Monday, February 27, 2023

The Broch of Mousa

Around on the opposite side of the Shetlands we anchored off the incredible Broch of Mousa.  A broch is a circular fort from the Iron Age, built entirely of drystone construction.  It is thought that they served as a safe retreat when under attack.  Most were apparently built during the 1st century AD or BC.

There are thought to be several hundred of them, almost entirely in northern Scotland.  Mousa is the most complete of these; most are just a jumble of fallen stones.

The drystone construction of these towers, is again amazing.  Anyone who has tried to build a drystone wall will understand, but to build one 44 feet high, circular and with hollow walls containing a staircase, seems almost impossible.  It certainly would be were it not for the small flat slabs of sandstone on the island.  But still, over 40 feet high without any mortar! 

The circular shape is amazing inside, with space to sit and a fire ring in the centre.  Gaps in the interior walls help reveal the construction and provide light for the stairs as well as galleries with tiny storage chambers.

Yes, it is possible to climb the stairs, built carefully into the hollow walls.   To give you an idea of how thick the walls are, the single entranceway passage is 16 feet long!

Of course I had to try climbing the stairs, and came out on top to beautiful views in all directions.  You can see the walls, tapered to the top, are still 6 feet thick!

We did get to wander this island for awhile, as only so many people could look inside the broch at one time.  There were lots more drystone walls across the landscape.

We watched the Bonxies (or Great Skuas to give them their proper name) soar over the island, seeking their prey.  Bonxies, about the size of a large gull, have even been known to attack lambs or Shetland pony foals and have the reputation as a fierce predator.

As is the case with much of the northern Scottish highlands and islands, sheep are everywhere.  Now it's on to the famous Fair Isle.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Shetland Sea Caves

After our visit to those stunning Neolithic sites on Orkney we continued sailing northwards to Shetland, stopping first at the small island of Foula, said to be the most remote populated island in Britain, with less than 30 people.  And a tenuous link to the main islands because of challenging weather that routinely delays both flights and ferries, sometimes for weeks.

At least some of the wildflowers were familiar to me, like this Marsh Marigold.

Others were just pretty little pink things!

This is definitely a place of Shetland ponies, and they roam freely over the island.

We had time to walk up from the tiny harbour, here to examine the local boat graveyard.

But one of the other highlights of the trip came later, when we anchored off Papa Stour and went to explore the sea caves, stacks and geos.

It was incredible motoring through the caves and coming to spots where the ceiling had caved in, leaving it open to the sky - a feature known as a geo.

It was dark in the caves but quite light in the geos; getting the correct camera setting was mostly impossible, but it was certainly exciting.

On this excursion the swell of the ocean meant that the loading platform was alternately 3 feet above then 3 feet below water level.  You had to time your leap in either direction just right!  In any case Mrs. F.G. came back so excited that she stood there telling me that "We should go to Antarctica next!"

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Heart of Neolithic Orkney

On Mainland, the largest island of Orkney, lies a spectacular group of Neolithic sites now designated as a World Heritage Site, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.  It includes the best preserved Neolithic settlement in western Europe, Skara Brae, two significant stone circles, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness,  and an enormous burial mound, Maeshowe, as well as other smaller sites. .


Skara Brae is simply astonishing!  We drove to the north edge of the island and discovered a village underneath our feet!  Skara Brae was discovered after a significant storm hit Scotland in 1850, eroding soil from the shoreline of the Bay of Scaill, and exposing the stone houses.  Excavation and archeological dating has concluded that the site was occupied from about 3180 BC to 2500 BC.  Along with the sites describerd below, this area is older than both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Egypt.

Wandering among the ruins certainly felt like stepping back in time.  The rooms were totally built into the earth (actually old midden beds of discarded shells) giving them protection from winter winds.  Most of the homes were connected with tunnels, and they had small rooms with a drain that served as indoor toilets.  You can see the sandstone of Orkney in the flat rock slabs used for construction, including construction of beds and dressers.

It was altogether amazing to stand on that shoreline and realize how long ago people lived here!  There was evidence of grooved ware pots, as well as beaded jewelry, so it wasn't totally a primitive lifestyle.  Archeologists have concluded they were mainly pastoralists, raising sheep and cattle in addition to the seafood they consumed.

