More About Boats & Brodgar

By Bernie Bell

Pics by B&M Bell

I previously wrote a piece presenting the possibility that boats of some kind probably came to the Ness of Brodgar back in the Neolithic , and that some remnant of those boats might still be there to be found in the mud of Stenness Loch.

In that piece I also mentioned the log, dating from the Mesolithic, which was found at the Bay of Ireland, just over the hill from Brodgar.

Having visited the dig at the Ness on the 9th of July, I was prompted to go to the Bay of Ireland to see how it might relate to the position of the site.

We didn’t find any ancient boats, but the visit did re-affirm my idea of a possible connection between the Bay and the Ness.  We then drove from the Bay, over the hill towards Stenness.

And why am I writing of going over the hill?   Standing at the Bay of Ireland, it would seem more likely that boats approaching, passing by Hoy, would follow the waterway through to what is now the Brig O’ Waithe and Stenness Loch.  But I’m wondering if, when the sea level was lower, might that area have been more marshy, less of a clear waterway than it is now?  Maybe a waterway, but would it have been navigable?  Possibly by boats made from inflated animal skins and wood, which would sit high in the water – more of which, later.

This could have been the route taken to transport goods to the Ness, and possibly people too.  But – the other thing which occurs to me is…….If a person is on a pilgrimage to a sacred place, would they necessarily take the easiest way?  They might have landed at the Bay of Ireland, then proceeded to walk over the hill as part of their pilgrimage – and, by doing so, have seen the Neolithic Heart of Orkney laid out below them………..

The journey is a lot easier and quicker than it would have been in the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age – or earlier.  But, to me, our journey showed that the Bay of Ireland could present another point of access for pilgrims or traders coming to the Ness.

And this could be how they approached their final destination – there used to be two stones standing here – the stump of another one has been found to the left of the Watchstone – picture it……….

There will have been a lot of people there, especially at certain times of the year, and they will have needed a lot of supplies of all kinds.

Standing in the car park for the Stones of Stenness and looking across to the way we had just driven, the two possible approaches to the Ness are to be seen – over the hill with due reverence – maybe singing, chanting or praying?   And also the waterway for goods, or for pilgrims too.

I didn’t take a photo of this view, as my camera couldn’t manage the breadth of it – BUT – thinking about what can be seen from there – the road crossing the low hill to the left, the sea-way inlet to the right, and……..Hoy in the middle – over-looking all.

All the way, Hoy would have made its presence felt – from passing through Hoy Sound, to the Bay or the inlet, then on the journey. And at arrival – Hoy overlooking all.

It still does…..

The Ness dig 2019

There’s a man at the University of Washington, Seattle, called Mark Cooper, and when Mark read my article about the possibility of boats at the Ness, he sent me a lot of interesting information about boats in antiquity all over the world – some forms of which are still used in our own time.

Mark’s researches are his own tale to tell, and I’m hoping that he will do so in The Orkney News. 

Meanwhile, suffice it to say that his descriptions of large rafts/barges made from inflated animal skins and a wooden frame goes a long way, for me,  towards solving the mystery of how the ancient peoples might have moved the Bluestones from the Preseli Hills to the site of what became Stonehenge.

The stones for the Ring of Brodgar were sourced from different areas of Orkney, so transport by sea probably didn’t play such a large part in moving them, though transporting them internally might have been helped a lot by using the water as it’s quicker and easier than moving them overland.

So, there could have been boats and rafts coming over the sea with supplies and people, and also boats/rafts used, possibly to cross lochs to help to transport the big stones needed for the Brodgar and Stenness circles.

Mark points out that certain carved megalithic stones found at the sites of archaeology digs, whose presence doesn’t appear to make any sense, could suddenly make sense when they are seen as being used as ballast in boats.

Again, it’s tempting to elaborate, but I’m hoping that Mark will tell of this himself.  He spoke of his researches when invited to give a talk entitled ‘Sailing on Stones’ as part of the on-line Orkney International Science Festival last year …….

I know very little about boats of any kind – I just had the idea of them coming to the Ness. Mark is someone with the know-how, not only to see that water transport was likely, but also the forms it might have taken.

All part of the picture of what life in Orkney might have been, back then.

These are just ideas – conjecture – I’m not claiming that any of this was definitely so – how could I?  But, when we made the journey I’ve described to you, and looked about us and thought about it – to me, it makes sense.

And – the Bay of Ireland was a fine place to be on a sunny August Orkney day. A fine day for some more musings of a Neolithic nature!

By the time this article is published, the dig at the Ness will be over for this year – but……………..there will still be a lot of behind-the-scenes work to be done – analysis, recording, conservation, assessment, planning for next year. 

So, once again I get my begging bowl out……to help to make it happen next year, please donate at……..


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