Ness of Brodgar – Uncovering #Orkney’s Neolithic past

dsc02070I’ve been fascinated by the Neolithic period in a very unscientific kind of way for years.  Stones circles are a bit of an obsession of mine and I’ve driven down many tiny lanes in search of sites that are marked on OS maps but don’t have a single sign post. I love the mystery of them, the sense of time and place that is beyond understanding and occasionally, the pulse of ancient energy in the stones.  A friend of mine, who is a proper archaeologist with a PhD and everything, refers to people like me as ‘stone botherers’.

It was the sheer wealth and variety of Neolithic sites (together with the stories of George Mackay Brown) that drew me to Orkney for the first time six years ago and I spent a very happy week visiting tombs, stone circles and the village of Skara Brae. Back in 2010 people were only just starting to talk about the amazing finds at the Ness of Brodgar.  Since then I’ve watched lovely Neil Oliver at the site, read about it in the National Geographic and seen updates on the internet.

dsc01966A couple of weeks ago I finally got to visit the site and, more by luck than judgement, turned up during one of the two site open days.  It was a dreich day, as they say on Orkney, which you can see from the pictures but it seemed like half of the population had turned out to see what was going on.  The Ness of Brodgar is on a narrow isthmus of land between the Loch of Harray and the Loch of Stenness.  A short distance away on one side are the Stones of Stenness and, at the top of a small hill, on the other side is the Ring of Brodgar.  On a lovely day it is quite exceptionally beautiful.  This wasn’t a lovely day but wrapped up in waterproof, fleece and woolly hat I got to walk round the site, talk to the people working there and actually handle some of the finds.

Having seen so much about the dig over the years and read about the number of structures that have been found I’d expected it to be much larger.  Instead it fits into a surprisingly small space with a jumble of walls that the guides made sense of for us, pointing out the entrance to this structure or the walls of that structure.  The stone work is still, 4,000 to 5,000 years since it was built, immaculate.  They have a dry stone wall expert working at the site and he says that that we could learn a thing or two from the Neolithic builders.  However they did need a few lessons on foundations as when buildings went out of use they simply knocked them down and built over them.

dsc01972In a lot of places there are examples of ‘ritual and ceremonial use’ which our guide, a man who’s clearly not an archaeologist, said was archaeologist’s code for ‘we haven’t got a clue’! They do admit that the dig throws up more questions than it answers, that each season they’re rewriting the books on this period of history.

After we’d looked round the site we went to the local school where they had finds on display.  More incredibly we were allowed to hold some of them.  It was a bizarrely disconnected moment to stand in a modern school hall holding a stone hammer head made, maybe, 3,000 years ago.  But from the size and feel of it I could imagine the hands that had used it, the person who’d cherished it as their tool of choice.  I’m not the kind of person who spends much time using a hammer but the man next to me worked with wood and he said it was perfectly balanced.  And there was a sense in that of things echoing down the ages, of skills being timeless and some connections that don’t need words to be felt.

As well as trying to understand the past I was searching for a sense of connectedness with one of my characters. I’m currently working on Storm Witch, the second of the Spellworker Chronicles books, and without really thinking through the ramifications of this, have made one of my characters an archaeologist working at the Ness of Brodgar dig.  Having actually seen the dig in action has given me a better idea of what he’d be doing but it’s also highlighted to me the vast gaps in my knowledge about archaeology, the Neolithic and how digs actually work.  After all, I’d never have dreamed that they have stacks and stacks of tyres lying around ready to be used to cover over the site at the end of the season until they can start again next year.  I’ve a lot more research to do but at least I’ve got an image in my mind to fall back on now.  And if you read Storm Witch when it’s published don’t be surprised if it’s always a dreich day at the archaeological dig.

If you’d like to know proper historical fact about the Ness of Brodgar dig then you can find it at http://www.orkneyjar.com/archaeology/nessofbrodgar/  The BBC have been making a series of 3 programme about this site and the Links of Noltland on Westray called ‘Operation Orkney’ which will be shown in late autumn/early winter so Neil Oliver will be available to explain all of this far more competently than I ever could.

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Loch of Stenness at sunset

My turn on the Lovely Blog Hop

I’ve been asked by my fabulous friend, Jessica Redland, to take part in the Lovely Blog Hop where writers talk about some of the things which have shaped their lives and their writing.  Jessica lives not far from me in Scarborough and we often meet up for cake and to talk about writing.  Her first novel, Searching for Steven, a charming romantic comedy set in a fictional town on the Yorkshire coast is out on 3rd June and is available for pre-order here.  You can read Julie’s blog here

Now as anyone who knows me well is aware I’m not all that good at sharing information about myself so the Lovely Blog Hop is a bit of tough one for me as it involves talking about myself. A lot.  I’ll do my best but if I wander off a bit then I apologise in advance!

First Memory

IMG_0780My first really clear memory is from when we moved to York when I was nearly 4.  The day we moved into the new house our new next door neighbour walked up through the garden and knocked on the back door.  It seemed like she was completely surrounded by girls and my Mum said ‘Are these all yours?’  Only two of them belonged to our neighbour.  The other six or seven lived around and about.  Our neighbour said, ‘does she want to come out to play?’ (I must have been too little for people to actually ask me a question) and Mum must have said ‘yes’ because that was it really.  My parents say that I really only came home for meals and to sleep for the next five years or so.  I spent the rest of my time out playing with the girls I met on that first day.

