For our recent trip to Orkney I was looking for books we could enjoy as an entire family; limited space, and a desire for physical books meant I spent a long time choosing the books to take with us. Today I’ll review two books set in Orkney which were absolutely perfect choices.
The Boy with the Bronze Axe by Kathleen Fidler is set in neolithic Orkney and tells a tale of the community living in Skara Brae 4,500 years ago, and in particular the friendship which develops between three children and the adventures they share.
One of the many amazing aspects of Skara Brae is that this real, ruined stone village was only discovered in 1850; a powerful storm blew away sand dunes which had covered it for more than 4 millennia. How had the village simply disappeared under those dunes all those thousands of years ago? What had happened to the community living there?
Fidler’s story is a fictional account of the events which could have led up to the original disappearance of Skara Brae under sand. Whilst thoughtfully exploring themes around belonging and community (in some ways it would be great to pair this book with Armin Greder’s The Island), and how people can view change and technological development (in this case the introduction of metal), the text is full of historical detail that is fascinating. But at the heart of this book is a great adventure, where kids explore by themselves and achieve great things by themselves (perhaps a little like Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, for a slightly younger crowd).
Although it won’t affect your enjoyment of the book if you know nothing of Orkney history, the only thing I had mixed feelings about was Fidler’s use of place names. She mostly uses the modern names for known locations that actually do exist in Orkney but this means that sometimes there’s incongruity as, for example, modern place names based on Viking names are used when the book is actually set 1000s of years before the Vikings ever arrived in Orkney. This is a tiny gripe of a grown up; actually for my kids it was great that all these places they knew were name-checked as it made it so easy for them to visualise locations in the novel.
Archaeological research since the time Fidler’s book was first published (1968) has shown that some of the assumptions Fidler makes (eg the lakes being present 4500 years ago on either side of the Ring of Brodgar) are not factually correct but again this does not detract from the telling of the story.
We all adored this book from the 5 year old to the 40 year old, and reading it on location, in Skara Brae and on the beach featured in the book, the Bay of Skaill was an experience I’ll never forget.
Winner of the Carnegie Medal in 1974, The Stronghold by Mollie Hunter moved us forward in time to Iron Age / Pictish Orkney.
Set around 100CE, at a time when Orkney was under attack from Roman slave traiders, The Stronghold is a story about a young boy who comes up with a novel method to protect his community; the building of defensive towers which come to be known as brochs.
Brochs are Iron Age drystone hollow-walled towers of a type unique to North and West Scotland. Over 50 are known in Orkney (though there are likely to be many more lying under tantalising hillocks and disappearing into the sea through coastal erosion), but their origin is a matter of historical debate. Hunter takes the line that they were defensive buildings, and whatever the truth(s), she turns an astonishing archaeological phenomenon into a thrilling story with plenty of drama.
For me, the Orkney-specific landscape wasn’t as evocatively captured in The Stronghold, although both books engagingly explore the challenges and threats presented by innovation and change. Disability is also an important theme in The Stronghold; the main character, Coll, has a severe limp, but lives in a society where physical strength is very highly regarded. Nevertheless, he refuses to see himself disenfranchised and instead focusses on other skills he can bring to his community.
Whilst it was wonderful to read The Stronghold on holiday, I’d especially recommend this award winning book to children slightly older than mine, say 10-12 year olds (Fidler’s book was perfectly pitched for reading aloud to my 5 and 8 year old).
I love reading on location, and can’t recommend it enough. These two books have become entwined in our family folklore in a very special way now and I am sure they are books we will all remember into our old age.
What books have you read on location?