Tourist Pressures

Ring of Brodgar
The wild landscape of the Ring of Brodgar

Attention has been drawn recently to the lack of toilet facilities at the Ring of Brodgar. It is a difficult problem and encapsulates precisely the dilemma of managing a World Heritage Site in the twenty-first century. As guardians of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney we want people to visit the sites and love them in the way that we, who live in Orkney, love them. Indeed, helped by some canny marketing and promotion, people now come from around the world to visit Orkney and many of those who come are attracted by the lure of our archaeology. As an archaeologist, I’m heartened by that; I never imagined when I embarked on my career over forty years ago, that archaeology might become quite so popular.

It is not an undiluted pleasure, however. With increased visitor footfall, we see all sorts of problems arising. Sadly, litter can be an issue, and there are even people who still see fit to leave graffiti. Over the last couple of years, we have watched an intensive programme of works by Historic Environment Scotland to improve drainage at the site and get rid of conditions that could, at times, verge on ankle-deep mud – not good for either the welfare of the site nor for visitor safety. Arriving at the site requires vehicular access, and a car park was built some years ago. This year there has been increasing pressure on the narrow, single-track, road leading to the car park with both vehicles and pedestrians jostling for position in a way that can be, at times, quite scary.

Nevertheless, in general, it works, and many people appreciate the relatively ‘wild’ atmosphere of the site in contrast to more managed attractions like Stonehenge. But, people continue to arrive in increasing numbers.

Which brings me to the toilets. Some correspondents write as if this were a simple matter: install toilets. Portaloos or a septic tank perhaps, given the distance from mains drainage. There is certainly room at the side of the car park. But it is not as easy as that. There are two problems: overground and underground. Overground, considerable care is taken (and the planning process requires), that the setting of the World Heritage Site is not compromised by modern development. It is not an insurmountable issue, one could, for example, widen the bank around the car park on the lochside and build in an earthfast suite of cubicles. But it would cost money. Underground the issue may be more difficult because, as you will be aware, archaeological sites are like icebergs, anything that survives is likely to lie below the visible bits. Though the car park is set away from the Ring itself, the whole isthmus, at least from Maeshowe to Bookan, was made use of in the Neolithic and the remains of sites dot the landscape. As the excavations at Ness of Brodgar show, the isthmus can still surprise us. So, any work has to be undertaken with requisite archaeological input and that is slow and expensive. There was, of course, excavation in advance of the construction of the car park, but it is likely that the construction of toilets would require more work.

Once, when visiting a rock art site in a remote part of Sweden, I came across a cardboard toilet. You can buy them from a well-known online retailer. But they require frequent emptying and they would still need a superstructure.

I’m not sure what the answer is. Signage, to make people aware that there are no toilet facilities due to the fragile nature of the site and explaining exactly how to get to the public toilets in Dounby and Stenness (and how long it will take)? Increased awareness and a discrete information cue from tour guides and bus drivers? I visit Brodgar with coach parties from time to time, and I do make sure that I warn people in advance of the lack of toilets at both stone circles. Perhaps we should be thinking of enlarging the facilities in the nearby villages: a coach with forty guests can take a while at the public convenience in Stenness. One thing I do know is that I’m keen to keep access to our World Heritage Sites as open and inviting as possible. As you get older and stiffer, perhaps more infirm, you don’t lose your interest in heritage. But it is a difficult one. The Ring of Brodgar was undoubtedly built for communal visits and activities, but, of course, visitor numbers were different, people were (probably) not restricted to one narrow path of access, and the modern requirement for ‘facilities’, was solved in other ways.

It is a conundrum, some of our best sites are just too fragile and remote to cope with the demands of the twenty-first century. There has been a lot of debate recently about the benefits, and otherwise, of the tourist numbers that Orkney now attracts. We are told by OIC that the introduction of cheaper ferry fares is likely to bring tourists ‘in even greater numbers’ and that this is something they wish to encourage. We can’t put a halt to the tourism bandwagon, and I’m not sure we  want to; many of us benefit from the tourist economy, and most of us enjoy being tourists ourselves.

