By Bernie Bell
The Neolithic Heart of Orkney – or – ‘The Procession’
This is a big one – where to begin? As someone in ‘Alice’ said “I’ll begin at the beginning and when I come to the end, I’ll stop.”
It was probably our first visit to Orkney, and so, our first visit to Barnhouse Neolithic ‘Village’. Why the inverted commas around ‘village’? Because – at that time, the information board said that it was a village, and that some of the buildings may have had a ‘ritual’ purpose. From the first time we went there, I felt that it was the settlement of a religious community. People who looked after the stones, performed the ceremonies which were to be performed, and could advise folk who visited, about what they should do, which observances, to – observe, depending on the time of year.
The idea of a domestic ‘village’, didn’t work, especially with the largest building. There’s a hearth, in the middle of the entrance-way! Who has a fire, in the entrance to their home? More likely that the building was for those who could cross fire, to enter. That’s using reason, whereas my response was more to do with a feeling, an instinct.
So, that was the first visit, to Barnhouse, and my first intimation that it was a religious community, something like a monastery – or convent. As the years went on, and we visited Stenness Stones, and Brodgar, more, I had a strong impression of a Procession. This would begin at Barnhouse, and the Stenness Stones, move along, over the Brig O’ Brodgar, past the Watchstone, along, passing the stones in the garden of Loch View (the house, past the Comet stone, through Brodgar – most folk walk round Brodgar, The Procession walked through Brodgar, over the drier land, and up the hill, through the cairns along the way, and on to Bookan.
Mike and I and Ben-The-Dog, tried to walk this procession, but met with difficulties. To start with, it was hard to find out, where Bookan is! No-one seemed to know. It’s on the map, but we got as far as Bookan cairn, and then fences blocked the way. Fences which won’t have been there, 5,000 years ago! Also , the main road wasn’t particularly pleasant to walk on.
This was about 5/6 years ago, and since then, a path has been made! So, here’s the walk……………….
You can park by the Stones of Stenness. Then , do what takes your fancy, at the stones! Walk round the outside, round the inside, touch the stones, lean back on the stones and close your eyes, make humming noises between the two small stones by the lying-down slab, and listen for where the sound turns up, among the big stones. Enjoy yourself, with a respect for the place, and an awareness of what’s there, and what has been there.
Then, go over to the gate in the corner, and walk up the path to Barnhouse Neolithic………..Religious Community. Feel the welcome as you arrive! They welcomed visitors then, they welcome visitors now. What a place. The information board, is less limited in out-look, these days, and gives more credence to the idea of the buildings having had significance, other than purely domestic. Since the discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar, the idea of these being centres for ‘Religious’ communities, ceremonial sites etc., is becoming more accepted. It’s up to you, what you make of it. At the moment, we’re going for a walk.
So, having taken in the surroundings, position and possible purpose of Barnhouse ( I wonder what it was called, back then?), you can walk back down the path, past the gate, towards the road, and you’ll find a mown path which turns to the right, at the end of the fence, in front of the house with a red roof, which is called ‘Odin’. It’s named after the Odin Stone which used to stand in the field to your right. The story of the Odin Stone and it’s destruction, is a sorry tale – I won’t tell it here, you can look it up!
So, we walk along, past the Watchstone, and over the little land-bridge, heading for Brodgar. This is where the path starts. It starts just at the end of the Brig O’ Brodgar, to your right. Instead of having to walk along a road which is quite busy in the summer, you can walk along by Harray Loch – much better!
On the longest day last year, Mike and I went to a music event which was part of the St. Magnus Festival, we then drove out from Kirkwall, and parked at the Stones of Stenness, and walked along the path. The right–hand side of the path, was just a mass of white and pale purple stocks, and the scent, at that time of the evening, was truly exceptional.
This path re-joins the road, just past some buildings, on the left. Here, you cross the road and head right, towards Brodgar, along past the Comet Stone, and, the way ahead, is clear!!!
The hitch, in The Procession, happens now, as, at time of writing there is no path to take you to Bookan. There is the ‘right to roam’ law, in Scotland, so , if you can get over or under fences, you could have a go, but, maybe it’s easier, and more polite to the landowners, to detour onto the road a bit .
You can turn off on a track to the left, to visit Bookan Cairn, if you wish, or just carry on, up the hill, to Bookan Henge.
There’s a big house, on the right, just by the road, where it will be polite to ask for permission to visit the site. When we first went there, we asked for permission to go to the henge, and the lady we spoke to was friendly and very happy for us to do so. The last time I went, with friend Jeanne, the house had changed hands, and, fortunately, the man was just as friendly and helpful. I’m all for ‘right to roam’, but, maybe because I’m from farming family, I also believe in asking permission, if possible. It’s just manners.
The gate to the field which contains Bookan, is on the left hand side of the road, just a little bit farther along.
