After months of preparation, research and anticipation, I was about to drive from my hostel room to the standing stones, to wait for dawn with a group of practicing pagans on the shortest night of the year.
My backpack was filled with outdoor gear, in preparation for the long hikes in the Scottish summer. The only exception and grant to vanity was a long white dress. It would have looked cool in the photos near the stone circle.
I went on the hunt for my own pagan experience. A big fan of the Starz TV series Outlander, I was imagining myself as part of a pagan festival like the one Claire, the protagonist, watches hidden in the grass on the night of Samhain [31 October]: a group of women dressed in white singing and dancing in circles at the fictional standing stones of Craigh Na Dun.
Although the series is set in the Scottish Highlands, I was on the lookout for an actual celebration held by an active pagan group. I didn’t just want to look at some old stones. If you google “summer solstice celebration”, Orkney is one of the first entries, right after the popular party that every 21 June takes place in England’s Stonehenge.
“You’re not going to find a big rave party in Orkney,” people kept telling me. Pagans I had met online and at gatherings in London – when I was researching for my trip – were very critical of what Stonehenge had become. “It’s so popular now that it’s very difficult for us to practice our religion. Last year I was there and ended up assisting a young lad who was having a bad trip because he was on acid,” a druid told me.
That convinced me: Stonehenge was not for me. I would spend three days in Orkney, making sure to be there for the summer solstice. The local pagan group was going to meet at the Ring of Brodgar, a stone circle in mainland Orkney, at 3am on Thursday 21 June 2018.
It was never going to be just a spiritual trip, because I’m not a spiritual person. The pilgrimage I went on searching for pagans in 2018 certainly was not going to end with me on my knees with my hands folded in prayer.
Even at the peak of my Christian faith – the year I got confirmed and every single person vaguely related to my family was giving me money and presents – the idea of getting up at 8am on a Sunday to go to mass was making me question the existence of a benevolent god.
But my quest had more to do with popular culture than with religion. Not only was I secretly hoping that after whatever celebration on top of that hill the standing stones would turn into a time travel machine and would bring me to Jacobite Scotland to meet my Jaime, just like in Outlander, but I was also curious to find out if the Viking past of the Orkney islands would have influenced the celebration.
Neopaganism is an umbrella term that it is used to define many different beliefs: from Druidry to Wicca – which is basically witchcraft for the modern day – but also Heathenry. Among the Heathens, there are people who worship the Viking gods. Odin, Thor, Loki and the like. Heathens believe in an afterworld called Valhalla.
The search for the Viking gods was going to be the first leg of my tour of Orkney. I only had a few days to cover a grand total of 70 tree-less rocks in the North Sea, so planning was of prime importance.
My first stop, after hiring a car in Kirkwall, was to visit the Orkneyinga Saga centre, in Orphir, only a 20-minute drive southwest of Kirkwall.
The Orkney islands – not “the Orkneys” as I wrongly called them when I was talking to the bloke who rented me the car (“We don’t call them that way ‘ere.”) – were under Norwegian rule between the 9th and 13th century.
The Viking centre is built next to the remains of a round Church on the location of what used to be a traditional Viking drinking hall.
The centre is nothing but a couple of unmanned rooms where the events narrated in the saga are explained. It was interesting to walk around, but it felt a bit like a let down. While I was there I discovered that the most famous Orcadian Viking is, in fact, a Christian: St Magnus.
The islands were christianised in AD995 by a passing Viking that was sailing back to Scandinavia after a stay in Ireland.
So had there been any heathens on the islands? Fortunately for my quest, yes.
“Many hoards were found interred in various spots in Orkney,” said Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, who teaches viking studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands and is the organiser of the Viking Hiking tours in Orkney.
My understanding is that hoards were like “cash deposits for the afterlife”. A warrior or nobleman would stack fortunes and riches and hide them somewhere so he could go back to them once in the afterworld and drink with the gods in Valhalla. Quite handy, if you think about it.
Having found the Viking gods, I decided it was time to explore the rest of the Orcadian pre-Christian past.
George Hamnavoe, the proud owner of the Hamnavoe hostel in Stromness, had given me a detailed talk on where to go to fulfil my quest, even though his personal opinions on the matter were not exactly in line with my plan.
“Are ye really goin tae spend th’ night in th’ freezin cold? Tae look at some pagans? Tis nae something we normally dae ‘ere,” he told me in his thick Orcadian accent.
Apparently paganism is anything but traditional in Orkney.
George told me Meashowe was unmissable if I was into “non-Christian stuff”, as he called it. Also known as “the heart of neolithic Orkney”, Meashowe is a cairn – a burial chamber that peeps over the bright green meadow that runs along the coast of Loch Stenness.
While I was entering the cairn, I could not stop thinking about George’s words. There, doubled over crawling into a 4500-year-old tomb, I realised George’s scepticism for modern paganism went hand in hand with a respectful awe for the islands’ extraordinary history.
He told me, in fact, how only on the winter solstice, the midwinter setting sun shines through the entrance of Meashowe.
“How dae ye think they did it, eh? Nobody kens!” He said it was probably done by magic. “This is th’ proof that Orkney is th’ centre o’ th’ universe.”
With such compelling evidence, I could not but solemnly agree.
Back on the road, I drove towards Skara Brae, a perfectly conserved world-famous neolithic village. If I was going to find some evidence of a pagan past, that surely was going to be the place.
