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.

Maeshowe

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

There and Back Again (with apologies to Bilbo Baggins)

The choice

This is the choice: join the procession of cars and trucks conga-lining up the Hume Freeway, or, catch the train from the station a few minutes’ walk from home.  My destination is Bowral where I will meet a friend travelling from Sydney. It is to be a recreational day; I opt for the train.

My ‘home’ station is Queanbeyan. Built in the 1880s, the station, according to its heritage listing, is ‘a fine example of a Victorian first-class station building … signifying Queanbeyan as an important location in Southern NSW, even prior to the declaration of Canberra as the nation’s capital.’

As Canberra evolved, Queanbeyan regularly suffered the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. It was derided as a shabby ‘struggle town’, eking out its existence on the border of the booming capital. But when I arrive at the station building on the morning of my journey, the sun is bursting warmly above the trees, and there’s a welcome party of magpie song and cherry-plum blossom. The slings and arrows pass me by.

Company on the journey

I board my train at 06:54 precisely and begin the slow crawl through the cuttings and tunnels beside the Molonglo River. I unzip my Kindle from its joey-like pouch. I have two newly downloaded books. One is Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race, the other, Kate Morton’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter. I have been anticipating the latter for some months, but I opt for delayed gratification and choose Clarke’s memoir instead.

Cover image courtesy of Hachette Australia

Clarke’s book seems more fitting in a week dominated by community debates over whether a cartoon in Melbourne’s Herald Sun, depicting tennis player Serena Williams, constitutes racial vilification, and whether, given the choice, Indigenous youths in Western Australia would apparently prefer death by drowning over arrest and incarceration.

In Clarke’s prologue, I read her personal reflection: The cumulative effect of being subject to racially motivated incidents is ‘like a poison: it eats away at the very essence of your being. Left unchecked, it can drive you to the unthinkable’. Just like those boys in Perth.

The lie of the land

The train mooches on, oblivious to the trauma on the page, and rattles into Goulburn. Entering country towns via the railway tracks is like coming into a house through the servants’ entrance. The rail route exposes the face that is usually turned away from public view. We slip past rolling stock and shipping containers and empty wooden pallets, the detritus of industry.

Schlerophyll forest_1

Schlerophyll forest and mproved pasture

Moving off again, we pass a jigsaw landscape of dry sclerophyll forest and ‘improved’ pasture. A green skin lies across the cleared paddocks – a false hope in the midst of drought. A truer story is told in the cracked earth of empty dams. I wonder how we conceived the term ‘improved’ pasture for this denuded land; how we came to think of it as an improvement on the grasses and trees that had adapted to the soil and climate conditions over millennia.

My phone rings as the train pulls into Bowral station. My friend is waiting for me at the junction of Wingecarribee and Bong Bong Streets. Both names reference the region’s Indigenous past. ‘Bong Bong’ is Bowral’s main street, the name linking back to one of the groups of Gundungurra people who call the area home. There used to be a white settlement called Bong Bong, on the road to the present-day town of Moss Vale. The settlement was short-lived, unlike the culture of the people who bear the name.

Book towns

After coffee at The Press Shop and a perusal of the stationery at Bespoke LetterPress, my friend and I make our way into the Spring sunshine. We roam up and down Bong Bong Street, venturing into several bookshops. In the plainly named Bookshop Bowral, I come across a copy of Alex Johnson’s Book Towns: Forty-Five Paradises of the Printed Word. Although Bowral does not appear in the International Organization of Book Towns (IOBT) register (the one Australian entry is Clunes in Victoria), Johnson includes the Southern Highlands town in his list.

According to the IOBT, a book town is ‘a small rural town or village in which second-hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated. Most Book Towns have developed in villages of historic interest or of scenic beauty.’ I think back to the largely unremembered history of the Bong Bong people and the beauty of a dry sclerophyll forest. I’m not sure this is what the IOBT has in mind.

Reading on…

It’s time to re-trace my steps to the railway station and make my way back to Queanbeyan. On the return trip, I pick up Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race once more.

My reading will continue on after my train journey ends. It will be several days before I reach the section in which Clarke recounts being repeatedly given abusive notes during her school days. On one of these notes was ‘a cartoon drawing of a black girl. Her lips were swollen to a ridiculous size. Her afro was tatty and minstrel-esque. The girl’s broad bulbous nose took up half her face…’ I could be reading a description of the cartoon published by the Herald Sun.

The thing is, unlike Clarke, I can put this book down at my reading journey’s end and walk away in the relative security of my white skin. Although, that’s not completely true – every journey changes me, if I let it in.

Links and sources

Bowral Station platform