I’ve just come back from the most amazing place! I’d never heard of the Orkney Islands, north of the Scottish mainland, until some friends started spending holidays there some years ago. They’ve been bugging me to come visit them sometime when they were up there, saying Orkney was the perfect place to set a mystery. This past June, I took them up on their offer.
There’s so much I could say about Orkney. The street (singular) in the secondary town of Stromness, so narrow that at one point there are scrapes on the walls on both sides, where cars didn’t quite make it. The orange cat who likes to lie on the paving stones of that same street, when the sun has warmed them, caring not at all about the cars that would like to use the road. The habit the islanders have of never locking their doors, and of leaving the keys in the car. ‘It’s an island,’ someone explained. ‘You can’t steal a car on Orkney. The ferrymen know our cars, and know us, and if the wrong person tried to drive a car onto the ferry, he’d be stopped.’ The light that persists until midnight in June, to give way to a twilight that last until about two, when the morning starts to return. I had looked forward to seeing the stars, since there’s too much light pollution where I live. Alas, it never got dark enough. There was a rooster living at my B&B that loved to greet the sun—loudly—every morning at three-thirty. I had fond thoughts of roast chicken.
But the thing that captivated my imagination, and will certainly appear in my next book, is the Neolithic remains that appear everywhere in the islands. There’s a saying: Scratch Orkney, and you’ll uncover the Neolithic. It’s almost literally true. A farmer can scarcely put a plow to a new piece of ground without turning up a stone axe-head or some bones. And then of course everything stops until the archeologists do their thing. It must be a bloody nuisance for the residents, but for anyone interested in such things, it’s bliss. There are stone circles far older than Stonehenge, older than the Pyramids, as well as dozens of isolated standing stones that might at one time have been part of other circles. There are whole villages, stone houses and meeting rooms and tombs, even, in one case, a paint shop, where the scientists think pigments were ground (they’ve found the grinding stones and the chunks of pigmented rock) and made into the paint they’ve found decorating some of the building stones.
I began, as I toured these sites, to realize that these weren’t some remote almost-human ancestors, but people very much like us, living some 5000 years ago. They were farmers, not hunter-gatherers. They tended livestock. They grew grain. They lived in communities, created furniture (of stone) and pottery, buried their dead, carried out religious rituals, possibly centered around the solar calendar.
And in time I came to feel that in Orkney, one isn’t quite living in the 21st century. The remote past is so real, so present, so pervasive. I mean, what must it be like to have a 5000-year-old standing stone, a dolmen, in one’s front yard? Here in America where we think a 200-year-old house is really ancient, how can we even grasp such an idea?
So then I started wondering about ancient ruins here in my own country. I could think only of the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, but they’re only about 800 years old. Chartres Cathedral was being built in France about the same time the Pueblo people were building Mesa Verde. Then I heard about the petroglyphs (pictorial rock engravings) found in various parts of the USA, maybe 7000 years old. Somehow, though, I can’t relate to those artists as I did to the ancient Orkadians. Who knows, maybe my mother, with Scottish ancestry, was descended from those people.
Anyway, I found Orkney to be extremely mysterious, in many senses, and hope to return one day.
Filed under: Jeanne Dams |