Not half an hour ago I'd cradled Jock Tamson's skull in my hands. Now I'm walking along the high cliffs toward the tomb where Jock Tamson his name is the Scottish idiom of John Doe was found. Yellow shards of light bounce off the North Sea beyond, and the deep pasture grass surrounding me gleams with velvet's sheen. When my Orkney guide, Michael, and I approach what appears to be no more than a grassy mound surrounded by a farmer's wood-post fence, there is little to indicate that we've arrived at the 5,000-year-old Tomb of the Eagles, named for the white-tailed sea eagles whose talons and bones were found inside among 16,000 human bones when the burial site was discovered by Orkney farmer Ronnie Simison in 1958.
Michael shows me the bucket filled with homemade rubber knee-guards, should I choose to crawl through the long, squat corridor on hands and knees. But he suggests otherwise, so I crouch at the low entrance and lay down backwards on the wheeled trolley.
"Grab the rope overhead," he instructs. I pull myself hand-over- hand about 10 feet into the belly of this tomb that predates the Egyptian pyramids by some 400 years. Michael crawls in after me as my eyes adjust to the fi ltered daylight seeping through two dirty skylights overhead. The concrete ceiling is high enough for both of us to stand. The chambers off the main hall a 20-by-5-foot space are empty, save one with half a dozen human skulls lined up on the ground behind a Plexiglas barrier. I turn on my camera and snap a few pictures. "They must like you," Michael tells me. I know he means the spirits. "Many people's cameras won't work in here."
five millenniums of human history sit side by side in the Orkney Islands, an archipelago of 70 or so islands 17 are inhabited just beyond Scotland's northern tip. They've been on my radar during each of my handful of trips to Scotland but, due to their remoteness, I'd saved them for their own visit. Like many places in Scotland, all throughout the Orkneys there are arrangements of stones that show us how people lived, where they worshipped and how they buried their dead. Here I can think of no other place in the world where I can reach so far into the past and not only touch it but feel its magic, too.
The majority of the islands' total 20,000 residents live in the cities of Stromness and Kirkwall on Mainland the chain's largest island. West Mainland is where the biggest-bang-for-your-buck sites are located, including several Neolithic relics, designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. I can also move freely through the "more recent" ruins of fourth- to ninth-century Pictish settlements, supplanted by the later-ruling Norse, invaded by the Vikings and eventually ruled by the Scots.
Despite their islands being deeded to Scotland by Norway as part of a marriage dowry more than 500 years ago, Orcadians still don't consider themselves Scots. Over tea in the wood-paneled salon of Kirkwall's Lynnfi eld Hotel, its proprietor Malcolm Stout gave me three reasons why I'd seen nary a kilt at the wedding held there the night before. "One, there are no Macs, meaning no clans. Two, we don't speak Gaelic. And three, it's too cold and windy here."
On our first day together, Michael my guide from Wildabout Orkney who is my companion during much of my time on Orkney had barely introduced himself before enforcing the Norse connection. "Overnight we went from being a country of Norway to a country of Scotland. This is Orkney; we are Orcadians, never forget it," he'd told me in a clear voice that suggested he could have been an actor. Throughout my weeklong stay, I sporadically see Norway's blue-and-red flag as we crisscross the double-lobed Mainland, a largely treeless panorama of lush pasture, sea and sky.
Like most travelers, I hit Skara Brae my first day. The 5,000-year-old settlement is situated on the west coast of Mainland. Skara Brae is famous because it's old and also because of what there is to see: a workshop and nine roofless dwellings dug into the earth, complete with stone furniture beds, dressers, larders and the like. Michael first leads me through a replica stone corridor into a reconstructed model home. I stand in a corner and take in the stone bed to one side, stone-lined storage to the other and the open hearth in the middle of the room where dried seaweed and animal dung were burned. It is impossible to imagine a life where this would be my safe haven, a retreat for comfort, warmth and rest. But when Michael shows me the water closet (toilet) and describes the sewage pipes that run beneath the houses, I'm impressed. These folks beat the Romans, usually credited as the brainchild of indoor plumbing, by 3,000 years.
