Saturday, 28 January 2012

Maes Howe

This post was used as the basis of an article which appeared in Pagan Dawn, Imbolc 2013.

The site that epitomises midwinter in Orkney is MaesHowe as, very similarly to Newgrange in Ireland, there can be no doubt that this site was built to align on the midwinter solstice.   For the first farmers, the Neolithic peoples living 5000 years ago, this site demonstrates that midwinter was important enough for them to mark it architecturally.

MaesHowe (HY318127) is located in the parish of Stenness, in West Mainland, and is part of the World Heritage Site – the Heart of Neolithic Orkney – and as such is one of the “must sees” of Orkney, along with Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness.  MaesHowe is fairly close to the stone circles at Brodgar and Stenness, and to the “settlement” sites at Barnhouse and the Ness of Brodgar, and to a couple of individual standing stones, and could reasonably be considered to be an intrinsic part of this major “ceremonial complex” of the Neolithic.

MaesHowe today is a large grass-covered mound, surrounded by a ditch and a low bank.  Inside, entered through the single, low, stone entrance, is a stone passageway leading to a central chamber with three side cells.  MaesHowe is usually described as a chambered tomb of passage-grave form but, in the same way that a parish church may contain a crypt when in actuality it has many more functions than merely being a repository for the faithful dead, it is possible to suggest that MaesHowe may originally have had many other uses.  Access is via timed ticket and guided tour (again, similarly to Newgrange) through Historic Scotland, so it can admittedly be difficult to meditate and fully connect with the place, and (sadly but perhaps understandably) Historic Scotland don’t allow individual access or rituals at the site.

I would argue that Orkney is most famous for its Neolithic architecture, but I fully accept that, as a prehistorian, I am biased.  Nevertheless, Orkney has so many stone tombs from this period that it has been called “the Egypt of the north”.  In Orkney, there was, and is, a lack of wood suitable for building (due to lack of trees), but by a fortuitous coincidence there is an abundance of sedimentary rock that can be readily split to produce flags suitable for roofing and dry-stone walling.  Stone survives better than wood, so Orkney’s prehistoric stone architecture has survived relatively well.   It may well be that everywhere else once had as many tombs as Orkney, but Orkney’s simply survived better.

Before folk started farming, we don’t really know what they did with their dead, but once the Neolithic kicks off, the dead become more visible; in fact, in some regions (such as Wessex) it could be argued that it is only architecture for, and to, the dead that was constructed.   There is a general consensus that the Neolithic peoples disposed of some of their dead in communal tombs – with individual tombs not being predominant until the Bronze Age.  The chambered tombs of Orkney are usually interpreted as communal depositories of the dead, and there are two main types: MaesHowe types and stalled cairns, with numerous variations on both types, plus hybrids – every tomb is classifiable by type but also unique.  MaesHowe is therefore the site which provides the name for this type of tomb; it is also the largest of the MaesHowe type of tomb (the largest stalled cairn is probably Midhowe on the island of Rousay).  Communal disposal of the dead is sometimes interpreted as being evidence for an egalitarian society in the Neolithic, but this is contentious and academic careers have been built and lost through such arguments!

To get inside MaesHowe today, you enter through the original stone passage which is low and narrow and runs roughly south-west to north-east.  It is about eight metres in length and slopes gently upwards to the central chamber.  The passageway is built of stone slabs, weighing up to thirty tonnes, and one of the roofing slabs is over five metres in length – this was a prestigious engineering feat.  Unless you are very short, you need to stoop to enter MaesHowe; it is like a birthing vagina in many ways and quite claustrophobic, although not as obviously so as at the Camster Cairns (Caithness) where you have to wriggle along a tunnel to access the inner chamber.  About three metres in from the entrance, on the north side of the passage, there is an alcove containing what is interpreted as a “blocking stone” and which appears to have been designed to pivot in order to close the passage from inside, presumably for certain rituals.  This may have been for secrecy or in order to produce altered states of consciousness through auditory phenomenon.

The main chamber is about four metres square and about four metres high – quite comfortable to stand up in and house the average tour group size of about twenty people.  The walls are constructed using dry-stone walling techniques and would originally have converged to form a square corbelled ceiling.  Vikings broke in through the top of MaesHowe about 1000 years ago, destroying the original roof, and until recently MaesHowe was entered through the roof!  The Vikings also left loads of graffiti – the largest collection of Runes outside of Scandinavia ... some of it erudite ... and some of it toilet humour (which frustratingly folk are coy about translating)!  It may well have been the Vikings who removed any Neolithic human remains from the tomb too, because when the tomb was excavated in the 1860s only a piece of human skull was found. 

