Five Thousand Years in Fifteen Minutes

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There wasn’t enough time. There was no real choice either. Fifteen minutes with twenty-plus people, or nothing at all. That is the only way you can see Newgrange. It was still amazing. All 5,000 years of history were right on top of me as I stood in that chamber. After it was over, I realized I’d missed the most famous spiral, so quickly had we been herded down the passage. It made me appreciate my experience at Calanais all the more.

I took a cab from Drogheda to Newgrange Lodge, I had just missed the last bus. I got a mercenary of a cab driver, but he was great other than the naked avarice. He was on two different cell phones and two radios the whole ride, and he gave me a business card and told me to call him when I wanted to go. I smiled and said thanks, I would, but had no intention of doing so. I knew there was a perfectly good bus to be had every afternoon.

Newgrange Lodge was beautiful. It was a converted stone house and looked nice enough to be a hotel, which I thought it was. I had booked a camping pitch, but when I found out it was really a hostel I decided to give myself a present. It was threatening rain, and for ten Euros more I could have a bed. I ended up with a private ten bedroom dorm with an en suite bathroom for 18 Euros. No laundry, ehh wi fi, and the equivalent of a polite Basil Fawlty for an innkeeper, but quite nice all the same.

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I went down the road to check out the visitor center at 7 AM, just to find out what to expect. Basil Fawlty was no help, he had never been there, believe it or not. The place was of course locked and silent, but the signboards told me everything I needed to know. A tiny little trail leading off the main path in gave me my first view of the tomb.

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I never did find out if the stage management at that place is deliberate, but I have to say I was impressed. Both Navan Fort and Newgrange have planted a little forest of birch, alder, holly and hazel around their visitor centers and run paths through them. It’s very beautiful and very effective. Ogham trees all, though that probably has little or nothing to do with it. At Newgrange the effect is, if you miss the tiny little trail and the outlook at the end, there’s no way to see the tomb from the visitor center. Unless you go see the 7 minute movie, that is. It explains the whole Solstice alignment and goes into a lot of frankly fabricated ideas of how Neolithic peoples thought that if they didn’t see the shortest day of the year they thought the cold and dark would go on forever. They marked it, surely. But what they thought about it we will never know. After the movie, you exit through a pretty nicely done mockup of the central passage that goes uphill to a viewing platform at the top of the visitor center. That is the only place you can see the tomb from. The effect is, when you do see the tomb it is like the entrance of the diva. It’s really effective and I can’t believe it wasn’t planned.

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It was raining when we got to Knowth. I was very glad once again of my tincloth. The guide did the whole tour from inside a small chamber built next to one side of the passage inside the mound. Knowth is even more interesting than Newgrange. I heartily regret not buying the book on it. Knowth was built last and is more sophisticated, but it is also more heavily damaged and you can’t go inside. The mound was converted to a ringfort after Christianity arrived and was ditched and had souterrains (passages for storing food and hiding in) built in it during that period, as well as houses built on top of it. We wandered around a little bit after the tour, but it was raining pretty hard.

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Newgrange was just as wet, but I was in the first group to get inside as I’d arrived so early.

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The tourguides are really good, they know their material very well. Correctly, once again, like at Calanais, they told us that the people who built the tombs were not Celts or Druids, they were Neolithic peoples. They didn’t tell us why these people built the place, just that they had. It is a mystery for now, and by acknowledging that, we leave room for the answer to come someday. All I know, or need to, is that the span of time is great indeed. We have as humans lived long enough to have forgotten some things totally. And those peoples were wise indeed. 5,000 years and a drystone corbeled roof is still in place and *doesn’t leak!* I can’t keep a twenty year old deck from leaking without constant maintenance! My roof is good for thirty years. These people built a passage that is still sound, covered over with tons of earth and is still stable and focusing a narrow beam of sunlight once a year after five millennia. There are no words.

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The rain stopped just before we left the tomb.

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Crows and ravens were everywhere. They were magnificent, but just birds again. I think Scathach was messing with my mind, seeing what shadows she could cast.

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The afternoon bus didn’t show up. I had to call Paddy, the Mercenary Cabbie. I was in Dublin by early evening.

More photos at my website

Stones In The Mist

ImageIt was raining when the ferry reached Stornoway. It’s Scotland, I didn’t expect any different. Grace was swathed in tincloth, I was likewise. I didn’t have a hostel reservation, because I’d planned on going straight to the stones, and then to Tarbert to catch the morning ferry to Uig.

