The Orkney Islands are a group of 70 islands to the north of mainland Scotland. Orkney has its own distinctive culture and tradition – being influenced both by Scotland and by its Norwegian settlers during the 8th and 9th centuries. Although many of its islands are uninhabited now, there is evidence that people have lived on some of these islands since 5000BC. The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of Maes Howe, the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae and other burial and ceremonial sites in the area. All of these provide a fascinating glimpse into life during the Neolithic era. We would be visiting some of these sites during our visit to Orkney – more on these in our upcoming blog posts! But for now…
We were enjoying a sunny crossing across the Pentland Firth from mainland Scotland to the Orkney Islands. The ferry crossing gives you plenty of time to enjoy the passing scenery and to try spotting some wildlife. (We were told there are always sea birds and sometimes seal and whale sightings – although we didn’t see any on our crossing today.)
As we sailed across the Pentland Firth, we were able to spot the island of Stroma in the distance. We learned that this island is sadly no longer inhabited, with the last of its residents leaving in 1962. You can still see abandoned houses and crofts, although some have lost their roofs and are ruins now. The island is still inhabited by sheep and some cattle – set out there to graze by the island’s current owner.
At the northern tip of Stroma stands its lighthouse, which is now completely automated. It was built to alert boaters of the most dangerous whirlpool, the ‘Swilkie’, in the Pentland Firth.
Although we didn’t spot any seals or whales, I did spot lots of interesting rock formations… (What a nerd! Haha!)
On the ferry ride, we heard a little bit about the role that the Orkney islands played during WWII. We could see evidence of this in the gun batteries and defences as we approached our destination.
After we got off the ferry, it was off to the Tomb of the Eagles for a bit of a history lesson and a good hike!
The Tomb of the Eagles is a very popular and family friendly attraction located on the island of South Ronaldsay. This historic site was discovered by a local farmer, Ronnie Simison. In 1958, he noticed some stones that looked a bit… out of place on his farmland. Intrigued, he began digging near the drystone wall. He discovered “a cache of beautiful polished artefacts – a mace head, three stone axe heads, a black ‘button’ and a small Chert knife”. After more digging, Ronnie then discovered some 30 human skulls in a stone chamber. This site was later confirmed to be a Neolithic tomb, which dates all the way back to 5000BC! Along with human bones, the bones and talons of sea-eagles were also discovered on this site. Thus giving it the name – “Tomb of the Eagles”.
Before heading out to the actual tomb, we got a history and archaeology lesson on a guided tour through the Visitor Centre. We won’t spoil this visit for you but we will say that there were lots of fascinating 5000 year old artifacts that we got to see and touch!
After the tour, we headed outside. It was a bit muddy but we had the beautiful sunshine with us on our 1-mile long cliff-top walk to the actual tomb.
Before reaching the tomb, we stopped to look at the Bronze Age site. This site, a little bit inland from the Tomb of Eagles, is believed to be about 3000 years old. This site here consists of stone trough, water system and hearth. We don’t yet know for certain what this was used for. There are some suggestions that this was used for cooking or perhaps a sauna, with the hearth heating the water.
After this short stop, we continued on our way to the Tomb of the Eagles.
Just this cliff-top walk alone is well worth a visit! What a view!
We were lucky to have visited on a sunny day. I imagine it would be completely different on a windy, blustery Orkney day!
As we were hiking, I spotted this little guy, which looks to be perhaps an inuksuk. The inuksuk is a bit of an unofficial symbol of Canada, so it was really special and cool to find it here in Orkney, Scotland.
Inukshuk, the singular of inuksuit, means “in the likeness of a human” in the Inuit language. They are monuments made of unworked stones that are used by the Inuit for communication and survival. The traditional meaning of the inukshuk is “Someone was here” or “You are on the right path.” – Inukshuk Gallery
Inuksuit can be found across the Canadian arctic, as well as Alaska and Greenland. Besides these areas, many monuments and statues in this likeness have been built all over Canada. We also have a well-known inuksuk monument in Vancouver, as well as another famous one in Whistler – created for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. Although its use as a symbol of the 2010 Olympics was a bit controversial, I believe it brings forth a message of friendship and welcome.
I’m not sure whether someone had built this to be an Inuksuk intentionally or whether they just happened to build a human figure out of rocks, but I like to think we have a little bit of a connection to it!
In between photo stops, we continued on our way towards the Tomb, following our guide – Andy.
There is a wooden trolley/board on wheels, which you lie on. And using the rope, you are able to pull yourself into or out of the Tomb.
Once inside the tomb, you can see chambers and shelves that was once built to hold a variety of human bones and skulls.
In addition to human bones, the remains of at least 8 sea-eagles were also discovered inside the tomb. It is still not clear what the significance of the sea-eagles was. And were these sea-eagles placed into the tomb by the original builders or were they added over the years? We may never find out, but that adds to the mystery of this tomb.
It was fascinating to see something that was built over 5000 years ago and is still standing today. You really have to admire what these Neolithic people were able to do with the knowledge, materials and resources they had in the New Stone Age. After a couple of minutes inside the Tomb, we headed back out to the sunshine to enjoy the view some more.
Eventually, it was time to head back to the bus. The cliff top walk back to the bus was just as beautiful as our walk out – perhaps even more so with the setting sun as our backdrop!
Before we left the Tomb of the Eagles, I think pretty much everyone in our group bought a little cup of Orkney ice cream from the gift shop to try. Creamy, rich and delicious – it was the perfect post-exploration snack!
After a really interesting visit to the Tomb of the Eagles and the scenic, cliff top hike around the area, we drove towards the sunset!
And what a gorgeous sunset it was!
But our day wasn’t finished just yet! There were two more stops before we headed to our hostel. More on Day 5 to come in our next post!
From Vancouver with Love,
Ioana and Natalie
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