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.”