This article was originally published in SPIN winter 2013.
My happiest memories are nearly always associated with warm, sunny days; few of my peak experiences have occurred in the dark, or the rain, or the snow. Ask me to recall a time when I was content and it will usually be whilst looking around a castle or archaeological site, but it will be a sunny, bright, dry and warm day – but not too hot to burn, just right, perhaps with a robust breeze, not wind, breeze, but enough to know it is there.
I love the long summer days in Orkney and dread the equally long tortuous nights of winter. Every summer, as it draws to an end, there always seems a final gift of one last perfect day. And I always seem to know it instinctively: that there won’t be another for about six months or so. When the last day of summer comes, I know it mustn’t be wasted by staying inside with housework, instead I must be out and walking ... so we do, as my husband needs even less persuasion than I do.
The last perfect day of summer 2012 came about mid-September and the day was glorious. There had been a period of several dry days just before so I knew that our favourite walk along the old bridal way near to us would be accessible ... and I had particular hopes of being able to get over to the crannog on Wasdale Loch.
Our house backs onto peat bog, good for little except as a sanctuary for wildlife. Hen harriers hunt here as do the short-eared owls (the only type of owl in Orkney and not the type of owl to restrict itself to nocturnal hunting), all seeking the Orkney vole. At the very bottom of the peat bog runs (according to old maps) the Firth-Harray Parish boundary, so we are placed fairly liminally, on the edge of two parishes. This boundary would have been a footpath, an access route for centuries past, and there is evidence for this in the form of some “cobbelling”, particularly in the places where the path crosses streams. The old Birsay-Kirkwall road runs in the same direction along the other side of the loch too.
Beyond the peat bog, there is the Loch of Wasdale; Wasdale being the burn which trickles down from the hills above Finstown. The Loch of Wasdale drains, in turn, through Binscarth Wood, then on to The Ouse and out into the Bay of Firth, around which the stone homes of Finstown nestle.
The Loch of Wasdale is not one of the largest lochs in Orkney nor is it well known. We hardly ever see anyone fishing there, save for the local farmers, but watching the swans flock there at dusk is a sight to behold. On the loch there is a crannog. Crannogs are artificial islands, built in prehistory, some date to the Bronze Age (about 1500 BCE), others are more recent and may have been built as late as 500 CE. No one knows why prehistoric folk liked to construct, and then presumably live on, artificial islands, but they occur all over Scotland, although there are relatively few in Orkney. The usual interpretation of their function is that they were defensive, despite the fact that the short distance to the shore would probably not have been too much of a deterrent to a persistent attacker, although their sole path (usually stepping stones) would certainly have been a way to control access: only room for one to approach at a time and only by a set prescribed route. Other suggestions have been that crannogs could have been an attempt to escape the most tenacious of Scotland’s predators: the midge.
Built on this crannog are the remains of a broch. Most brochs date from the Iron Age (about 500 BCE to 500 AD), which blends into the Pictish period in Orkney. These structures are also usually interpreted as being defensive in function as they take the form of stone towers, sometimes with little houses clustered around the outside, and, when they are not sited on naturally defensive locations such as crannogs or the edge of cliffs, with additional earthen defences. Brochs are quite prolific in Orkney and the north of Scotland, occurring around the coastline at regular and quite close intervals, as well as inland. Their nearest equivalent in England, Wales and southern Scotland is probably the hillfort. In the Iron Age people seem to have had a need to build defensive sites, possibly as a result of a general increase in violence in society which was perhaps arising over disputed assets such as land. Such sites may also have been built for prestige or as a deterrent to any violent threats. There is also a possibility that brochs were sacred sites in some way as several have underground chambers, ostensibly wells, but full of potential for contacting the chthonic deities – the Gods of the Iron Age seem to have lived underground, or some of them did ... This relationship between authority and belief is common in pre-state societies where secular and religious power are often intricately linked (consider the medieval concept of the Divine Right of Kings).
When the broch on Wasdale Loch fell out of use, its stone was reused for a chapel. I have been reliably informed that, until recently, one of the local older farmers would periodically repair the dry-stone walls of the chapel, but that no longer happens and today all that is visible are low circular stone walls to about a maximum height of a metre.
