Scotland Day 18 Orkney: Maes Howe, Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae, Marwick Head, The Loons Hide

Birds sighted: Wheatear, Little Grebe, Shoveler (w/ four babies), Coot (w/ baby), Black-tailed Godwit, Sedge Warbler, Moor hen, Curlew, Teal, Whooper Swan, Greylag Geese, Red-breasted Merganser, Wigeon, Short-eared Owl, Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Bonxie/Skua, Black-headed Gull, Razorbill, Guillemot, Puffin, Kittiwake, Fulmar, Great Black-backed Gull, Common Tern, Pheasant, Jackdaw, Raven, Eider Duck, Snipe, Mallard
Mammals: Brown Hare, Rabbit

Orkney is sunlight

The Orkney islands lie off the northeast coast of Scotland. Seventy or more islands form Orkney. These islands have a rich and varied history going back as least as far as 5000 years. Orkney is a fantastic place to undertake a little time travel. Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Viking sites cover these islands as well as Medieval churches, Renaissance palaces and WWII bunkers. Today we did a bit of the Neolithic Age on the west mainland of Orkney in addition to exploring the rich natural history of this area.

Maes Howe chambered cairn

Maes Howe
After a very good breakfast at the farm, Steve, our intrepid guide from Orcadian Wildlife, took us to Maes Howe. Maes Howe is a Neolithic chambered cairn, dating to around 2700 BC. It is located in an area that is a Neolithic archaeologist's dream, with the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Barnhouse Settlement and the Ring of Brodgar all visible from this area. The cairn was constructed on a raised area surrounded by a ditch and raised bank. The entrance passageway is aligned with the setting of the midwinter sun. Also notable within the cairn are the Viking runes, scratched into the stones within the cairn. These date to the 12th century AD. These runes essentially constitute Viking-age graffiti. To learn more about Maes Howe visit: http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/maeshowe/

View of Orkney Mainland

The Ring of Brodgar

Ring of Brodgar
Our next stop, after passing the extant parts of the Stones of Stenness, was the Ring of Brodgar. The Ring of Brodgar stands on the strip of land that separates Loch Harray from Loch Stenness. The ring is assumed to date to between 2500 BC and 2000 BC. The ring is a true circle, but only 27 of the possibly 60 stones forming it remain. It is the largest stone ring in Britain. The ring is enclosed by a large ditch and, more interestingly, the entire henge complex sits in a low area surrounded by a circle of hills. To learn more about the Ring of Brodgar visit: http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/brodgar/index.html

Ring of Brodgar (detail)

Ring of Brodgar

We stopped at the cliffs at Yesneby to imbibe much needed caffeine and sugar. Somewhere along the way Traveler Three noticed three hare having a bit of a boxing match. Then it was off to The Loons Nature Reserve and the bird hide there. We ate lunch as we witnessed the antics of shovelers, mallards, little grebes, terns, coots, teals, moor hens, and even a Black-tailed
Godwit.

Common Tern hovering, The Loons

We then headed out to Marwick Head, complex of sandstone sea cliffs. The geology of Orkney is dominated by flagstones and sandstones formed from fresh water lake deposits some 400 million years ago. The sediments that form the Old Red Sandstone of Orkney are one of the best examples of a Devonian Age lake basin in the world. Over time the sandstone has been carved into dramatic cliffs, arches, and stacks by the sea. In summer, these cliffs are the breeding grounds for thousands of sea birds. One of the largest being Marwick Head. More than 25,000 Guillemots and 5,000 pairs of kittiwakes crowd the cliffs here.

Marwick Head adorned by sea thrift.

Exposure to rough weather, rough waves, and salt spray create an challenging environment for plants on the cliff tops. Here you find maritime heath, characterized by low-growing heather, sedges, grasses and wild flowers. Where it is too salty for heather to grow, along the cliff edges, salt tolerant thrift abounds.

Guillemots, click for larger photo

We climbed up along the sea cliffs for a great look at Guillemots in their hundreds, as well as Puffin, Razorbill, Fulmar, and Kittiwake. Traveler Three and I saw a wheatear on the way up the cliffs.

We then stopped at Fluke Jewelry. Brilliant stuff.

Skara Brae

Skara Brae

Our last stop of the day was the amazing Skara Brae. The Neolithic village of Skara Brae sits on overlooking the Bay o'Skaill. The settlement is 5000 years old and consists of eight houses linked together by passageways. This well preserved site gives the visitor a truly amazing glimpse into life in the Neolithic, one filled with warm hearths, little box beds, and even built in dressers.
To learn more about Skara Brae visit: http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/skarabrae/skarab1.htm

The inside of one of the dwellings at Skara Brae. Note the stone dresser.

Bay O'Skaill

Then it was back to the farm for a spectacular meal, and an evening of watching the ever-changing sky and sea of Orkney. The sea and sky change every five minutes. You never know what you will get. It changes from blue as blue can be, to dark and stormy, to silver with the sun spotlighting a moire pattern on a green sea, back to blue as blue can be and then something entirely different than what came before, ever cycling, ever changing, and ever different. It is hypnotic and entrancing and I'm in love with it. I want to stay on the couch in the conservatory at Gerraquoy forever and watch the sea and sky and the clouds pass by.

The view from our bedroom window.

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