Visit to Orkney, June 2022

by  Duncan Lunan

For someone who’s built the first astronomically aligned stone circle in the British Isles for over 3000 years, my growing acquaintance with them has been a long-drawn-out process.  After my interest in the subject was aroused while studying astronomy under the late Prof. Archie Roy, I visited Stonehenge in 1965 with my fellow-student Jerry Bigham, and again with the late Alan Evans in 1976.  In 1978 I went to Kilmartin Glen and Temple Wood in Argyllshire, and to the late Dr. Euan MacKie’s excavations at Kintraw and Brainport Bay on Loch Fyne, on a tour organised by the Astronomical Society of Glasgow.  In 1979 I made my own partial survey of standing stones on the island of Colonsay, which I’ve described in The Stones and the Stars.  There seemed to be a fate preventing me from attending Archie Roy’s organised visits to his work at Machrie Moor on Arran, but I flew over it on an aerial archaeology flight which I coordinated and navigated in 1982.  In 1989 Archie Roy and I visited Euan MacKie’s excavation of the elliptical ring at Cultoon on Islay.  In 1991 the late John Braithwaite took me to Callanish, Dun Carloway and a solo midwinter stone on the island of Lewis, and in the 1990s I went to Castle Rigg in the Lake District with Tony Crerar from Wales, and was back there for the last Leonid Meteor shower in 2002.  Tony also took me to ‘The Devil’s Chair’ and ‘The Devil’s Mounting Block’ in the hills of Powys.  Linda and I went to Avebury, to Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth on the Bend of the Boyne, and to the Mote of Skirk in County Leix, in 2011, and we went to the Drombeg circle, County Cork, in 2017.  I’ve also been to the modern Eisteddfod stones in Llangollen, the Steelhenge sculpture at Strathclyde University, the Sunstones II at the Lawrence Livermore Hall of Science in Berkeley, California, and ‘Diana’s Circle’ at the Spaceguard Observatory in Powys.

In all of this Orkney has been a conspicuous omission.  When I came to speak at the 1991 Orkney, Science Festival, I was driven past the Ring of Brodgar at one point, but the only visit was to a fossil quarry with Dr. Peter Waddell of Strathclyde.  My solicitor at the time was the late John Mason, founder of the Fiddlers’ Rally, and at his recommendation I went to the St. Ola Hotel in search of traditional music;  I heard very little, because most of the fiddlers had gone to a wedding that weekend, but I did meet Julie Felix, who was conducting a sailing-ship tour of ancient sites in the islands, and was able to introduce her to Prof. Archie Roy.  That was memorable because he missed the introduction  (as the late Heather Couper said, “Talking to Archie Roy is like talking to Janus, except that the head turned towards you isn’t listening”.)

When I was writing The Stones and the Stars my friend Chris O’Kane gave me free use of his panoramas taken at the Ring of Brodgar, Maes Howe and Stenness with the remarkable VistamorphTM lens of his own invention  (and more of Stonehenge, Avebury, and Karnak and Giza), but I still needed to see them for myself and form my own impressions.  Thanks to a grant from the Royal Literary Fund, Linda and I decided to grab the chance this year.  We were going to come in August, but brought it forward to June for various practical reasons.  We joined the Harmony coach tour at Buchanan St. Bus Station on June 12th, and had a very good lunch at the Prince of India in Pitlochry, but it was a mistake, given the size of the meal that awaited us that evening at the Highlander Hotel in Newtonmore.  Next day the coach went on to Gills Bay, and from there by Pentland Ferry to St. Margaret’s Hope, where we visited the Italian Chapel, Skapa Flow and the Churchill Barriers before going on to Ayre’s Hotel in Kirkwall.

Next day was scheduled for the ancient sites, and we began at Yesnaby for a distant view of the Old Man of Hoy, which I had seen somewhat better from the ferry to Stromness in 1991. 

