Earth sinks in the sea, the sun burns black,
Cast down from heaven are the hot stars,
Fumes reek, into flames burst,
The sky itself is scorched with fire.
I see Earth rising a second time,
Out of the foam, fair and green;
Down from the fells, fish to capture,
Wings the eagle; waters flow.
~ From: The Elder Edda, Trans. P.Taylor and W.H. Auden
The Orkney Isles, or the Orcades as they were once known, scattered carelessly in the icy waters of the Northern Sea, are among the most magical places in the whole of the Islands of the Mighty. Here culture after culture has met and intermingled, piling upon each other until it is hard to find where one begins and the other ends. Neolithic, Bronze Age, Pictish, Celtic, Norse and Scottish peoples have found their way there and have settled, each adding their own layers to the rich leaven of the magical, archaeological and spiritual loam of the islands.
The sheer richness of sites worthy of visiting make it difficult even to begin this brief description; yet all who have in their hearts a love of the cultures which make up our island race should go there, at least once. Those who do, usually return, drawn back by the sense of numinous otherworldliness which seems to hover over the very rocks of the Orkneys.
It is a fact well known among both visitors and archaeologists that one cannot go more than a dozen meters in any direction without stubbing one’s toe on a chambered tomb, an iron-age burial mound, or a circle of megalithic standing stones. The reasons for this are part of the mystery of Orkney, which was long believed to be – if not actually a part of the Otherworld, then at least a doorway through which one could gain access. For this reason the islands became virtual necropoli, sacred burial places in which the great dead were interred with ritual and ceremony, after being ferried there from the mainland. Who knows how many great kings and heroes of the Gaels are buried there still, their spirits rising above the green and windswept islands like smoke?
Above all, the mystery of the Orkneys derives from this fascination with the Otherworld and the shadowy borderland where the ancestors strayed, ever ready with knowledge of that other place. When Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his famous History of the Kings of Britain in the 12th century he gave the name of one of the Kings of Orkney as Gwanuasuis Rex Orcadum, a name which can be shown to derive from Gwynn ap Nudd, the lord of the Otherworld! In the Arthurian section of the same text, the Queen of Orkney is Anna, who in later texts became Morgain le Fay, half-sister of King Arthur and his bitterest foe. However, in yet another text she is named Morcades, a name which clearly derives both from the Orkneys themselves, and from the Greek word orcus, death. Thus Morgain-Morcades is indeed the Queen of the Otherworldly Isles of the Dead, and if we think of the story of Arthur’s last days, when wounded at Camlan he is carried to the Otherworldly island of Avalon by Morgan le Fay…we may wonder if, at some point in the long and complex history of Arthur, a story existed which saw him carried to the Orkneys to be healed of his wounds….
This is only to touch upon the richness of magical lore and history to be found in this locale, there is much rewarding work which can be carried out while visiting these remarkable islands.