There are four massive upright stones at each of the corners, set into dry-stone buttresses, which may have formed part of a stone circle, or other stone construction, prior to the erection of the tomb around them.  As stated, there are three side-cells off the main chamber, whose entrances are in the middle of each of the main chamber’s walls, about a metre off the ground, one opposite the entrance passage, one to the right, and one to the left.  Each side chamber is roofed by one large slab of stone and there are three tapered stones by their entrances which have been interpreted as blocking stones.

MaesHowe is a magnificent piece of Neolithic architecture, stunning in its monumentality but, for me, its most important feature is its alignment on the setting sun at the midwinter solstice.  One of the things that makes Orkney special is that its latitude is 59 degrees north, this means that the midsummer sun rises in the north-east and sets in the north-west, whilst the midwinter sun rises in the south-east and sets in the south-west, and at the equinoxes the sun rises directly in the east and sets in the west.  If the positions of the sunrises and sunsets at both solstices are plotted and joined, they form a perfect diamond, this only happens at this latitude and this may be the origin of the Neolithic art motif of the lozenge. 

Living in a “long” house that is only three miles from MaesHowe and which is aligned north-south, I can personally vouch for noting the changing cycles of the sun through the year: the crystals I have hung in the windows provide a constantly changing light-show by which I can tell the seasons.

As stated, MaesHowe’s passageway is roughly aligned south-west to north-east, so when the midwinter sun sets in the south-west it shines directly up the passageway to illuminate the wall of the central chamber – originally it may have lit up the inside of the inner chamber.  From MaesHowe, the midwinter sun appears to set between the twin hills of the island of Hoy – these twin hills dominate the landscape of Orkney and in my imagination, from MaesHowe, they are reminiscent of a birthing woman, on her back, with her legs bent up, with the viewer looking straight at a crowning baby (I know, I know, Neolothic women probably gave birth whilst squatting).

This solar effect is an architectural feat which reveals a high level of planning, probably over many years, and an awareness of astronomy.  It is an alignment so precise, that it is more reasonable to conclude that it is purposeful, than it is to conclude that it happened by lucky accident.  As many readers will be aware, at Newgrange in Ireland it is the rising sun at midwinter solstice, and the two days either side, which illuminates the inner chamber; visitors to Newgrange also have the experience reconstructed for them with an artificial light display.  At MaesHowe, the light effect takes place at the setting of the midwinter sun for approximately a lunar month either side, so there are plenty of opportunities to see it, and there is no artificial reconstruction for summer visitors.  I state “approximately a moon either side” because no one knows how many days the light effect lasts – the effect only happens when the weather conditions are right, it has to be a clear day, so to measure it, we would have to have a clear day at sunset everyday from about mid-November to end-January ... this is VERY unlikely to happen in Orkney in winter!  To compensate, Historic Scotland offer a ticket allowing multiple tours until the visitor “gets lucky” or, more appropriately, “hits gold”.

Our first winter in Orkney was (as I have moaned plenty of times before) a difficult one on many levels.  Quite a few ferry-loupers and quite a few Orcadians migrate to sunnier climes over the harsher months and the locals tend to dare an over-winter stay as an ordeal.  We were told that if we survive our first winter, we’ll stay.  Of course, having survived that (just), we were told it was the second winter that really sorted the sheep from the goats ... more recently we’ve been told that it is only after four winters that sootheners make a real commitment to stay.  Although now when we’re asked how long we’ve been here, we get a grudging admiration: “Oh, you’ve done three winters then?”

It is not only the extreme cold (I’ve known -17 degrees) and the treacherous weather conditions that force one into isolation, but also the lack of light.  Sunset starts about 2:30 in the afternoon.  And that makes for an awful long night, with the wind tearing around the house until it finds any vulnerable crack through which to enter and steal precious heat.  Without the sun there is only darkness, cold and isolation.  Ice: the realm outside the Rune board.  But with the sun there is warmth and hope, joy and light, a promise of summers and plenty.

