Part 2 – The Ring of Brodgar

Standing stones 2 – The Ring of Brodgar
I stick to the smaller roads heading north, via Inverness and Bonor Bridge. Thick banks of gorse line the single track roads, a profusion of mustard yellow. Gorse, often known as whin in Scotland was crushed and used as a winter feed for cattle. Highly flammable it was used in bread ovens to raise the baking temperature. Gorse looks very similar to broom, but broom lacks the unforgiving thorns and tend to flower a little later.

I know I am touring round some of the oldest stone circles in Scotland but I visit an old cemetery and find a very sad reminder of a more recent times. Often know as the Great War, the first world war which took place between 1914 and 1918, reaped a grim harvest of young men from Scotland. Whole families and sometimes whole villages were decimated.

Pushing on I spy a bit of a folly in Lairg. Everyone dreams of having their own house on an island; well, someone has just that in Lairg. Said to belong to the Broons, it might just be a bit on the small side for me.

I’d never driven the wonderful road between Lairg and Bettyshill before, but what a magical find. I spot a black throated diver, a kind of diving bird known as a loon in Canada, due to its haunting cry. I also come across another blot in our history. While the Great War took its toll a hundred years ago, a hundred years before that, around 1816, the Highland Clearances were well on their way. People were forced off the land to make room for sheep. I spoke to a class this week who were looking at the good and bad aspects. I presumed there were only bad implications, but the children decided that some people who left, although sad to leave their homeland, gained many more opportunities abroad than they would have done here.

The Ring of Brodgar is situated in the Orkney Isles. Which means a ferry trip over one of the roughest pieces of water around the British Isles. However, today it is almost flat calm and I get to see all kinds of wildlife on the 1.5hr trip. Puffins scuttle across the front of the ship and there are razorbills, guillemots, giant skuas, fulmars and gannets everywhere. I even get a glimpse of a Minkie Whale.
A crowd gathers as we pass the Old Man of Hoy. A giant stack of red sandstone that today, stands proud of the mist like some monster of the deep that’s risen from its lair. It looks like something out of a King Kong movie.

Once safely into the port of Stromness, I grab my bags and walk to the Primary school. Again, I want to see if I can spark the children’s imagination and harvest some legends. The school is just three years old and Neil MacIntosh, the head teacher, shows me round. The building is amazing and the classes have an uninterrupted view of the sea and the ferry port.

Unsurprisingly, the children are fantastic and the P 6 and 7’s are really engaged, drawing their new creatures and telling me some of the local legends that surround Brodgar. Here are three crackers from the children of Stromness Primary School. Listen out for Aiden’s ‘Witchcraft – Stone’ story. He had the class in fits of laughter.

After the school, I grab a bite to eat and then catch the bus to Brodgar. I pass the ring of Stennes on the way down the peninsula and stand beside a stone that must be almost 20 feet high. One of the stones has graffiti on there from the 1800’s.
I pass a newly excavated Neolithic palace and reach the Ring of Brodgar. This is a ring of stones with a diameter of 104 meters. Only 27 out of the original 60 stones remain in place, but it is still a very awe inspiring and magical place. The ring of stones sits in the epicentre of a huge basin, the hills of Orkney forming their own outer ring in the distance.

Features and Creatures

Today’s feature has to be The Old Man of Hoy.
Almost 500 feet high, this tower of stone sits off the coast of the island of Hoy. It was only created, by erosion, about 260 years ago and may, in fact, fall into the sea at any moment. It was first climbed in 1966 by Chris Bonnington, Rusty Baille and Tom Patey. Sir Chris Bonnington became the Old Man of Hoy when he climbed that stack again in 2014. He was 80 years old.

Today’s creature is the Minke Whale. I spotted one on the ferry over to Orkney but the last time I did the trip, which was many years ago, I spotted a Killer Whale. Killer Whales sometimes hunt Minke whales, so I hope this one will stay safe. Our second smallest whale, the Minke grows to about 8 meters in length and they can live for as much as 60 years, assuming they avoid predators and whalers.

Just a reminder that Strident Publishing will be sponsoring a children’s book pack which will be delivered to the school that produces the best story. The story must use a ring of stones as it’s starting point and be about a page long. Any school that has taken part in my trip or that has tuned into this video diary can take part. Good luck.

Part 1 – Tomnaverie

Part 1 of the Standing Stones of Scotland – with Paul Murdoch

After winding my way up from Glasgow, through Perth and Dundee, I veer off the main A90 and meander over the hills that lead down to the River Dee and the town of Aboyne. I want to visit the stone circle at Tomnaverie the day before my first school visit. See where they sit in relation to the surrounding countryside. Fairly close to the town of Tarland, the Tomnaverie Stone Circle is situated at the top of a small hill that has an excellent 360-degree view of the whole region.

Smaller than I imagined, Tomnaverie is still very neatly set out with the main feature being two tall pillars that flank a huge horizontal block. There is evidence of previous fires around this block and it has been suggested that it was used for burial rites or even human sacrifice. Scary stuff, but the weather is warm, and I spot a kestrel (Picture) hovering over the fields beside the car park. Skylarks sing their hearts out and supply a wonderful soundscape, only interrupted by the occasional call of a cuckoo (Picture), somewhere off in the distance.

