Bernie Bell: Orkney Walks (with Stories) – Rousay

For all these walks, take a good map with you, and wear stout footwear!

Rousay and the Walk Through Time

We’ve only been to Rousay once, five years ago.  We hope to go again, but there are all the other islands, to visit, too!  What we visited there, was limited to what we could do, in a day –which is often the case!

I’ve called this tale, ‘A Walk Through Time’, and I’ll start at the beginning……………..of the tale, not of time!

First, we visited Mid Howe Chambered Cairn.  You park, considerately, by the roadside, and walk down, across the fields, to the Big Shed!  It’s a slightly strange set-up.  a huge, Neolithic cairn, enclosed in a huge, modern, shed!

Midhowe Rousay ( B Bell)

Inside Midhowe Cairn Rousay (B Bell)

When inside, and faced with the monument, itself, for some reason, you get the impression of a ship.  I think that this has been mentioned before, by other people.  Maybe it’s the shape, and the way the interior is divided up, like ‘below’ on a ship.  It being in the big shed, gives it a rather dank, sad air.  A magnificent monument, but, maybe because of the shed, there is something sad about it.  Boats always look wrong, indoors, even if it’s the best way to preserve them.  They’re meant to be outside, preferably on the water.

I noticed that the stones used to build it, are laid in a ‘herringbone’ pattern, which is similar to the patterns used on a lot of the Neolithic pottery found in Orkney, and beyond.

Another example of the use of similar designs in a variety of situations and media?

Rousay B Bell

Inside Midhowe Cairn Rousay (B Bell)

We took two pictures, in the Mid Howe cairn, then the camera stopped working!  We jjjj-jiggled with it, a bit, we changed the batteries, we did everything we could think of.  It refused to work, for the whole of the Rousay visit, then, worked fine, when we checked it on the boat coming home, and continued to do so, for years to come.  Funny old world.

We then visited the Mid Howe Broch.  This is an impressive, and appealing structure.  Brochs are understood to have been defensive structures, tho’ maybe not so much actually, actively, defensive – more a case of saying “We’re here.  We’re strong.  Don’t mess with us.”  If a people, or a person, gives out that message, often, actual defence, isn’t needed!

This broch, has a good, domestic feel to it.  You can imagine the people, living there, going about their daily business.  Some brochs do feel like they’re being ‘hard’.  This one, is a family place.  I liked it.  And, it’s wonderfully well built.

And now, we head off on the actual walk.  This is the part of the Walk Through Time, which particularly appealed to me.  Basically, you walk along the coast, from Mid Howe Cairn, through an area called Westness.  What I love about this area is……………you can tell by the place, that the land has been cared for, for a very long time.  Worked, but not worked until it was tired out.  Worked, cared for , fed, tilled, considered.  You can feel it, in the land, and see it, as you look around you.  It’s not worked, now, but the centuries of care, are still there, in the land and in the walls.  It appeals to my land-loving, farming ancestry soul.

Then, you come to a little group of buildings, and, again, the feeling of care is strong.  A group of people, living closely, helping each other out, ‘keeping an eye’.  Probably arguing, too – only human! But working together, working the land, and the sea, and the little brewing kiln!  Working together, something like the Cuween and Wideford folk.

I’m not trying to paint an idyllic picture, here.  It will have been a hard life.  My parent’s families were farming in the West of Ireland, in much the same way as these folk, right up until their generation.  I remember visiting my Auntie Bridie and Uncle Anthony, in my  mother’s family home.  A two room, thatched cottage, with no piped water and no electricity.  They lived there, raised a family of five, and worked their farm (what would be called a croft, in Orkney), right up until the early 1970’s, when they had a new house built, in the top field.  The old house, became a cow-shed.  A bit hard to take, after all those generations  caring for it and loving it, as home.  But, re-use of buildings, was not un-common, down the ages, and is very necessary, when your resources are limited.

