No trip to Orkney is complete without a trip to the most famous Neolithic sights of the mainland. Most of these are located pretty close to each other. Even without a vehicle I managed to get around them all in a day. It involved a lot of walking, but was well worth the effort.
Before I launch into the main attractions, a few words on the adorable little town where I based myself for this adventure. Stromness is a great choice for a place to stay while checking out mainland Orkney. Besides being closer to most of the ‘must sees’ than the larger Kirkwall, it’s a gorgeous town in its own right. A beautiful little port town packed with narrow cobbled streets and old stone buildings, it makes you want to wander around the place sighing to yourself all day. Every morning the view out of the kitchen window of my hostel threatened trap me into spending all day gazing out to sea instead of actually doing anything. The harbor is lovely as well, filled with cute little tug boats as well as the giant ferry to Scabster. It’s a long walk or a short bus ride to all of the main sites, or if you’re that way inclined, the cycle hire place in town has great rates. Orkney’s fairly flat with quiet backroads making for an enjoyable ride as long as you don’t get a nasty headwind.
I start my day at Maes Howe, one of the largest Neolithic chambered tombs in Orkney. If you’re wondering what the name’s about, it was actually the name of the hill that the tomb was found inside. Built around 2800 BC, the tomb is a stunning example of Neolithic craftsmanship and shows just how intelligent these people where. It’s a tremendous building achievement and a lot of thought obviously went into the design. On the shortest day of the year the sun shines down the entranceway as it sets and hits the back wall of the tomb.
Perhaps what Maes Howe is more famous for than its craftsmanship though, is the array of viking graffiti inside. The vikings broke into the tomb in the 12th century and wrote a lot of runic script on the walls. If you’re after something life inspiring, look elsewhere. Most of the inscriptions are someone’s name followed by ‘carved these runes’, so pretty much the viking equivalent of ‘John was here’. One of my favorite ones starts talking about how treasure was missing but made the mistake of writing on the vertical and couldn’t reach high enough to finished his sentence.
It’s a busy little place, but our guide was great and the tomb is definitely worth a look. They don’t allow photography inside the tomb unfortunately, so I don’t have any pictures of this one. You’ll just have to take my word for it 😉
A short distance from Maes Howe (along a busy road unfortunately if you’re walking) are the Standing Stones of Stenness. This stone circle is fairly small but the stones that make it up are huge. One of the things I love about Scotland is how informal some of the sites are. These are sitting in a patch of grass at the side of the road with cows grazing in the next paddock. The stones date back to at least 3100 BC. There were supposed to be 12 but there is some archeological evidence that the circle may never have been completed. On top of that, a local farmer who owned the surrounding farmland got sick of people trespassing on his land to go to their rituals and destroyed some of the stones before the outraged locals put a stop to his destruction. Today only 4 of the stones remain but they’re still an impressive sight. I found the Ring of Brodgar more impressive though, so if you’re going to go to both, do these ones first as they’ll pack more punch that way.
The Barnhouse Settlement is the remains of a Neolithic village. The ruins themselves aren’t particularly impressive compared to some of the other sites, but their location is interesting. They’re right next to the Standing Stones of Stenness, and within walking distance of the Ring of Brodgar. Some of the buildings are thought to have had a ceremonial function and it’s possibly that this was the home of the island priesthood. They’re not far at all from the Standing Stones of Stenness, so its worth popping down for a more well rounded picture of life in Neolithic times.
The Ring of Brodgar is a second stone circle just up the hill from the Standing Stones of Stenness. It is thought to have been erected around 2500 BC and is probably the last of the great Neolithic monuments built in the area. The stones themselves are slightly smaller than the ones at Stenness but this ring is in a true circle that’s over 100 meters wide. This makes it the 3rd largest stone circle in the British Isles. There’s a lot of heather growing around this one, which combined with the vantage point on the hill, gives it a wilder appearance than the Standing Stones of Stenness in their quaint little paddock. It is truly a sight to behold. I took my time wandering around the circle. It’s a popular site, so I didn’t have it all to myself, but everyone around it tends to be too awe struck to break the subdued spirit of the place.
After a long walk to the East, I hit the coast and Skara Brae, a well preserved Neolithic village. It was discovered in 1850 when a particularly fierce storm unearthed sections of it from sand around the bay of Skaill. Like Maes Howe, it gets its name from the sand dunes that it was buried under. It’s a popular place. It was positively bustling while I was there, but it is well presented and an extremely interesting place to visit.
The trail to the site has a timeline that you walk down with landmark events that take you further back in time until you reach the settlement. I thought this was a great way to get people into the mindset of just how old the place was. I was struck by the fact that some events that I thought of as occurring a long time ago were fairly early in the piece. By the time I reached Skara Brae itself, built around 3200 BC, I was in awe of just how ancient it is. Pyramids, eat your heart out. The Knap of Howar is slightly older, but this is whole village, with much more sophisticated dwellings.
The protection offered by the sand all those years means that the buildings and their contents have been incredibly well preserved. The dig here has also found not just buildings, but household objects that tell a story of the everyday lives of the Neolithic people. The other Neolithic sites are interesting for what they can tell us about peoples’ rituals and religious practices, but Skara Brae is nice because it tells us more about the more mundane aspects of their lives. As a bonus, it sits right of the Bay of Skaill which is a lovely beach in its own right.
The site itself is very fragile so you can’t go inside the buildings, but there is a reconstruction of one of the larger ones near the visitors’ center that you can walk around in to get a picture of what life may have been like in the village. Much larger than the Knap of Howar, I found the building relatively cozy, if a bit cramped for the number of people who are thought to have shared it. A large step up from neanderthals cowering in caves.
Orkney’s main Neolithic sites are more heavily touristed than a lot of areas in the islands, but there’s very good reasons that these sites are so popular. It’s worth seeing them all if you have the time (and they’re so close together that making time isn’t hard). All of them are interesting on their own, but it’s the combination them all together that really starts to give an interesting picture of life for the Neolithic peoples. And with the oldest sites in Northern Europe, that’s something you’re not going to be able to find anywhere else.
Listening to: Dead Souls – Nine Inch Nails