Orkney Elementals – Aether – Part the 1st

As you have probably already worked out from the title of this post this final Orkney Elemental which covers Aether is actually going to spill over into more than one post.  I suppose in many ways that is fitting as while it is an element rarely mentioned these days it is woven unseen and maybe unknown through everything in Orkney, for even a visit to the distillery will give you a spiritual side to the island which has nothing to do with a proof rating.  The value of the unseen tendrils which bind the terrestrial with the aether shout from every corner of the particle, fire, earth and air that make up the islands.

I have mentioned already the Ring of Brodgar, but they are far from the only standing stones in Orkney, indeed you don’t need to go far indeed to discover them, some still standing, many now lying flat or long moved to make walls or floors or even stone roofs, indeed I would only be slightly stretching a point to say they were as numerous as the oyster catchers.

Pool of Cletts Standing StoneSome like this one at the Pool of Cletts over look the sea, some stand further inland, all keep their secrets locked tightly within their ancient forms.  Of course there is the possibility that these sentinels have nothing at all to do with Aether and I should have included them in some other post.  For there are a whole hosts of possibilities, like some long forgotten game, or boundary markers, or works of art that once where painted, or symbols of power, or indeed part of some ceremonial worship or memorial to the dead in which case they are in the correct post.  While no one can be certain that worship actually took place at the Tomb of the Eagles, it is agreed that it was a burial site and thus is right to include within this post.  Like Maeshowe exactly how the ancients used it is speculation, but it would appear that they didn’t just bury their dead and then leave them.

Tomb of the EaglesThe tomb which contains more chambers than this one was found with both human and eagle remains within it and it is believed that, as it is placed high on the cliffs on the southern coast of South Ronaldsay, it was a place of sky burials a practice which, while it might offend some western sensibilities, is still practiced in Tibet.  You can read about the Tomb of the Eagles here, and more about sky burials here.

If you ever take the passenger ferry from John o’Groats to Orkney you will land not far from St Mary’s Auld Kirk, and most possibly pass this by as a sweet old church and nothing more.  We on the other hand went to see it only to discover it had been badly damaged by winter storms and has been closed up for the foreseeable future.

St Mary's Auld KirkIt is reputed to be the site of one of the earliest chapels in Scotland, while inside there is a curious stone which appears to have footprints in it.  A similar stone is on Dunadd Fort in Kilmartin Glen a lot further south in Argyll and I for one was curious to see this one also, but alas it was not to be.  I do fear that the future of St Mary’s Auld Kirk is dire, I understand why, but hope that something might be done to at least secure it so that visitors can get beyond the graveyard walls.

Another old church we visited was at Orphir and its round kirk.

Orphir round kirkThe area was a center of power for the Viking Earls.  While another church was later built on the site, nothing but the graveyard of that remains which now encircles its older sister.

Regular readers of this blog will know I enjoy going round graveyards and reading the various memorials. They never cease to surprise, amuse and make me stop and say a peedie (Orcadian word for wee, which in turn is the Scottish word for small) prayer.  So, firstly something I had never come across before but which appears to be common in Orkney.

Over ThereGravestones which still have space on them stand beside neighbours which part way down suddenly have a name of someone who is buried in the neighbouring plot with a finger pointing to the spot.  The most logical conclusion I came to was that it was it was something to do with extended family, buried with the family you are born into but mentioned on the stone of the family you married into, and while the names on this gravestone seem to suggest some kind of family link it isn’t that one.  It was Walls’ in the adjoining plot with space on the stone but Hughiana was buried ‘near this place’ but mentioned on this memorial.

While this gravestone will remain a favorite of mine.  I offer you the picture without comment – the words below are what the stone says:

Orphir ministers gravestone

by the Free Church congregation
in memory of
the Reverend Archibald Duncan
their first minister
who after a faithful labourious
and acceptable ministry
of 28 years, died suddenly,
on his way to discharge pastoral work,
on the 31st January 1872
aged 66

There are also several gravestones which had obviously been painted a dusky blue and had a cameo of an angel on them (one of which will appear as a Sunday angel in the future) like Jasperware.  However why this should be particular to this graveyard I have no idea, maybe someone had seen in somewhere on their travels seen it and brought the idea back.

The original Round Kirk is said to be a thanksgiving for the safe return of Earl Hakon from the Crusades and is in the style of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  However it is also interesting to note why it is said he went on pilgrimage in the first place.  Hakon was the one who having arranged for Magnus’ murder became his successor.  Not long after Magnus died a cult around him grew up and it is said that Hakon in penitence for his terrible crime went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  The kirk also became the bloody backdrop for one of the Orkneyinga sagas as power struggles raged and assassins waited in the dark church for others to come to prayers.  Today it is peaceful on its spot overlooking the sea.

Orphir Round KirkI intend to read the Orkneyinga sagas for myself but for now here is a rather telling reference to their way of living the aether elemental:

“They kept drinking till Vespers and when the Earl went out Svein Asleifson walked ahead of him, but Svein Breast-Rope stayed behind, still drinking.”

The Orkneyinga Saga

Beside the church there is a Viking drinking hall or Bu and it would appear that while they liked their drink they still, on the whole, were prepared to interrupt their drinking for the regular prayers of the church.

In one of my earlier post on the element fire I mentioned the Broch of Gurness, while we do not know whether or not the Vikings knew anything of the history of this site, it would appear that they did recognize and acknowledge its place in this element of aether as they reused the site for their own burials as this stone lined Viking gave attests.

Viking Stone Lined Grave at Broch of GurnessWhile the woman who was buried here is unknown and her treasures restrained, the most famous Viking in Orkney is probably St Magnus, after whom the Cathedral in Kirkwall is dedicated a beautiful peaceful and totally charming gem, of which more of in part 2.

3 thoughts on “Orkney Elementals – Aether – Part the 1st

  1. Two of my loves also-Orkney, and old graveyards. Also I plan to read the Sagas at some point.
    You are starting to give me my ‘Orkney Itch’- it has been two years!


    • It hasn’t even been two months for me and I am itching to get back! As for the Sagas I now have the book, just got to find the time to read them.


      • In my absence, particularly on cold, wet nights, I like to read George Mackay Brown and it takes me back there. Guess it doesn’t fit as well with hot, sunny days.


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