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Scotland Day Five - Returning

Sunrise is my favorite time to go out for landscape photography. There is a quiet that has settled through the night that still rests in that time of first light. As the light begins to return, there is an anticipation, a great welcoming. The light is returning back to the earth and the earth awakes. It always feels magical. The air is usually cold and crisp, and I'm almost always alone to witness this transition into day.

I started my day before dawn. I had chosen an airbnb that was ten minutes from where I wanted to start my day - The Stones of Brodgar.

The second reason I wanted to visit Orkney was for its incredible history. There is an area of the main island called "The Heart of Neolithic Orkney" and it is a Unesco site. The islands are scattered with many ceremonial sites, burial chambers, and settlements dating back 5,000 years. There is also a huge Viking presence on the islands as they settled in the area starting in the 8th century.

This stone circle, older than Stonehenge, sits nestled on a tiny strip of earth between two lochs. It is part of the Ness of Brodgar, a huge complex of neolithic ceremonial sites more recently discovered that is still being excavated. The circle is about 340 feet wide and is the largest stone circle in the British Isles.

I parked and started the walk over to the stones. It was still pretty dark, first light had technically already begun, but it was incredibly windy and overcast, a heavy mist falling. I walked up the hill to the stones right as it was getting light enough to see them in their fullness.

I wrote a little while later:

"It is magnificent. I thought for some reason it would not be as impressive as it seemed. Surely it couldn't be so large, or maybe the stones would be disjointed and it wouldn't actually be such a perfect circle. No, it is perfection. I could sense the magic of this place as soon as I approached it, and seeing these stones in their perfect ring, as I stood here all alone, the only one to witness them in this first light, the feeling was just indescribable.

The light is diffused here, but the purple and orange of the heather is so vibrant. The age-old moss on the stones nearly glows. It is so mystical.

. . .

You can only walk the outer ring today. It wraps around a ditch that protects the circle. It felt right to only walk the outer ring - I was just an observer here, not a participant in this grand display. The stones were not meant for me, or even for our time. They are impossible for us to even comprehend now as we're so removed from their source, we can only witness."

The wind picked up even more and it was quite surreal to be in such a place with the wind howling all around me. The rain started to pick up too, so I went back to my car and drove across the small isthmus over to a different set of standing stones - the Stones of Stenness. They are even older and much taller and sit right up next to one of the lochs. There are fewer stones left here, some had fallen or were taken away over the years. You could get up close to these stones though and even touch them. They seem as old as the earth itself, the wind-carved rock covered in moss sitting close to the sea, it was hard to imagine they'd been placed there by men.

Eventually I made my way back to Brodgar - I'd only walked a quarter of the way around the stones before, and I wanted to take them all in. When I arrived this time, there were two landscapers there for a short while. After they left it was just me again, alone with the stones. I walked around the entire circle slowly, and then on a second pass I ventured out to one of the burial mounds on the perimeter of the area to see the stones from further back. Eventually after one more lap, I stood at the western-facing stone and just took it all in for a few more moments. I looked for the other cardinal stones, none of them seemed any more significant than any other in the circle. I pondered what this place was for. I felt the power of this place. Did it come from just knowing there was a history here, or was the power from the earth itself? This time I felt ready to leave, just simply at peace having experienced such a place.

I next went to Maeshowe Chambered Cairn. This was older even than the stones, still part of the Ness of Brodgar. It too, was incredible. While it looks like one, they've never found proof of it being a burial chamber. So far as they can tell, it was built to track time.

To enter the chamber, you go through a short 4 foot tall tunnel that is about 50 feet long. It opens up into a 20 foot tall round chamber.

That tunnel was designed perfectly so that during the few days around the winter solstice, when the sun is at its lowest in the sky, the light from the sun is at just the right angle to be able to extend that 50 feet. The light shines through the tunnel and lights up the chamber. This would mark for them the return of the light. It meant they had made it through the darkest part of the year. It is believed that they would have then celebrated the return of light to the earth, the blessing of another year, once they saw this moment.

What an incredibly elaborate way to track something we can now track so simply. And yet, this "ease" and "simplicity" we have created in the 21st century has come at a cost. We have lost the ability to deeply know and move with the cycles of the earth and the sun, our lifecycles. We've oversimplified these moments of purity and transition and significance. We have lost that sense of ritual and celebration with our communities. We have lost the sense of connection and purpose and hope.

After Maeshowe, I drove north to the Broch of Gurness, a Pictish settlement that came later on in history during the Iron Age. This broch, or tower, stood in the middle of a well-developed settlement, right on the edge of the Eynhallow Sound that stretches between the main island and the island to the north. The land surrounding this stretch of water is scattered with settlements from this time, suggesting there was a vibrant trade route through the islands.

Next, I drove over to the western edge of the island to the Brough of Birsay. This is a tidal island that can be accessed by foot in low tide by crossing a natural causeway. Gosh this was an incredible island. It is fairly small, you could probably walk most of it by the time you would need to return due to the rising tide. There are just two buildings on the island - a small shack for shelter if you're stuck there during higher tides, and a lighthouse on the other side that faces the open ocean to the west.

