Monday, August 29, 2016

Monday, August 29th, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands


In the northwest of the Orkney mainland, across Eynhallow Sound from where we were yesterday, lies the Broch of Gurness.  An early iron-age, stone tower settlement, it is almost surrounded by three stone-faced ditches.  The main structure contained an upper story with a thatched roof and wooden floor, and was accessed by a wall walk linked to stairs to the ground floor.

Leaping ahead a couple thousand years, we visited the palace of a much-disliked son of the half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots, Patrick Stewart, who became the 2nd Earl of Orkney in the late 1500s.  Two years after construction began, Earl Patrick was imprisoned (1609) for financial mismanagement and his brutality against the local population, first in Edinburgh Castle, and then in Dumbarton Castle.  From the castle, he sent his illegitimate son, Robert, to seize the palace and most of the area around Kirkwall.  James VI's Privy Council ordered the Earl of Caithness to respond, and the rebellion was soon defeated.  Twelve officers were hanged at the palace gate.  Robert was taken to Edinburgh, put to trial, and hanged.  Soon after, his father was also tried and executed.

Driving west to nearly the northwest tip of Orkney, we crossed at low tide an up-ended seafloor causeway separating the mainland from the tidal island housing a 6th century monastery, 7-8th century Pictish, and 9th century Norse settlements.  The recovered evidence here indicates that the seat of power during these centuries may have been here, and the defensive attributes of the site reinforce that perception.

Barony Mills has been grinding barley (bere), tolerant of the cold weather and short growing season, since 1873.  Barley has been growing here since the Neolithic period.
Orkney Beremeal Bannocks 
There are various recipes for baking bere bannocks, but the most common is probably something like this:
2 c. of Birsay beremeal
1 c. of plain flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar
salt (if desired)
Mix thoroughly, add milk, water or buttermilk to make a stiff but soft dough, roll out on a floured (mixture of flour and beremeal) board to form the bannocks (this will make 2 or 3), then cook on a hot, ungreased girdle 5 minutes or so each side until both sides are browned and the middle is cooked. Practice will make perfect. Consume with copious amounts of ale (plus plenty of Orkney butter and cheese.)
Ending the day at Kirbuster Farm Museum brought home to all of us how important the hearth was to families over the past milleniums. The museum was opened to the public in 1986.  It is the last un-restored example of a traditional "firehoose" in Northern Europe.  It has a central hearth, complete with peat fire, and a stone neuk bed, reminiscent of the Neolithic interiors that can be seen at the sites we have visited.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on: Monday, August 29th.

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