So Wasdale Loch is host to an artificial island, built as some sort of retreat, perhaps embodying a symbolic sense of safety, to which access is possible but restricted, and on which are built a series of ritualistic monuments: first a broch and then a chapel. It virtually screams that it is a special place.
And every time we’d walked there previously, the water level in the loch was so high that I wouldn’t have got over without a soaking. But during that dry period at the end of last summer, I knew there was a chance of being able to cross over the stepping stones which were usually submerged, but that the stones would no doubt be loose and wobbly and slippery with slime. So I went prepared with stout walking boots, hiking poles (two legs good, four legs better) and clothes which wouldn’t mind getting wet.
My preparation paid off and after over three years of wanting to cross over, I finally managed it. It was quite an achievement: the path was not easy, many of the stepping stones rocked quite a bit and the slime was treacherous in places. But it was worth it – there was a wonderful sense of getting to somewhere secret that was finally yielding itself, a place that others could only observe from outside. This was somewhere to which access was offered only sporadically; luck, timing, and dexterity were required. It was like passing a test.
Once on the crannog I sat and absorbed the atmosphere; the day was bright, sunny, warm, and the sky was a great open dome the way it can be in Orkney. The breeze was gentle and the loch’s surface was reflective at times; it was quiet and peaceful.
So I shifted my attention inwards to see what impressions might come through and I contacted the spirit of a young woman. She was pale and fair and dressed in a dark, rough, woven cloth, like tartan but not as complicated a pattern. She was poor, dirty and hungry and she asked me for money. I had none on me to give her (or else I would have left a gift), but I had no coins with me. I could have left jewellery for her, like a ring, but I suspected she would be in more trouble if she was found with something that precious. Her name sounded like Erin or Earn or similar. I promised that when I came back I would bring money for her but that it would be a while before I would be able to get back over – it was, after all, the last day of an Orkney summer, getting back over in winter, and possibly most of spring and early summer, would be impossible. I wonder about Erin and what her story is; I hope she will tell me.
The cows that were loose around the crannog were taking an increasing interest in the people in their midst, and did not seem in the least perturbed about getting wet, so we decided to leave the crannog and walk all the way up Wasdale, following the burn which was little more than a trickle. The path was not always obvious and often, particularly at places where the land plateaued, it was waterlogged. On the way up we passed abandoned crofts and huts, each progressively more ruinous, as if those highest up had been left first, like a retreating army of stone structures. The flora changed as we climbed through the hills, but always there were bees and butterflies.
Right at the top there was an Ordnance Survey triangulation point (so we knew we were at the top!) and amazing views over the stone circles of West Mainland and the Hoy Hills to the west. The top of the hill, which formed a ridgeline running almost north to south, was sodden and saturated in places – heavy peat, with evidence of cutting both ancient and more recent, that held the water in moss rather than letting it drain away.
It was a place to enjoy views and revel in the landscape being revealed. Perhaps Neolithic wayfarers might once have passed this way on pilgrimage to the Ness of Brodgar? Perhaps the earliest shepherds may have shared the delight of these vistas?
And then I got it! My light bulb moment!
Through looking down at Wasdale Loch and the crannog and the idea of the island sanctuary – which is what all of Orkney is to me anyway, once I leave Caithness and am on my way back home to these islands – I understood how this idea of the island in a lake is such an ancient archetype from world myth. I think of Fisher Kings, and giant frogs on lily pads, and golden rings being cast into sacred ponds ... and the concept is resonating in my head and I know I am dealing with ancestral memories that are older than the written word but which are inscribed in my deep thoughts. And beyond Wasdale Loch, the far older site of the Ness of Brodgar, straddling the isthmus between two lochs, and those lochs being in the middle of land, and all around the land is ringed with hills, fringing in like a natural cauldron. And I realise that I am gazing upon that place that is being called upon in my psyche: the place within a place within a place, the inner sanctuary, the Blessed Isle, where peace and healing and transformation can, will and must take place.