Being in Orkney really makes you feel isolated from the rest of the world. Even more so, because there are no mobile telephone antennae. Actually, there is one on the islands, but it is owned by the Danish government, so it perfectly serves the people in Copenhagen rather than the ones in Kirkwall.
Strangely enough though, after two days of absolute silence, my phone started pinging exactly in the middle of nowhere, with only green hills, highland cows and a 5000-year-old neolithic shack as my sole company.
Skara Brae was basically “pompeii-ed” by the nearby beach. The strong Orcadian wind covered the stone village with sand dunes throughout the millennia until a huge storm battered the bay in 1850. The lack of timber on the islands forced Skara Brae’s inhabitants to build their furniture in stone and that is why they have survived 5000 years of decay.
I went into the little adjacent museum sure that the pagans would have revealed themselves to me. Surprisingly, the only artefacts linked to a religious belief were a pile of stones that looked like fist-sized spiky mothballs.
Archaeologists have no idea what they were used for, but it made me wonder if maybe, living in such an inhospitable place, their god was the Mighty Woolly Jumper. In that freezing cold, mine certainly was.
Gerry MacNeil, an infrared technician from Inverness whose second job is “crystal skull energy interpreter”, is convinced that the village of Skara Brae was founded by an Egyptian princess.
“You see, she was sailing in the ocean, then was victim of a shipwreck and was washed over the coast of Orkney. If you look closely, those three runes on the side of the bed that look like triangles are actually pyramids.”
Orkney clearly has the power to attract individuals who are looking for “something else”, that being a different kind of spirituality not provided by Christianity or the other monotheistic religions, or historical theories not to be found in mainstream books.
Helen Woodsford-Dean, an ovate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and one of the facilitators of the pagan rite at the Ring of Brodgar, calls the islands “a thin place”. In her opinion, Orkney is a place where the gods, God, the goddess, spirits or any other form of supernatural entities are more easily reachable.
With this mixture of supernatural (mis)beliefs and conspiracy theories in my head, I decided it was time to go back to my hostel to catch up on some sleep before the 2am alarm would set me off to get to the stone circle.
In my Spartan bunk bed, I considered that, had I been more adventurous, I could have enjoyed Scotland’s right to roam and camped close to the stone circle. I would have needed a whole pantheon of Mighty Woolly Jumpers to survive an Orcadian night outdoors.
Finally, the time came for me to get ready for the celebration. A quick assessment of the temperature outside made me decide against the pretty white dress, in favour of a bright pink waterproof and the omnipresent Mighty Woolly Jumper. My pictures would not have looked like the scene in Outlander at all.
I arrived at the Ring of Brodgar, one of the three biggest stone circles in the UK, in the only moment of the Orcadian night when it was pitch dark.
By 2:30am, the place was already crowded, with more than 150 people softly talking between themselves. The accents I could detect were not what I was expecting: American, Canadian, English, and very few Scottish ones. My untrained ear could not detect any native lilts.
“There are very few Orcadians who come along,” said Helen the ovate. “When it comes to spirituality, the Orcadian character is really very quiet and very private, they keep their belief to themselves. They might to go to church on a Sunday, but won’t show off about it. The majority of people who come along are people who don’t have long ancestral ties to Orkney.”
While we were waiting for the celebration to start, I could see a couple of girls taking pictures of one another with their hands on the stones, just like Claire in Outlander before travelling back in time. It made me wonder how many of us were there secretly expecting for the stones to turn into a time machine.
“Outlander is responsible for a big tourism boom in Scotland. I enjoy it, but nobody can watch it and not realise it’s pure fantasy,” Helen told me. “To the best of my knowledge, stone circles are not for time travelling.”
“A girl can only hope,” was my response.
At 3am sharp, the ceremony started. People were all in a circle, holding hands and listening to Helen’s words. We collectively thanked and bowed to the cardinal directions. We acknowledged the water of the lochs around us and the hill on which we were standing. When dawn broke, we bowed and thanked the sun as well.
It was nothing like the TV series. No singing, no dancing. Just a little bit of chanting. It definitely did not look like the Viking ceremonies I saw on TV: no sacrifices, no orgies, nothing that could have been considered even mildly exciting.
It was peaceful, calm. It was freezing cold.
I looked around and thought the scene was quite comical. Surrounded by gigantic standing stones, we pagans-for-a-night looked like a bunch of sleep-deprived Teletubbies, with our colourful mountain gear to protect ourselves from the Orcadian winds. There was only one lady who was sporting a woollen cloak and looked like she had the slightest idea of what she was doing.
After an hour, more bows than I have ever done in my life, and some cake and ale brought by Helen as an offering, I drove back to my hostel, freezing to the core. My trip to Orkney was coming to an end and I was not sure I had found what I was looking for.
It was only when the sun hit the rippling water of the loch that I came to a realisation. People come to Orkney looking for divinity not because the islands have a strong tradition of pagan spirituality, but because if I were a pagan god, that is where I would go to retire.
Nature has a way of telling the people in Orkney that this place is not theirs and it will never be. “Everyone on this Earth is a guest of the God and the Goddess,” was one of the lines we chanted during the celebration.
So I left the islands without an Instagram-worthy Outlander-inspired photo of me in my white dress next to the standing stones, but with a bucket-list experience under my belt and a renewed faith in the benevolent god the Mighty Woolly Jumper.