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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Stromness and the West Mainland

Note of warning: As Kris well knows by now, I'm having some difficulty wordsmithing this trip. So this be a bit rambly, yo!

Right. So after arriving in Kirkwall at 11pm, we hopped a bus and went to our hostel, which was in an old army building behind where Emily's dad used to work, before he moved and they tore down his office. I don't think the two events are connected, however.

The next morning, we hopped another bus across the Mainland. Now, Orcadians have a funny way about them. For example, the Mainland to them is not Scotland, but the biggest of their 70 islands, as tho Scotland has nothing to do with them.

Anyway, after wandering aimlessly for a bit, we managed to find our hostel in the town of Stromness. It's very cute -- nearly the entire town is within a block or two of the shore, and it's all grey buildings with stepped roofs. Despite such endearing quaintness, we rented bikes and headed out of town.

First stop was a 5,000 year old tomb called Maes Howe. Time and nature have done their work, and it now looks like a rather perfect small hill, but it once looked more like a small pyramid. The only way to see the interior is on guided tour, so we did just that. No photos allowed inside, sadly, but I'll just use words to paint you a picture (ha ha ha ha.) Or go here for pics.

The front passageway is a short (in height), long (in length) tunnel. You have to duck and shuffle along to get through, and if you raise your head at the wrong time, the stone ceiling doesn't not hurt. I followed a disabled girl in, and she was clearly not quite sure about the whole thing. She was crouched, shuffling along like all of us, but going quite slowly, and I don't blame her, as her mom was at the other end calling out: "Keep going, just come toward the light!" I wonder if that's what dying is like, and I certainly hope not.

The interior houses three burial chambers, all empty. But from the inside, you can see how massive the flat stones are that they used to build it. And, you can see Viking graffiti. Apparently some Vikings found the tomb and broke in through the ceiling way back when, and left behind runes, carved into the white stone with their axes, bragging about treasure and making saucy jokes about local women. They also carved some rather intricate animals, including a dragon and walrus, into one wall. Another wall features a cross -- the tour guide suggested crusade connections.

Like the Chichen Itza pyramid, this one's got solstice significance. Looking out the front passageway, there's a perfect view of the two hills of Hoy, an island to the south. On the solstice, the sun cuts between the hills, past a standing stone, and up the passageway, illumniating the interior of the tomb. Pretty cool.

From the outside of the tomb, you can see the two sets of standing stones. Because of all the super old shit in such a tight concentration, this whole area is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Anyway, we next stopped at the Stones of Stenness, which are older than Maes Howe. There's only four left standing; the rest have dissappeared, probably into local buildings. The cool thing about Orkney (well, one of the many cool things) is that these sites are so low key. Maes Howe had an entrance fee and small interpretive centre, but the standing stones have none. If you want access, you just push open the gate and get as close to the damn things as you want -- very different to the tourist setup down south at Stonehenge.

From the SoS, it's a short cycle on a single lane road between two lovely lochs to the Ring of Brodgar, which makes me think of Tolkien. This ring of stones is more complete, but slightly younger. It's a couple dozen massive rock slabs surrounding a field of purple heather. Very pretty. And again, you can get as close as you want -- hell, lick the damn things if you want. They've been there for millenia, it won't hurt the stones. Might hurt your tongue.

After that, we pedalled over some hills (Over the hills and far away -- I miss Sharpe, Natalie) past a ton of sheep and cows -- with Emily giving me strange looks as I baaa-ed and mooo-ed at them.

A few miles down, we found Skaill Bay, home to a big manor house and an ancient stone village called Skara Brae. It was discovered by the Laird of the manor after a storm washed the top soil off of it. What's cool about it is the furniture was also made out of stone, and much of it remains. So you can walk around where they've excavated it it, and see how their houses would have looked 5,000 years ago. Now, to me, the green grassy bits, white sandy floors and numbered sites made it look like a minigolf course.

We took a walk through the manor as well, but it was a house. Yeah, awesome. Seen enough of those with Mary. We also hung out on the beach, which is perfect white sand with scattered stones. Whether inspired by the standing stone rings further back or the stone houses they'd just seen, people had stacked the stones up in strange shapes all across the beach.

From Skara Brae, we headed north, out of Norse territory and onto a more personal hunt: the town of Twatt. Why? Do you really need to ask? We cycled along a bird observatory -- lots of those in Orkney -- and came to the right spot on my ordnance survey map, but there were no signs designating the town name. Disapointed over the lack of funny picture opportunities, Emily pointed out a church... could it be? Could it be the church of Twatt? Indeed, it was. And we laughed very, very hard.

Then, we turned back for Stromness. And the wind picked up. Gale force, right into our faces. Stop pedaling, and you start rolling backwards. I was having difficulty, and I cycle daily. Emily, in her black dress and gold tights ("there's no reason not to look fabulous") was making an admirable effort, but it did really suck. (Tho, clothed like that, on a bike in a strong wind, she did put me in mind of that scene from Wizard of Oz...)

By the time we got back to Stromness, we were both exhausted and not exactly in good moods. Ditching the bikes, we headed back to the hostel to change, before making our way to the Stromness Hotel, home that night to a local beer fesitval. After several pain-numbing pints of Scapa Special and whatnot, we wandered out into the Stromness night, and on the way back to the hostel, I got into an argument with a cat. Look, he had it coming. No reason to mouth off like that... Bad attitude on that one. Seriously.

More pictures are here.

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