You’ll find a grassy henge monument, with a stone thing in the middle. What a place!! If you can get there as the light is fading, in the winter, and look about you……………………
you’ll see why I feel that The Procession ended here.
A few years ago, I went on an Art/Archaeology day, and we started at Bookan, and walked down to Brodgar. The Procession, in reverse! At that time, when I was standing at Bookan, this is what came to me:-
“Omphalos. The navel. The navel from which the body of Neolithic Orkney spreads out. There’s no ‘way in’ or ‘way out’, as the way in and out, are from inside.”
This is just what was in my head. I think I ‘get’ the idea of the navel, but I can’t honestly say that I know what the stuff about the way in and way out, means, as I say, it’s just what came into my head. Possibly, it’s to do with the idea of Bookan being the goal, as in, if people came to Orkney on a pilgrimage, and they did all the things they were meant to do, then they walked the route which I’ve mentioned before, starting at Barnhouse ‘village’, and ending up at Bookan, this would change them in some way, which would mean that the ‘way in’ and/or/ ‘way out’, would be achievable. Maybe the ‘way in’ to themselves, as in many pilgrimages and meditative practices, today. Maybe this was the idea behind it.
I’m put in mind of El Camino de Santiago in Spain. a walk which ends at Santiago de Compostella. The idea there, is that you do the (very long!) walk, ending at Santiago, and learn along the way, learn about yourself, and access what’s inside you, which, hopefully, helps a person to see more clearly, and be a better person. Knowing yourself, helps a person a lot, in knowing others, and dealing with the world. As I always say, maybe yes, maybe no, but it makes sense to me, and I get the feeling, that that’s the idea. Whether it’s so, or not, that’s what came into my head on Saturday morning. Omphalos, the navel, and the way in and the way out, is inside. Inside the place, or inside the person, or inside the person, once they’ve connected fully with the place.
Then I had further thoughts, about belly-buttons!
Belly-buttons are odd things. They’re sort-of a way into your body, and they’re sort-of a way out of your body, but they’re not. It’s still an aperture, sort-of. And, it links us to our Mother, and her Mother, and her Mother, and so on and so on, back, back , back, to the first Mother. Is this something of what Bookan is about? I don’t know, it’s just thoughts that occur to me, and what I feel about the place. Some kind of belly-button!
I’m now certain of the importance of Bookan. What a place! We tend to feel that we’d like to experience these places, in isolation, but that’s just not realistic. It’s too easy, to see crowds of people, as some kind of infestation, but they’re not, they’re just other people, trying to connect with the same thing as you are – as they would have been back when it was a Pilgrimage site. Those making their pilgrimage, would have experienced these places, surrounded by other people. For all I know, it might make the experience, stronger.
You may feel that I’ve ‘skirted’ Brodgar, a bit. This is partly because it speaks for itself, so I took you there, then left you to wander, and wonder, at will.
You may be wondering where the ‘story’ is, too? The whole place, is the story. What’s there, the other, neighbouring sites which these sites link up with, that’s the story. Discover it for yourself, research it, find out about it.
And the story extends, more and more. The structures at the Ness of Brodgar have been discovered, and are being un-earthed by the estimable Nick Card and his team, revealing more and more clues to the significance of this whole area.
Stand at Brodgar, on the top of Salt Knowe ( the big, round, mound, at the side) and you connect with the stone on the Stoneyhill road, you see all the monuments of the Neolithic Heart of Orkney, you look across to Unstan Cairn and what’s known as the Deepdale Stone. (We call it the Unstan Stone, as we feel that it relates to Unstan Cairn, in a similar way to how the Barnhouse Stone relates to Maes Howe). It’s all…….just……there.
Take plenty of time for this walk, it takes quite some time, anyway, but you also need to take time, all along the way, to look about you, take it in, see what you make of it. Marching round the stone circles, and taking some pictures, just doesn’t do!
Another walk, here, which can be separate, or combined. is…………….
The Birdy Walk. It’s an R.S.P.B. walk. You can either access it by parking in the main car park for the Ring of Brodgar, or, where you come off the path along the side of Harray Loch, from the Stenness Stones, instead of turning right, towards the Comet Stone and Brodgar, go straight ahead.
I’ll describe it, coming from the Brodgar car park.
Walk up to the Ring of Brodgar, curve round to your left, and down past the Comet Stone. Carry on down the path, and the way, is clear. You’ll walk along a mown path, alongside the road, then, just before you get to the house ahead, turn right, along the fence. Then, you follow the mown path, along to your right, along the side of Stenness Loch. This is a lovely walk, with views across the loch, to the hills (more of which, later). Towards the end of the walk, you’ll be looking across to Unstan Cairn and the Unstan Stone. At this point, you turn sharp right, up a broad path, heading back to the Ring of Brodgar, and getting some great views/images/impressions of the stones, as they appear, over the horizon.
