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World Heritage Site

for World Heritage Travellers

Blog: WHS #639: Neolithic Orkney

Ever since I encountered a group of “druids” dressing up at the parking lot of Stonehenge, I have a hard time taking these megalithic sites seriously. Especially the UK ones, as they seem to be surrounded by a mix of semi-religious revival and commercial exploitation more than others. However, Neolithic Orkney was still on my to do-list. This site comprises 4 locations: two stone circles (Ring of Brodgar and Standing Stones of Stennes), a burial mound (Maes Howe) and the remains of a village (Skara Brae). All are located not far from each other on the Orkney island of Mainland.

Ring of Brodgar

I was tempting the logistical odds by visiting Mainland including this WHS on a weekend trip from my home. I flew to Inverness on Friday evening and returned Sunday evening. It’s a loooong commute and of course it would be better to take more time. But I managed to tick off the WHS and see some particular features of the Scottish highlands and Orkney as well.

I started out from Inverness at 7.15 am on Saturday morning. There’s a bus that connects with the ferry to Orkney from John O’Groats. The bus ride in itself is a tour already, as it comes with a guide. On the Orkney side a bus is waiting to take you up to Kirkwall and even to do a full tour of the island. I had only booked to Kirkwall, rather wanting to see things on my own speed. The tourbus was quite cramped and came with a “funny” guide, which can get on your nerves after some time.

A look across the isthmus

From Kirkwall where I was staying overnight I had planned to take the 2pm T11 bus, that connects Kirkwall with Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar. This is the most efficient way for an individual traveller to see the main sites. However, at a quarter to 2 there were already so many people waiting at the bus stand that we would never fit into one bus. I decided to go and find a taxi, which also turned into a bit of a quest because a huge German cruise ship had taken over the town and the capacity of its taxi companies. Fortunately I found a female driver near the church, and she took me to the Ring of Brodgar in about half an hour. From there I would continue by public transport.

The Ring of Brodgar is a large stone circle, located on an narrow isthmus between two “lochs”. With over 100m in diameter and a ditch around it, it is an imposing sight even from a distance. There’s no entrance fee taken or any other visitor information given, which is questionable given the importance of the site and the number of visitors. A foot path leads you along the circle, and you can get up and close with the stones (people do touch and hug them). From the Ring another path through the fields leads you to the Stones of Stenness, another and even older stone circle some 15 minutes away. It has the remains of a hearth at the center - which is about the only point of interest that I can name about it.

After that I had planned to go to Skara Brae, probably the most interesting part of this WHS. But there were no taxi’s available, and the hourly bus had just gone. I couldn’t get any data om my phone so I couldn’t check for alternative options (or the opening hours of Skara Brae). Reluctantly I had to give up and return to Kirkwall. From the bus I had a glance at Maes Howe (the 3rd component of the WHS). This is only visitable by a guided tour, which inconveniently starts at the Stenness visitor center another mile away and has to be booked in advance.

Sheep, looking comfortable at one of the Stones of Stenness

In hindsight I could have done better logistically. If you get stuck in Kirkwall like me, I think it would best to take a one way taxi to Skara Brae. After visiting that site, continue on foot to the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. It’s 5.5 miles on a straight road, so it seems walkable. The Stones of Stenness lie at the main road between Kirkwall and Stromness - from there it is relatively easy to catch one of the hourly buses between the towns that run into the evening. There’s also an evening tour of Skara Brae which looks interesting, but that would be even more of a logistical nightmare by public transport.

Published 27 August 2017

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