Sunday 5 April 2015

Orkney: A Historical Guide by Caroline Wickham-Jones - reviewed by Joan Lennon

This is not the first occasion I've indulged my delight in guide books and Orkney (see The Elevated Limpet) but this time I've brought things right up-to-date.

Caroline Wickham-Jones is an experienced archaeologist who has worked on and written about sites across Scotland and Scandanavia.  Her Orkney: A Historical Guide was first published in 1998 and has been updated and re-issued a number of times since then.  Wickham-Jones' clear writing, expertise and obvious enthusiasm for her subject make her brand-new 2015 Guide a must-read for anyone drawn to this approximately 70-island-strong historical treasure trove.

There is so much to see, and one of the confusing things about visiting Orkney is the way remains from so many different historical periods often sit cheek-by-jowl in the landscape.  Wickham-Jones' Guide is extremely helpful in separating the layers out, starting with a series of maps, which show:

     Neolithic sites
     Bronze Age, Iron Age and Pictish sites
     Norse and Scottish Earls sites
     18th- and 19th-century sites
     20th-century sites

The chapters of the book take the same approach, with an overview for each block of time and then a description of sites of interest - and accessibility.  She also explores the effects of geography on the Orkney Islands' history.  The power of the winds, the fertility of the soil, the lack of trees and the easily splittable sandstone rock - all have their place in the way human life here was shaped and preserved. 

I would thoroughly recommend this Historical Guide for your reading and research pleasure - and I would also thoroughly recommend using it on a visit to Orkney.  Orkney may seem a bit out-of-the-way (though you can't really see the edge of the world from there, as Pytheas of Marseille claimed in 330 BCE).  But for a large part of her 10,000 years of habitation, the sea roads made her nearer to being at the heart of things than the edge.  Granted those roads were treacherous* and, as Wickham-Jones says,

"Rather like a six-lane motorway today, you have to know what you are doing, but the northern seas could lead you directly to your destination and provide varied benefits in the form of sheltered harbours and plentiful supplies."

Reading her book, I defy you not to be convinced that those "plentiful supplies" include history preserved in abundance, to excite the imagination and furnish us with thoughts and ideas, whether as readers, writers or historians. 

* Don't worry - the roads to Orkney are much safer now. 

Caroline Wickham-Jones' Orkney: A Historical Guide
pub. Birlinn Books

pub. date 12 March 2015
ISBN: 9781780272641          

(With a YA novel inspired by Skara Brae coming out mid-June, and therefore at too late a stage to change anything, I approach all archaeological writing on my period with some uneasiness ... I'll be talking more about that another time!)


Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.


Susan Price said...

Thanks for this, Joan. And i echo everything you say. The Orkneys and Shetlands are the most amazing places. You can't turn round in either place without tripping over a site of unique historical importance. And there's whisky too...

Unknown said...

Aagh! Have just come back from Orkney. Would have been great to have had this book last week. Oh well, will just have to buy it and go back ...

Joan Lennon said...

And excellent beer and ale as well, Sue! And Alayne, isn't it good to have a ready-made excuse to return!

Bill Marshall said...

I remember when the first edition came out (I was still a bookseller in those days as well as a web designer) and it was superb. Of course major discoveries have taken place since then so an update will have been due. Will definitely seek it out.

Orkney is a dream for any historian or archaeologist. Visited a number of times and it never fails to enthrall. If only the climate were kinder in the winter ;-)