The novelist LP Hartley once described the past as a foreign country. Walking among the standing stones of Orkney’s Ring of Brodgar, it feels more like another world.
There is no doubting the determined purpose with which these tall, sharp-edged megaliths have been laid out at the centre of a natural amphitheatre of hills on the main island of the northern Scottish archipelago. Clearly it was a huge effort to haul such hulking stones across miles of rough terrain and to surround them with a ditch cut deep into the island’s bedrock.
But as a ranger guide from the Historic Scotland agency admits, hunching her shoulders against the rain, we know almost nothing about the people who placed the stones here more than 4,000 years ago. Their values, religion, social organisation – all remain shrouded in mystery.
A few minutes’ walk from the Ring of Brodgar, however, archaeologists have found an extraordinary collection of ruins that is opening up a few chinks of light into the darkness of Neolithic pre-history.
Over the past decade, a sprawling ritual complex known as the Ness of Brodgar – a “ness” is a narrow strip of land between two bodies of water – has yielded a string of discoveries. And, just this summer, researchers made one of their most intriguing finds: a large stone, intricately inscribed with triangular markings, which they say is one of the most impressive examples of Neolithic art yet seen in the UK.
“The Ness of Brodgar is quite literally changing some of our ideas about the Neolithic,” Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology tells me when I meet him at the site.
Card cites the discovery in 2010 of coloured sections of walling, with individual stones still showing traces of red, yellow and orange paint. Coloured pottery has been found, too. It was the first clear proof of such decoration in Britain. “And so the monochrome world that the archaeological record so often presents to us is transformed into a kind of technicolour,” says Card, as we shelter from the rain in a cottage that has become the dig’s headquarters.
Ah yes, the weather. Even during one of the UK’s better summers, Orkney’s climate can be challenging. I had been met by near-horizontal rain on arrival at Kirkwall airport the day before. But the charms of the northern archipelago are so great that no potential visitor should be put off by the possibility of a summer soaking. So changeable are conditions that any rain may rapidly be replaced by blue skies and the achingly sharp northern sunshine that glitters off every puddle and blade of grass.
Indeed, by the time I had caught a bus to the island of South Ronaldsay, now linked to the Orkney Mainland by a series of wartime anti-submarine barriers, the sky was bright and clear.
It was fine weather for the Boys’ Ploughing Match, a South Ronaldsay tradition that is one of the most distinctive events in the Orkney Islands’ year-round cycle of festivals.
Held on the third Saturday of August, the match starts with the Festival of the Horse, which I found under way in the school hall in the village of St Margaret’s Hope. Girls aged from three to 13 stood around the hall, dressed in extravagant costumes made to resemble the decorated harnesses once worn by plough-pulling Clydesdale horses. On the benches in front of them sat the boys, each clutching a miniature plough. I learnt that some of the ploughs and costumes are family heirlooms.
Locals say the event’s roots lie in 19th-century competitions between adult ploughmen, but it has evolved over the years. Only in the 1950s were girls allowed to join in the costume parade. Some residents would like to see female participation in the ploughing too, but as yet this has proved a change too far. “We have to keep to tradition,” says organising stalwart Anne Peace.
As a trio of local musicians played, judges graded each girl on her costume and the state of her harness, and each boy on the care of his plough. I found myself next to South Ronaldsay-bred Duncan Louttit, who explained the advantages of different styles of model plough when it came to the match itself.
The ploughing competition is held on a nearby beach, and damp sand is more likely to stick to a metal plough, said Louttit, who remembers taking part as a lad. “When it’s wet like today, a wooden ploo’ like that yellow one should mak’ a bonny furrow,” he said, his Orkney accent still bearing the traces of past Norse rule in the islands.
Orkney is a great place to grapple with history. The archipelago’s easily worked sandstone, relative scarcity of wood and low population density have helped ensure the survival of historic sites, including Napoleonic-era gun forts and Iron-Age towers known as brochs. Viking settlers scrawled boastful and lusty graffiti that can be still read by those who know their runic codes.
For the Vikings, Orkney was not a peripheral place (as it can seem to southern visitors) but at the crossroads of a seafaring civilisation that spread to Ireland and beyond. Archaeological research suggests that in Neolithic times the islands were far from isolated: finds at the Ness of Brodgar include flint from the east coast of Britain and volcanic glass from the Isle of Arran, off western Scotland.
At times a visitor can feel an unexpected connection with our Neolithic ancestors: the moment when you sense the craftsmanship of a mason who died thousands of years ago; or when you find yourself facing a stone ring bathed in evening light and come alive to the web of ritual connections that they once wove across the landscape.
On a rainy morning I visited Skara Brae, an extraordinarily well-preserved Neolithic settlement exposed by a storm in 1850. The chill wind blowing in from the sea made me appreciate the design of its homes: thick-walled structures dug into a protective insulating pile. I could clearly see the stone sleeping alcoves and the household dressers that once surely displayed the residents’ treasured belongings. I knew that the lives and thoughts of the people who had lived there would seem very alien to us. But the familiarity of the scene also told me that in some ways they were just like us.
Mure Dickie is the FT’s Scotland correspondent
For information on flights and ferries to Orkney, plus hotels, hostels and B&Bs, see www.visitorkney.com