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Yo, Orkney! Skara Brae to Clestrain

People were living at Skara Brae before Egyptians built the pyramids. By the time other neolitithic folk started work on Stonehenge in England, they had resided here, facing out over the salt water, for three to four hundred years – and even had time to abandon the site. To stand here today, in the 21st century, gazing out at surf-worthy waves, proved both humbling and awe-inspiring. More than one person incidentally gave thanks that our expedition leader had decided we would overnight at the dock in Kirkwall, rather than plunge out into what would certainly have been one horrendous night on the water.
But what a place is Skara Brae – the best-preserved Neolithic village in northern Europe, and a site that offers an entree into the daily lives of people who lived 4,500 years ago. Here they cooked, there they ate, and here, just here, they curled up and slept. Today, as well, while rambling around with Adventure Canada, we visited the nearby Ring of Brodgar, a world-famous circle of standing stones, and passed by a recently begun archaeological dig between the two, the Ness of Brodgar, that points back even earlier, to the Mesolithic era of 7000 years ago, when hunter-gatherers roamed these hills.

Roll on to the Hall of Clestrain, which overlooks Hoy Sound near Stromness. Birthplace in 1813 of Arctic explorer John Rae, this listed building is now the focus of a restoration campaign led by the John Rae Society, which is determined to turn Clestrain into a world-heritage centre. Three buses shuttled passengers from one location to another, while other visitors rambled around Kirkwall, visiting St. Magnus Cathedral, which contains a gorgeous memorial to Rae, and also the explorer’s grave, situated behind this magnificent 12th century edifice.
Rumor had it that some travelers indulged in serious retail therapy, and suggestive evidence turned up in certain newly observed artifacts. Come evening, two Orcadians came aboard. Andrew Appleby, president of the John Rae Society and a professional potter from nearby Harray (the Harray Potter), invited people to visit his studio, where he throws pots. And native Orcadian historian Tom Muir, president of the Orkney Story-Teller’s Association, entertained with a series of entrancing tales that ranged from the dark and foreboding to the sublime and sorrowful. His was a tour de force performance.

Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.