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June 27th 1998

Maes HoweOrkney are so beautiful that we would like to stay here for at least a month! In these days we explored Mainland and three of the smaller islands, Rousay, Hoy and Eday. On Mainland we went to say hallo to one of Orkney's tallest standing stones, Quoybune, not far from Birsay. A legend says that it is a giant turned to stone: on New Year's Day he comes alive and goes to the loch nearby for a drink. Who happens to watch him wandering around wouldn't live enough to see the new year. We went also into Grain souterrain, an amazing corner of ancient Scotland situated just in the middle of an industrial estate in Kirkwall. Only a few steps and from the 2nd millennium AD you are dragged back to the 1st millennium BC!

Westray Stone On Tuesday morning we went to Maes Howe, the most visited Orcadian chambered cairn and one of the finest prehistoric monuments in Europe. It is cared for by Historic Scotland and there are always lots of visitors, so on the previous day we had asked to the custiodians the permission to go there off hours and we had arranged with nice Mrs Moira to take photos inside the tomb from 9 to 9:30 AM, before the opening of the site to visitors. So on Tuesday we took the photos of the chamber's inside and had a quick look to the runic inscriptions carved there by some Viking "vandals" back in the 12th century.

The weather was so bad, so we went to Tankerness Museum in Kirkwall. It is a very interesting place: the ground floor is dedicated to prehistory with info on the first settlers, the daily life between 3500 and 700 BC (with a nice recostruction of a Skara Brae dresser) and ritual, individual and communal burials (with the beautifully carved Westray Stone and the bones of white-tailed sea eagles found in the Isbister tomb. The first floor contains some other interesting sections about roundhouses, brochs, Picts, Vikings, up to the 18th and 19th centuries. Eventually you can rest a little on a comfortable armchair looking at old photos of Orkney and there is also a case window dedicated to the local Ba' game.

Paola and Julie On Wednesday, we took the small ferry to Rousay, where apart from visiting the local prehistoric monuments, we had a pleasant talk with Mrs Julie Gibson, the archaeology officer for Orkney. After a nice cup of tea with her, we had to rush: we had only three hours before our ferry back to Mainland. First of all, we went to Knowe of Lairo, one of the least known and best preserved tombs in Orkney, which lies a few yards from Julie's house. It is quite difficult to get into it: the passage is only 40cm high and we had to creep through it. Diego went first and halfway he almost put his nose on a dead rabbit (after all, it seems that Lairo is still used as a burial chamber for some little creatures!). But when we finally succeded in getting into the chamber, what a surprise! The roof is 4.1 high and for a moment we understood what an archaeologist must feel when he enters an unexcavated site.

Midhowe Cairn After Lairo we drove to Midhowe, where we visited the huge chambered cairn and the beautiful broch. Historic Scotland is working hard there to preserve these sites: one of the main problems on Orkney islands is coastal erosion. Sea and storms are blowing away a lot of sites and Midhowe chambered cairn had to be enclosed into a protective building. At first sight this hangar looks unattractive but thanks to it is also possible to walk above the very long tomb on some sort of bridges and watch its complex structure and its 14 burial compartments from a different point of view. While we were there in the rain, we watched some Historic Scotland people working around the broch, cleaning and restoring the site. We admire the work that Historic Scotland is doing; it is great to see how is possible to care one country's monuments and to preserve its heritage: keep up the good work Orcadians (and Scottish)!

After a strenuous walk uphill back to our car, we faced another strenuous walk uphill to Knowe of Yarso, a chambered cairn beautifully situated on a natural terrace on a Rousay steep hillside. Then we hurried to Blackhammer and Taversoe Tuick chambered tombs, fortunately not far from the road. Do you think we might be bored, after so many chambered tombs, don't you? Not at all, because they are so different one from each other. All right, we probably are also slightly maniac about prehistoric monuments, but they are so interesting! We were sweating for our running around Rousay, but we succeded in catching the ferry back home. On Mainland there was some sunshine so we stopped to take some photos at Barnhouse settlement and at Stones of Stenness (with a splendid rainbow).

Stones of Setter Dwarfie Stane We dedicated Thursday to Hoy island and its unique Dwarfie Stane. Hoy itself is a peculiar island, completely different from other Orkney: a complex of steep and craggy hills, with wide glaciated valleys. And there, in a dramatic and remote position, lies this rock-cut tomb, unique in British isles. It consists in a huge block of redstone, 8.5m long, 4.5 m wide and up to 2m high, in which some eccentric Neolithics cut with stone tools a passage chamber with two cells (inside the tomb, the marks of that neverending work can stil be seen on the cells' ceiling). The Dwarfie Stane is covered by vandalic inscriptions dating back the 1735. The most famous one, carved in 1850 by the British spy Major William Mouncey, is in Persian and says I have sat two nights and so learnt patience.
Back to Mainland we walked up to Wideford Hill, another beautiful chambered cairn, before going back home. At seven we invited two friends for dinner, Sigurd and Fiona. We only knew Sigurd by Internet, as the author of a beautiful website on Orkney megaliths and their lore. So, it was great to meet him and have a chat with him and Fiona about a lot of things, from ancient stones to pasta and from the Web to otters.
Yesterday morning we sailed to Eday, where we visited Vinquoy chambered cairn (yes, another one!!), the remains of Braeside and Huntersquoy chambered tombs and the beautiful Stone of Setter, a heavily weathered and incredibly fascinating monolith.


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