A short distance from Skara Brae is the Ring of Brodgar, a large almost completely circular henge that originally consisted of 60 large stones.  They are surrounded by a hand-dug ditch in the sandstone bedrock about 10 feet deep and 30 feet wide.  Inevitably you are left wondering what its purpose was and what sort of ceremonies went on here.  And how they dug that ditch with no metal tools!

The individual slabs were enormous, and of course composed of sandstone.  More than one slab featured more modern stone-carved graffiti!

Just down the road from the Ring of Brodgar are the Stones of Stenness, which may be the oldest henge site in all the British Isles.  Originally it was 12 stones; today only four remain, though they are huge, up to 16 feet tall.

The last of the big Neolithic sites we visited was Maeshowe, an enormous burial mound, surrounded by a large ditch, again dug into the solid bedrock.  You can see the edge of the ditch in front of the mound.  It looks simple from the outside but that hides a remarkable layout of chambers large and small built entirely out of sandstone slabs.  

Inside you can see the flat bedrock slabs forming the walls and corbelled roof, and the entrances to the small burial chambers off the main room.  This room is about 15 feet square and over 12 feet high.  We were told these flat slabs of stone fit so well you could not even slide a knife in between them.  We were not allowed to take photos onside so this and the one below are taken from the internet.

The most remarkable feature of Maeshowe is the entry passageway.  It's 36 feet long but only 3 feet high and consists of only 6 massive long sandstone slabs tor the walls and roof. Obviously you have to crouch or crawl to get in.  But the remarkable thing is that the passageway is aligned such that the back wall of the central chamber is illuminated on the winter solstice!  

Just how do you suppose these Neolithic people understood enough about the movements of the heavens to accomplish that?


Ness of Brodgar

In the centre of this landscape of ancient sites is an even more intriguing one, only recently discovered,  that was not open to the public when we visited.  It is the Ness of Brodgar, older than all the monuments described above, an incredible archeological dig that has uncovered several buildings entirely just below the ground surface.  One building has been described as an enormous Neolithic Temple, and others show evidence of painted interior walls and stone roof slates, both previously unknown in buildings of this age.  Altogether it is recognized as one of the most important modern archeological discoveries in the world.

I've included this one photo to give you a sense of the complex mix of Stone Age buildings being uncovered here.  I would absolutely love to go back and see this!

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Our Son, the Pilot

Today was our oldest son's birthday, 45 years ago.  William was an adventurous kid who successfully pursued his dream to become a water bomber pilot.  Every year we stop and remember on his birthday.  This is my favourite photo of him.

Along the way Will had some wonderful adventures, flying in the Arctic and in the tropics as well as across most of Canada.  Each year I sit down and work through the list of posts you can find under the William tab above, just to remind myself.  And while he was still a kid we had some great family adventures, my favourite of which was our time in Banff and Jasper National Parks way back in '86.

Here we are climbing the narrow switchback trail above Lake Agnes to the Beehive, one of the prominent but gentle peaks you can see from Lake Louise.  Ninety percent of the tourists stop after walking 100 yards around the lake, most of the rest fall away when the slope gets steep, perhaps 1% make it as far as the teahouse on Lake Agnes. I've always been impressed that our kids made it not only that far but beyond, up a very steep slope to get to the Beehive, and its spectacular view.  These are Will, his mom and little sister on that steep switchback trail.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

St. Magnus Cathedral, Orkney

The incredible Neolithic sites on Orkney were our next stop, but first we had a chance to check out the 1000 year old cathedral.  We docked this time, at one of the only two docks on our entire trip, and were able to walk off right onto the dock in Kirkwall.  Here we were greeted by a piper no less!  We had read a little about what we'd see on Orkney, and I knew some of the history, so we were looking forward to it.

I think he was a passenger on the trip!

I payed around down in the harbour trying to get some artistic shot of the fishing boats with the sparkling clear reflections.

There were two lifeboats tied up at the docks.

Lobster pot buoys I believe.

We had awhile to wander around the old downtown before our bus left, so we wandered up to the cathedral.  this is St. Magnus Cathedral, built starting in the 1100s, apparently with its own dungeon.  The peace-loving Magnus Erlendsson, was Earl of Orkney from 1104 - 1115, ruling peacefully with his cousin Haakon until Haakon accused him of treachery and had him executed.  He was canonized as a Saint in 1136 and his relics were moved to the cathedral when it was complete.

The cathedral is built of red and yellow sandstones from Orkney, often used in an alternating pattern as shown around the window and door here.   Sandstone is a very soft rock, so it's not surprising that some pieces have worn away a little in 1000 years!  This cathedral escaped the worst of the Reformation and retained its interior largely intact.

