Rainbow

I really wanted to go to the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay.  Elizabeth was more dubious, as she thought from the publicity information that it looked too much like a theme park.

“Why do you want to go?” she asked.

“I think they might have something to tell me,” I replied, ‘they’ being our Neolithic ancestors whose bones were interred in this tomb so many thousand years ago. 

I wasn’t really sure what I meant by this, but it was a good enough answer for Elizabeth, so we drove south down the long straight roads of Orkney, round the tricky sharp turns that lead to the Churchill barriers built between the islands to protect the Fleet from German submarines in World War II which also provided road links.

Near the southern tip of South Ronaldsay, looking over the Pentland Firth toward mainland Scotland, we followed the signs for Tomb of the Eagles up to unexceptional pebble-dashed house. There we were welcomed enthusiastically and given an introductory talk about the discovery of the tomb. We were not only shown a model of the site, we were allowed to hold some of the stone ceremonial objects found inside. And we also saw three of the human skulls that has been buried there.

It was an odd kind of feeling, inspecting these skulls, discussing the quality of their teeth and how they might have died. It was of course curious and fascinating, but at the same time there was something irreverent about gawking at skulls that were, as far as we can tell, reverently interred by their relatives. But we listened politely, and well-briefed set off along the mile-long track between fields to the cliffs above the sea where the tomb was to be found.

As we left, it started to rain, and we were soon walking through a hail storm, navigating past puddles, grateful that we had dressed up in full waterproofs before leaving. We walked on along the muddy path, the hail rattled on our hoods and water dribbling down our trousers. Would this be worth it, we wondered to each other as we plodded on.

We found the tomb, surrounded unceremoniously by a metal fence and with various plastic containers scattered about outside—one marked for dog poo. The entrance was through a low square hole set in an elegantly crescent shaped dry stone wall. In the hole was a low trolley, like a large skateboard, on plastic runners. One was apparently supposed to lie on this and use the rope fixed to the roof to haul oneself inside with.

Elizabeth was again dubious, saying, “It doesn’t feel respectful to me” but she nevertheless squatted down and hauled herself in on this incongruous arrangement. I heard her mutter “All my relations” in respect for the ancestors as she disappeared through the entrance, and then called out, “You’d be much better to crawl on hands and knees,” which I did.

Inside, the tomb was dimly lit by skylights in the concrete cap that had replaced the original roof. The stones felt dull and dusty, and the skulls had been replaced by plastic replicas behind iron bars. We both found it to be disturbing, rather unpleasant.

“I am not sure we should be here,” said Elizabeth as soon as I got through the entrance, and after we had looked about in a desultory kind of way, scooted back outside. I followed shortly afterwards.

We stood outside looking back at the entrance, trying to work out what it was we found disturbing. We agreed it was neither one thing nor the other, neither respected as a sacred place nor appropriately secular.

“We should apologise to the ancestors,” said Elizabeth, and spontaneously offered a prayer in the four cardinal directions drawing on Native American teachings to acknowledge the spiritual presence, the intelligence, the physical bodies and the emotional life of the people buried here.

I felt this was wholly appropriate, that it helped mend the disturbance we experienced and maybe some of the disturbance in the place itself. As we walked back along the cliff path, Elizabeth turned and looked back. “Look behind you!” she said.

The hail storm that soaked us on our way there had moved out to sea, and under the low cloud was the bright fragment of a rainbow, all the colours from red through to violet clearly visible, glowing against the dark background. We stopped and watched as it faded and brightened in the changing light. As it finally disappeared, the other end of the rainbow arc appeared to the south and seemed to follow us as we walked back along the cliff top.

I felt as if the world had responded to us, that our prayer had not gone unheard. I don’t believe that this was the response of some transcendental spirit, or that there was a direct causal connection between the prayer and the rainbow. One might easily say that of course there was rainbow as the hail passed and the sun shone through the water particles. But there did seem to be more to it than that: the beauty of the world met and resolved our awkward feelings about visiting the tomb.

I see it as a moment of grace.