It is easy to become a sun worshipper in Orkney because even at the height of summer the presence of the sun dictates the necessity of switching on the central heating (I originate from the Hampshire Riviera, a place of permanent and perpetual sunshine and bountiful warmth and plenty – comparatively).  More so than ever in the south, the sun is always welcome here in Orkney.  In the south I dreaded the long hot sticky and still summers when the heat made everything shimmer and it was so hot you couldn’t sleep, even with the windows open (I’m obviously never happy – if I recall, we couldn’t have the windows open for fear of thieves!).  In Orkney, even at its very hottest, it rarely gets above a very comfortable 20 degrees. 

During our first winter, when we first took up the over-winter challenge, the darkness was like a spiritual journey.  They take education and studying very seriously in Orkney because there is little else to do on a winter’s evening than to hunker down by a fire and read – particularly so when there is a powercut.  That first winter for me was like a dark night of the soul, literally as well as metaphorically.  I hadn’t realised before I moved to Orkney how much the lack of light and the merciless weather could sap my spirit.  Already low from the disappointment of not getting the work I’d intended, I plunged into a full-scale depression – more enforced ego-stripping.  I realise now that I probably suffer from Seasonally Affected Disorder, it’s quite common here, but a couple of winters ago, when I was still acclimatising and learning how to label myself, I was just plain down and desperate for the sun to return.

It was on Christmas Eve that we obtained tickets into MaesHowe, having been advised that Christmas Eve was normally a good night for the light show.  The Solstice had been cloudy, but Christmas Eve was indeed clear and bright and the landscape was blanketed in crisp new snow.  And we were present to witness the sun entering the sacred chamber, stealing in like a doorway opening between the worlds, like amber light shining through a crack in the land. 

The sun sets fairly rapidly right between the Hoy hills at midwinter and within MaesHowe a thin sliver of gold light appears at first, lighting the passage and slowly widening across the floor of the central chamber.  Then a rectangle of amber light gradually appears on the vertical wall of the central chamber at about knee height.  The light cast is not static, but rather it dances: little motes of dust and sunbeams moving as if the light itself is alive.  The rectangle of light cast upon the back wall was like a doorway to another world – a world of perpetual warmth and abundance.  For me, it was like I had travelled afar, in the dark and cold, and finally come to a tent, within which was warmth and light from a roaring fire.  The tent flap was lifted for an instant, so that the light spilt out and danced to invite me in to something I had felt excluded from.  That was what it was like: like looking in on another world, a world of the ancestors and of the Gods, of plenty and of ease.  It was sublime and so holy.  And I felt truly privileged.  The effect lasts about 15 minutes in total and is utterly magical and sacred.  To watch it is a personally transforming experience because there is a promise that the heat of summer is only a journey away; that journey being chronological rather than spatial.

We chose to interpret the fact that we were lucky enough to see this on our first attempt, as a Blessing from our Gods.  Despite it being a harsh winter, we were being told or asked or invited to stay.  In the depths of winter, in the darkest parts of my soul’s journey, there was this promise and gift of light.  A new pact with our Gods then, a tiny peace offering on Their part, a hint of consolation, a “stick with it, the magic is there and to be experienced, but you have to earn it, to do the work.”  But the contract was now in place and winter seemed to lift from then on – we had passed the worst, the darkest point, the year had turned and the sun was returning once more.

My understanding is that in some Roman Catholic contemplative traditions, the soul yearns constantly for God, like a scorned lover, but that what makes the work and effort worthwhile is an occasional spiritual breakthrough, called a “consolation”, in which succour and reassurance is received by the contemplative.  In that first dark depressing winter in Orkney, witnessing the sun entering the heart of MaesHowe was, for me, a very real consolation.  A small consolation, but there nonetheless and missed if the winters are opted out of.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Hearth and Home

(This article was published in SPIN, the Scottish Pagan Federation magazine.)

Spring makes me think of home.  As the weather lightens, all manner of tasks around the house become doable once more.  If I am feeling brave I may even consider embarking on some decorating.

Throughout winter, one tends to “batten down the hatches”, hoping the house won’t leak or, worse, blow away, but come spring it is time to venture out, repair any damage and get anything done before winter kicks in again in a few month’s time.

As the bantams become broody, hiding their eggs from us instead of dutifully laying them where we can rob them, and I see all the other wild creatures turn to thoughts of nesting and courtship, I realise that thoughts of hearth and home at this time of year are, in many ways, archetypal.

