The Orkney islands – a blast from the past

The Orkney islands are a long way from Durham, especially when you drive there, but the journey is so worthwhile! Gill and I spent last week exploring ‘Mainland’ and the small island of Westray and came away feeling we’d only just scratched the surface.

Kirkwall,  capital of the Orkney islands

The islands are rich in fantastically-preserved Neolithic remains – from the 5000 year old villages of Skara Brae and Barnhouse, to the megaliths of the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness and chambered burial cairns such as Maeshowe and the Tomb of the Eagles.

Standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar

Abundant, easily-worked building stone in the form of ‘Old Red Sandstone’ must be one of the reasons so many ancient buildings have survived. This stone was laid down in the freshwater Lake Orcadie, which bordered the hot, arid mountains of Scotland at a time when the landmass was some ten degrees south of the Equator, 400 million years ago. The archaeologist who showed us round the current excavations at the Ness of Brodgar pointed out that the beautifully-constructed walls we can see were not reconstructed in any way but have simply had the material which surrounded them dug away.

Excavation at the Ness of Brodgar

The nearby village of Skara Brae is a wonder for many reasons, not least for the way dwellings were dug into the ground for shelter, rather like some modern ‘eco’ housing.  Individual houses are connected by equally sheltered stone passages.

We can get an unparalleled picture of life in Skara Brae because local sandstone was used for everything inside the houses, from the beds to the structures described as ‘dressers’. Who knows whether these were really for Neolithic knick-knacks or served some more serious ritual purpose?  The houses are surprisingly roomy inside and even have a drainage system and basic indoor toilet – Romans eat your hearts out!  Barley seeds found in waste heaps around the site suggest that the inhabitants grew some cereals as well as fishing and raising cattle and sheep; one possibility is that the village was deserted after the climate became too cold and damp around 2500 BC to allow this relatively comfortable way of life to be sustained.

Neolithic dresser (centre) and bed (left)

One of the big surprises for me was how mild the Orcadian climate still is today – lush arable fields and sleek beef cattle were a bit of a surprise, so far north. I’d worried that we’d be too late for much in the way of botanising and the machair may be past its best by August but there were still plenty of treats.

The most obvious of these was perhaps the tiny Scottish primrose, Primula scotica, so like our local Bird’s-eye primrose which obligingly produces a second flush of flowers around this time of year.  We were lucky enough to find plenty around Yesnaby, just south of Skara Brae.

Primula farinosa (left) and P. scotica (right)

Other, equally special, treats included vast numbers of Grass of Parnassus, Parnassia palustris growing on the coast both on Mainland and on Westray.

Swathes of Grass of Parnassus growing near Noup Head on Westray

I was pleased, too, to spot Greater and Lesser Sea-Spurrey growing together near Noup Head, much gloriously purple Eyebright and Bog pimpernel – a new species for me.

Greater and lesser Sea-Spurrey; Spergularia media (left) and S. marina (right)

Eyebright, Euphrasia sp. (left) and Bog pimpernel, Anagalis tenella (right)

As usual, I did a little early morning running whilst we were away – one of the delights of this was rambling hedgerows full of sweetly scented honeysuckle and Rosa rugosa. I was surprised, though, to see what looked like Michaelmas daisies in full flower already – the ones in my allotment are barely in bud.  I now realise these may have been Sea Asters, Aster tripolium, but the same thing applies.   Chrysanthemums and Asters are popular garden plants precisely because they bloom when most other plants have finished flowering. Like many plants, the time at which they flower is regulated by day length – spring flowering plants will only flower when the days are shorter than a particular, critical, value (or, more accurately, when the nights are longer).  They need a particular length of dark period to trigger flowering.   Summer flowering plants, however, will only flower as the days lengthen – it’s all to do with the accumulation of a particular form of a sensor molecule called phytochrome, depending on the light available. Being able to measure daylength helps ensure that plants of the same species flower around the same time for successful cross-pollination.  More on this another time….

Michaelmas daisies and their relatives are known as long-short day plants because they rely on a pattern of longer days giving way to shorter days to trigger flowering.  At first it seems surprising that they should flower earlier in Orkney, where days are still much longer than in Durham at this time of year.  However the plants may be picking up the change in day length rather than responding to an absolute value and this change is after all greater, from one day to the next, the further you travel from the equator.


    • I can thoroughly recommend Orkney :-). We saw masses of Grass of Parnassus on the cliffs there – like you, I’d only seen odd plants before. I went up to Pittenweem with John after the OUGS meeting as we are checking out the Fife coast for another possible fieldwork site for next year and we saw it there too, in the dunes at Tentsmuir near St Andrews. That whole area was new to me and I liked it very much too. I see you’ve been enjoying the same area!

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