Standing on the most north-easterly mainland point of the British Isles the wind blows continually. Offshore amongst raging waters is a collection of islands, the Orkney Islands. The North Atlantic and the North Sea rage whatever the weather. The Pentland Firth, which stands between the British mainland and the Orkney Islands, is well known for its currents, which race at over 30 km/hr as the sea merges between the skerries from a different direction. Using modern technology, this is easily navigated with experience, but imagine having to navigate these waters in basic boats and no navigational aids. This is what makes the importance of Orkney in Neolithic times even more impressive.
The small archipelago of Orkney is made up of 70 islands and skerries, of which 20 are inhabited. The archipelago is located 10 miles off the Caithness coast of Scotland, and it has been inhabited for over 5,000 years.
The landscape is wild and rugged. Trees, which once covered the landscape, are long gone. The landscape is now a combination of wild flat moorland, high hills, and steep sea cliffs. Wildlife flourishes, with short-eared owls, sea eagles, hen harriers, and puffins are easily seen on a regular basis during the seasons, as well as unique insects and flowers, which are only found in this ancient location.
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Why is Neolithic Orkney a UNESCO Site?
Heart of Neolithic Orkney is a collection of historical sites, one of the 32 Unesco World Heritage Sites in the United Kingdom. All of Orkney’s historical sites date back to the Late Neolithic period and the early Bronze Age. All of the islands have stories to tell, and Rousay, one of the smaller islands, is known as the “Egypt of the North” since the diversity and importance of its archaeology is so great.
The UNESCO designation was awarded in December 1999, and it recognizes the intact nature of the sites and demonstration of the domestic, ceremonial, and burial practices of the once-thriving culture of the islands. The landscape is relatively undeveloped, and this also plays a part in the listing of the area.
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is made up of Skara Brae, Maeshowe, Ring of Brodgar, and the Stones of Stenness.
Best Things to See in Orkney
Skara Brae is probably the main site in this collection of locations, and if you only have time to visit one location in detail then it should be Skara Brae.
Skara Brae is a Neolithic village inhabited around 3100 BC—1000 years before Stonehenge, and even before the Pyramids at Giza. It was found by accident in 1924 when a winter storm removed the sand dunes along the shore at the Bay of Skaill. What emerged from the dunes was the remains of a village. It’s believed there were 10 to 12 homes here—they were round houses with turfed pitched roofs, and even today the beds, hearths, and dressers can still be seen.
Skara Brae has a lovely visitors center with nice café. The museum provides a timeline of the site and the information is really well presented. In the summer months, Skaill House—where the landowner who found the site lived—can be explored as well, offering insight into Victorian living on a small island.
While at Skara Brae, we love to explore the large sandy beach running alongside the village. In summer, the calm turquoise waters are perfect for a little dip and during winter storms it’s perfect for watching the waves.
Maeshowe is a little bit of a special place. It sits in a field on the side of the main road between Kirkwall and Stromness. It doesn’t look like more than a mound of earth, but once inside it is truly magical.
This chambered tomb’s 15-meter long entrance passage is perfectly aligned to the sun. On the winter solstice each year, the rising sun aligns to the passage and lights up the interior of the mound. It’s hard to believe that 5,000 years ago (carbon dating suggests 2700 BC) something like this could be achieved. A short distance from Maeshowe, in a farmer’s field, is the Barnhouse Neolithic Stone, which aligns with the tomb and the sun.
Maeshowe has a large central area, and there are a number of smaller chambers of of it. As well as its Neolithic interest, Maeshowe it is also a good example of Norse runes. It was pillaged by Norse crusaders in the 1100s and they have left their mark with an amazing collection of Norse graffiti.
Visiting Maeshowe needs planning as you can only visit on a guided tour. These tours book up well in advance, but we have found that evening tours are sometimes available and are always quieter as most visitors are back at their hotels! A short distance from Maeshowe is the new visitor’s center, which is where the tours start and as with Sara Brae, there is a small but perfectly formed exhibition.
