Sunday, 29 May 2011

Where Eagles dare or die?

Still  with Orkney ( only a couple more blogs on the subject and normality will resume. If anything is normal of course)

South of the mainland on South Ronaldsay, over a couple of  WWII causeways is the Tomb of the Eagles ( Isbister Chambered Cairn) . Unlike the other tombs  we visited this one is privately owned and there is an admission charge.

On the plus side you do get a "guided tour" which is actually a very nice lady in the main building/museum who tells you all about the site and how it was discovered and excavated. Even better you are encouraged to pick up and handle some of the tools and beads that were discovered. It was a humbling experience to hold tools that were used 5000 years ago. We also learned how to bore a hole through rock with the technology then available. I'm tempted to have a go myself at a later date. Modern  reconstructions have shown it takes abut 6 hours or so.

It is  estimated to have been built around 3000 BCE, and used  over a period of some 800 years. It is about 3.5 metres high and consists of a rectangular main chamber, divided into stalls and side cells. It has been  reconstructed  in parts and re-roofed.

Over 300 sets of human remains were found here. A couple of the skulls are in the site museum and the guide explains the gene linked deformity suffered by some of the tribe members where the bones of the skull fused too soon.

As the bones were all mixed up and the skulls found separately from the rest of the bodies, the theory goes that the bodies were left in the open to be picked clean of flesh by the eagles and the excarnated bones then interred.

Talons of the white-tailed sea eagle s were found inside the tomb which gives rise to the modern  common name.  It has been mooted that the birds were the emblem of the tribe.

 It is a reasonable ( unescorted) walk from the visitor centre to the site itself which is right on the cliff top. Some of the bones were painted with ochre which was abundent locally and there is still plenty to be seen. The entrance as can be seen from the first picture is extremely low.

Previous sites we visited had low entrances but this was the lowest yet.

Bending double is not enough- You can just see the wheeled board by which you pull yourself through by a usefully placed rope or as the guide said  "a granny's skateboard"!

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Rousay Rousay Rousay!

One of the main islands, this is reached by ferry from the mainland.

We were bright and early for the first ferry just to discover that the booking office didn't open til 10 minutes after the ferry departed... However this didn't seem to be a problem. We were allowed on and bought our return tckets by telephone from the middle of the Sound.  The fact that we couldn't actually have our tickets in hand to show to anyone until the return to the mainland also didn't seem to be a problem ( and wasn't)!.

Rousay has a wealth of tombs, some though are badly ruined, others you can enter. Here are a few.

This is Blackhammer. A long  cairn with 7 stalls,  2 adult men were found here as well as the bones of several sheep. Total length is about 13 metres. The roof and walls here have been reconstructed too. From the outside it appears as a long grassy mound tucked into the hillside and overlooking the Sound.

Next we have  Taversoe Tuick. This is a two storey tomb and this is the way to the lower part. The ladder isn't fixed to allow you to move it out of the way once you've gone down it - it is very cramped at the bottom. Originally both levels would have been separate and had their own level tunnel entries- that of the lower chamber being 6 metres long.

There is  a third burial chamber  just outside the main tomb.

Moving on to Midhowe Cairn, this was by far the largest. Difficult to photograph so it's time for a short video - apologies for the quality. I'm not destined to be a movie cameraman!

Next to the Cairn  is Midhowe Broch. It is amongst the finest examples of a fortified dwelling built during the Bronze/Iron Ages.

Dating somewhere between  200BCE and 200CE it occupied an imposing position. Much of the surrounding area has been lost to coastal erosion. The broch seems to have been used for an extended period of time and interestingly some of the finds here include Roman artifacts which may have been traded for as the Roman's of course didn't occupy Orkney.

The Broch is situated at one end of the Westness Walk, considered to be one of the most important archeological miles in Scotland. It spans settlements from the first stone age settlers, the Pictish Iron Age, the Viking invaders, the period of the earls and the crofting times.

Not quite finished with Rousay yet. This is the Knowe of  Yarso - another long  chambered cairn. The remains of 29 individuals were found here along with animal bones and late neolithic/early bronze age pottery

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Common things these Barrows

Bit grey and overcast today and didn't want to go to far - plenty of sites of interest near Stroud so why not Selsley Common.
"If up on this hill for pleasure you ride
The prospect is pleasant on every side
And if you do walk, the pleasures are still
To be seen from each corner of Selsley Hill".
Anon   1841

Very true on a nice day but not today,  strong winds and intermittent rain made us glad to adjourn to a pub for lunch. The TootsLong Barrow though was easy to find and the subsequent wander through Penn Woods very pleasant. It was at least out of the wind. Spectacular views though from the top almost made it worthwhile braving the gale.

Nice lunch though in the pub in the village. It was still raining when we emerged and   a car trip seemed preferable to walking. Nymphsfield Barrow is just down the road so it got a fleeting visit.

Not much of this left now. Much of the stone has been plundered and the mound has all but disappeared despite it being avoided in the Middle Ages for being a suspected leper hhous You can still see the layout of the chambers and the remains of 17 individuals have been excavated.

