ESSAY John Harrison

NWR Issue 97

Islands on the Edge: Orkney

The year is 1153. Earl Harald Maddardson set out for Orkney at Christmas with four ships and a hundred men. He put in at Hamna Voe on the west side of the Mainland of Orkney, and on the thirteenth day of Christmas they travelled on foot to Firth on the east coast. During a storm they took shelter in Maeshowe, a burial chamber, and there two of them went insane, which slowed them down badly. They reached Firth in darkness.

I am sitting in Maeshowe, known to the Norse as Orkhaugr, which summons up the mood of the place better. This, the finest chambered tomb in northwest Europe, is a small, breast-shaped artificial mound. It is the heart of Orkney, one of a treasure trove of Neolithic structures overlooking a narrow isthmus of land between a sea loch and a freshwater loch: a magic place marked out with stone spells.

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