The sign at the Ring of Brodgar, a circle of 4,000-plus-year-old upright stones on the Scottish Isle of Orkney, asks for cooperation with rangers who are trying to manage the flow of visitors. Climate change, the sign says, has caused heavy rains that are eroding the ground around the megaliths; thus the need to control foot traffic for the foreseeable future.
Our group, however, seems to be almost the only visitors at the Ring on this cloudy June morning, and there is no ranger in sight. Monitoring is, sadly, often necessary at such treasured monuments, but those in our group appear to understand the rules and walk with reverence around the grounds.
There is a cathedral-like quality to the Ring, each of the 27 stones jutting skyward 7 feet to 15 feet from the spit of land that separates the Harray and Stenness lochs (lakes). And just as being in a church can provoke existential questions, so do these stones. Why are they here? Who put them here? How did they get here? What is their purpose?
The short answer is that no one knows, and while that is frustrating, we can still speculate and enjoy the results of what must have been herculean amounts of cooperative labor to place these stones in this circle.
It is Day 8 of our 11-day expedition cruise through the Scottish Isles with Adventure Canada (based in Toronto). Our transportation is provided by the Ocean Endeavour, a 190-passenger converted Russian ferry capable of sailing the icy waters of the Northern Hemisphere. Expedition cruising typically means an emphasis on “soft adventure” shore excursions. Because Adventure Canada itineraries often include isolated destinations and tiny villages without docks, passengers are transported to shore via 20 Zodiac rafts.
Most days there are hikes of varying degrees, and at night, experts in history, archeology, biology, wildlife, geology, botany, music, folklore, art and photography give lectures. They also serve as onshore guides.
If it’s ice sculptures and water slides you want, expedition cruising is not for you. But if you want a fun, casual, moderately active and learning-rich experience, then expedition cruising is a good fit.
And don’t worry; there’s plenty of good food, too.
The previous day, the Ocean Endeavor took us to the Isle of Lewis and the Calanais (Callanish) Standing Stones, this collection arranged in a cross. Again, much to think about in this dramatic setting, but I couldn’t help noticing that these multi-million-year-old megaliths, placed perhaps four millennia ago, were just out there – in the open – for any and all to see. No fences, no rangers, no buffer zone, but plenty of nearby sheep, meandering and grazing in that usual nonchalant sheep fashion.
Nearby hills are dotted with private farms, well defined by picturesque dry stone walls (dykes) — land that probably has been in families for generations. Do the owners appreciate the history and mystery that sits so close to their homes? Like the protagonist in “Outlander,” do they ever touch the stones, hoping to be transported to the 18th century?
More questions to ponder — or perhaps we should just be thankful that Scotland has taken care to preserve these traces of a civilization that knew how to build things that could endure for millennia.
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E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.