Friday, April 27, 2007

Day 9

Day 9 Wed April 18
The big island, or as Orcadians call “mainland” is home to numerous stone circles and structures dating back as far as 5000 years. Maeshowe, a grass covered burial mound in the middle of a farmer’s field, is that old. You stoop low to walk through the 10 meter entrance tunnel before standing up inside a tall rounded chamber. As in all the sites, some of what the archeologists have found is known fact, other is speculation. Was it in fact a burial mound for the first peoples who build it, or a place of healing and rituals connected to the astrological cycle? In fact, each December the mound is equipped with 3 webcams where you can watch the light in the mound as winter solstice approaches. Vikings raided the mound in the 12th century and left many runic inscriptions. No great mysteries were revealed however once these inscriptions were translated as they say things such as “Ingibjorg is a beautiful woman.”

From Maeshowe you can look across a loch and see both the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar in the distance. Modern technology has shown that the stone monuments above ground are just the tip of the iceberg of all the ancient stone sites under the earth in this heart of the island. Michael, our local guide while Richard had a day off, told us tales and speculations about these sites. Stenness means “stone point” and indeed the tall stones still standing are pointed on top, but just 3100 years old. Also known as the Temple of Moon, couples came to perform a marriage ritual which would bind them together for one year and one day. After that period, they would have to come back to the stones to renew that ritual or to break the contract. Thus was their system of “marriage in installments.”

The Ring of Brodgar once had 60 stones standing. Brodgar means “farm by the bridge.” This 2500 year old ring is said to grant the gift of fertilitiy to anyone who runs around it counter clockwise 3x without stopping. Considering the large circumference, this running ritual also meant you were in shape! As we walked the ring, many of us touching each stone, to the wind added rain and for the rest of the day, we experienced more typical Scottish weather than the balm and sunshine of the past few days.

Stromness is the 2nd largest town on mainland Orkney with a population of 2000+. Tait and Style sits above the harbour. For 15 years Ingrid Tait has run this company that creates knitted and felted scarves, throws, pillows, and accessories for the high fashion market in London and New York. She discovered a needle punching machine in Yorkshire that was used to make industrial materials. Sensing it could be retooled to work with wool fabric, she acquired the machine and has been punching or felting her marks with fleece or yarn onto commercially woven wool. As the fashion industry constantly changes, Ingrid is flexible, open to taking commissions from both home furnishing and clothing fashion design houses to create new lines for each season. By next year Tait and Style will move to Kirkwall where Ingrid also runs the jewelry company founded by her mother, Ole Gorie.

Skara Brae was uncovered when a storm hit William Watt’s farm in 1850 and eroded the beach front. The settlement wasn’t excavated however until 1928. This fine example of a stone age community was quite advanced as they even had a sewage sytem and a stone trough area they filled with water and hot rocks to steam the sea life they ate. More information on this and all the stone sites we visited today is found at

Corrigall Farm Museum in Harray is a wonderful example of rural agricultural life on the island. Implements, tools and household furnishings from the 18th-20th century fill the buildings. The amazing thing is that there is no entrance fee to view this peice of Orkney heritage.

I must mention that Kirkwall has a fine library building, just 3 years old, with internet access for all. A plus to catching up on your email is seeing one of Leila’s Thompson’s tapestries hanging in the space.

The Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley are well known performers from Orkney. They opened The Reel Café three years ago. It serves as teaching studio and gathering place for musical sessions in addition to serving food and wonderful hot chocolate! I listened in on the Wednesday night teen session. The quality of musicianship is high. Jen Austin who works at the café and plays piano, fiddle and composes, told me that students start playing instruments in the public school system in Orkney at age 8. Folks like the Wrigley sisters nurture the musical talent of the island by also teaching privately. Over 100 folk bands are on the island. I took the musicians advice and walked out with cds of Saltfishforty, The Wrigley Sister’s latest “Skyran” and “The Orkney Sessions” recorded at The Reel. And I believe I found the tune of the whole trip that I must learn “Music for a Found Harmonium.” I didn’t have my tune sucker along. Contact me if you know where I can get a recording or find music for this key changing tune

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