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June 29th 1998

GurnessThe day before yesterday we visited only two sites on Mainland Orkney, but we met some special people. We went to Gurness, a well preserved broch by the sea, surrounded by the most extensive area of domestic buildings to be found anywhere in Scotland. It is cared for by Historic Scotland and we had a short chat with Shelagh, the sunny Orcadian custodian who was there when we came. Then we drove through Mainland, crossing the sea on the Churchill Barriers, four causeways built of huge concrete blocks during the Second World War. They link South Ronaldsay and Burray islands to Mainland and were built by several hundreds of Italian prisoners of war, who also skillfully converted two Nissen huts into a small chapel nearby. The little church, called the Italian Chapel, is still there and Domenico Chiocchetti, one of the former prisoners, has returned several times to restore and repaint the beautiful decorations of the chapel.

Tomb of the Eagles We arrived at the southernmost tip of South Ronaldsay for visiting a breathtaking site, the Tomb of the Eagles, a chambered cairn dating from 3000 BC which takes its name from the many white-tailed sea eagles' talons found among the burials. We already had been there during our Scottish holiday back in 1991 and remembered every minute of our visit. It was a wonderful experience, because Mr and Mrs Simison, the two farmers who discovered the tomb on their land in 1958, showed us and let us handle some of the objects found in the tomb and in a Bronze Age house excavated nearby: sea eagles' talons, pendants, stone tools and even two human skulls.

Mr Ronald SimisonComing back two days ago, we discovered that little has changed (apart from Mrs Simison who unfortunately is not there anymore): Margaret, one of the smiling and clever Simison daughters, explains with passion the life of her Neolithic ancestors and makes you touch pieces of it. In just a few minutes, we learnt such a lot of things about these ancient settlers! From their height to their rich diet, from their pottery skills to their burial rituals.

Then we walked to the Bronze Age house, where Mr Ronald Simison reached us and explained how those people used to cook their food putting hot stones in water. Mr Simison is an extraordinary man: he is 76 years old and still goes around explaining to visitors what he found on his land many years ago. And he tells jokes and historic info and knows a huge amount of Orcadian things too. He, along with his daughter Margaret, have lit up our day. They can transmit you their deep interest in their past sharing their Orcadian rich heritage. Sorry, we can't find the right words in English, but the Tomb of the Eagles and its owners are truly special! Getting into the tomb is an adventure too (you must slip inside it by a trolley) and inside it you may discover how the findings were placed inside the cells switching on the light in a side chamber and... finding five human skulls in it!

Knap of Howar Yesterday we left Mainland for a trip to the island of Papa Westray (locally known as Papay). At our first stop in the island of Westray we discovered that the link to Papay was held by a small boat, not a car ferry. Se we left our Twingo on Westray and on Papa Westray we just walked (8km). Papay is a beautiful, remote island full of birdlife and with the oldest house in Northern Europe. As a matter of fact, at Knap of Howar (or Hower) there are the well-preserved remains of a small farm from 3500 BC.

On the islet in front of Papay we also visited the wonderfully elaborate tomb of Holm of Papa Westray South, with a 20.5m long chamber, 12 side cells and some decorated stones (zig-zag, "eye-brow" and circular motifs) and the stalled cairn of Holm of Papa Westray North. During the crossing on a small fisherman's boat and on the islet, we also faced some very curious seals, were attacked by nervous arctic terns and angry seagulls and had to take our shoes off and taste how cold is the North Sea's water!

Tonight we are going back to mainland Scotland. We are very sad to leave Orkney. Sigh! Bye bye 'til the next connection (who knows where we'll find one?)


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