16 May 2024




Before the Picts, before the Celts, before the Vikings, before Stonehenge, these stones were raised. Quarried before the birth of Christ, they were transported to this place of levelled ground now lapped by dark, unblooming heather, and set upright in a perfect circle 340 feet across, protected by a massive, man-made ditch 33 feet wide and 13 feet deep. There are twenty-seven stones, ranging in height from 7 feet to 15 feet 3 inches, and this, the Ring of Brodgar in Mainland, Orkney, commands an isthmus between the Lochs of Harray and Stenness. When these stones were raised, about 2500 B.C., the lochs were mere lochans, surrounded by wetlands alive with wildfowl. Orkney, now comprising some seventy islands, had not yet been inundated by the rising sea that would reshape from a single landmass the archipelago of today.

We know tantalizingly little of Orcadian prehistory. Evidence supports the existence of an indigenous, nomadic population in the Mesolithic period who neither built nor farmed, but who lived for some 4,000 years hunting and foraging on the land and harvesting the sea. This changed with the arrival, almost certainly from the Scottish mainland, of strangers who would clear the woodlands, cultivate the fertile soil, and hew from the island’s sandstone bedrock the materials with which to create, perhaps over generations, buildings and monuments of astonishing beauty. They are everywhere in Orkney, but here at the Ness of Brodgar is a concentration of Neolithic archaeological features and artefacts so remarkable that these sites have been accorded World Heritage status, and inscribed “a triumph of the human spirit in early years and in isolated places.”

That Orkney was isolated in those “early years” may be disputed. There is evidence of movement by land and sea of people across the island, and to Scotland and Ireland; of similarities in buildings and design; of complex social relationships and networks of kinship, clan and tribe. Skara Brae, a settlement of what is thought to have been sixteen houses, beautifully built of the stone abundant not only in quarries but in the fields and on the shore, is a sophisticated arrangement of linked dwellings now within sight and sound of the Bay of Skaill. Not the hobbit-like burrows of today but above ground and further inland, they were occupied between 3100 B.C. and 2600 B.C., after which they were abandoned. The proximity of these dwellings suggests powerful bonds of intimacy: were they so closely built for members of an extended family, or as a defensive measure? We do not know. We know only that the climate, which had been temperate, changed; sea levels rose; fierce storms eroded the protective dunes, and the wind carried salt and sand inland to laboriously cultivated fields. Crops failed, and life at Skara Brae, precarious at best, became untenable. The inhabitants, perhaps a hundred people, left, and the storms and sands buried Skara Brae. Its stones would not see the light of day again until 1850, after winter storms uncovered what they had preserved for centuries.

We have the detritus of their lives: beads, bones, pottery, shells, stone mallets, arrowheads and chisels. We see the magnificence of their architecture, the vast complex of buildings at the Ness of Brodgar, where the excavations of decades will finish this summer so that thousands of artefacts recovered from the site may be catalogued and studied. Carbon dating confirms that this huge development was begun about 3500 B.C. We do not know its purpose, if it was, as archaeologist Nick Card suggests, an enclave for a religious elite, a place of pilgrimage and supplication, or a seat of judgment and, perhaps, a place of sacrifice. We do not know why it, like Skara Brae, was abandoned after more than a thousand years of occupation, or if evidence of the slaughter here of some four hundred cattle, representing unimaginable wealth, signified some ritual of closure, or a ceremonial propitiation of ancestors or spirits.

We do not know. We do not know their reasons. We do not know their names or their language, or who were their enemies or allies, what songs they sang, what stories they told in the smoky darkness of winter nights and in the long “dim” of the Orcadian summers. We do not know what rites accompanied birth or death or the joining of man and woman, or what gods they invoked when they pushed off from these shores into the Pentland Firth, with only a paddle and a framework of cured hides and withies between their mortal bodies and the ferocious tide races where the Atlantic and the North Sea meet. We do not know why, in the earthy chill of Maeshowe and other chambered burial mounds, they interred sometimes only skulls, some of which bear the impressions of grievous wounds, sometimes disarticulated bones, sometimes, sitting upright, entire skeletons flensed before inhumation. They had fire but not metal, so they buried no exquisite golden torcs, no rich grave goods with the dead, but they aligned the entrances to these tombs so that the setting sun, for several days before and after the winter solstice, would flood the main chambers with living light.

We do not know why. It may be that we will never know, never fully understand these fellow human beings who were and were not like us; whose world, threatened and altered by climate change, was but was brutally not like ours. We unearth and study the shards of their material world, and preserve and protect the architecture that outlived them. But the people themselves left no written record, and they elude us.

They must have worshipped something, communed with something: spirits, ancestors, deities. These stones, these solitary sentinels and these guardians, these watchkeepers in their circles, must have signified something: a sacred space, the perimeters of another world, to be entered with reverence and, possibly, with fear.

This circle at Brodgar commands not only the landscape, but the mind. Its position is deliberate, guarding the Ness as its smaller, older counterpart, the Stones of Stenness to the south-east, guards the other approach to the isthmus.

To stand among these stones on this clear spring morning, beneath an immensity of sky, is to stand in the presence of mystery. There is power here, neither benevolent nor malign: it is both ancient and present, and it is very real. I lay my hand on the lichened stone and bow my head in acknowledgment of it. And I pray to the God or gods of this numinous place, for wisdom, for clarity of thought, for healing, for peace for my unquiet soul: this search for peace, for release from bitterness, anger, sorrow, has brought me two thousand nautical miles, across some of the most dangerous seas around Britain. I wanted to lay this burden down in the Abbey on the holy island of Iona: the sea that day was too rough to land. Another dream unfulfilled, another promise broken, another failure in a life now all too familiar with failure and frustration. The cold, clean wind touches my face: the cry of a curlew haunts the silence.

And now in this strange, otherworldly, sanctified place beyond time, wisdom comes… epiphany comes. These stones have known the passing of the ages: war, plague, invasion, famine, the rising and setting of the sun and moon, the seasons, the tides, the years, the storms, the wheeling of the stars. This, too, shall pass, all of it. My life is only a flicker of sunlight on grass bent by the wind. The sun and the moon will set, the stars wheel in vaulted heaven, the curlew will sleep, the wind will fall light… summer will come, and winter, in the eternal cycle… these stones, enigmatic witnesses to the passing of man’s time, will endure until the end of days.

Peace. Wisdom. Clarity. Healing. Quietness of spirit.

Let it be so.