This is a popular picnic spot and there were several hardy souls doing exactly that nearby - under the protection of a portable awning. Not much neolithic ambience to be found here anymore.

Last stop was at Uley Barrow, again just down the road. This is better known as Hetty Peglar's Tump.  Bit of a sad sight isn't it? It's been closed by English Heritage  since 2008 for "structural repairs"

Even the construction company's surrounding fences have been vandalised and and the carefully conserved turf from the top of the mound was brown and curling on the plywood where it had been placed.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Maeshowe - Wow!

Another "must see" in Orkney is Maeshowe. Unlike everywhere else we went, entry is by pre-booked guided tour and photography inside the mound is forbidden. So if you want more  pictures try here.

Note that cloudless blue sky!

Inside is a large central room covered in graffiti  from when the Vikings broke in through the roof to take shelter. The runes are impressive in their quantity if not in the quality of what they convey. As much of it would be at home on a modern bus shelter it is proof that human nature isn't much changed!

The guide was able to show us the famous viking cave art - is the animal a lion?, a dragon? or even a cow? Hard to say. Orkney silversmiths though label it a dragon as dragons sell better than cows! One theory is it is a wolf, representing Fenrir.

There is some carving that is believed to be neolithic which she pointed out to us. There is no lighting in the mound so it is just ambient light from the doorway and  a torch to highlight some of the more famous runic carvings - such as "Tholfir Kolbeinsson carved these runes very high up."   I did say this was bus shelter stuff!  Another says modestly "These runes were carved by the man who is the best carver of runes in the Western Oceans" You can just imagine how disappointed the runic experts must have been when they originally translated them.

The entry tunnel is orientated in such a way that the rays on the sun at sunset on the winter solstice will illuminate the chamber.  The effect is also seen for a period either side of the solstice. Tune in  here  in December for a live web feed.

No pictures inside Maeshowe then but plenty from the other chambered tombs.

This is Unstan. From the outside it looks very similar but it is much much smaller with fabulous views across the  Loch of Stenness

Inside, the circular interior ( like Maeshowe), is divided by flagsones into stalls. Several skeletons were exhumed during excavation.
There is also a  small side chamber where two crouched burials were found.

This tomb is much better lit than others thanks to the thoughtfully fitted skylight in the ( modern) roof.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

A Perfect Circle or two

After Skara Brae the next must see was of course the stone circle at Brodgar.

 I admit that despite being no stranger to stone circles I was unprepared for the sheer beauty and magic of this one.

The setting is magnificent, set on moorland between two lochs.  We were so lucky  that so early in the season other visitors were few and far between and we had the circle to ourselves for a few precious moments.

One visit was not enough and we came back at sunset.

 It was perhaps too much to hope that we were the only ones to have this idea and there were a couple of other visitors also taking pictures. Plenty of room for all though .

A few more shots. Two visits were not enough and we actually returned for a third visit before finally saying a sad goodbye to a magnificent place.

However one circle is never enough, incredibly a mile or so down the road is a second circle; that of Stenness. This is a much smaller circle  but the stones are still of imposing size.

Just to give you the scale, the chap in the picture is 6"tall

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Original Flat Pack Furniture!

Even further afield now - a couple of days in Orkney. We went expecting the worst weatherwise and were rewarded with days of glorious sunshine.

So first day and it has to be Skara Brae - the best preserved neolithic village remains in the world, complete with their original stone furnishings. There is virtually no wood on Orkney so it would be logical to create furniture out of the most abundent raw material - stone.

This is a reconstruction. The original remains are too fragile for the number of visitors they get so you can no longer enter them. Just love that stone dresser!

All the houses have an identical layout. Individuality was not a quality prized by this culture.

And here is the real thing. The square in the centre was for the fire and the two smaller "boxes" in front of the dresser were for soaking limpets for fish bait. The rectangular shape on the right is a box bed. It would have been filled with soft materials and animal hides for comfort.

Monday, 2 May 2011

A Pirate Cave

A coastal walk this time - from Llantwit Major to Tresillian. Yes look at the colour of the sky - proof  it doesn't always rain in Wales!

Although a bit of a scramble in places, this is mostly limestone pavement and a rich hunting ground for fossil collectors. This time I picked up two nice ammonites within a couple of minutes of reachng Tresillian. The cliffs are dangerously unstable and it is unwise to venture too close. You also need to keep an eye on the tide as it comes right up to the cliffs themselves.

Tresillian cove itself  is domintated by a large cave and said to be haunted by the screams of Colyn Dolphyn, the Breton pirate who was reputedly executed by being buried up to his neck in sand at the mouth of the cave.  Given the stoney beach here that would take some doing unless things have changed since the 1400s.

The cave is also known for the Bow of the 5thC  Welsh Saint, Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers.

This is a natural rock arch ( now partially collapsed) over which it is possible to throw a stone. There are a number of variations on the legend but most commonly the number of attempts needed to succeed foretold the number of years before marriage.  My family's version of the legend was much simpler. Success meant a wish granted. Despite many many attempts over many years I never did manage  to get the stone through the narrow gap!
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