Sunday, February 19, 2017

Visiting Scotland--Beautiful Orkney

Orkney, Scotland

Sometimes the places I go are imbued with romance from my childhood. Ah, Orkney! In the King Arthur tales of my childhood, Sir Gareth of Orkney was my favorite. (Cliffnotes) Many places associated with King Arthur are in southern England, for example Cornwall, so I never grasped how far Gareth traveled to serve with King Arthur.

Orkney, Scotland

The Orkney Islands are in northernmost Scotland, just north of the Scottish highlands,  but separate, being a group of 67 islands, of which 17 are inhabited. They are strikingly beautiful.

Orkney, Scotland

They have been inhabited a long time. Neolithic sites abound, for example the Ring of Brodgar, below, from about 3000 BC. An unfinished ring of stones of different ages, why the stones were hauled there and carefully erected is unknown. (More information)

Orkney, Scotland

Ring of Brodgar
Ring of Brodgar
Skara Brae, a Neolithic town, was first settled about 3200 BC and occupied for a thousand years. It is the most complete Neolithic village in Europe. It was fascinating--the antiquity, the insight into the lives of people so very long ago. They raised wheat and barley and cattle and sheep, but hunted and foraged eating shellfish, birds, fish, deer and seals. The houses were not underground at the time, but built with nice stone walls and sod roofs. 5,000 years ago! Sand had buried it until the 1850s. Today you can walk the edges, read about the tools and technology in the visitor center, and as I did, marvel at how long ago that was and yet how recognizeable their lives. (Story of Skara Brae)

Skara Brae, Orkney
Skara Brae
Of the Neolithic sites I saw, my favorite was Maeshowe. A mound that housed a tomb, it stood out against the countryside. It had a long low tunnel entrance, very dark and uncomfortable. Walking underground in the dark, bent over, generated mild claustrophobia, even though it doesn't usually bother me. Clearly the builders intended that: presumably it brought those entering into a state of awe and respect. The chamber itself was quite tall, used for multiple burials and perhaps for religious services. I have no pictures because they were not permitted.

Maeshowe, Orkney
Maeshowe seen across the fields
The story is enhanced because, in 12th century, a party of Norsemen--Orkney was ruled from Denmark until 1468--with the Earl of Orkney, were caught in a severe snowstorm and took refuge in Maeshowe. They waited out the storm for three days, which made them very bored, so they wrote on the walls. It is the best collection of Norse runes--actually, medieval graffiti--in existence. Both angles amuse me: that visitors long after the building of the tomb but long before us wrote on the walls and that we find those writings of great historic value. (Read translations of the writings: link)

Orkney was green with spring when I was there. The most common flower was the marsh marigold, Caltha palustris, a member of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae.  The ubiquitous sheep don't like marsh marigolds, allowing the plants to prosper.

sheep, Orkney

marsh marigold, Caltha palustris (buttercup family, Ranunculaceae)
There were lots of other flowers if I looked carefully, for example this cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis, mustard family, Brassicaceae):
wildflower, Scotland
Cuckoo flower, Cardamine pratensis (mustard family, Brassicaceae)
And thistles. They were not flowering, but lying in the grass in big spine-covered rosettes.


The thistle is the emblem of Scotland, so seeing them was great. The explanation for a country choosing a thistle for its emblem is that attackers, crossing to a Scots settlement, walked barefoot on the thistles around the village and despite themselves, warned the people. The Scots appreciated the thistle warning and adopted it as their symbol. No one is quite sure which thistle it was and you can read several versions of the story (I think, unlike some sources online, that the raiders were Norsemen, vikings, because they typically sailed barefoot. My discussion: link). Here is photographic evidence that walking barefoot across Orkney would still be painful.

Below, a yellow mustard (mustard family, Brassicaceae) in flower. It could be a weedy field of oilseed rape (Brassica napus) but northern Europe has easily 15 species of yellow-flowered plants in the mustard family, that are not easy to tell apart. So this is an unidentified yellow mustard. But isn't it pretty!            

Orkney, Scotland

Very romantic, Orkney, even to grown-ups.

Related posts: wild Shetland link
      Prehistoric Sheltland link
     Faroe Islands link

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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