In Orkney, the thousand years or so between about 500BCE and about 500CE is known as the Iron Age (in England and Wales, the Iron Age ends in the first century CE when the Romans turn up and spoil things). The Iron Age was populated by Iron Age peoples ... this politically correct term is used by archaeologists to avoid using names such as “Celts” or “Picts” which are deemed to be unspecific and politically loaded nouns.
These Iron Age peoples of Orkney were probably descended from the previous Bronze Age peoples and the Neolithic peoples before them – archaeologists are increasingly inclined to appreciate the stability and longevity of populations in general.
Please forgive my initial concerns to get my terminology “right” because all I really want to suggest is that it is quite likely, given the material culture (i.e. stuff / things) left behind by these people, that they were Picts – although whether they thought of themselves as such is another question entirely!
Whereas the Neolithic “religion” would appear focused on the sky, and in particular the sun, Iron Age beliefs seem to be concerned more with an underworld. Indeed, this could be seen as a common theme for Iron Age beliefs in the British Isles: the Gods have gone underground and to commune with them, we need to join them down there.
One of the most intriguing sites in Orkney is Mine Howe (HY 513 059), explored fully in 1999 and excavated extensively, including (or as well as!) being the subject of a Time Team special. Mine Howe appears in the landscape as a hillock, but it is not a natural feature, on investigation 29 stone steps were revealed which, half-way down, pause at a rock half-landing. At this half-landing, two long side chambers open out, one above the other, and the stone steps continue down to the main rounded chamber which is just over a metre wide and four metres high. The roof of this chamber is corbelled and the walls are constructed using dry-stone walling techniques.
There is a small visitor centre at Mine Howe where, for a modest entrance charge, you can rent a hard hat, read about the excavations to date and enter the mound itself. Wear very sensible flat shoes with decent grippy soles to visit this site because those mysterious 29 steps are slippery, wet and treacherous ... a little lighting has been put in and a rope hand-rail (unsympathetically in my opinion) but care is still needed. These additions may have been required to comply with health and safety requirements (not that that usually bothers folk in Orkney), but they do ruin the ambiance a little! The descent into the dark at Mine Howe is quite disorientating and the bottom chamber really only allows space for a couple of people at once – only two visitors are allowed in at a time so you will get the site to yourself for a while BUT it is worth trying for an off-season or inclement day in the hope that there won’t be a queue of folk behind you hassling you to hurry up!
The acoustics in this site are interesting – try drumming or chanting, male baritones have a particularly evocative effect. Mine Howe is a place for retreating into the earth and being fully incumbent, but the atmosphere is eerie and otherworldly and this is one site where I definitely feel that I am an intruder.
In many ways, brochs are to Scotland what hillforts are to England and Wales – usually interpreted as defensive structures they were probably more about a display of impregnability and status than of much practical use in warfare. It is likely that in Iron Age societies secular power was closely associated with religious power (as anthropologists observe for tribal societies in general) and archaeologists are increasingly finding that the function of prehistoric sites cannot be neatly labelled as solely domestic or secular but that there was an overlap of use. Hillforts, for example, are just as likely to be interpreted these days as ritual centres as defensive ones, and it is possible to make similar deductions about brochs.
One of the best preserved brochs in Orkney is the Broch of Gurness (HY 381 268) in Evie on West Mainland. This site is in the care of Historic Scotland so there is an admission charge but this is compensated for by the comprehensive interpretation displays. This coastal site looks out over Eynhallow Sound to the islands of Eynhallow and Rousay, and is just along the shore from the excellent beach at Evie Sounds.
Inside the broch there is an underground chamber which is usually interpreted as a well. It is not possible to go down this chamber but it is just possible to peer down and see enigmatic stone steps leading down into the darkness. This can be a fairly busy site, so don’t expect to get it to yourself!
Likewise, at the Broch of Midhowe (HY 371 306) on Rousay there is a cellar in the interior of the broch with a well. This broch is also in the care of Historic Scotland but there is no custodian on site and no entrance charge – even at the height of summer it is possible to have this site to oneself for a considerable amount of time, time enough to connect to the site in solitude.
In my opinion, this building of an underground chamber with stone steps seems an inordinate amount of effort for a well and the chambers themselves are reminiscent of the chambers at Mine Howe – which no one seems to have any problem interpreting as a ritual site. These wells could indeed be wells, but I doubt that that was all they functioned as. To access them involves increasingly entering into more private and enclosed space, first through the outer “village”, then into the broch tower, then down into the chambers. Certainly this could be a veneration of water – akin to well-decorating – but I think it is the descent into the underground which is important.