Unfortunately there was a service going on and we were asked not to interrupt; the hinges on the door were beautiful in their own right though.  This is one of the best preserved medieval churches in all of Britain.

The Bishop's Palace next door, from the same era, did not fare so well!

Then it was on to our bus and off to see some REALLY ancient sites.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

The Seabird Colony

St. Kilda is not alone out in the North Atlantic, it is the main island in a small archipelago including several other smaller islands and large sea stacks, which together form one of the most important seabird colonies in the north Atlantic.  In fact it is the archipelago that is known by the name St. Kilda; the main island with the only former settlement is Hirta.   

We left behind the main island, here silhouetted behind us, and headed for the bird rich other islands.

You get some idea of the density of the bird population from these two pictures.  It was utterly amazing, the air filled with the screeching birds.  This is one of the world's largest colonies of nesting Northern Gannets, at 30,000 pair.  Up to 49,000 pairs of Leach's Petrels nest here, 90% of the European population.  There are 136,000 pair of Atlantic Puffins, and 67,000 pair of Northern Fulmars, both important parts of the St. Kildan diet.  

It's hard to believe the St. Kildans climbed these cliffs to gather both eggs and the birds themselves.  Significant lives were lost in the process, and all the islands apart from Hirta are treacherous to land on.

The largest island is Boreray, and it was here we spotted some of the feral sheep that are one of the oldest breeds in Britain.

Zooming in you can spot them, calmly grazing on incredibly steep slopes.  And consider the shepherds  too!  These are now called Boreray sheep, the feral descendatns of the sheep that were left on the island when St. Kilda was evacuated.

Most of the sheep on Hirta and Soay are the ancient Soay breed.  These are the rarest and most primitive sheep in Britain assumed to be descendants of the original domesticated Neolithic sheep.  All the 'improved' breed that was on Hirta at the time of evacuation were removed at the time.

We soon left the silhouette of Boreray in our wake and headed for the north coast of Scotland.  We both thought St. Kilda was the most fascinating visit of the trip.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

St. Kilda

Leaving Barra we headed out into the North Atlantic, looking for the tiny now uninhabited Isle of St. Kilda.  This was our most memorable stop on the entire cruise, and this our most memorable photograph.  St. Kilda has been occupied for thousands of years, though often inaccessible for 6 long winter months.  But the population dwindled to 36 and finally those remaining islanders voted to be evacuated in 1930.

Below Mrs. F.G. you can see the line of old stone houses ringing the bay.  Now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, it is one of very few double World Heritage Sites on the planet, qualified for both its natural and cultural features.

The Trust has restored five of the homes with a secure roof, so you can get a sense of how the village may have looked with its very solid but tiny stone homes.  This 'street' was where the men of the village met each morning to decide on the plan for the day, based on the season and the weather.  Collecting eggs from the cliffs was the biggest and most dangerous work.

You could look inside these, and archeologists were working in one.  It was a simple life, in mostly one-room homes, based on a communal way of living.

We climbed up toward the hills enough to get a view back down over the village.  The stone enclosures were really exclosure, designed to keep the sheep that roamed freely over the island out of the potatoes and barley, and the graveyard.  High on the opposite slope is a scar on the cliff, an ancient Neolithic quarry, probably for making stone tools 5000 years ago.

Dotted all over the island are these small stone 'cleats', rough dry-walled stone buildings roofed with turf.  The breeze could blow right through the cracks, effectively curing the birds hung inside.  There are over 1200 of these on the island.

Cleits were used for storage, of eggs and cured waterfowl, the basic diet of St. Kildans.  Both eggs and birds were collected by scaling the cliffs of the island.  Cleits were also used to store feathers with which to pay their annual rent.

I was checking out the cleits after I saw a small bird darting around.  There was a lot of this 'Thrift' growing on the rooftops too.

Can you spot the tiny bird?

This is the distinctive St. Kilda Wren, a subspecies of the Eurasian Wren, endemic to only these islands.  I was thrilled to spot it, the only place in the world it can be seen.  

And we were both fascinated by the chance to see St. Kilda for ourselves.  We were told that we'd been lucky with weather, it was a beautiful day and the seas were calm, enabling our ship to offload its passengers by dinghy.  We were one of only two of five ships able to discharge passengers so far that year.