Even though we also have central heating, our hearth – in the form of a wood-burning stove – is a very central part of our house.  During the winter it can heat the entire house and provides a comforting, cosy warmth that is so much more tangible than radiators.  And keeping the stove stocked is an all-year-round preoccupation as I scrounge scrap wood from local builders, stashing it away and keeping it dry like the precious hoard it truly is.  Even when the sun is at its zenith, our thoughts focus on keeping warm through the winter.

The hearth seems to have been central , both literally and metaphorically, to homes in Orkney for time beyond memory.  The hearth is the symbolic axis of the home in so many cultures and it is no surprise that in these windswept, warmth-forsaken islands, legends and myths surrounding the tending of the hearth’s fire overnight abound.

Orkney is probably most famous for its unique (in the UK) preservation of Neolithic domestic architecture, alongside its ritual monuments.  Whereas elsewhere in Britain we only have tantalising hints of Neolithic domestic sites in the form of wooden stake- and post-holes, in Orkney a fortuitous coincidence led to the unique preservation of domestic architecture:– a lack of trees (and hence a dearth of wood for construction) combined with the compensation of the local sandstone geology being easily splitable into flagstones.  In prehistory, Orkney folk built in stone rather than wood, and the stone survived.

The most famous site is probably the World Heritage Site of Skara Brae (HY 231 187), managed by Historic Scotland.  Discovered in 1850 when a great storm swept off the covering sand dunes, Skara Brae has been excavated several times and dates to about 3100 BCE with two main phases of construction over about 600 years.

Skara Brae consists of at least 10 houses, all joined together by a winding covered passageway.  Each of the houses are roughly circular in layout and are one-roomed, uniform structures.  Each house / room is entered by a single door and has a square, central hearth marked with stone slabs.  Opposite the door, beyond the central hearth, is what is usually interpreted as a stone dresser but it may also have functioned as an altar.  On both the other sides, to left and right of the door, are what has been interpreted as beds, again built of slabs of stone and rather reminiscent of the later neuk beds (described later).

What is particularly charming about these houses is that they contain personal minutiae from which it is easy to imaging the details of Neolithic life and hence attempt a link with those who once lived here – saddle querns, sunken stone clay-lined boxes for shellfish, cells and cubby-holes built into the walls near the beds, and underground drains which are commonly interpreted as ensuite facilities but this is debatable.  One of the most intriguing theories I have encountered is that this was drainage for brewing beer (refer:

The visitor centre houses an excellent museum and one of the huts has been reconstructed enabling the snugness of the originally roofed structures to be experience.  Unfortunately, imagination at this site is constrained by the sheer number of tourists and hence understandably, Historic Scotland’s need to restrict access into the actual houses to protect the site from visitor erosion.  For this main reason, the spiritual pilgrim is advised to visit some of the other known settlement sites in Orkney, not only is there no entrance charge to some of the other key sites, but it is not unusual to have them all to oneself for the duration of any visit.

The earliest known Neolithic house sites known in Orkney (to date!) are at the Knap O’Howar (HY 483 518) on the island of Papa Westray (known as Papay to the locals).  Dating to about 3700 BCE these structures were in use for about 900 years and pre-date Skara Brae.  This site comprises two adjoining buildings which are usually interpreted as a composite farmstead.  These houses are long with rounded ends and are entered from outside at the centre of the north-west ends.  Both structures are aligned north-west – south-east.

The larger structure is usually interpreted as the dwelling house and the smaller as a workshop.  Both structures were sub-divided into “rooms” by stone slabs acting as partitions.  Again, a central hearth and various fittings, including quern stones, are on display. 

Papay has a fairly small population and is one of the more difficult outer islands to access for the visitor from Mainland (the inter-island flight from Kirkwall is recommended, particularly if the shortest scheduled flight from Westray to Papay is included – it takes about 2 minutes and you can claim a certificate!), for these reasons, it is quite easy to get Knap O’Howar to oneself.  Access is totally unrestricted and the site lies on the western coast of the island right by the seashore where seals and sea birds can be seen.  Papay is a small island and it is not too far to walk from the airport or the harbour to this site (or any site!).  It is easy to enjoy a couple of undisturbed hours in this place which today still feels like a home – a safe, comforting, familiar home, loved and protected and careful of its occupants for almost a millennium of use.  This site is exquisite and so very special, far easier to connect to than Skara Brae.