The ruins of a Viking settlement sit next to the shack, I milled around though them and talked to another photogapher for a few minutes. I then climbed the big hill to see the lighthouse and over the other side of the island. I eventually climbed back down, part way, and found a spot to sit in the expanse of grass. I'd only seen four others on the island the whole time I was there. It was so quiet and peaceful.

"As I look north, there is nothing there, just an endless expanse of ocean. I know, in the educated part of my mind, that there is more there to the north, but it really seems like this is the edge of the earth. It is the furthest north my eyes have seen and my feet have traveled, so in some ways, it is the edge of my earth.

The sky here feels closer. I watch these whisps of clouds float above me and it feels like I am just missing them when I stretch my hands up to touch them.

. . .

I've lain here a long time, looking north at the sea, the end of my earth. And I don't feel fear of it, that open expanse of water, but I rather a sacred curiosity. A sanctity and reverence for my earth. A deep peace and contentedness and understanding."

That feeling of peace and connectedness and understanding, that feeling of reverence, that is what I was hoping for on this trip. I've had glimpses of those feelings before, but I wanted to soak in those feelings for the entire trip. Here I had gone through some of that process of untangling from the rush of our modern world, and now after spending the last two days finally in solitude and more stillness, establishing a slower pace and turning inward, I was able to start to explore what lies within me, almost dormant waiting for my gentle attention.

I think we can consider consciousness as this ever-expanding or broadening circle. As we grow and evolve, both as individuals and as humankind, the circle widens. But as I walked today through places created by a people lost in time, I questioned if we have really expanded our circle. Are we the better for the types of expansion we've made? We've forgotten what it's like to be human, we've lost touch with our intuition, with our own bodies, with the ways of the earth, the patterns and the cues that nature provides. We doubt ourselves when we think our bodies are trying to tell us something, we've even become fearful of simply spending time in nature or with our own feelings or our own breath. Heck, I'm nervous to even put this all out here for fear that it will all be labeled woo-woo.

But... we come from people who only had their bodies and breath, the earth beneath their feet, the sun in the sky guiding them, day after day, year after year. And they created wonders. There is so much we can see that we've lost from that way of living and being, imagine the things that they knew that we have no idea we've even lost.

In some ways our consciousness expands, but it also contracts. And with it, our spirituality. Our ways of being.

I would have loved to sit on that island forever. I'd move there if I could, but then it wouldn't be so pure and free. I think what enthralled me so much about this place was that it was unblemished. It was still sacred earth, free of our modern interference, free of human inhabitation, it is just purely the earth. I imagine this is what all of the world felt like at one time. Of course I was drawn to it, it's in our genes to crave places like this, to want to return to the earth. These are the places our bodies and souls were made to be in. As natural beings, these places are our home. The earth is our home.

I took my time crossing back, exploring the tide pools and watching the seagulls float about. I appreciated the natural nudge from the earth to tell me to keep going - the tide coming in. There was more to experience.

Once back on the main island, I made a few quick stops. The first to see the Earl of Birsay's palace - a ruin from the 1500s. I then followed the coast going south and stopped in to hike up to Marwick Head and look out over the ocean here too.

I descended and drove on to Skara Brae- my last neolithic stop of the day. This is a settlement built around the time of the Ness of Brodgar, occupied starting in 3180 B.C. It is the most well-preserved neolithic village ever found. It is nestled into the hill, and you walk above it on footpaths that might have been used when it was lived in. I was here as they were closing and one of only a couple of people wandering around.

I walked up to an attendant who was talking to a couple of girls about the site. I could tell he was so excited to share the information and that they did not really care. I gave them space but once they left a few minutes later, I approached him. We ended up talking for quite a while, so long that he had to walk me out because they had thoroughly closed the place. He told me about the Ness of Brodgar and the discoveries being made there, that there are theories that hunters and gatherers and voyagers traveled to this area, for some reason even sought it out, and started to create some of the first known civilizations. People are now seeing that the long-held idea that civilizations started in Britain and spread north isn't correct, the thinking now is that civilizations started in Orkney and spread south from this pivotal point.

The fact that they were able to construct the entire Ness of Brodgar, all of the burial chambers and ceremonial sites and stone circles, places devoted solely to worship and ritual, showed that they were thriving as a civilization. He said they are also finding proof of trade that happened within the area, meaning people from across Europe were seeking this place out too.

"What did these people know back then, why did they choose to settle here? What was the importance that they felt this place held? What was happening here? I trust them to have had a much better sense of their own intuition than we have anymore, so removed from as we are from the earth and its whisperings. They were a people of the earth, of the sun and the moon and the stars, things we can barely recognize now. What did they know about this sacred place?

There are mysteries of this earth far more rewarding, asking to be uncovered. We need just return to the earth."

To close out my day, I went to an area just south of there to walk along the coastline as the sun set. It was a beautiful hike, one of my favorites from the entire trip. The landscape felt massive, pictures can not capture it fully (but I tried). The cliffs were enormous, the waves pummeling against them hundreds of feet down. I hiked out to a sea stack and sat there for a while, again watching the seagulls float around and through the stacks. By then, the sun was setting, another natural cue for me to say goodbye to this final place, and to say goodbye to Orkney and all it had given me. I watched one seabird fly for a while. It stayed in flight for a very long time. When it eventually landed, I got up, knowing I was ready, and started my walk back.


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