Books

I’ve always loved books and my parents said that I was never hard to entertain once I’d learned to read (that could also have been because I was hardly ever at home!) I read Enid Blyton, as many pony books as I could get my hands on and all of the Swallows & Amazons series.  My Dad still had his copies of those and they now stand proudly on my bookshelf waiting to be handed on to my nephew when he’s old enough. IMG_0782

In my twenties I read the classics and actually waded through War & Peace which took me almost a year.  I adore Jane Austen and Persuasion is one of my all time favourites.  These days I rarely have the energy for serious literature and read entirely for entertainment.  At the moment I’m reading Stoner by John Williams for my book club and Jeremy Poldark by Winston Graham for a bit of light relief.

Libraries

IMG_0781Mum and Dad took me to the library from a very early age and for a while in my teens I wanted to be a librarian.  Somewhat to my regret, I grew out of that idea but I still think it would be a lovely job.  The libraries in York have always been very good and have survived relatively unscathed from recent cuts.  I’m extremely grateful for the huge range of books that they’ve been able to lend me whilst I’ve been writing Beltane and Lughnasa.  From books about witchcraft and druids (which generated some interesting looks from the library assistants, I can tell you!) to tomes on the history of Glastonbury and the islands of Orkney they’ve hardly ever let me down.

What’s your passion?

Writing is my greatest passion but I’m going to talk about that later so I’ll have to find another one.  Would Ross Poldark sound too shallow?  Yes? Alright, I’ll try again…

Loch of Stenness at sunset
Loch of Stenness at sunset

I love folk music and going to folk gigs.  I’m pretty obsessed with Orkney at the moment, does that count?  Oh and I’m passionate about Yorkshire and will bang on about how amazing ‘God’s Own County’ is even though I’m not strictly speaking a true Yorkshire woman as I wasn’t actually born here.

Learning

I was a bit of a girly swot when I was younger.  I got decent O’ levels, rather embarrassingly good A’ levels and a competent degree.  I’ve always enjoyed learning and these days I get to impose my love of learning on students as I tutor at the university one day a week.  The thing I’m really loving at the moment is seeing how my nephew and godson learn about the world.  Nephew’s favourite word is currently ‘why’ and he simply will not give up.  If you answer a question and he’s not happy with the reply then he’ll say ‘why’ again and again until you come up with something better.  To be honest, he’s tougher to please than the undergraduates.  At least with them I’m allowed to tell them to go away and look it up for themselves!

Writing

IMG_0024 (2)I tried to write my first novel when I was eight.  It was a Famous Five type adventure with added ponies.  I’m absolutely sure it was terrible but it was the start of my desire to write and I’ve known since then that I wanted to be a writer.  I started writing seriously five years ago and I absolutely love it.  I’m a much happier person since then.  It’s a wonderful thing to have something in my life that I’m absolutely passionate about and makes me happy and it’s got me through some very testing times in the past few years.  I’m currently taking a break from my second novel, Lughnasa to write a steampunk novella set in Whitby.  With luck that will be ready to be published in the late summer.

This is the point where I’m supposed to hand over to another writer to take the Lovely Blog Hop forward but everyone I know has either already done it or is too busy.  Instead I’m going to suggest that you might like to read Sharon Booth’s turn on the Lovely Blog Hop which you can find here.  But if you’re reading this and thinking ‘I’d like a go at that Lovely Blog Hop’ then do please let me know and I’ll pass the (metaphorical) baton to you.

Fictional Yorkshire

sharon-cover-ebookI’ve just read a lovely novel set in ‘God’s Own County’ (which is what Yorkshire folk call the place where they live). It’s ‘There Must Be An Angel’ by Sharon Booth which is set in the fictional village of Kearton Bay which is based on Robin’s Hood Bay on the North Yorkshire coast.  For me there’s something wonderful about reading about somewhere I know.  It adds another dimension to a novel as I get to see somewhere familiar through someone else’s eyes.

Robin Hood’s Bay is a fabulous place, a village built on a ridiculously steep hill with a history of smuggling.  The name is apparently a bit misleading as they say Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest fame never went there.   Reading Sharon’s book I could imagine the village that I know filled with the wonderful cast of characters that she’s created.  They’re the kind of warm, interesting people that I like to think live in such a wonderful location.

Barley Hall Interior

Setting is really important to me when I read and when I write.  ‘Sovereign’ by CJ Sampson is set in York in 1541 when Henry the Eight visited the city.  I know some people found the historical details a bit heavy handed but I loved reading about places that are familiar to me now through the lens of historical fiction.  In the acknowledgements CJ Sampson talked about how visiting Barley Hall in York had helped his research.  I used to be a volunteer guide at Barley Hall and as I’d read the book I’d thought that the lawyer’s house seemed a bit familiar. It was great to know that Barley Hall had been his inspiration.

However if you’re going to use this city or county then you have to get it right.  I’ve read a couple of books where authors clearly don’t know York very well.  Alleys mysteriously appear where they don’t exist, characters walk down the wrong streets to get to where they’re going.  I’ve been known to put books down and never pick them up again for errors like that.  A friend stopped read Danny Wallace’s ‘Charlotte Street’ even though she was enjoying it because, as a regular visitor to Whitby, she knew there wasn’t a McDonald’s and couldn’t forgive that mistake.

Robin Hood's Bay
Robin Hood’s Bay

As I have a ridiculously overambitious tendency to write about places where I don’t live (so far Glastonbury and Orkney) in I’m very aware of the risks of making those kinds of mistakes.  You don’t want to jolt your reader out of your fictional world by getting something like that wrong.  I’m starting to think that Sharon’s approach is the right one and I may be fictionalising all my settings in the future.  But then, if I’d made up a place like Glastonbury, who’d have believed me?

You can buy ‘There Must Be An Angel’ by Sharon Booth here and read my Goodreads review here.