Linda’s photo shows two old men side by side.  Visiting the Stenness standing stones was an eye-opener for me because I had formed the impression, from their height, that they were part of a much larger circle like the ones on Machrie Moor, or the huge one whose remains surround the double roundabout as you come off the M8 into Edinburgh from Glasgow.  I learned that they were actually a group of just 8 stones in a much smaller circle, probably with a central hearth, like a larger version of the very small circle at Scalasaig on Colonsay.  Their size, comparable with the sarsens of Stonehenge III, reminded me of two other mysterious stones at Kilchattan on Colonsay.  They don’t appear to have been part of any larger structure, and enclosed as they are in a narrow valley, they don’t have any astronomical significance.  The late Prof. Alexander Thom confessed himself baffled by them, and they do seem to indicate that not all standing stones were astronomical, despite their great size.

Drs. Euan MacKie and Gail Higginbottom have separately identified possible solar and lunar alignments at Stenness, but accurate observations would have been difficult from within it, at least after the stones were erected.  One wonders if there were outlying view stations, like the ones surrounding Le Grand Menhir Brisé in Brittany, or whether shadow patterns were used to illustrate the events.  I did that in my stone circle, which is of comparable size to Stenness, and I suggested it might have been done with the Heelstone at Stonehenge.  Paul Devereux has suggested that shadows were used on the hillsides surrounding Castle Rigg, to create tableaux or even moving picture shows, and it makes me wonder just what was acted out on the landscape around Stenness.

From there we moved on to Skara Brae, which Chris O’Kane hadn’t visited and I was very keen to see.  Euan MacKie’s books The Megalith Builders and Science and Society in Prehistoric Britain were both recent at the time of the Glasgow Parks Astronomy project, and in them he made a correlation between the sites of wooden henges and findings of flat-bottomed ‘grooved ware’ pottery vessels.  He suggested that the wooden henges had been the dwellings of the neolithic astronomer-priests, who used flat-bottomed vessels on wooden furniture, while the more common round-bottomed ware was designed to be self-righting on earth floors.  On Orkney, where wood was in short supply, stone furniture would be used instead and at Skara Brae, it’s preserved. 

The one gap in his correlation was that a great deal of grooved ware had been found in and around Glasgow, which apparently had no wooden henge.  But in research for the Astronomy Project we had learned that there actually was a huge, mainly wooden structure at Knappers in Clydebank, excavated between the wars by Dr. Ludovic McLellan Mann.  Mann’s views of what he considered to be early Celtic culture were highly colourful, and his belief that the Neolithic sites incorporated advanced astronomy and mathematics, dating back to 3000 BC, were so unpopular with his fellow archaeologists that when he died the site was built over and everything was, literally, covered up.  Before I had time to publish on the matter, I was beaten to it by Dr. Graham Ritchie of the Royal Commission for the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland, who discovered that there were entire tea-chests of artefacts from the Knappers site still stored in secret around the city.  The site was on the Boulevard, near where the Queen Mary was built on the Clyde, and it was covered over by a petrol station which is still there today.  I understand there are plans to re-excavate parts of the site which may still be accessible, but I’ve heard nothing further.  

Meanwhile, however, Euan MacKie’s ideas about grooved ware have dramatically been proved right by excavations at Durrington Walls, the huge wooden complex where the Stonehenge builders lived and worked.  Great feasts were held there during the process, and it has been established that many of the cattle consumed there came from Orkney, establishing a firm connection between the Ness of Brodgar and Stonehenge, and establishing the existence of a pan-British and pan-European culture, which was so strongly opposed by critics when Euan MacKie and Alexander Thom first postulated it, back in the 1960s and ’70s.  All this made me very keen to see Skara Brae for myself, and Linda and I now have an archive of around 300 photos from Skara Brae, Stenness and Brodgar, which we shall be able to add to Chris O’Kane’s panoramas in future published work.