I expected the hostel in Tarbert to be a bit of an adventure. It was also a fairly important link in the trip. There are two ferries per day to Uig. One at 7 AM, the other in the late afternoon. The problem is, getting hold of the proprietors of the place is a real challenge. Every email address I was able to locate bounced, and the review I found online had a very entertaining story, the upshot of which was, call them a day or two in advance and if all else fails, knock on the door. You may or may not get in. I’d gotten hold of the owners the night before in Inverness and they’d informed me that the place was closed.

When the ferry docked, I headed straight to the Heb Hostel, the only one listed for Stornoway. It was full, but the person who answered the door was friendly and told me that there was another hostel in town, as well as the location of the tourist information center. I couldn’t find the hostel from the directions, so that was the next stop.

Every tourist information center I visited in Scotland was beyond helpful.They knew where almost everything was, and what they didn’t know they were pretty efficient at locating. They sold great maps, along with souvenirs ranging from truly tacky to downright beautiful. The woman behind the counter was helping another traveler in the same predicament I was in, and by the time she was done I’d seen everything in the shop several times over. Good service takes a bit of time and I was on vacation after all. I was soon on my way with a map marked with the spot. The hostel was not marked, the door was locked and the phone number on the door wasn’t being answered, but eventually one of us got in, and the few of us with patience followed. The proprietress had had no cell service in the Tesco’s.

The hostel still has no name, at least not one I know, but it was almost the best place I stayed on the entire trip. It was brand new, and run by a couple. I only saw him for a minute or two, but she was the spirit of hospitality. She started by giving us all free run of the kitchen. There was a fridge stocked with food, proper pots and pans, and best of all, tea and sugar. The wi fi only worked in the kitchen as it turned out, but the kitchen was the heart of the hostel. Later in the evening, I came back to find her in her PJs doing the family dishes. It was their main kitchen as well. She found out I hadn’t eaten yet in the course of our conversation, by then we’d both come out of the broom closet, so to speak and she offered to cook me dinner, which I would not allow. She was on her way to bed, the kitchen was full of food, and I was feeling better cared for than I had since Anderida camp. If I ever go back to Stornoway, that place will be my first stop if it still exists. Stornoway, by the way, is a really nice town, big enough to be interesting, small enough to be friendly.

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But you were expecting to hear about Calanais, right? You’re about to, but you can’t separate the place from the people and the people of Lewis were wondrous indeed. I’d missed the last bus to the stones finding a place to sleep, so I got on the first bus in the morning with a fellow traveler from the hostel. The ride was misty and wonderful. The visitor center was still closed so we went straight to the stones. The mist got thicker the longer we stayed, and quite soon I had the place to myself in a light rain that only made the weight of ages close in further.

The quiet was immense. It was more than just the usual quiet misty rain brings. The gray of the sky set off the gray of the stones, and the green of the grass, just as it does in my home on the shores of the Western Sea. It was so similar, yet so different. There were no trees, but the green of the moss and of the grass more than made up for it.

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I could see the shape of the land to where it disappeared into mist, and the bare bones of the rocks where they broke through on the hilltops. The rain ran off my duster and my sou’wester, its soft dripping the only sound there was, or could be.  

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I walked slowly around the perimeter of the stones, and set my back against the farthest one, where I was sheltered from the wind and could look up the long avenue of irregular rocks. No, the stones didn’t speak to me, not as such, but the quiet slowly seeped into me and I came to know that we humans didn’t know any more what these stones had meant to the people who raised them, and we didn’t need to. The keys to this place have been lost, at least for now. It really doesn’t matter because it served its purpose for the people who built it, and it is impressive enough to us to make us act to preserve it. Like any great work of art, its existence is enough.

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Eventually I walked up the avenue and into the stones. I felt as if I had all the time in the world, and for that moment, I did. I sang the song I had brought to the stones. Giant, by Stan Rogers. I did it without the drum, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell it would have been playable in that weather. It didn’t matter, all that was necessary was that I did it.

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By then, the rain had stopped and people were beginning to filter back up to the stones. When a large tour group showed up, I went down to the visitor center and learned enough to make me very curious about what was going on in Britain and Ireland 5,000 years ago. These people were not Celts, though their blood of course runs in our veins still. They seem to have done things in a much more egalitarian way, as perhaps the people of Stonehenge did too, in the same period. There’s a very interesting Nova episode that can be watched online about the alignment of Stonehenge with the solstices, and another nearby site called Durrington Walls. Calanais may have had a lunar alignment.

This strand properly should lead through Newgrange as well, the same immensity of time draws those places together for me, but I will give that tale its own space.