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A Guide to Orkney: The Neolithic Marvel

Posted on 22 Mar 2023

So, you’ve decided to take the plunge. Travel all the way up to the north of Scotland, get on a ferry, and travel 32km offshore to explore the grandeur of the Orkney Islands. Maybe you’ll fly, but having a car on the other side will be extremely useful, as the Orkney Islands are quite expansive. There are more than 70 islands that make up Orkney, only about 20 of which are inhabited. We love exploring Orkney on our small-group tours, too.  

As you've likely gathered from the name of this blog post, Orkney is the perfect place for those who love a bit of history.  

But before we get into the must-see sites, here’s a bit about this wonderful region. Orkney is about as far from ‘civilization’ as you can get while maintaining WIFI (although, don’t hold us to the WIFI promise...). It’s actually closer to the arctic circle than it is to London, a place where you can truly feel like you’ve stepped off the edge of the modern world. Time it right and you might be lucky enough to see the Northern Lights, a truly otherworldly experience.  

It isn’t just a place for history lovers, though. Booklovers might get a kick out of visiting the Orkney Library and Archive which was founded in 1683, making it the oldest public library in Scotland. And those who turn to goo at the sight of animals will have fun spotting seals, otters, puffins, white-tailed eagles, dolphins, and whales. 

And the wild landscape will certainly stick with you for some time to come. We wouldn’t recommend travelling to Orkney during winter (and sometimes it’s not even possible), but from April to August each year, Orkney’s landscape bursts to life in a riot of colour. Fields, cliffs, and wetlands disappear beneath a blanket of yellow coltsfoot, golden marsh marigolds, and the royal and rare Scottish Primrose Primula scotica, Orkney’s most famous plant.  

So, what’s so interesting about Orkney? The islands have been inhabited for around 8,500 years by Mesolithic and Neolithic tribes, to begin with. Then around the 8th and 9th centuries, Norse raiders arrived to colonize the islands. But in 1472, Orkney (along with Shetland) passed into Scottish rule as compensation for failure to pay a dowry promise to James III of Scotland by the family of his bride, Margaret of Denmark.  

But it’s Orkney’s Neolithic roots that draw people to it year after year. From ceremonial stone circles to prehistoric villages, Orkney is a treasure trove of history.  

Maeshowe Chambered Cairn

Cairn is a word you should be familiar with if visiting Scotland. A cairn is a man-made pile of stones, usually as a marker or a burial ground. Some are rough as guts, others are constructed to look just like Egyptian pyramids (only smaller), such as Prince Albert’s Cairn in Aberdeenshire.  

Maeshowe’s claim to fame is that it’s the finest Neolithic building still standing in north-west Europe. Dating back around 5,000 years, Maeshowe looks like a large grassy mound from the outside, but beneath the grass lies an incredible stone-built chamber.  

Step inside and you’ll ask yourself the age-old question: how on earth did they build this? Without power tools and the epic machinery we possess today, structures like Maeshowe are proof of power, persistence, and passion.  

From its construction, it’s been speculated that the winter solstice was an important time at Maeshowe. For three weeks either side of the solstice, the light of the setting sun shines directly into the passage, illuminating the back of the central chamber. We’re just waiting for Indiana Jones or Lara Croft to appear...   

One interesting visitor Maeshowe did have were the Norsemen who broke in thousands of years after its construction. Perhaps they were curious about what was inside, or maybe they were seeking shelter from a storm. Either way, they decided to carve runic graffiti all over the walls inside, leaving their mark on the land they had conquered.  

Skara Brae

Perhaps Orkney’s most popular site, Skara Brae is older than the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. It’s been nicknamed the ‘Scottish Pompeii’ since it’s so well-preserved.  

So, what is it? Skara Brae is a prehistoric village estimated to have been built and occupied between 3000BCE and 2500BCE, during the Neolithic era. The village is made up of stone dwellings complete with ancient ‘fitted furniture’ and covered passageways.  

Back in the day, the inland village sat beside a beautiful freshwater loch. And for centuries, it was covered by a huge sand dune where it remained hidden until a powerful storm hit the island in 1850, exposing the village to the world once more. 

Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and travellers from around the world come to marvel at what these incredible people left behind. Over the years, archaeologists have found everything from tools to jewellery, many of which are on display at the Skara Brae visitor centre. Strangely, no weapons have been found which suggests they lived a peaceful life. What’s their secret?

The Standing Stones of Stenness

Scotland wouldn’t be Scotland without several things. Whisky, for one. Rain, absolutely. A wee bit of haggis. Bagpipes, to be sure. But many would argue that a good set of standing stones really scream Scotland. Perhaps that has something to do with the popular book series and TV show Outlander, which has caused many people to come to Scotland for the sole purpose of finding said stones, touching them in a dramatic fashion, and hoping they get hurtled back in time. 

As far as we know, it hasn’t happened yet. Then again, who knows... 

The Stones of Stenness have been around for around 5400 years, making them one of the earliest monuments of their kind in the British Isles. The function of such structures has always been up for debate, but we can assume they were used in celebrations and ceremonies. Excavators have found pottery and animal bones at the site, suggesting the Neolithic visitors cooked and ate food there, back in the day before pizza delivery existed. Oh, the horror.  

The Stones of Stenness are part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, which also includes the previously mentioned Skara Brae and Maeshowe. There’s one more site included in that list... 

The Ring of Brodgar

Unlike many of its counterparts, the Ring of Brodgar has never been excavated, so its real age remains a mystery. Best guess is that the main ring was constructed between 2600 and 2400 BC.  

There isn’t much evidence to help determine what the Neolithic people did at this site, or why, but as always, we assume it was a place of celebration and ceremony. It would have been a great spot for anything of that sort, surrounded as it is by hills and lochs, it’s almost a natural amphitheatre.  

Of the original 60 stones, 36 are still standing today. Alongside the stones, you’ll find 13 prehistoric burial mounds and a large rock-cut ditch surrounding the circle. When Scottish geologist Hugh Miller visited in 1846, he wrote that the stones ‘look like an assemblage of ancient druids, mysteriously stern and invincibly silent and shaggy’. 

Broch of Gurness

Welcome to the Broch of Gurness. Brochs, Iron Age round houses, are unique to Scotland and we have more than 500 of them across the country. Gurness is considered one of the most impressive brochs, dated to somewhere between 500 BC and 200 BC. It looks to have been abandoned sometime after AD 100 and used as a farmstead until the 8th century when the Nordic arrived. 

Most brochs stood alone, however some had expansive villages sprouting out around them, such as the one at Gurness which is incredibly well-preserved. Archaeology suggests that Eynhallow Sound, a seaway lying between mainland Orkney and the island of Rousay, was a regular and important resource for those who lived there. It was likely where they sourced cod, whales, and seals – all shown to have been part of their diet.  

That’s just a few of the incredible spots on the Orkney Islands that you could visit if you choose to venture north. We couldn’t recommend it more, and we often head there ourselves, on our 3-, 5-, 9-, and 10-day tours. 

We’ve decided to deep dive into the best of the best islands here in Scotland; you might be interested in our Guide to Skye blog or even this roundup of the islands

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