The houses at Skara Brae share a similarity in plan to MaesHowe and the MaesHowe type chambered tombs.  Similarly, it is possible to make a comparison in layout between the Knap O’Howar and stalled cairns (the other type of chambered tomb in Orkney), such as MidHowe.  Perhaps the dead also needed houses, albeit ones without central hearths?  If so, then the hearth becomes a symbol of heat, light, and life, central to Neolithic funerary customs and beliefs.

Hearths are also found in non-domestic setting in the neolithic, suggesting that they had a special, ritual significance, as well as a practical function.

Another settlement site lies at Barnhouse (HY 307 127) on Mainland, which is signposted and walkable from the Stones of Stenness.  This site was only discovered and excavated in the late twentieth century.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t in a particularly good state of preservation because it was under a field that had been ploughed, and a controversial decision was made to reconstruct the structures in accordance with what was found during excavation, so the stones which currently stand to only a few courses of stonework are only modern reconstructions, albeit in the place of the originals and at least giving an idea of the design and layout of this site.  Many more houses – at least 13 – were excavated than are currently reconstructed and on display.

Barnhouse dates from about 3200 BCE and is interesting because some of the structures are odd – even by Neolithic standards – being non-uniform in plan, suggesting that they may not have been purely domestic in structure.  One of the structures has a similar layout to the Skara Brae houses but is split into two main rooms – each with its own hearth.  Archaeologists have speculated that this may represent a division of space into perhaps male / female, old / young, uninitiated / initiated.

Another of the structures is much larger than the others and is surrounded by a substantial outer wall and has a complicated entrance architecture and internal passageway.  To enter this structure, one would have needed to have circumvented the inner perimeter and to have then crossed a hearth set into the entire width of the inner entrance.  Was this an enforced firewalk or an initiatory barrier to pass over?  Did it ritually purify anyone entering this structure?  It certainly isn’t practical, but then so much of prehistory isn’t.

Barnhouse is located so near to the Stones of Stenness, and dates to the same period, that archaeologists have suggested that the two sites are interrelated in some way, speculation being that Barnhouse was where the magician / priests of Stenness resided.  If this was the case, then it becomes more understandable that these domestic structures also have an element of ritual usage incorporated into them – although it may also be the case that, in the Neolithic, life was not so compartmentalised and that the segregation of function into sacred and profane was less pronounced than it is for us.
In recent years, archaeological excavation has focused on the Ness of Brodgar, (HY 303 128) on Mainland, which is the thin isthmus of land which nearly connects the Ring of Brodgar to the Stones of Stenness.  Today there is a bridge so that the B9055 road runs right along, but it is conjecture as to what there was in the past and certainly the water levels might have been lower so there was a natural causeway.  Nevertheless, to travel from the Ring of Brodgar to the Stones of Stenness, Neolithic folk must have passed across the Ness, or else took the inordinately long way around.

On the Ness of Brodgar lies another interesting settlement site with more highly unusual ritualistic elements present.  The earliest phases of construction date from about 2700 BCE and continue intermittently up to 2300 BCE, with perhaps some reuse of structures continuing until 2100 BCE.  Parallels have been drawn with the Barnhouse site with suggestions that this was where the magician / priests of Brodgar resided.

One interesting feature of this site is it’s demarcation in the landscape, as a substantial and well-constructed wall was built across the ithsmus to the north-west of the site (the “Great Wall of Brodgar”) effectively cutting these structures off from the Ring of Brodgar, and another wall was built to the south-east of the site (the “Lesser Wall of Brodgar”), cutting the structures off from the Stones of Stenness.  Geophysics results indicate that the area between the “Great Wall of Brodgar” and the Ring of Brodgar is “clean” suggesting little or no activity, as if the area was kept “pure” in some way.  Certainly these two substantial boundaries in the landscape, effectively enclosing the Ness site, suggest that something different went on one side of the wall to the other.

