Scotland in September: Stone Age buildings show how our Neolithic ancestors lived
Special to The Union
My husband and I spent September traveling through Skye, Harris, Lewis and the Orkney islands of Scotland.
There are a number of Stone Age buildings that show how our Neolithic ancestors lived. The homes, burial cairns, and defensive round brochs we visited were constructed of dry stone walls and roofs of timber and sod. That they are still standing today is a tribute to skillful architecture, building many of them into the ground instead of on it, and the fact that many were buried under sand for centuries before recent storms revealed them.
We toured Maes Howe, a 5,000-year-old stone tomb made of enormous sandstone blocks. Its roof is corbelled stone — graduated layers rising to the ceiling. In the 12th century, Vikings invaded Maes Howe taking shelter from a blizzard and carving runic graffiti on the walls. Some things never change — “Olaf was here” and “Thornvald bedded Helga” were carved between pictures of serpents and dragons.
There are many standing stone sites in Scotland. At the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, 21 of the original stones remain. Some are over 15 feet tall. Little is understood about the 4,000 year old circle. But seeing the stones against scudding gray clouds and the blue loch is an affecting sight.
We visited Blackhouse Village, restored thatched stone cottages perched above the Atlantic. In one, a crofter was weaving a foot-driven loom for the Harris Tweed company. It supplies the wool and patterns to over 800 weavers. Peat burned in the fireplace — a pleasing pungent note.
We drove across the beautiful green Scottish farmland to Skye. Roadsides were filled with wildflowers — buttercups, delicate thistle, foxgloves, and heather. Men cut peat blocks in fields for winter heat. Farmhouses were of uniform design and color — Highland cattle and Black Faced sheep dotted the meadows. Border Collies managed the flocks with fierce glares. Scotland produces 40 percent of its electricity from renewable sources; we saw wind turbines on all the islands.
Large, fast and comfortable car ferries get you between the islands. The sights are varied from barren rock face to steep cliffs and pounding waves to layer after layer of blue gray hills to bright green farmland.
We enjoyed breakfast oatmeal porridge in its various forms from blood sausage to fruit and nuts. Porridge is the new trendy food and Stoats Porridge Bars in Edinburgh serve portions with whisky, honey, cream, nuts or fruit.
Causeways on the islands were lined with concrete blocks. They were called Churchill Barriers because Churchill built them during World War II to protect the British Navy from German U-Boats.
Many of the tourists were rugged European hikers and bikers. We stayed in bed-and-breakfasts. About every third house was a B&B and almost all had “No Vacancy” signs.
St. Colomba visited Scotland in 563 and effectively Christianized the nation. We visited old churches starting with the Romanesque St. Magnus Cathedral on Orkney founded in 1137. On Lewis Island, I attended a service at the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. It is a conservative church with long sermons trending toward exhortation, two services on Sunday sermons, two services on Sundays and hymnals with no music. Until recently Lewis followed strict observance of Sundays, with no open stores or ferry service.
The Vikings invaded Scotland, and particularly the Islands, about 800 AD. After rampaging and worse, they brought their families and settled down to farming and fishing. At the Brough of Birsay, accessible on foot only at low tide, we saw the remains of a Viking settlement including a church, longhouses, and two saunas.
It seemed only courteous to tour a whisky distillery. In Orkney we visited the Highland Park Distillery, from the room where barley was malted to where it was smoked in peat kilns; then fermented with yeast and finally distilled. The whisky was put in American oak barrels and aged for at least three years. The 18-year-old whisky tasted best.
Driving in the Hebrides is a challenge. You drive on the left. Many roads are single lane for two-way traffic requiring you to pull off when you see another car. Finally, the signs are in Gaelic. But every Scot we stopped pulled up an iPhone map and gave us directions. Mindful of visitors, every crosswalk instructs you to Look Right; and every intersection tells drivers to Drive on the Left in six languages.
We listened to BBC Scotland radio daily. A few stories dominated — the election of far left Jeremy Corbyn to lead the British Labour Party; and the Syrian refugees streaming into Europe. The Scottish Nationalist Party (called the Scottish Nutter Party by one host) keeps pressing for another Independence Referendum. Details of Rugby players and matches were in every broadcast.
We were struck by the civility of political discourse. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, might want to tell a member of Parliament to put a sock in it but he starts with, “The gentleman from Leeds makes an important point.” Imagine a debate with Donald Trump.
Jenny Warden, who lives on the San Juan Ridge, is a member of The Union Editorial Board.
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