Ring of Brodgar
As you drive down the hill from the main road from Skara Brae towards Stones of Stenness, the large stone circle of the Ring of Brodgar comes into view.
Set on the hillside in a large natural amphitheater, its importance can be felt just by its position in the landscape. Composed originally of 60 standing stones, 13 burial mounds, and a large ditch, this would have been a truly magnificent sight. Today, the burial mounds and ditch remain with 21 standing stones still upright. Its function is still not clear, but it was certainly ceremonial and the area could accommodate up to 3,000 people.
The Ring of Brodgar is free to visit, but there are no facilities other than a car park. It can get busy in the summer months, but at sunset and sunrise it’s a magical place to be. In the winter months, it is a great place to visit when the northern lights illuminate the night sky.
Ness of Brodgar Dig
Just short distance from the Ring of Brodgar is the Ness of Brodgar dig. This is an active archaeological site and the largest active site in Europe. Covered in the winter months, it becomes a hive of activity during summer. It’s open for tours in the summer, and these are really interesting. They also run kids archaeology days, where they can get hands-on experience—the absolute highlight of the summer for my two history mad boys!
Stones of Stenness
Just a short distance from Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe (you can see both from these stones) is a small site of standing stones called the Stones of Stenness. They sit overlooking Loch of Stenness. Originally a circle of 12 stones and a henge, all that remains today are four stones. However, two of the stones are over 6 meters in height, huge against this low barren landscape.
This stone circle isn’t as impressive as Ring of Brodgar, but the sheer size of the stones makes up for everything.
The Stones of Stenness sit in a farmers field with a small parking area and information board. There are usually sheep wandering around the field taking no interest in the importance of their home.
Other Key Burial Mounds, Stones, and Cairns
Dotted all over the Orkney Islands are other standing stones, cairns, and burial mounds. Most are free to enter and many have torches available for use. All are different and well worth a visit in their own right. It can be a little unsettling at times, wandering through a stranger’s garden, but when you arrive at the cairn it’s as if you are meant to be there.
Some have interesting entrance means—the Tomb of Eagles on South Ronaldsay has a small wheeled cart and a pull rope to get you through the narrow entrance passageway, whilst others have multiple chambers to explore, like Quoyness Chambered Tomb on Sanday.
Getting to Orkney
Orkney has various transport methods, and all seem like an adventure. The quick and easy option is to fly from within Scotland to Kirkwall, the main town on the islands. From there use the a bus ride or find an affordable rental car to reach all the sites.
If you’re a little more adventurous, there are ferries from around John O’Groats in Scotland. One runs from Scrabster to Stromness and takes just under two hours, or you can take a shorter hop from Gills Bay to St. Margaret’s Hope, however, this gives you a longer drive to Orkney Mainland and the main sites. Either way, a flat calm day is favorite unless you have a good supply of seasickness medication.
Where to Stay on Orkney
Orkney is one of my favorite places to escape to from the United Kingdom, and there are lots of options in every price bracket, from campsites to luxury hotels.
Holiday cottages are dotted around the villages and provide the freedom to explore all of the islands. Some are on the shoreline, others nestled in the hills and can really allow you to feel the history in the landscape.
View the complete list of Orkney accommodation options here. But in short, Merkister Hotel is a beautiful family-run hotel near Kirkwall for those on a mid-range budget, the Stromness Hotel is well located and great for those on a budget, and The Storehouse Restaurant with Rooms is a great splurge. If you’re camping, use the Orkney Islands Council site to check campground availability–book a spot ahead of time during high season.
The islands are small so nowhere is more than an hour of driving wherever you stay. You can explore everything in a day but to really get to know the islands a week is a minimum.
By Suzanne Easton
Suzanne is a bit of a wanderer, looking to escape the crowds and explore the more offbeat places of the world with her two teenage sons. Wildlife, photography, and landscapes, especially wild cliffs, feature in her blog, Meandering Wild, which documents her travels and makes suggestions and provides inspiration for photography and adventures around the UK and beyond.