The small ferry left Stromness as the storm began to rise. With the distant island mountain already backdropped by troubled skies and foregrounded by rising waves, it struggled to land briefly at Graemsay, spilling out people and packages hurrying to avoid the incoming tempest.
By the time we arrived on Hoy, cloud and rain was racing angrily towards the shore. I zipped my waterproof tight, stooping, rain driven into my face by an unforgiving wind I began to make my way uphill through the storm. With an hour or more walk along the old moorland road to Rackwick, I had resigned myself to being soaked by the time I reached my destination but began to worry about the practicalities of pitching a tent in these conditions.
And then a white van pulled up, surprised and slightly confused I hesitantly opened the door, to find a black and white collie sitting on the seat. ‘I was looking for you’ said the driver ‘Its not a night for walking’. With this kindness, I arrived at Rackwick somewhat sooner and drier than I had any right to expect.
Sea cliffs, funneled foam and fury, into the bay. Swollen waves, crashing against already saturated shoreline. Imagining scenes of chasing my tent, tattered though the night, any thoughts of canvas was abandoned, and I turned to the Bothy.
* * *
The next morning I stood between Trowie Glen and the Nowt Bield Corrie. The names reveal something deeper about this place. Trowie is an Orcadian term, derived from Norse, for Troll: important folklore and literary figures often associated with particular mounds or distinctive stones. While Nowt Bield, I think means nothing built, evoking a harsh and inhospitable character but place names can be fickle and subject to change. The Ordnance Survey name book of 1879 shows the burn was thought to be called the Burn of the Horned Bull but was crossed out and written as Burn of the Nowt Bield. Perhaps the cartographic slaying of a sacred bull?
There had been sightings of the sea eagle chick at this location. Now old enough to be left by its mother, I watched it hunt tentatively, more of a hop and glide, than a majestic soar. But this vulnerability was humbling to see, a more elemental being still learning the power of the air. It seemed appropriate it was this location, hovering between sacred bull and sleeping troll.
Perhaps five thousand years ago, people cut into a massive boulder slab, creating a short passage to a small chamber, off which are two smaller cells. The entrance had been blocked, and probably remained so for perhaps up to 4000 years, till about 1500 AD.
The Dwarfie Stane, as it is now called, may have been used for mortuary practices, with fragmented human remains being, probably temporarily, kept within. Elsewhere on Orkney, bird and animal remains have also been found in chambered cairns, perhaps showing that the rites were more complex than burial as we would understand. For example, at Ibister the remains of 14 sea eagles were also present among the bones of people.
Entering the Dwarfie Stane is a slightly claustrophobic experience but sealed in stone, the eyes and ears quickly attune to different spectrum. You can’t help but wonder who entered here and what activities took place. I lay down for a while, shrouded in stone, and let my imagination drift.
As I left I wondered what changes occur
when you emerge from a sandstone cocoon?
As well as cartographic concerns, the Dwarfie Stane was increasingly in the 19th century consciousness: referred to in Walter Scott’s 1822 The Pirate; with the Geologist Hugh Miller having carved his name in one of the cells in 1846; and on the outside carved in 1850, backwards in Latin, the name of Major W Mouncey, accompanied in Persian by ‘I have sat two nights and have learned patience’. Beneath these recent accretions of ‘men making marks’, there may be a Norse inspired Medieval folklore of Trolls. But there is a deeper horizon which can still be encountered here.
The Dwarfie Stane lies on a slope below a striking cliff line, now called the Dwarfie Hammars. The cliff line is pocked with regular indentations where the rock has split and tumbled down in blocks. Caves have also been discovered on the cliff face, in one of which a polished stone was found, suggested as perhaps akin to some prehistoric artefact.
The tradition of sky burial is known in many cultures, with bodies being exposed, to deflesh through elemental wind and rain and carrion beak. There are also many traditions of using such cliff faces, and caves or ledges, as the site for burials or ossuaries.
I now want you to imagine, people moving carefully but confidently (well used to collecting sea bird eggs) along the cliff face. There may have been cloth or hide banners hanging down or totems erected at points marking the entrance to particular caves. The cliff face may also have been covered with bags of bones and baskets of skulls, looking down at the Dwarfie Stane.
Now smell the smoke and distant sea spray.
Can you hear the songs and chants?
From up on the cliff, with the call of the Sea Eagle still higher, you would have views to the north and east to Mainland Orkney and to the west to the setting sun on the north side of Rackwick Bay.
And on days, when the banners flapped and bones rattled above with the fury of the elements, and you stood at the Dwarfie Stane you knew you were truly alive.
Upon reflection I wonder why this matters, why these enchanted places are important in such troubled times. Perhaps it is they remind us of other times and ways and extend the possibilities of what we can work towards in the future? Our relationships to those who have gone before us, the terms we use (? ancestor, family, stranger, people) are powerful components (at least implicitly) of many contemporary debates about identity and politics. Our death cultures also matter: the way we treat our closest at times before, during and after death, how we celebrate and mourn are also fundamental aspect of cultural practices which over centuries became increasingly individualising and corporate. While there are all kinds of legal and ethical issues, at least knowing there were different mortuary and funerary practices, I hope cultivates awareness, sensitivity and respect for the variety of human and more-than-human life ways too.
For more Inspiring Island Explorations,
please have a look at some other HeritageLandscapeCreativity posts:
Imaginary Island of Ailsa Craig
Hoy has a remarkable series of stories of people and its landscape. Thanks to Antonia Thomas and Dan Lee for some great advice and information before my journey to Hoy. I greatly appreciated the kindness of Jimmy and Diesel and the stories shared of the Dark Enchanted Island.
The title of this post refers to the book Hoy, the Dark Enchanted Island by John Bremner – which alas I was unable to get a copy.
If you are lucky enough to be able to visit Orkney, rather than dash from monument to monument in peak season across the World Heritage Site, visit other Islands rather than just Mainland Orkney and if you can, please go out of peak season when the weather is wilder.