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Last year, the Orkney conversation with our friends went like this...
'On our Orkney adventure, we had a day on Rousay.'
'And how was it?'
I thought that was clever, and perhaps it should be a marketing slogan. (OK, Orkney tourism folk, you can use it for nothing. Partly because my friends visited Wyre as well and came up with a less positive rhyme. But let's leave that for another day.)
So, this year, they took us over for an excursion. And, yes, Rousay is, uhmm, wow-say. And here are some pictures. Actually, quite a few. Keep reading.
First of all, you get to Rousay from Tingwall, on the north of mainland Orkney, rather than from Kirkwall. Like the island of Hoy, but much less so, Rousay has some high-ish moorland, as opposed to the low green ambience of many of the other Orkney islands. Rousay has so many prehistoric sites that it is sometimes called the 'Egypt of the North'. And, apparently, it's called this perfectly seriously, in the same way, old guidebooks would refer to Crieff (hah) as the Montpellier of the North; Dornoch (on our Vikings tour) is called the St Andrews of the North, while Edinburgh is the 'Athens of the North'. There are others but you get the idea.
Anyway, there are a lot of early sites to see in quite a small area. You practically fall over them from the moment the ramp goes down off the ferry. There is Taversoe Tuick, a rare two-storied cairn. Pictured above and right. And it's a bit weird inside. Under a concrete dome to preserve it, through a narrow claustrophobic passageway, you can climb down a short ladder into a, well, a stony hole in the ground. (Hope that wasn't too technical.) The island's then not-terribly-popular-owner, General Burroughs, discovered it in 1898. There is the Blackhammer Cairn along the road to the west. And the Knowe of Yarso. Then, after a super view across Eynhallow Sound (pictured below), there is the Midhowe Broch and Cairn, Rousay's best -known and most spectacular prehistoric site.
Midhowe is well worth the walk, which is, unfortunately, downhill at the beginning, from the wee car-park. I reckon it's best to approach these places with a sense of mystification. You'll probably leave with one. Because, frankly, how do we connect with the folk of 5,000 years ago? What looks like a barn or an aircraft hangar on the rocky shore turns out to be a shelter that protects the largest chambered cairn of its kind known in Scotland.
There is even a kind of girdered walkway over the site that enables you to look down on - well, what exactly? The way of death of five millennia ago, presumably. Collective burials in stalls. Site of rituals. It all just seems to be overwhelmingly puzzling - the ways of the ancestors of our ancestors.
And it's just the oldest part of a congregation of prehistory. A few paces away are the remains of a broch - Bronze Age, possibly as late as the 1st century AD, positively youthful when compared to that enigmatic barrow that sits silently adjacent. (You can tell I was a little spooked by it all!)
Personally, I like brochs. (Perhaps that's because I'm a Brocher. Warning: Scottish in-joke.) Hundreds of these characteristically northern structures have been identified, though nearly all are reduced and many have all but disappeared. The Broch of Gurness is just across Eynhallow Sound. Two more (less obvious) lie on either side of Midhowe (hence the 'mid' part). Personally, I like the thought of life within a circular stone tower, with internal stairways - I probably mistakenly imagine them as Bronze Age community centres. (Tuesdays, sword-sharpening classes; Thursdays, do-it-yourself dentistry; Fridays over 30s keep-fit for the elderly.) However, some say that circular high wall was a response to troubling times, when sea-borne raiders would disturb the seasonal round of hunting and farming. Heck, it's all wondrously thought-provoking! (By the way, you should probably have started your visit, just by the ferry terminal, at the Trumland Visitors Centre and Waiting Room.)
As you've come down to shore level from the car-park It's also well worth strolling along the coast to the east as well, as there are more ruinous evocative lichen-encrusted buildings there as well. You'll probably see seals there. If it's quiet you can hear them sing, though it's more like moaning. There is an abandoned farm, a scarcely distinguishable mediaeval hall, a roofless church and much more, as well as evidence of Clearance episodes (not confined to the Highlands hereabouts). It's all very atmospheric on a fine day; otherwise, you'll probably get your ears blown off when the westerlies come down Eynhallow Sound.
The northern panoramas are very fine, as is a signpost that points to otters and seals by Saviskaill Beach. The road then sweeps round and up to higher ground. Then, if you haven't seen enough rock for one day you may note a large block of pale (non-native?) stone, about the size of a large table. It jars a bit in the grand sweep of the panorama at this point (though that may be just me again). Stroll down to it and you'll see it not only commands a fine viewpoint but it has a net carved on it and the words 'gods of the earth / gods of the sea.' It's by the 'internationally respected' concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay who worked briefly in Rousay when he was young.
That presumably was justification enough for lugging a whomping great stone block and planting it here in such a splendidly pointless way. Still, 5000 years ago, our own egotistical ancestors must have had an eye to the future when they built their great mounds about which we speculate today. It's nice to think that several millennia from now, archaeologists will dig out this block and solemnly conclude that it was a Neolithic table-tennis table - one that needed extra-heavy balls because of the windy location. Of course, the climate was different then.....
There is a whole lot more to Rousay, of course. For a small island, it has places to stay, places to eat, nature reserves for the birdy visitors, plus viewpoints, moorland lochs and its own community. It even has a 'big hoose' that lets visitors walk round its restored grounds and gardens. Rousay is definitely different and should be on an Orkney must see list. We would go back and stay longer.
If you like short ferry trips in the north of Scotland, read our ferry to Orkney and Rousay page - about a short crossing to Mainland Orkney.
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