After Skara Brae, and a quick visit to Skaill House,  the coach party took a short break in Stromness, just time for an ice-cream and a look at the monument to the Arctic explorer Dr. John Rae.  I was particularly interested to note his connection to the search for the North-West Passage and for Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition.  I wrote a novella set in that period called ‘In the Arctic, Out of Time’, which was first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and reprinted in my collection of time-travel stories, The Elements of Time  (Shoreline of Infinity, 2016).  Although I researched the story very thoroughly, I didn’t come across Dr. Rae, and it will be interesting to see whether he had any connections to historical figures who did appear in it, including the Naval explorer Horatio Austin and the sledging pioneer Leopold McLintock, both of HMS Resolute.  The British government of the day was so grateful for US assistance in the search for Franklin that they had a desk made from the timbers of HMS Resolute and presented to the US President, and the Resolute Desk remains in the Oval Office to this day.  At the time of publication I discussed a sequel to ‘In the Arctic, Out of Time’ with my colleague Jamie Bentley, author of The Artful Dodger in Botany Bay  (another great idea from the same period), but we let it drop because it was converging with Philip Pullman’s ideas in His Dark Materials.  The possible John Rae link may be worth pursuing, however.

At the Ring of Brodgar we found that the gates had been opened, evidently for the first time in many months, so we were able to walk right round the circle and inspect the stones from both sides, though numerous signs warned against going into the interior, which I would really have liked to do to get a better overall impression.  There was time to inspect the stones, looking for the mysterious carving which Bernie Bell wrote up recently for Orkney News  (29th April 2022)  but we didn’t spot it.  As with the Stenness Stones, I would like to spend more time at the Ring, preferably not in a large company and under pressure to keep moving, to relate it more thoroughly to my own circle and what I tried to accomplish with it, in relation to the ancient sites.

Our last call on the way back to Kirkwall was to a private site, whose owner John Hamilton has used the Covid lockdown to built a stone replica of a 1950s Chevrolet pickup truck, which is being used as a fundraiser for MacMillan Cancer Research and other local charities.  It struck me that there are parallels to the social and ritual functions of places like the Stenness Stones and Maes Howe, which could stand more thinking about, and the Chevy should definitely be on the heritage trail.

Outings were scheduled the following day to the Brough of Birsay and the Earl’s Palace, but Linda and I had other things we wanted to do and people to see.  To be honest, we also needed a day off the coach, where space was very limited and the toilet was well-nigh inaccessible.  The tour was going to end at St Magnus Cathedral, but we decided to go on our own while it was relatively quiet, and also to visit St. Olaf’s episcopal church, both of which have monuments to Dr. John Rae and George McKay Brown.  That evening we met Fiona Grahame and Martin Laird, who showed us their very impressive book Rebel Orkney, and we also met Eamonn Keyes, who’s working on a presentation about the Ring of Brodgar with Dr. Howie Firth.  A very good end to a highly productive visit.

Next day it was back to St. Margaret’s Hope and Gills Bay, followed by a quick visit to John O’Groats and Dunnet Head, to see the birds nesting on the cliffs and a quick look at the sea stacks over the headland.  We stayed at the Highland Hotel in Strathpeffer that night, and on the way down a short stop at Carrbridge allowed time to see the amazing nature carving by Alice Buttress, at the start of the Carving Trail, commemorating the 300th anniversary of the Packhorse Bridge, though there wasn’t time to see the bridge itself. 

Lack of time was the distinctive feature of the whole tour, it must be said, though the driver did a commendable job of keeping to his very tight schedule.  Several people on the coach commented that they would rather have skipped the overnight stays to have more time in Orkney itself, and while I sympathise, I have to say that at our age that would have been very hard going.  Even with a special taxi booked between Troon and Glasgow, both ways, we were exhausted by the time we got home and it has taken a full week to recover.  Now that we know what the trip entails, next time will definitely be by other means of transport, be it luxury coach, train, or ship from Aberdeen, which seemingly is an option.  We will definitely make our own arrangements, to see the ancient monuments at more leisure and less pressure.  And Maes Howe is still on the ‘to-do’ list!

The Stones and the Stars  (Springer, 2012)  and The Elements of Time  (Shoreline of Infinity, 2016)  by Duncan Lunan, are available through Amazon, from the publishers or through bookshops.  For details of these and Duncan’s other books, please see Duncan’s website,

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