This leads you to Salt Knowe, which the more agile among you can climb and……………look about them! Salt Knowe, isn’t a cairn, there’s nothing in it, but soil. My opinion is, that it’s a ‘see and be seen’ place. That’s my opinion. And so, back around Brodgar, and down to the car park.
I hardly feel I’ve done this justice, as it’s all, such a place of wonder. I’m trying stick to the idea of a walk, with a story, and the whole ‘Neolithic Heart of Orkney’ – just has so much. My advice is, to go there, explore, find out about it, and then return again, and again, and again.
Oh how endlessly interesting it all is! Even in our little lifetimes we get to wander and ponder and learn by each visit and each week of the dig season, more and more about Brodgar and all the amazing thoughts and energies that have gone into that wee strip of land. I hope you will indulge me by allowing me to tell of my thoughts when approaching Brodgar from the north recently.
Just a couple of weeks ago, on the Solstice I found myself walking from Birsay to Stenness after a week of wanderings up in that corner of the Mainland. With no car and no public transport going my way and with hitch-hiking being at a distinctly low ebb these days I was on foot with my pack and a purpose – of reaching Stenness by end of light to see what’s what and how the end of the solar year would go. It’s a good hike from the salty Brough through the wide open-nesses and straight lines of Twatt and Sandwick where there is so much to look at and to listen to and smell and all the while of course there’s the realisation that you are heading for the very centre of matters. This must have been a well trodden path to the Ness from all of the north Mainland, to be taken both on special occasions and for mundane deliveries. From this direction the slenderness of the land between the lochs only slowly becomes apparent but by the time you reach Bookan it is clear where you are heading and somehow also why. Of course we know the Rings and we are fully amazed by what we think we know of the Ness but walking in this way it feels more like a compulsion, that the land is drawing you along and down into the heart of matters. As it always has I’m thinking as I walk this way. Bookan as navel is good! It felt like a place to meet and to take stock and have a piece at least. And then there’s those delineating stones that suggest the direct old way to Brodgar from there maybe? All attendees from the north now on the one track, a procession as you say, a cursus – maybe? But what of the Dyke o’Sean – am I allowed to pass? I get through somehow, perhaps because I’m now hovering in my elation at being in this place at this time. Brodgar is always brilliant no matter what, but Hoy and its clouds have their own idea about how today will end. Me and the wedding party and the few others who are here are all OK with that – we know the sun is out there and there’s always next year isn’t there?
The Ness is by-passed and I’m not at all sure that I should be allowed into the Stenness circle, but it is lovely in there with the clouds drifting sluggishly along the hills and drawing corkscrews in the sky in the last light. Certainly this was the happy end of a special day, and time for a wee spin with the stones.
And thank you for writing this – you took me on the journey with you!
And, for if you didn’t see it – here’s our solstice pilgrimage –
Looks like we might have been around there at the same time…….
And there’s this approach too…… https://theorkneynews.scot/2021/08/26/more-about-boats-brodgar/
This is wonderful, Tom, may I publish it as a story, as well as the comment (Fiona G Ed)
well I really just wanted to comment on B. Bell’s article, but do with it as you see best. I was immediately interested to read the piece, having had such a great time in Brodgar recently, and having told myself that I should write something about it.
Hello again Tom
I remembered something which might be of interest to you? After the Art/archaeology day mentioned in ‘The Procession’, I wrote this to someone, referring to the walk down from Bookan……
“On Friday, on the walk, I did a short, but intensive ceremony. You know as we walked down from Bookan cairn we then came to two small cairns, with a little gap between them? People were mostly standing on the left hand one, left hand looking down towards Brodgar that is. So, I went and stood on the other one, and was looking around me, particularly at the Hoy Hills, over-looking everything, as they do, and it came to me, to do the following. It’s based on a small service from the White Eagle group known as ‘Star Breathing for Planet Earth’. I stood, looking over towards Hoy direction, and ……
I breathed in light and channelled that light down into the earth through my body and feet. Then, I felt the inner life from the earth coming upwards through my feet and body then radiating out to all life, all beings, all creation.
Short, but intensive.
That’s one of the things I liked about Friday afternoon, that these places are getting attention and care again after all those years. Think of the care and attention they used to have, especially when the whole Stenness/ Brodgar area was functioning as a pilgrimage centre. For years, as you know, they were neglected and even feared and damaged in some cases. Now, people are waking up a bit again to what’s there, and what it’s about, but still there is a tendency for people to go to these places to get something from them. Fair enough, they often do get something from them, that’s part of it. But it needs to be more reciprocal, there should be more of an exchange and inter-change, not all a one-way flow. That’s how I see it anyway, and why I’m so pleased when they get attention again – not necessarily the kind of attention they used to get – but it is positive attention, not negative, or neglect. Very good.“
And, I’d like to second Fiona’s request that you write an actual article about your journey.