At The Cairns (ND 456 871) in South Ronaldsay, overlooking the Bay of Windwick, archaeologists are excavating a broch structure at which they have found another underground chamber with an above ground structure. The architecture, in the form of internal stone partitions, was apparently designed in such a way that anyone accessing the upper building would have been steered to move around it in a sunwise direction, but in an anti-sunwise direction once they climbed down into the underground chamber. The archaeologists have suggested that a sunwise direction may symbolise life and an anti-sunwise direction may symbolise death or the afterlife.
Other underground chambers from the Iron Age period in Orkney include the earth-houses. These are usually interpreted as domestic structures and originally they would have been associated with a round-house on the surface from within which it was possible to climb down into a long underground passage leading to a rounded chamber. Elsewhere in the British Islands, these underground structures are known as souterrains and they are usually interpreted as storage / cellar facilities – it being cool underground – or areas in which to hide at times of danger.
Right in the middle of the industrial estate at Hatston on the outskirts of Kirkwall is Grain earth-house (HY 441 116). This site is in the care of Historic Scotland and the key is available from the Ortak Showroom nearby but there is only one key and you may find someone already there or have to ask someone who looks like they might be walking back to return the key!
The cover to the entrance is modern and is accessed by a hatchway. You can also borrow a torch from Ortak but it is best to bring your own torch as this site is dark and a bit of a squeeze to get into – don’t attempt this site it you are claustrophobic and don’t wear anything you wouldn’t want to get muddy or wet. The steps down into the passageway are also modern but the original access is a vertical “chimney” which can still be seen to the side. There is a “C” shaped passage to crawl along which is about 6 metres in length. This leads into a rounded chamber over 3 metres long by about 2 metres wide. The passage and chamber are constructed with monoliths and orthostats and dry-stone walling – this could be for practical reasons to do with access to available building materials but could also be a monumental reference to Neolithic tombs – note that for the folk who built these earth-houses, the peoples who built the Neolithic tombs were nearly as far back in their past as the earth-house builders are to our past.
Once in the chamber, turn off the torch light and experience the darkness fully!
There is another accessible earth-house at Rennibister (HY 397 125). This is on private land but is in the care of Historic Scotland and access is allowed at reasonable times. The same conditions apply as to the site at Grain in terms of safety.
At Rennibister there is an “S” shaped passage to shuffle along which is about three metres in length and which opens into a rounded chamber about three metres long by over two metres wide. This chamber originally had a corbelled roof – perhaps another architectural reference to the corbelled roofs at Mine Howe and the Neolithic tombs. There are also recesses and shelves in the walls which are a possible memory of those at Skara Brae and other Neolithic structures. Sadly, a modern hatchway allows light into this chamber so it is not possible to experience the darkness. When this earth-house was excavated in the 1920s it was found to contain the skeletons of at least 18 people, of which 12 were children. This is usually interpreted as a secondary usage of this structure and an atypical usage of earth-houses but, it may not be.
All of these structures have their own atmosphere although they all differ in their accessibility for the spiritual pilgrim. There are, however, some common characteristics which I have attempted to draw out in my descriptions. They are all monumental structures, built with skill and care and utilising construction techniques which possibly have symbolic references to ancestral structures of the Neolithic. Many are commonly interpreted in a functional manner without reference to ritual – except for Mine Howe which seems to evade any functional explanation. I would argue that these underground chambers all had a ritual function in common because they are constructed too well and in too stylised a manner to be purely practical in function. The passages of the earth-houses in particular prompt the question of why they weren’t straight – straight would be economically sensible, underground passages are not easy to build – but curved means that light can be excluded, and possibly sound too. From the central chambers at all these sites, I would suggest, based on my own observation and personal experiences, that these were places where sensory deprivation could take place and where auditory phenomena could be used to induce an altered state of consciousness. Once in an altered state of consciousness, the Gods in the ground could be communicated with.
For any spiritual pilgrim who can get these sites to themselves, it is possible to achieve such states yourself very easily as these are amazingly trance-inducing places. For those sites where you have company, or which you cannot access, place their memory in your mind’s eye and travel there astrally latter – you won’t be disappointed. Promise.