centre.
Spence eventually found other alignments and argued that the annual movement of the sun was encoded in the landscape; the stones tracked the movement of the sun - and creator - god.
There are clear parallels between the Orkneys and the megalithic concentration in the area of Wiltshire, where we find the two major circles of Avebury and Stonehenge relatively closely together.
There is a further parallel, between Silbury Hill and Maes Howe - though the parallel is in its appearance, namely that of a conical mound in an otherwise relatively flat landscape and - again in my opinion - in its symbol as a representation of the mound of creation.
found elsewhere in and near Neolithic monuments, it remains a fact
that the largest concentration of this pottery is located in two
widely separated areas, in the far north and northwest of Scotland
on the one hand and in southern England and East Anglia on the other
- each of which had the Orkneys and Wiltshire respectively as its
The Wiltshire landscape continued to be added to for much longer, whereas in the Orkneys, “shortly” after the completion of Stenness in ca. 2700 BC, by ca. 2600 BC Skara Brae was abandoned - and any new additions to the ceremonial landscape stopped. After building for 400 years, it was only used for a century.
Why? No clear answers are given, and archaeologists call in “possible climate changes”, but no clear evidence is at present available.
These people came here to build - on an island in the far north - a visual representation of the “Island of Creation”… but almost as soon as it was created, they abandoned it.
Perhaps they were more interested in origins, rather