Thursday, August 07, 2008


Sorry for the long hiatus.

You are looking at the island of Hoy across Hoy Sound, one of the main entrances to the inner sea surrounded by the Mainland and the southern islands of the Orkney archipelago. Oh yeah, speaking of which, the Orkneys, covering 974 square kloms, are not 25 kloms north of Scotland, as I pretended in the previous post, but a mere 11, the body of water between called the Pentland Firth. Also, population is not 24,000 but rather 20,000 (2006 census). Basically, the Orkneys are a group of southern isles (Hoy, Flotta, Burray, South Ronaldsay, Lamb Holm, Graemsay and others) separated from a group of northern isles (Rousay, North Ronaldsay, Westray, Shapinsay, Gairsay, Sanday etc.) by the main island aptly called "Mainland". Now, the hills you see on that pic are a geographically oddity for they are the highest features in all of the Orkneys, only to be found on Hoy. From a geological POV, they are the remnants of old layers of Old Red Sandstone, a stone deposited in the late Silurian. For some reason, on all but Hoy these layers were wasted away. Hoy is higher than you think, with Ward Hill (photo here, not mine) peaking at 481m (1577ft). Perhaps the best illustration of the relentless erosion eating away over the aeons at these remote northern isles is proffered by a spectaculare 137 m high sea stack on Hoy's western coast called the Old Man of Hoy. If you take the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness, the second biggest locality on the Orkneys, you can see it fairly well although some trompe l'oeil makes it look far less impressive than it actually is. It was only climbed in 1966 by Chris Bonington. In 2006 some nutters base jumped from the ole man, film here.

What amazed us if that these isles, which before never aroused our interest very much, appear to have been, since time immemorial, fairly attractive ground for the human species. On the west coast of Mainland there's a roughly 5,000 years old neolithic settlement known as Skara Brae. Of course it's not inhabited anymore, we deducted that immediately from the fact that the roofs were missing. The Skara Brae dwellings appear to be buried in the ground, and they are interconnected by narrow alleways. Had it not been for a fierce 1850 storm which stripped the place from a grassy dune covering it, it might as well have been undetected till this day. As it was, the nearby landowner, something of an important personage since bearing the title of Laird of Skaill, woke up the morning after the storm and then waited 18 years to explore it. Digging continued sporadically thereafter, if at all, and only from 1925 a more scientific approach took place. This led to the conclusions that Skara Brae, which flourished 5,000 years ago, is a.) one of the first known farming villages in Britain and, b.) with its layout suggesting a close-knit community life, marked a departure from previous ways of living.

Pica shows the dwelling catalogued as "House 1", which is probably the best example of interior architecture at the time. The focal point is the central hearth, which heated the houses and provided a cooking facility and lighting as well - nothing resembling lamps was found. The roofs may have been made from turf laid on a network of heather, although whalebones have been found too, suggesting tentlike structures shielding the "pits" from the elements. Apart from the hearth, the object which naturally draws your attention is the impressive dresser which puts Fred Flintstone's furniture to shame. Between the hearth and the dresser is a stone seat where one could contemplate why one was not born during, say, the Clinton years. As for the dresser, given its location immediately opposite the entrance "door" it may have rather been a showcase piece of furniture (for prized objects, hunting trophys perhaps) than a storage space for mundane chow like burritos or peanut butter. Smartasses will naturally point to the large grinding stone immediately to the right of the dresser, but it's the alcoves located inside the walls which in all likelihood were used to store foodstuff and other things, besides what fool would grind burritos and peanut butter. To the left and right of the essentially one-room house (on average the houses' floor area is some 36 square meters) you can make out a boxbed. As for living conditions, by contemporary standards they can hardly have been comfortable, with ventilation e.g. in all likelihood having been a serious problem, what with constantly burning stuff in the middle of the place (breathing problems, lung diseases etc). Still, it must have related to a smelly humid cave like a chique Kensington flat to an Eastender shack.

At some point in time, Skara Brae died out. The PC tourist brochure carefully gives as an explanation the emergence of the "regional group". This "regional group" came in place of the proto-kolchoz which this neolithic place basically was, see Skara Brae's layout itself which suggests very little privacy and a high degree of collectivization. The "regional group", composed of supposedly more individualistic personages, upset "the balance between the needs of the single family unit and collective village purpose" and thus led to Skara Brae slowly sliding into disuse. Blah blah blah blah blah blah regional group. Imho, far simpler it is to say that the Orcadians already 4,500 years ago found out that socialism does not work.

(to be continued)