The largest of the structures (Structure Ten) at the Ness of Brodgar has been dubbed “the cathedral” because of its size and similar layout to MaesHowe.  At its centre is a cruciform structure, complete with a Skara Brae style dresser – at the Ness site, dubbed an altar – all enclosed by thick stone walls with a paved “forecourt” area around the eastern end and a standing stone incorporated into this annex.  This excavation has produced some finds unique to the British Neolithic in the form of painted art.  Scratched and incised art is known rarely from other sites but this is the only site at which rocks daubed with pigment have been recovered.  It is easy to think of the past as being black-and-white (especially when you are my age and remember black-and-white TV dominating your childhood!) but these finds inform us that the Neolithic folk were as colourful as us.

In 2010, a central hearth was discovered in Structure Ten, underneath the hearth was a stone block with cup marks and underneath that were deposits of animal bone, including an inverted skull of a cow.  This hearth was noted to be very similar to the hearths found at the centre of the houses at Skara Brae.  Half of the hearth stones were missing from Structure Ten, possibly having been deliberately removed and transferred elsewhere.  There may be a parallel with Barnhouse where a hearth from one structure was moved to the centre of the Standing Stones of Stenness.

It isn’t possible to go into these structures unless you volunteer as an excavator (and volunteers are welcome) but the site is fairly accessible for an on-going excavation site with daily guided tours during the 6-8 week excavation period every July and August.

The hearth continues in importance through the centuries and indeed the millennia in Orkney.

In South Ronaldsay, and included in your ticket price for entrance to the museum and Tomb of the Eagles, is Liddle Burnt Mound (ND 464 841).  This sites dates from about 900 BCE and was excavated by the farmer who owned the land and who, until recently, gave visitors a guided tour.  This site was under a 2 metre high mound of burnt stones.  At this site, when the stones were cleared, a Bronze Age stone-built house was revealed, with a hearth and a trough lined with stone.  A small stream runs just to the outside of the house, just down slope, so the inhabitants had a ready source of water.

Such mounds are fairly common around Orkney and elsewhere (in Ireland they are known as fulachta fiadh) and they consist of thousands of discarded stones which show evidence of having been heated.  The usual interpretation is that these stones were heated and then moved into water in order to boil large quantities of water.  The quantities of stone and burnt mounds suggests that a lot of water was been heated in the Bronze Age.  Academic careers have been built and lost on exactly why so much water was being boiled but theories include cooking meat – although this makes little sense as even as a vegetarian I recognised that roasted meat is superior in flavour to boiled – saunas / sweat lodges, or beer brewing (again, refer:  If either of the latter than this would not have been a purely domestic site but potentially also a ritualistic one as both pastimes are infamously capable of producing altered states of consciousness.

This is another delightful site at which the spiritual tourist is not rushed in their visit but can tarry and imagine life three thousand years ago.

In West Mainland, in the parish of Birsay, Kirkbuster Farm (HY 282 254) is worth a visit because of its large central kitchen with a central fireplace.  The fireplace is backed by a large upright stone slab and the smoke escapes through a hole in the roof.  Orkney Islands Council manage the site so there is no entrance fee and the staff are amazingly enthusiastic and knowledgeable; they still burn peat upon the hearth so the richness of the smoke and the gentle but constant heat from the fire is extremely evocative of days past.  There is also a neuk-bed, constructed of stone slabs set into the stone wall of the kitchen, and it is impossible not to draw parallels with the beds at Skara Brae.  There seems no hurry at Kirkbuster Farm; the building dates from at least the early eighteenth century, and whilst you bide a while at the fireside, quite likely whilst listening to the rain pour down outside, it is easy to glimpse ghosts in the coiling smoke skeins.

I have stated before that it is easy to become a sun-worshipper in Orkney because the presence, or not, of the sun can make such a difference to our days.  When we don’t have the sun, we make our own in the form of a hearth and the hearth becomes a focus for our lives and our homes.  In the winter, once we fire-up our wood-burning stove, we become one-roomers, we huddle down around our source of heat and light which is so welcoming and comforting and we dream of winter foods like warming soups and milky puddings.  Although we do not hibernate, it is as if we do, safe from the weather outside, cocooning hopes of summer like seeds within our hearts.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Greenwood in Orkney

Since residing in Orkney I miss many things, feeling as it does sometimes as if it is at the edge of the known world, trees – and woodland in particular – are one of the things that I especially miss.  Hampshire, where I used to live, apparently has more trees per square mile than any other county in England. 

