Neolithic Orkney—Literature on Location

Ring of Brodgar

The forecast was for 11⁰C, but I doubt it rose past 5⁰. The clouds were low; the sleet piercing; the wind penetrating—a perfect day to start exploring Neolithic Orkney.

It was the first time I’d physically set foot on the Orkney island of Mainland, but the almost treeless landscape already felt familiar. My reading had taken me there on several previous occasions.

I often begin to know a place through reading, whether it’s 19th century Dorset in Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures or 14th century London in Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours or 7th century Northumbria in Nicola Griffith’s Hild.

And so, before visiting the Orkneys, I had searched out books that would awaken my senses to place and landscape, climate and peoples. I wanted to reach back into Orkney history. I reached for fiction. ‘Factual’ histories are often rife with gaps and biases; historical fiction operates in time’s spaces and silences. Done well, historical fiction fills the gaps and redresses the biases; it shapes conceivable lives and probable landscapes.

Cover image courtesy of Kelpies

The first book I turned to on my Orkney discovery trail was Kathleen Fidler’s The Boy with the Bronze Axe (originally published in 1968). It introduced me to Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar and the burial mound of Maeshowe at a time when each was central to the life of Neolithic human communities.

Fidler, the author of over 80 books for children, prefaces The Boy with the Bronze Axe with some background information. ‘In the winter of 1850’, she writes, ‘a terrible storm struck the coasts of the Orkney Isles’. The storm ‘washed away part of the high sand dunes that fringed the Bay of Skaill and laid bare the ruins of some ancient dwellings’. That much is fact, detailed in historical records. Fidler bookends that 1850  storm with the possibility of another storm, thousands of years earlier, in which the dwellings might, just as suddenly, have been filled ‘by sand dunes moving like the waves of the sea’.

Fidler takes her readers back to the late Stone Age, on the cusp of the Bronze Age. Siblings Kali and Brockan, from the community at Skara Brae, are rescued from a rising tide by an unknown visitor from the south—Tenko, the boy bearing the bronze axe.

House #1, Skara Brae

Fidler uses the outsider’s viewpoint to illuminate life at Skara Brae.

Inside Kali and Brockan’s home, Tenko observes the ‘stone bed like a trough … filled with heather and bracken’, and the ‘stone dresser built of flat slabs resting on pillars of stone’. En route to the Ring of Brodgar, Kali’s father explains to Tenko that the quarry they pass at Bookan is where he ‘split off the great stone’ that will be added to the incomplete Ring.


And on his first visit to Maeshowe, Tenko marvels at the ‘great green mound … shaped like a cone’, rising high above the surrounding plain’. Proceeding down Maeshowe’s low, narrow tunnel, Tenko catches his breath as he enters the ‘great square chamber’, its ‘stone slabs placed one above the other, with edges projecting to make a beehive roof’.

My reading creates pictures of life at Skara Brae in my mind. I am ready to translate Fidler’s fictional world—replete with flint scrapers, bone needles, broken beads, carved stone balls, and pottery shards—into a physical encounter. When I visit the site in person, the ancient remains are  immediately familiar (and fancifully inhabited).

Of course, I continue to learn.

Standing stone, Stenness

Back home in Australia, I read more. Now—finally—I turn to factual accounts, initially to UNESCO’s World Heritage listing for the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The property’s inscription, dated December 1999, begins: ‘The group of Neolithic monuments on Orkney consists of a large chambered tomb (Maeshowe), two ceremonial stone circles (the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar) and a settlement (Skara Brae), together with a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites … Through the combination of ceremonial, funerary and domestic sites, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney bears a unique testimony to a cultural tradition that flourished between about 3000 BC and 2000 BC.’

There are many ways of entering a landscape; of learning a place. As I get to know Neolithic Orkney, I am slowly building layers—just like the slabs that make up the walls of Maeshowe. Layers of fiction and memory and fact. Layers both real and imagined. More strata will be added but, for me, fiction provided a good starting point.

Links and Sources

Standing stones, Stenness, May 2019

Christmas Cakes of Yesteryear

The very first entry in my grandmother’s battered, handwritten recipe book is for a ‘Good Xmas Cake’.

Grammo probably began her recipe collection around the time of her marriage in 1919; the weights and measures are recorded in Imperial units (pounds and ounces, pints and gills) and the somewhat vague ‘breakfast cup’.