Not an easy life, by any means, but a good one, in many ways, especially if you were lucky in your choice of life-partner, and the health of your family.

We walked along Westness, for a bit, then turned back, as we were aware of our time limitations.  Something which the place……..isn’t!

There’s a lot of archaeological investigation being done along here, at the present time, by a combination of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Department, the University of Bradford, and the University of York.  As in many places, the sea is encroaching, and land, and sites of historical interest, and significance, are being lost.  The archaeologists are hoping to record as much as possible, to help to place some more pieces in the puzzle, before even more is lost, to the sea.

The world has been changing for a long time, is changing, and will continue to change.  It seems a shame, to lose these places, but, in the whole scheme of things, it’s just what is so.  And, other places, are appearing, such as the Ness of Brodgar, and the ever-increasing number of sites around Wideford and the Bay of Firth.

Anyhoo, enough philosophising – on with the visit.

I’ll take the next two places which we visited, in what could be called descending order.  You’ll see why!

Taversoe Tuick is a strange, unique, intriguing little place.  The cairn itself, is a little gem.  Getting to it, was very difficult.  The land around it, was totally ‘poached’, presumably by cattle.  It was a matter of leaping from tussock-to-tussock.  This was OK for Mike and I, as we were relatively young and reasonably fit-ish!  For anyone less agile, it would have been impossible.  Ben-The-Dog just saw it as some kind of obstacle course, climbing up and down among the pot-holes and tussocks, and no doubt wishing he had longer legs!

Back to the cairn.  It’s built on two ‘stories’, which is un-usual.  It also has an off-shoot – an extra little chamber, lying just outside the main cairn.  This is an intriguing little ‘cell’.  I wondered was it for some kind of rite-of-passage, or initiation?  as in, place someone in there, for maybe a few days, and they’d come out crazy, clear-headed, or both!  Other cultures, even very modern societies, today, have isolation tanks.  The idea, as far as I can gather, is to cut off all external stimuli, so that the person……goes inside them-self, to their inner world, to ……………….meet them-self.  Maybe a similar idea, here?  Initiation, through isolation.

We recently attended a seminar at Orkney College, where Julie Gibson ( County Archaeologist) mentioned that there is a small ‘channel’ linking this side-cell, to the main cairn.  If noises (!) are made in the side-cell, they can be heard in the main cairn.  Is this part of the function of the side-cell?  Changing states of consciousness?  It’s a small cell, so you’d have to be a small person, to fit in it, or a young person – a teenager?

All very  interesting.

And so, to Blackhammer.  What’s happened there, is a shame and a disgrace.  The cairn is encased in concrete, and can only be viewed by sliding back some glass sliding ‘doors’.  It’s as though the cairn, is in prison.  Un-touchable.  It’s truly dreadful,  especially if you consider what life these cairns saw!  Hatchings, Matchings and Dispatchings!  All the big human things.  Think of all the activity, and inter-action there was, between the places, the people, and, in many cases, with the planets and stars.  Now, Blackhammer is in-accessible, encased in concrete and glass.  What on earth were they thinking of?

I don’t  want to end on a sour note.  Blackhammer, or, rather, what has been done to Blackhammer, is a shame, and a disgrace.  Taversoe Tuick was the very devil to get to, but , was most definitely worth it.  And the Walk Through Time, at Westness, was a delight, a wonder, a slice of human life, even in the pouring rain!  It’s all part of LIFE, innit?  The grass doesn’t grow so well, without the rain.  The buildings, aren’t built so solid, if you don’t need to keep the weather out.  It’s all part of it –LIFE!

Bernie Bell is a regular columnist with The Orkney News and has written a series of ‘Walks with Stories’ – check out more of them.

For more information about archaeology on Rousay visit  Swandro – Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust

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17 replies »

  1. Thanks for putting in the plug for the Swandro Coastal Archaeology Trust, Fiona – as Bob Geldorf once said “Give us the ******* money!” Finance is needed – for all the archaeology digs – and dig season will soon be here.

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