Perhaps the time has come to take control and plan for the future. What sort of visitor numbers do we, as a community, want? What attractions do we want to promote? How will people get there? What do we want them to ‘take away’? How do we want to manage it? Should there be days every week that are managed to be less congested? To date, tourism here has grown and developed in a very ad hoc fashion, but I think we want to control it, rather than let it control us.

The Travel Bug

Farm museum
Orkney provides a range of experience for the visitor, the farm museum here, at Kirbuster, is a nice contrast to the prehistoric remains.

I’ve been working with a well-established travel company who want to develop a tour of Orkney for their guests. It is a fun thing to do, but it is more complex than you might think. To be honest, once the tour is up and running, being a guide-lecturer is pretty much of a doddle. You are paid to visit first-rate sites with which you are familiar and chat about them with a bunch of interesting people. The conversation usually ranges widely and friendships are formed. It is always an intense experience, but it is one that I enjoy.

There are, however, several different elements necessary to build a tour from scratch and it is important not to leave any of them unexplored. First of all, of course, it is necessary to select the sites. In a place like Orkney that is not as easy as it may seem. There are so many interesting sites here that it can be more a matter of which visits to leave out. Some don’t have adequate parking. Others don’t lend themselves to coach tours (locations where only two or three people can enter at a time for example).

Then you need to group those sites into meaningful days, and decide in which order the days should come. First time visitors to Orkney are always keen to see the World Heritage sites so I tend to suggest that they come first. It also makes sense to visit Skara Brae before the other Neolithic sites because that is where you get a glimpse of the everyday life of the average Neolithic islander. Wherever they came from in Orkney, the people who knew the stone circles, buried their dead in the tombs, and experienced Ness of Brodgar, their lives were rooted in the domestic routine that was played out in communities of houses similar to those at Skara Brae. Similarly, it is hard to understand the significance of the Renaissance vision of Earl Patrick Stewart as expressed in the Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall, if you have not explored the northern foundations of life in Orkney in preceding centuries under the Norse Earldom at sites like the Brough of Birsay or Quoygrew.

Finally, it is, of course, important to combine outdoor sites with the museums. But we have more museums than many people think – which to include? The Orkney Museum in Kirkwall holds the artefact collections that provide colour to the framework set by the archaeological sites. The two farm museums offer an atmospheric background to more recent times, Stromness museum has an eclectic collection that ranges widely with something for all interests, the Scapa Flow visitor Centre at Lyness holds fascinating material related to the two World Wars and in particular the scuttling of the German Fleet, and the Pier Arts Centre houses an important collection of art, not to mention local and traveling exhibitions. And that is not all of them.

There is an order to things.

But that is not all. With the basic framework comes the nitty-gritty. How long should we spend at each site? Where should we have lunch? Where should we stay? What about evening meals? Lectures? Free time? It is like doing some sort of immersive jigsaw puzzle. Luckily, I don’t have to work it all out myself, there are those much more experienced than I in the logistical detail. My job is mainly to advise on presenting 10,000 years of island culture at its best. It is not all archaeology – it is also about helping people to understand Orkney today, and the way in which the past has contributed to the present. It is nice to try to sneak in little things that others might miss, or off-the-beaten-track sites that you might not access if you were not in an organised group. Visiting remote and small places like Orkney can be quite daunting for people who are not sure of the infrastructure up here which is why it can be easier to come on a tour.

And all of this is without consideration of the current debates as to whether, or not, tourism is ‘a good thing’. That, I think, would be a whole new blog post and I’m not going to get drawn into it here.

In this case, anyway, I think we have done a good job. I’ve enjoyed thinking about how to present Orkney so that people really have a fun, and interesting holiday. They are not going to see everything, but hopefully they will leave feeling fulfilled and with the knowledge to return one day should they wish to explore other parts of the islands.