Walking along the path from the model near the visitors' center to the actual archaeological site, I hear what sounds like dynamite blasts. I can't tell if the source of this noise is across the expansive bay where powerful waves strike the sandstone cliffs or if it's the ocean lashing against the sweeping beach that lies beside the site. There, the metronome of waves has sculpted a bay from what had once been farmland. I wonder if continued erosion can be reined in, if this most ancient of settlements can be spared for 5,000 years to come. Or am I among the last to witness it? I peer down into the roofl ess dwellings once sheltered by whalebone beams covered with turf, draw in a deep breath of salt air and hold it, wondering if this ancient essence can be absorbed into my DNA. Saved in perpetuity.
In order to complete the picture of how these people lived, we drive 15 minutes from Skara Brae to reach a cluster of Neolithic sites that includes two standing-stone structures the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness and a chambered tomb called Maeshowe, masterfully built within a grassy mound.
The Ring of Brodgar is a near-perfect circle originally of 60 stones, called megaliths, surrounded by a ditch. This is where the island's prehistoric people worshipped and conducted ceremonies and rituals that revolved around the sun and moon, life and death. Michael lives nearby and tells me he worships here. He alludes to some naked dancing under the moonlight, but I can't tell if he's serious or joking. I take my time here, walking counterclockwise for good luck, running my hands over the moss-covered stones, hoping to feel their energy. I ponder the possibility of being pulled through the stones and dropped back in time, the basis of the historical- fiction Outlander book series that I love.
Next we drive to the Standing Stones of Stenness on a road that is placed like a sternum between two lung-shaped lakes. "They used to be one," Michael says. I refer to my map and see the ends where they were likely connected. "Today the Loch of Harray," Michael says, pointing to the left, "is freshwater, though somewhat brackish, and Stenness is salt, connected to the Bay of Ireland." As if to prove the lake's salinity, a trio of seals breaks the surface. I consider the lore of Silkies, or seal-people, and keep my gaze on these creatures, half-expecting them to swim ashore, shed their skins and walk into the mist. Considering that the long-ago inhabitants chose here, of all places, to build their stone circles, it's easy to believe that these shores are enchanted.
It's rather jarring to return to the present in Kirkwall where Internet connections, bookstores and whipped-cream-topped mochaccinos are plenty. Of course, this town thrives in the shadow of the past. The red-sandstone structure of St. Magnus Cathedral has dominated the skyline since building began in 1137, lasting 300 years.
I tour the cathedral's interior with Michael and find myself drawn to the quirky bits: gargoyle-like depictions of the green man a pagan symbol adopted by the church and a painted deathboard hanging from a pillar that was once used by a family as a death announcement. But it is the story of Magnus, who died circa 1114-1116 and whose bones are now interred inside a pillar, that helps me piece together Orkney's "modern" history.
You see, Magnus had been a pacifi st who co-ruled the Norse earldom with his caustic cousin Hakon. Their constituents suggested one ruler was better than two, so Hakon ordered Magnus to be murdered. Before having his head cleaved down the middle, Magnus forgave his executioner. His body was taken to a little church built by his grandfather on the Brough of Birsay, the Norse earldom's Orkney seat of power located off Mainland's northwest coast. Miracles of healings followed, Magnus was canonized in 1135, and the cathedral was ordered to be built in Kirkwall, a growing port settlement. Why is this all so important? A cathedral, complete with an archbishop ordained by the Pope, turned Orkney into a real player in Christendom. And for the Orcadians, the cathedral was the most important religious edifi ce to be built since the megaliths. I picture those long-ago people abandoning their pagan rituals at the stone circles anchored in the peat a place where they could be connected to the earth and its power in favor of a higher authority imposed upon them within these soaring red-stone walls. Suddenly, I feel an overwhelming loneliness for the stones.
The next morning, Michael takes me to the offshore islet called the Brough of Birsay, where Magnus' body was first interred. We've timed our visit to low tide, when the man-made walkway between Mainland and the islet is exposed. The surface is slippery, coated in algae and seaweed, and I'm grateful for my sturdy, thick-soled boots. Around me is a cacophony of sound: the echo of hounds barking in a nearby village and a flock of talkative starlings overhead. We end up on a beach deep with shells and then climb a ramp that leads to a gently-sloping hillside that was once the most important place in the Orkneys.
