I'm delighted to have a guest here on the blog! Meet Matt Safford, who is a fellow American with Scottish roots. (He is also a moderator in my Facebook group Scottish Wanderlust!) Matt's blog is called Escaping America and you should most definitely check out more of his posts after you read this one highlighting some of the wonders of Scotland's islands.
Take it away Matt!
Seven Ancient Scottish Island Wonders--and What Keeps Me Coming Back for More
Like Lilly, I found myself irrevocably drawn to Scotland after my first visit-- for me at the very end of 2011. Since then I’ve been back six times, and often find myself exploring the northern and western isles (or the Norðreyjar and Suðreyjar as the colonizing Norse called them).
I also have direct ancestral ties to Scotland. My maternal grandfather was a McWherter, an anglicization of Mac an Chruiteir or "son of the harpist or fiddler." My ancestors were the hereditary musicians and poets to Clan Buchanan.
But it’s less the direct historical ties that draw me to Scotland’s islands and more a sense of wonder at the rich, deep past that’s on display all around. It’s not an exaggeration to say that in many places you’re practically—if not literally—tripping over the past. Go for a drive or a walk in Shetland, Orkney, or the Hebrides and you’re sure to pass a Neolithic burial cairn or village, standing stones, a crannog, an Iron Age broch or wheelhouse, the location of a Pictish symbol stone, an Ogham inscription, the remains of a Norse settlement, an ancient church ruin, or any number of other fascinating examples. Sometimes, like at Jarlshof in Shetland (seen in the image below), you get several of these all in the same place.
For years struggled to encapsulate what exactly keeps drawing me back to Scotland, or at least I did until I heard the opening lines of the Zola Jesus song “Pilot Light” for the first time earlier in 2018.
“We're born with all the wonder we will ever have
And we die with all we escaped with”
I come back to Scotland to rekindle my wonder, hoping to escape this life with something close to what I came into it with. Because while I’ve been to plenty other interesting places, for me Scotland has more concentrated wonder, more fascinating history on full display, and more breathtaking beauty than anywhere else.
Below I’ll touch on seven of my favorite lesser-known (or at least under-appreciated) Scottish island locations, in the hopes of sharing some of that wonder with you. It was tough to choose just seven—seventy would be an easier number. So if you like what you read below, let Lilly know in the comments. I could probably be persuaded to point you all to a few more.
Eilean Dòmhnuill ("The Isle of Donald"), Loch Olabhat, North Uist
Crannogs are artificial islands that served as dwellings, found in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Usually built on lakes, It's thought that their location on water offered an obvious defensive advantage, but that defense was not the primary reason ancient people built these islands/homes. There are hundreds of crannog sites in Scotland and thousands in total, so what makes Eilean Dòmhnuill so special? Its age, in part. Most crannog sites are thought to date to between 800BC and 200AD, while evidence on this island dates it as far back as 3650BC, a millennia before Egypt’s oldest pyramids. And the site was occupied for a very long time. Excavations show wood-lined, turf-walled structures on this islet were built and rebuilt, again and again. In the distant past, the water level was much lower, and the island bigger, making room for a series of houses and buildings--a village rising out of Loch Olabhat that lasted perhaps into the 7th century. If those dates hold up, this site was occupied for over 4,000 years. Today there appears to be no human habitation around for miles. Just soaring birds and heather shaking in the wind. That's fine though. Eilean Dòmhnuill has more than earned its solitude. I was happy to be welcomed as a temporary visitor, becoming a tiny part of the island’s long history.
St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney
The stunning St Magnus church, towering over Kirkwall, is Scotland’s most northerly cathedral. At 881 years old and situated in Orkney’s capital, it serves as center point, both the areas culture, and history. Begun in 1137 when Orkney was ruled by the Norse, the cathedral is dedicated to Earl (later Saint) Magnus, who was killed by order of his cousin and co-ruler, Earl Håkon, after a falling out between the followers of the two rulers.
St Magnus is both one of the most striking buildings I’ve ever visited, and a focal point that ties Orkney’s past and present together in innumerable ways. As impressive as a free visit to the ground floor of the expansive cathedral is, to truly appreciate the building and its long history, I highly recommend the £8.35 tour of the upper floors (held twice a day on Tuesdays and Thursdays), where you’ll get up close to some of the magnificent stained-glass windows and, weather permitting, get to step out on the roof for a stunning view of Kirkwall and the nearby ruins of the Bishop and Earl’s palaces. https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/kirkwall/stmagnus/index.html
Jarlshof, Sumburgh, Shetland
As noted up top, Jarshof is one of the most densely packed archaeological sites in Scotland--or perhaps anywhere. In this photo (some of it obscured by other walls), in chronological order: Bronze and early Iron Age ruins (including a smithy); an Iron Age broch, two late-Iron Age Pictish wheel houses; the remains of a Viking settlement that morphed into a 14th century farm (which is actually a few feet behind where I took this photo); the 16th Century Jarlshof House (the tall castle-like ruin); and the Sumburgh Head lighthouse (built in 1821 and automated in 1991), off in the distance, between the ruined walls of Jarlshof House. That's over 4,000 years of near-constant human habitation, all in this one spot near a rocky beach. It's unclear what drew people to this spot again and again over so many millennia. But whatever it was, I feel it pulling me every time I think about this place.