I miss trees!  I miss walking in dappled shade and the comforting scent of fern and leafmould.  I even miss hedgerows (they favour dry-stone walling in Orkney to divide the fields).

This is largely whimsical on my part: I was often unable to walk on my own in Hampshire for fear of my personal safety and there would rarely be the solitude I craved, there would always be other people in the woods and they would often be noisy types.

There are very few trees in Orkney.  The likelihood is that about 8000 years ago, back in the Mesolithic, Orkney was covered in native wildwood like the rest of the United Kingdom, after the last ice sheets withdrew.  Some of this wildwood is meant to survive at Berriedale Wood on the island of Hoy.  If this is indeed a survival of native woodland then it is fairly unique to the UK (with all due respect to Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood) as my understanding is that the nearest surviving examples in Europe are in Poland.

The trees in Berriedale Wood, like most trees in Orkney, are stunted, buffeted and dwarfed as they are by the constant winds, they cannot grow too high.  They grow in a narrow defile, through which a stream runs (burn).  In the south, this would be an excuse for a wood, but in Orkney it counts as substantial woodland, but what is special is the density of time here in this alleged relic of ecology.

As stated, few patches, if any, of this indigenous wildwood survives in the United Kingdom.  Woodland is actually a heavily managed agricultural resource, no more natural than a field of wheat and destined to be harvested in a similar way.  Most ancient woodland in the UK dates predominantly from no later than the middle ages.

Why, then, are there so few trees in Orkney?  It is probably due to the earliest farmers in the Neolithic about 6000 years ago who would have needed to clear land to plant cereal crops.  They would have practiced slash and burn techniques, that are still used by traditional horticulturalists today, in which trees are cut down (slashed) and then burnt, with the ask acting as an immediate boost to the stability of the soil.  Every ten years or so, the soil will become exhausted and a new patch of land is deforested.  Elsewhere, trees will re-colonise the abandoned land but in Orkney this did not happen because of that constant buffering that we get from the wind – after all Orkney’s motto is “Boreas domus mare amicus” (“home to the winds, friend of the sea”). 

The wind is something we can rely on in Orkney, when it isn’t windy it’s weird, too quiet, eerily so.  It’s why we’re putting up so many wind turbines and why we’re leading the way in renewable energy production in general.

Trees will grow in Orkney if they are sheltered.  Trees on the edges of copses and woodlands tend to have deeper roots than those that are sheltered, it takes time for deeper roots to grow, so any trees planted in Orkney have to be in sheltered positions or else supported until they are strong enough to support themselves.  Even then, the wind is so strong that trees will not grow as tall as they would elsewhere.

Folk do occasionally plant small stands of trees and there are encouragements to do so in the form of advice from “Jenny The Tree Lady” and grants, but such copses take a while to establish and patience is needed before results can be truly appreciated.  Most indigenous Orcadians don’t seem to like trees as they are considered to be obstructions to views, particularly views of what your neighbour is doing!

There are a number of established trees in Orkney.  Kirkwall has, of course, its famous “Big Tree” in the centre of Broad Street, it clings on to life despite being hemmed in by concrete, being almost hollow, and having been struck by lightning and Ba’ players more than once.  When I was looking for oak leaves for a midsummer solstice ritual, I found a sheltered oak tree in the courtyard behind The Long Ship opposite the Cathedral.  There are some magnificent Orkney sycamores too amongst the ruins of the Earl’s Palace.

The best established woodland is probably at Binscarth Wood on the outskirts of Finstown.  The loch at Wasdale trickles south firstly just by creating boggy land then becoming a stream by the point the contours change and the valley heads east and finally emptying into the Bay of Firth, all the while wearing a route through the valley at Binscarth.  This dent in the landscape is possibly one of the most naturally sheltered places in Orkney and it was planted in the Victorian period with pines and some of the ubiquitous Orkney sycamores.  Towards the eastern end are some newer plantations of trees.

This is a delightful walk, although short compared to southern equivalents, and nearly always muddy even after several weeks of no rain (which has been known in an Orcadian summer).  The stream meanders and cascades, becoming frothy in places due to the peaty soil.  The pine wood means that the ground beneath the trees is void of undergrowth but some of those trees are substantial and it is one of the few places in Orkney where a human can experience being dwarfed by the magnificence that is a mature tree; to really feel as if one is in the presence of deep and ancient knowledge and a wise being.  These woods provide habitat for a number of bird species and woodland plats, particularly towards the eastern end where there is less pine and more sycamore.

