SUGGESTIONS as to what to cover in this column are always gratefully received, and if you concentrate on specific episodes and characters from Scottish history there’s a good chance we’ll get around to it eventually.
Occasionally, we get asked to take a longer term view of things, and the latest suggestion from Bill McLaughlin from Biggar falls into that category. Bill is intrigued by Maeshowe on Orkney, and its fascinating 5000-year history gives us the chance to examine the extraordinary phenomenon that is Orkney in the Neolithic period.
First of all, let it be said that Orkney was most definitely not “Britain’s Ancient Capital” as ludicrously suggested by the name of a recent BBC series that was part archaeological, part historical and wholly misrepresentative in its title.
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Presenter Neil Oliver has come in for some criticism because his noted stance as a Unionist made it appear that he was claiming that Orkney really was the capital, ie ruling enclave, of ancient Britain.
To be fair, he didn’t actually say that during the three-part series, but instead suggested that Orkney could have been a place that spread its culture and its architecture to the mainland of Great Britain.
Constantly linking Orkney’s New Stone Age buildings to Stonehenge was one of the many claims in the programme that raised historians’ eyebrows. As long ago as 2001, archaeologist Gordon Barclay was writing that those studying the Neolithic age in Britain and Ireland were too busy concentrating on “luminous centres” like Orkney and the area encompassed by the ancient kingdom of Wessex which includes Stonehenge and Avebury.
Barclay argued very persuasively that the surviving stone buildings and monuments make modern archaeologists and historians see them as centres of ancient religion and political rule, when in fact there might have been dozens of other more important places – it is the very fact of their survival, rather than what they originally were, which dictates most modern historical views of New Stone Age Britons.
As this column says frequently, we just do not know for certain about prehistoric Scotland because it is precisely that – it is “pre” history, before the time of records. We know comparatively little about ancient Scottish history because we are still trying to find and understand the evidence, and we probably never will do so completely. The truth about Neolithic Orkney is that we just do not know the extent of the influence its people had on the tribes on that big island seven miles to the south across the Pentland Firth.
They definitely had some influence – the distinctive Neolithic “grooved ware” pottery seems to have emanated from Orkney – but the evidence of overarching cultural connections as far south as Stonehenge is flimsy. The fact is that, while there are plenty of Neolithic sites, nowhere else in Britain are there the sort of buildings found in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney – that’s why it was dedicated as a World Heritage Site by Unesco as far back as 1999.
This column also has a penchant for stating the bleedin’ obvious – the Neolithic people of Orkney developed their habitations, religious centres and burial chambers out of stone for the simple reason that trees were somewhat rare on the Orkney archipelago some 4000 years or more ago.
We know from archaeology that they used to be plentiful before that period, but for various reasons Orkney’s tree population collapsed, leaving stone as the main construction material, while throughout Great Britain the plentiful availability of wood meant that huge settlements were constructed entirely from local forests. Wood decays, while stone merely weathers, so again we just do not know where Ancient Britain’s “capital” was located, and the best guess is that there were many centres that could be construed as capitals across these islands, which had varied occupants and cultures for thousands of years.
In any case, Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, and Skara Brae and the other parts of the World Heritage Site are far too interesting on their own merely to serve as some kind of pre-emptive for Stonehenge.
As Historic Environment Scotland (HES) says on its website: “They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt (first and second dynasties), the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China. Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkably rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early peoples away from the traditional centres of civilisation.”
Some pedigree then, and the Orcadians of that era were as sophisticated as any of the peoples then extant in Europe, if not more so. The problem is we know so very little about who they were, where they came from, what they got up to and why they chose Orkney as their base.
There’s been a huge archaeological dig going on for several years now at the Ness of Brodgar, led by Nick Card of the University of the Highlands and Islands. His teams at Ness have uncovered much about Brodgar in the Neolithic era, including the first discovery of Neolithic art, and the paint pots and pigments used by the prehistoric artists.
No wonder the excavations have won global prizes for their excellence – they even made the cover of National Geographic in 2014, and for many people, especially in the US, there is no greater accolade.
Card has lectured frequently on Brodgar and the other elements of the World Heritage Site. He told the Glasgow Archaeological Society in 2012 that he considers Maeshowe – it can also be called Maes Howe – to be “arguably the finest chambered tomb in Europe and one of the wonders of the prehistoric world”.
He joked: “Anybody who hasn’t seen it you should definitely see it before you die.”
We will leave out the nearby Ring of Brodgar, the third largest surviving stone circle in the UK, and Skara Brae, that amazingly well-preserved village dating from around 3000 BC, and the Stones of Stenness and the other monoliths around them and concentrate on what we know about Maeshowe, as Bill McLaughlin requested.
The tomb – for that is what it was – was constructed around 2900 to 2800 BC. Though it looks like a grassy mound, Maeshowe consists of a stonebuilt cairn with a narrow and not very high passageway leading into a central chamber which is about 12 feet high with three stone-built cells off it.
Some of the stone slabs that line the passageway and central chamber weigh several tonnes, and there is a road – known as the low road – connecting Maeshowe to the other parts of the World Heritage Site, suggesting that the tribe which built all the main elements such as Skara Brae were in and around the site for centuries.
We know from the location of Maeshowe and the adjacent Barnhouse Stone that the Neolithic dwellers on Orkney were shrewd astronomers – Barnhouse Stone is directly in line with the entrance to Maeshowe when it is illuminated by the sun at the Winter Solstice.
HES says: “Maeshowe is a masterpiece of Neolithic engineering. It is an exceptionally early architectural accomplishment. With its almost classical strength and simplicity it is a unique survival from 5000 years ago. It is an expression of genius within a group of people whose other tombs were claustrophobic chambers in smaller mounds.”
We do not know, and probably never will know, who was buried in Maeshowe, which appears to have been closed up after it was used as a tomb many hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. It is possible that any human remains, and any riches buried with those early Orcadians, were removed by Viking invaders, who broke open the tomb and left their own form of graffiti – the largest collection of Runic inscriptions outside of Scandinavia.
We can actually date the looting of the tomb to the 1150s, as the Orkneyinga Saga tells of the Norse noblemen who ruled the islands at that time breaking into Maeshowe.
One story in the saga is about the Earls Harald and Erlend, who were on a trip to Orkney at Christmas of 1153, and “during a snowstorm they took shelter in Maeshowe and there the two of them went insane”.
The Runes are absolutely fascinating in themselves. They were “found” again in 1861 when the antiquarian James Farrer, the MP for Durham South, broke into the tomb and discovered the wall inscriptions.
They vary from crude name carving – effectively saying “Ragnvald was here” – to the somewhat rude, with a suggestion that sexual liaison had taken place there.
Farrer found none of the “treasure” referred to in the Runes, and his account of what he found was hardly reliable in any case. He placed great emphasis, for instance, on the local tale of the tomb having been the home of the “Hogboy”, a name derived from the mythical Hogboon who were supposed to inhabit Orkney’s many burial mounds.
It has been left to later archaeologists and historians to work out what Maeshowe was all about and yet we still do not even know the meaning of its name. Howe comes from the Old Norse word for a mound, but there is no clue as to who Mae or Maes was – suggestions range from May’s Temple after the ancient spring festival of that name to the Old Norse name for a great tomb or the tomb of Tormis.
No matter how it came to be named, Maeshowe is a very important part of our past. With its combination of prehistoric beginnings and Viking Runes plus all the other tales and legends that surround it, Maeshowe truly is one of the most fascinating places in Scotland.