Teampull na Trionaid (“Trinity Temple), Carinish, North Uist
The ruins of Teampull na Trionaid in Carinsh, North Uist may be the remains Scotland’s oldest university. Local history says it was founded in the 13th century as a monastery and seminary by Beathag, daughter of Somerled (a Norse-Gael warlord and early Lord of the Isles). The site is said to have been expanded and restored in the 14th and 16th centuries. After being destroyed after the reformation, the temple was restored again in the 19th century, and was most-recently touched-up in 2011.
Despite its ruined state and centuries of abandonment as a place of learning, Trinity Temple taught me a lesson about the improved state of human nutrition since the Middle Ages, and how that translates to bone growth--specifically in the extremities. The first time I bent down to enter the chapel, I rammed my head into the still-very-solid lintel stone above the door. A hard lesson from the distant past. https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/northuist/teampullnatrionaid/index.html Broch of Mousa, Mousa, Shetland
Dun Carloway on the Isle of Lewis may be more visually striking, and the Broch of Yarrows in Caithness is almost certainly older. But the island of Mousa, off the east coast of Shetland’s Mainland, is the best preserved and tallest of these distinctive Iron Age dry-stone towers, standing 13.3 meters (nearly 44 feet) high.
More than a thousand years before the earliest castles, these towers (most of which weren't likely ever as tall as Mousa) were the dominant architectural symbols of class and power, particularly in the far north and on the islands. And while most have been stripped of their stone over millennia, leaving little more than low walls and lichen-covered piles of rubble, Mousa remains complete--or nearly so. It's a powerful reminder that, while we often think of modernity as a pinnacle of human ability, ancient cultures were at least as clever and capable as we are today. These people may not have had the written word to pass down thousands of years of knowledge, or the materials science required to construct today's most impressive structures. But if this isn't a skyscraper, I don't know what is.
Dinosaur footprints at An Corran Beach, Staffin, Isle of Skye
Admittedly, this is going way back in Scotland’s past--165 million years to be exact. There have been other dinosaur footprint discoveries on Skye, most recently at Brother’s Point. But this spot is both easy to get to and so visually striking that it’s worth a visit even if you don’t care about dinos. If you do want to hunt down the footprints, you’ll have to go at low tide, and during the winter or spring. The prints are often covered by sand in the summer. Dinosaurs weren’t the only ancient visitors here, either. Excavations along the Kilmartin river nearby have also find evidence of human activity and flint knapping dating back 8,000 years. For more about Scotland’s fossils and geology, as well as a tour of the nearby Staffin Dinosaur Museum, you can check out my blog post here. In case it wasn’t obvious, I like dinosaurs almost as much as Scotland. So when the two go together, I get really happy.
Cubbie Roo’s Castle, Wyre, Orkney
The ruins of Cubby Roo's Castle (spelling varies) on the small island of Wyre off the north coast of Orkney’s Mainland is interesting enough as one of Scotland's oldest stone castles. But it's also named after a giant of local folklore who liked to hurl massive stones at enemies, and to attempt (but fail) to link Orkney's various islands via stone bridges. The real kicker though, is that we know (thanks to the Orkneyinga Saga, a historical narrative of the history of Shetland and Orkney written in the early 13th century) that the castle was built in 1145 by a Norse chieftan named Kolbein Hruga. Kolbein must have been a large man (for the times, at least), as Hruga translates to "heap" in Old Norse. While there’s still some debate, Kolbein Hruga seems likely to have been corrupted and mythicized down through the centuries to today's Cubby Roo. A real (big and powerful) man become a giant of local folklore. Standing amidst the low-walled ruins of this nearly 900-year-old stronghold, with no other company in site save for a herd of curious cows, I touched a very real stone fortification whose persistence in the landscape transformed a man into a myth. And thanks to the survival of an Icelanding text that’s nearly as old, I was able to draw a direct line between myth and reality. If that kind of thing doesn’t fill you with wonder, then maybe the Scottish Islands aren’t for you.