There are public footpaths through these woods, one direct and several which thread along by the stream, but best not to attempt any of them without waterproof footwear.

Above the woodland sits Binscarth House, and in the private grounds is the most serene grove.  When the stone to build Binscarth House was quarried out in the 1800s, the area that had been quarried was turned into a secret, almost sunken garden.  The flat centre is lawned and all around are mature deciduous trees.  I have been privileged to perform a wedding in this grove and it is an absolute delight to be in and a thoroughly sacred place.  On a warm, bright and sunny day I could easily imagine myself back home in Hampshire.

Although there is “Right to Roam” in Orkney (as throughout Scotland) this is a private garden and I feel strongly that responsibilities come with rights.  This grove is not visible from the footpath and you will not be able to stumble upon it – if you wish to visit, please be courteous and enquire in advance of your visit for permissions from Binscarth House.

Happy Valley in Stenness is also off the tourist trail but well known to locals.  Happy Valley is another sheltered valley where Edwin Harrold created a garden from a bare hillside between 1948 and the 1990s.  The trees here are not as mature as at Binscarth Wood but there is less foliage cover so on a bright and sunny day, the sunlight creates the most mesmerising effects in the peaty stream which runs through the site.

Edwin Harrold lived here with very little, his small stone cottage is still standing but it is falling into ruin.  There are bits of equipment hinting at how he generated his own minimal supply of electricity for his own meagre needs from the stream but it is a site that is under the care of local enthusiasts and volunteers so there are all sorts of tree planting, labelling and caring programmes taking place throughout the year.

The garden design here is eccentric, clearly having been implemented on a scant budget, if any, and with an emphasis on reusing and recycling architecture gleaned from elsewhere.  Happy Valley is not a large area of land; the walk along the stream is probably no more than 50 metres in length but the created paths and vistas and pausing areas force you to walk slowly so that it seems a much longer walk than it is in actuality.

There are a number of species of trees here, the like of which biodiversity is not really known elsewhere in Orkney and this is my favourite place when I need a tree “fix”.  A visit to Happy Valley cures my itch for a woodland walk, at least for a while.

However, the real delight of Happy Valley is the effect of Orkney sunlight through the foliage and onto the peaty stream.  In places, the stream (or burn) has been manipulated to form still, pool areas.  In other places, there are waterfalls and stretches that race around curves, foaming up the peaty water to form scummy froth.  The peaty water is red-brown and looks dirty, but shine sunlight on it and it is like amber – like the light effect in MaesHowe.

The water shimmers and reflects the most stunning and delightful dancing colours of yellow, orange, gold, red and light brown, all dancing on the surface and through to the depths of the water.  It is something no laser light show could compete with and is worth using as a meditation focus.

We have our own tree – a rescued rowan – which stands proud, guarding our garden from the north.  Rowans are legendary for providing protection and this one is like a sentinel.  It was saved from a garden in Firth where it wasn’t wanted, but where it had been protected by other trees growing closely around it so its roots were shallow.  This meant that we were able to uproot and transport it, but our land is very exposed and it has had to be securely staked.  It is about three metres high and, for those not involved in its transplantation, it seemed to suddenly appear – causing a few comments from curious neighbours.  The rowan has now survived its second winter and several vicious gales and produced a good crop of berries in its first summer here.  It will need to be staked for several years, probably the rest of its life, as it is unlikely we will be able to plant any other shelter around it.  We’ll probably always need to keep a watch over it as it has suddenly been exposed to the elements where it had previously been so protected.  Its adaptation to its new position will take time and patience.  By its base, we have placed an upright slab of sandstone and this is a perfect place for us to leave offerings for the genus loci, the spirits of this place that protect us, our home and land.  They get the first slice of honey cake as an offering.

I realise that this rowan tree is like me, in so many ways.  Uprooted from the crowded yet supportive environment of southern England, I was transported to a harsh new environment in which I was left quite raw and exposed.  No longer having to compete for space, I had to be supported whilst I grew deeper roots.  Now, like the rowan, I have the opportunity to be seen, to stand tall, and to grow into the best I can be, something that could not have happened whilst being crowded in.  This transformation of the tree and myself will take time and patience and will need continuing support and encouragement before we become fully established.