Our Orkney Reading List Part 1

posted in: Kathleen Fidler, Mollie Hunter | 9

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.

bronzeaxeThe 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?

Me reading The Boy with the Bronze Axe outside one of the houses of Skara Brae.
Me reading The Boy with the Bronze Axe outside one of the houses of Skara Brae.

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).

M and J imagining life in Skara Brae
M and J imagining life in Skara Brae

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.

The stone circle, The Ring of Brodgar, which also features in The Boy with the Bronze Axe
The stone circle, The Ring of Brodgar, which also features in The Boy with the Bronze Axe

strongholdcoverWinner 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.

M inside the Broch of Gurness
M inside the Broch of Gurness

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.

Midhowe Broch on Rousay
Midhowe Broch on Rousay

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).

Playing in Midhowe Broch in Rousay
Playing in Midhowe Broch in Rousay

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?

9 Responses

  1. Richa Jha

    Nothing like making the visual memories of a place indelible by reinforcing the facts and backdrop with the written word! I try and do that each time we travel with me kids. Exploring a new place becomes that much more of a richer and complete experience for them. And I have always found them hungry for more inputs on it long after we have returned home.

    Love the feel of Orkney through this post 🙂

  2. Tricia

    I think this is a wonderful idea and yes, I’m sure you and your children will always remember these stories and the unique atmosphere of Orkney will be woven into your lives. I wonder what you will weave in next?

  3. Fiona

    Lovely to read about The Stronghold: another childhood favourite, and I think my favourite Mollie Hunter. I think my copy has disintegrated so I’ll add it to the list of books to buy/find for my daughter!
    Fiona recently posted..Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

  4. Katherine

    I remember our teacher reading us The Boy with the Bronze Axe when I was in P5, before we went to Skara Brae on a school trip. Back then you had to walk along a path at the back of the beach to get to it, it was always windy, I always thought about the sandstorm when going along it. You were also allowed to go in the houses then too, must see if I have any photos of me sitting in a box bed!
    Katherine recently posted..Recent cooking and baking

Leave a Reply to Barbara Mojica Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.