The site seems to have been built at the edge of cultivated land and the earliest recorded feature is that large recumbent stone that follows the crest of Lochnagair, a hill about twenty miles away. This great stone would have highlighted the full moon around midsummer’s day, so there may have been some kind of link with the skies.

It is thought that humans inhabited Scotland as much 750,000 years ago. But their time here was intermittent. Extreme weather and climate change often forced them back out again. Eventually, between 14000 – 12000 years ago the great sheets of ice that marked Scotland’s last Ice Age were melting away; and people, who looked pretty similar to you and me, began moving into the newly uncovered areas. Sea levels were much lower and the UK was still joined on to the rest of Europe right up until about 8000 years ago. At this point the sea level rose enough to separate us from the rest of Europe. A thousand years after this, 7000 years ago, the people who inhabited Scotland, changed from being hunter gatherers to farmers. They became more settled and organised. It is somewhere between this point and 5000 years ago that the stone circles were erected.

The next day I visited Aboyne Primary School and addressed a packed assembly of P5,6 and 7s. I am no historian. Certainly not an expert on standing stones, but we all had great fun talking about them.

Strangely, if we look at other parts of the world, the people around that time were building their own stone structures all over the place. The pyramids in Egypt (North Africa) are thought to be about the same age as most of the Scottish standing stones, as are the pyramids recently discovered in Brazil (South America). What was going on? Why all the fuss back then? We may never know, but we are left with some amazing structures to wonder at.

Anyway, I’m getting away from the main reason I am doing this trip. Yes… to inform, a bit, but it is mostly to inspire. You see, a ring of stones inspired me to write the first page of my first ever book – Talisman. And I am hoping that I can share some of my writing techniques with the children I visit; so that they, in turn, can write their own story using the standing stones as a starting point.

So, I soon delve into building up a character, something that may have come out of Tomnaverie. We used our imagination as a big group to make up a newly named monster. The children had great fun drawing this new creature of the stones and, in their classes, they added all sorts of features and special adaptations. Everyone was suddenly shouting out ideas and assigning their creature special powers. We talked about what it might eat, what it might smells like and even what it would sound like.

Here are some of the creatures the children at Aboyne came up with… All different. All inspired by the stones on Tomnaverie, and well on their way to being fully formed characters.

We also talked about some of the legends that surround the stones at Tomnaveri, and while doing this, I discovered that the children knew about a site that was even closer to their school. A place called The Devil’s Claw. Set in a forest, it seems to have a few of it’s own legends. Here are a few of the children telling us about those. ……..

The children also discussed how they might begin their own story. Here again, is a snippet of our discussion.

Later that same day I visited Braehead Primary School, next to the River Don, north of Aberdeen. Here the children discussed the stone circles again, and then, after hearing a reading from Talisman about a gargoyle, they began to design their own creature, give it characteristics and then think about their own stories.

A good tip when writing a story is to read it out loud. This helps you decide where the punctuation should be. I always think of punctuation as a way of letting the story breathe. It should flow as you read it. You should be able to tell your story without running out of breath. Where there is a short pause, insert a comma. In my opinion, a sentence that is too long can draw excitement away from the story.

Features and Creatures.

I always like to look at anything interesting along the way. Animals, birds, special places etc.

I’m going to tell you a little about the River Dee.

The river Dee runs to the south of the city of Aberdeen. By the time it reaches Aberdeen, it will have dropped over 3500 feet from the Cairngorm Mountains and will have travelled about 120 miles. It is especially rich in salmon and wildlife and the area that surrounds it it often known as Royal Deeside, because Queen Victoria loved the are so much and built Balmoral Castle on its banks.

Aberdeen is flanked by two rivers. Can you name the other river, to the north of Aberdeen?

The creature for this blog is the Kestrel.

My Tiffy and Toffy picture books for younger children feature a kestrel called Kenny Kestrel, but the real-life bird is just as clever and has a few interesting adaptations for hunting mice and voles. Kestrels can hover in one place, beating their wings fast and adjusting to compensate for the wind. They have fantastic eyesight and can see in ultra violet spectrum which lets them pick out the pee trails of their prey. Voles and mice are constantly urinating to mark their territory and this can, unfortunately, uncover their whereabouts. The male and female birds are very similar but the male has a slate grey head and tail, while the female has a brown striped head and tail.

The Challenges for attached to this blog are –

1. When did humans first inhabit the UK?
2. When did people start building great stone features all over the world?
3. What is the river called that runs north of Aberdeen?
4. What gender is the kestrel holding the mouse in the last picture?

An Introduction to THE STONES TOUR…

I will be visiting seven schools that are close to some of our most mystical sites. Local children will tell us what legends surround the ancient circles and how these places spark their imagination and drive their creativity.

I will cover over 750 miles of Scotland’s most beautiful countryside in my trusty, or should I say, ‘rusty’ camper-van. I’ll take six ferry journeys and spend 10 nights away from home.

I have my recording equipment, my camera, my books and enough food to cover the trip.

Like my Bali trip last year, I want to take note of any interesting features and creatures I see along the way. Scotland is a wonderful country with amazing wildlife and a fascinating history.

Part 1 of the video diary will be posted on the 23rd of May

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