The barren islet is suffi ciently hard to reach that only those who stay for a deeper exploration of the islands tend to visit. We are blessed with a clear sky and golden light cast upon the cluster of ruins mostly outlines of foundations whose stories tell of when Christianity fi rst appeared in the Orkneys in the fi fth century. But it was the Norse who had swooped in by the eighth century and really left their mark. The best-preserved ruins are those of the 11th-century Romanesque church Magnus' grandfather built, where the miracles after Magnus' death may have occurred.
Before returning to Mainland, Michael and I turn into kids, lingering to fill our pockets with seashells colored in a palette of pinks, yellows and creams, a few bound for my small collection of travel talismans. I can't shake the feeling that these shells may contain real powers.
It is nearing my last day and I decide to fast-forward to the relative present by ferrying 25 minutes from Kirkwall to the island of Shapinsay to stay at the Victorianera Balfour Castle. I'd read its basic story: built in 1847 by prominent Scottish architect David Bryce for David Balfour, whose family members were wealthy Orkney landowners. Four generations later the estate was heirless and purchased in 1961 by a Mainland farmer and former Polish military officer to live in with his family. Today his family operates it as a small hotel.
Patricia, a tall blond wearing blue jeans, meets me at the terminal and, as we drive through the castle gates and approach the impressive Victorian structure looming on the pastoral landscape, I wonder if she is part of that family. Indeed she is, she tells me. She runs the castle with her sister, Mary, and their 88-year-old mother, Catherine. "We're preparing for a French duck-hunting party of nine that is arriving tomorrow, so tonight you are our only guest," she tells me inside while lugging my suitcase up the impressive stairwell.
She delivers me to the mint-green corner bedroom flooded with light from two windows overlooking the castle's grounds, the sea and the sky.
I've toured many castles and historic homes, but never have I stayed in one. I unpack a few things and snack on a thick piece of shortbread I'd bought in Kirkwall, practically hugging myself for my good fortune. Other than the brass bed, there are several pieces of antique furniture. Beside the marble-mantled fireplace is an intricate dressing table set with a collection of Balfourmonogrammed, silver-lidded makeup and perfume bottles, as though the room's chief occupant is accustomed to dressing for meals. All I manage is a quick face-washing and hair-brushing before rejoining Patricia.
She leads me through rooms filled with Balfour-commissioned furniture and paintings and tells me about when her family moved in. "We hired the whole ferry to move over. It was quite an adventure. The castle was left with everything in it. The only thing we couldn't find was a cheese grater."
We join her sister, mother and a friend in the family's dining room off the kitchen. Catherine has prepared a simple but delicious soup made with corgette (zucchini), onion, milk and a touch of mint everything from the garden and served with hot bread and oat biscuits to be eaten with fresh butter and a sliver of sharp Orkney cheese.
I feel an instant sisterhood. Of course, it will take more than one lunch to learn all of their (and the castle's) stories, but for now I listen to the lovely Catherine recount how she met her husband Tad during World War II. He'd found asylum in Britain after escaping a forced march of imprisoned Polish soldiers in Russia, all of whom save himself and one other were soon after shot and killed. His escape was brave, but when he was young, Catherine recalls, a fortune teller had told him, "You will travel far and end your life in a castle." And he did.
Before dinner, I head to the library for a drink, beginning to feel like the Lady of the castle. I pad down the stairs, across the second-floor landing and through the immense woodpaneled hallway. It is dark and rather cold, but when I push open the library door I feel the warmth before I see the wood-and-coal fire flickering in the stove. Books fill the floor-to-ceiling, glass-fronted shelves, and in the corner are all the fixings for drinks.
I pour a seltzer over ice, squeeze in a slice of lemon and carry my drink to the fire, eschewing a well-worn armchair in favor of sitting on the floor directly in front of the fire. I am transported and pretend I live here, picturing evenings passed in this room with my family playing board games, reading stories and writing their own. I open my journal and write with abandon, remembering how unsettled I'd felt at Skara Brae. Outside, the Orkney wind is kicking and the warped windowpanes rattle in their frames. But inside these thick Orkney stone walls, I am home.