Uncovering Orkney's UNESCO-listed Neolithic monuments

The isles off Scotland’s north-east coast were among the most developed in Neolithic Britain; now Orkney offers not only a chance to touch history with your own hands, but to see it being uncovered...

3 mins

Gazing out over a landscape alive with vaulting standing stones, mysterious henges and Neolithic villages, it’s not hard to find yourself swept away by the drama of Orkney. Home to a group of four prehistoric UNESCO-listed monuments, known collectively as the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’, it’s little wonder that one BBC series dubbed these Scottish isles the ‘Ancient Capital of Britain’.

“Orkney’s wealth of prehistoric treasures offers evidence that its population 5,000 years ago may have been as large as it is today,” explained Nick Card, senior projects manager at the Ness of Brodgar archaeological dig. “That makes it a place of global interest, with sites older than Stonehenge.”

Indeed, while the good folks of Salisbury were still struggling to erect their stone monoliths, humankind was thriving across the Pentland Firth. For today’s travellers, Orkney’s mainland offers plenty. You could ‘do’ the Heart of Neolithic Orkney sites in a busy 24 hours, but spreading a visit over a few days reaps richer rewards and allows time to explore ancillary sites that most people don’t know about.

The first stop on any tour of Orkney’s UNESCO-listed quartet should be the Stones of Stenness. These imposing sentinels make a logical starting point, on the fringes of the twin lochs of Harray and brackish Stenness. The site used to form a circle of a dozen stones, part of what is thought to be the UK’s oldest henge. Today, only four remain, soaring up to six metres high. Orcadians have long fought to protect them – sometimes excessively so. When one Stenness stone was destroyed by a farmer in the early 19th century, locals twice attempted to burn his house down.

Skara Brae village was first occupied from around 3180 BC but was lost to the dunes over millennia (Alamy Stock Photo)

Skara Brae village was first occupied from around 3180 BC but was lost to the dunes over millennia (Alamy Stock Photo)

Central chamber of Maeshowe cairn (Alamy Stock Photo)

Central chamber of Maeshowe cairn (Alamy Stock Photo)

Unlike Stonehenge, you can actually get up close and touch the Stones of Stenness, pressing your fingers against something that has stood in place since before the Pyramids were built. Be sure to visit the nearby Neolithic village of Barnhouse too, which lies in the shadow of its better-known neighbour and is often missed by visitors.

The locations of the Neolithic Heart sites are no accident. The Barnhouse Stone points the way from Stenness to the next important stop, and what Historic Scotland guide Robert Vasey hails as the “finest Neolithic building in north-west Europe”: the chambered cairn of Maeshowe.

Reached via a narrow 11m-long tunnel, Maeshowe’s spacious chambered tomb has a surprise or two. Robert apologised that intruders had “recently” scratched graffiti across its walls, but then let out a knowing smile.

“We’ve learned to forgive the Vikings who broke in during the 12th century,” he said, “as they left a collection of 33 runic inscriptions. There are only 60 in total across the UK. Some speak of hidden treasure, some are poetic; others I’d better not repeat.”

The site also hides a secret. Those who visit during the Winter Solstice can witness the sun beaming down the tunnel to illuminate the chamber – again, by design rather than accident.
Pushing west, across an ancient isthmus, reveals the island’s third major Neolithic site: a henge known as the Ring of Brodgar. Ranger Elaine Clark explained: “Brodgar may be the ‘baby of the family’, at around 4,500 years old, but it’s part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney story and speaks of a community pooling its resources rather than fighting each other.”

The Ring of Brodgar is the third-largest stone circle in Britain (Alamy Stock Photo)

The Ring of Brodgar is the third-largest stone circle in Britain (Alamy Stock Photo)

It’s a majestic site. Walking around Brodgar’s 27 stones – marking a 130m-wide circle – it’s easy to imagine what a dominant presence it would have cast across ancient Orkney, forming a vast forum set across a 3m-deep ditch.

The furthest west of the four Neolithic Heart sites is arguably the most dramatic. Had you visited the Bay of Skaill 200 years ago, it would just have been you and the dunes overlooking a starched white-sand Atlantic beach. Then one night in 1850, a storm tore the brilliantly preserved Neolithic village of Skara Brae from the earth. Now markers along the way to the village drag visitors back in time, over 5,000 years, to view the beds, dressers and hearths of our ancestors, all lying remarkably intact.

One of the real joys of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney is that it doesn’t end with the UNESCO-listed sites. The Ness of Brodgar dig has had TV presenter Neil Oliver gushing that “it’s the world’s most spectacular Neolithic dig … [and] the most significant archaeological discovery of my lifetime”. For six weeks every summer, the excavations – which are unearthing Neolithic and Megalithic remnants – are open to the public. Don’t delay visiting though, as it will be covered up for good after 2024’s works.

The strength in depth of Orkney’s historic sites is summed up by guide Robert Vasey. When asked about similar tombs to Maeshowe, he almost nonchalantly replied: “Orkney just keeps on giving. If you like Maeshowe, you can guide yourself to Unstan, Cuween and Wideford; nearby chambered tombs where it will just be you and the wind.”

Need to know

The Barnhouse settlement is often missed by visitors to Orkney (Alamy Stock Photo)

The Barnhouse settlement is often missed by visitors to Orkney (Alamy Stock Photo)

Location: New direct flights with Loganair go from London City Airport, via Dundee, to Kirkwall on Orkney’s mainland. The route take 3.5 hours. It augments existing flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow. By sea, Northlink Ferries connects Kirkwall to Aberdeen, taking six hours; a shorter service goes from Scrabster to Stromness (90 minutes). The quickest crossing is between Gills Bay and St Margaret’s Hope (75 minutes), which is operated by Pentland Ferries

Getting around: Orkney’s mainland is fairly flat, with two wheels ideal for travelling between the Neolithic sites. Kirkwall’s Cycle Orkney rent bicycles. 

Accommodation: The 19th-century Kirkwall Hotel has great views over Orkney’s harbour. Out of town, The Foveran is a restaurant with rooms that does a fine line in fresh scallops and world-class Orkney beef.

Further information: For more info, visit orkney.com. For details on sites, and tickets to Maeshowe and Skara Brae, go to historicenvironment.scot.

More UNESCO World Heritage Sites to explore:

Potosí, Bolivia

Mississippi River Country

Villa de Leyva, Colombia

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