Weights and Measures_1

Weights & Measures

Good Xmas Cake

The recipe for the ‘Good Xmas Cake’ provides specific quantities of flour, butter, sugar, currants, raisins, lemon peel, almonds, spice and baking powder, along with ‘a little treacle to darken it’ and ‘8 to 20 eggs’. Now, as my family will attest, I am no great cook but, even to me, a range between 8 and 20 eggs seems, pardon the pun, a recipe for disaster. Did the number of eggs depend on how the chooks were laying? I don’t know (and I’m not about to experiment with the two extremes of eggs numbers to test the end result.)

Good Xmas Cake_cropped_1

‘Good Xmas Cake’

Following the ingredients list are these eight words:

Make and bake the same as pound cake.

As luck would have it, the very next recipe in Grammo’s well-thumbed exercise book is for a ‘Prize Pound Cake’. Here are the complete instructions that follow the ingredient list: ‘bake 2 hours in a moderate oven’. Combine that with the Christmas cake’s method and you have a total of fifteen words to guide your baking endeavours.

I’ve just checked one of my daughter’s (many) cookery books for a contemporary Christmas cake recipe. The particular book I’ve selected (typical of today’s culinary publications) is bound in a hard cover, features a raft of ornamental typefaces and illustrations, and is replete with colour photography. The Christmas cake recipe, which makes a single ‘13cm (5in) round cake’, comprises an introductory history, 30 ingredients, ‘bakery notes’ and a method. The latter is a 500-word miasma of pouring, stirring, mixing, adding, incorporating and combining, not to mention the baking, inverting, cooling and covering.

Yesterday’s cooks learnt all they needed to know about ‘method’ at their mother’s knee. Today’s depend on the wisdom of celebrity chefs.

My grandmother’s cake would have fed a substantial Christmas crowd. It used 2 ½ lbs (1.1 kgs) of flour and 2 lbs (0.9 kg) of sugar. The recipe in my daughter’s book—with three times the number of ingredients—requires just 2 oz (55 gms) each of flour and sugar. It seems the complexity of recipes has swollen in inverse proportion to the number of guests being fed.

Mrs M’s recipe

About a third of the way through Grammo’s old exercise book, after the recipes for feather cake and angel’s food and war loaf and gem scones, there is a second Christmas cake recipe. This one is attributed to Mrs M (quite possibly my mother’s mother-in-law, my paternal grandmother). The entry was probably recorded in the early 1940s but, further than that, its provenance is unknown to me. The recipe lists the same basic ingredients as the ‘Good Xmas Cake’, but includes substantially more fruit.

Mrs M’s recipe requires only half the first recipe’s quantity of flour, butter and sugar, but when it comes to fruit, it’s a case of ‘more is better’. The volume of currants, raisins and peel matches that of the ‘Good Xmas Cake’ (effectively doubling the ratio to the basic cake ingredients), and it then adds a pound of dates, a pound of sultanas, and an undefined measure of cherries. (It’s worth noting that there are no instructions for baking. At this stage, my grandmother is clearly a competent cook and has dispensed with even fifteen words of guidance.)

Christmas cake_Mrs M

Mrs M’s ‘Christmas Cake’

It could be that Mrs M’s recipe is a post-depression (and even a post- World War II) one and that there is more money available for additional fruit at this time. If ‘Mrs M’ is my paternal grandmother, she certainly didn’t come from a wealthy household—it’s unlikely there would have been any frittering away of hard-earned cash on expensive ingredients. It might also be that the cost of dried fruit has dropped considerably. In 1930, for instance, currants cost 8-9 pence per pound; in 1942, the cost had halved following the fixing of prices by the Fruit Industry Sugar Concession Committee.

A bygone era

I suspect the days of handwritten recipe books are now gone. My mother followed her mother’s example of recording her own recipes, but with a ‘modern’ twist. Instead of writing recipes in an exercise book, mum typed hers on 3” x 5”, colour-coded (for mains, desserts, cakes/slices, jams, etc) cards. She stored them alphabetically in a hinged, metal filing tin, and used a system of ticks (1, 2 or 3) to indicate a recipe’s success.

Mum's recipe file

My mother’s recipe card file (right) and my smaller version (left).

Mum painstakingly reproduced many of these recipe cards (filed in a slightly smaller tin) as pre-wedding gift to me. It’s not a tradition I intend to continue. This week, when my affianced son required copies of family Christmas recipes—yo yos, cheese straws, hedgehog—I simply plucked the relevant card from the metal tin, took a photo on my mobile phone, and pressed ‘send’.

Links and sources