The Heart of Neolithic Orkney refers to a group of Neolithic monuments found in a harsh physical environment on the Scottish Orkney Islands.
The structures were built from 3000 BC to 2000 BC. Archaeological evidence suggests that they were important social and religious centres. Three sites are located close to each other:
- Maeshowe: a burial mound built on an artificial platform, with an interior passage and chambers. It is aligned so that the rear wall of its central chamber held up by a bracketed wall, is illuminated on the winter solstice. The more than thirty runic inscriptions they left behind on the walls of the chamber represent the largest single collection of such carvings in the world.
- Standing Stones of Stenness: 12 large standing thin slabs of stone, 4 of them were part of a stone circle; it also includes the Watch Stone, a monolith 5.5m tall
- Ring of Brodgar: a series of tall stones (originally 60, now 27 left) forming a circle of 104m diameter. The area also holds thirteen burial mounds.
The 4th site, the neolithic village of Skara Brae, lies on the west coast of Mainland. This is a settlement composed of stone-built houses. It was rediscovered in 1850 after a fierce storm uncovered it.
Map of Neolithic OrkneyLoad map
I visited all four components of this WHS in March 2023. With an asterisk, more on which later.
The two freely-accessible parts, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness both sit fairly close to each other on the major road that runs towards the western coastline of the Mainland Orkney and are impossible to miss. Each of them can be explored relatively quickly (although the parking lot for the Ring is a few hundred yards down the road from it). For my money, the Stones are more picturesque, while the Ring feels more spiritually charged. If you have extra time, walking around the Stones towards the shore will bring you after a couple of hundred yards to a relatively recently (1980s) discovered Barnhouse Settlement - not part of the WHS as it is, but worth a look for some.
The Maeshowe chambered cairn is also close by, but this is the one component that requires advanced reservations and a bit of additional time investment: you need to show up at the visitor center - which is not by the cairn - a few minutes before the start of the tour, and board a shuttle to go there and back for the guided portion of the tour that will last an hour or so. The mound is picturesque enough when seen from the outside and impressively built, if somewhat barren, on the inside. And then the guide will highlight runes and writings on the walls – admittedly dating from more recent times of the Vikings era – that make the place utterly fascinating. The guide did a fantastic job with all sorts of context and insights. I highly recommend making sure to see Maeshowe.
It should be noted that there are over a dozen other chambered cairns all over Orkney, not included in the WHS, but many are free to enter. For example, the Unston Cairn is less than a mile down the road from the Maeshowe visitor center.
The other component of the serial site is the village of Skara Brae, which sits somewhat away from the other three on the western coast of the island. Unfortunately, it can be closed on a given day due to “bad weather” with minimal notice. And so it was when we arrived. I am somewhat skeptical of the notion that a layer of snow on the ground and a wind chill of -3°C on a moderately cloudy day can truly constitute an instance of bad weather for people who make Orkney their chosen place of residence. On the other hand, the actual remains of the village are a quarter of a mile down the coast from the visitor center; you can walk around the perimeter of the site and towards the settlement even during the closure, but I judged it not worth the effort in the cold and wind – so maybe the bad-weather bit was not completely invalid. So, we limited ourselves to walking around the visitor center area for a few minutes and looking at exposed structures there. Hence, the aforementioned asterisk. Coming back another day was unfortunately not an option. I suspect Skara Brae would require at least an hour to explore in full. Furthermore, my rating may have been higher if not for the Skara Brae closure.
Read more from Ilya Burlak here.
I report below on a way of visiting the Orkney WHS not yet described among the numerous reviews to date - a “1 day return coach tour” from John O’Groats (J O’G). We had previously visited Orkney and its WHS across several days with our own car and, if you have got that far north in UK, have never previously visited and have the time, then the islands definitely deserve more than the tour I am about to describe. On the other hand, if you are short of time, then this option is worth considering if you at least want to pick up the WHS (and a bit more!!). There is plenty written about the WHS so I will concentrate on the logistics as we investigated and experienced them other than saying that, whatever logistical choices you make, then give top priority to ensuring that you see Scara Brea.
There are 3 "short sea" ferry routes between the north coast of Scotland and the Orkneys. Unfortunately for “day trippers” the first 2 of these below operate their daily first/last sailings Southwards/Northwards respectively which reduces the “1 day island time” for those going in the opposite directions. “Last check in” is also 30 mins absolute minimum pre departure on the return - thus further reducing such time. All prices and timetables used are as at May 2022.
1. Scrabster to Stromness. Car Ferry. 90 minutes sailing. Dept Sc 8.45/St 16.45. Goes past the Old Man of Hoy. Stromness is well placed for the WHS as well as onward transport options and accommodation. Scrabster is only 2 miles from Thurso. 1 day island time 6 hrs max (less if you followed the "1hr recommended" pre departure check in time with a car!).
2. Gills Bay (GB) to St Margaret’s Hope (SMH). Car ferry. 1 hour sailing. Dept GB 9.30/SMH 17.00. Cheaper than 1. especially in summer as it doesn’t operate variable pricing by season. Probably the better route with a car (unless seeing the “Old Man” is important – you will need best part of a day to reach and see it once on Orkney) The routes could also be “mixed” as there are no “return” discounts. For pedestrians this route connects Mo-Fr with buses from/to Thurso and Wick for the first and last sailings (GB is 3 miles W of J O'G) and between SMH and Kirkwall and on to Stromness. 1 day island time 6 hrs max
3. J O’G to Burwick. Pedestrians only (and cycles for free!). 40 minutes sailing. Dept J O’G 8.45/B 17.30. The single ferry fare is £16 - plus £4 if you go on by bus to Kirkwall. There is absolutely nothing at Burwick so, if you are not taking the tour, you will need at least to take this onward bus immediately. There are connecting buses on Mo-Fr from/to Thurso and on to Wick on return. (But not, as I understand it, up from Wick in the morning). 1 day island time c 8 hrs
So – all 3 offer the possibility of a 1 day trip with at least 6 hrs on Orkney. But how are you going to get around?
a. With your own car - Ferry 2. is £40 each way v ferry 1 @ £56/£64 (season dependent). 6hrs should be enough to see the WHS together with a fair bit of the “Mainland island” and those connected by causeways. With passenger tickets at £17 each way, this will cost £74 each plus petrol if split across 2 PAX.
b. Rentacar “might” be available at Stromness but hasn’t updated its Web site in years! Extra travel hassle between SMH/Burwick and Kirkwall (where cars are available from £62 pd plus add ons) would seem to kill off those options.
c. What about buses? The morning T11 Kirkwall return "hop-on hop-off" connects with Ferry 1 in Stromness at 10.45 and, for £16, gives you 85 minutes at SB, 30 mins at Brodgar and "drive bys" for Maes Howe/Stennes. How good the booking system is to guarantee you a seat starting at Stromness (see Els's review for bus capacity issues!) I don't know. It gets you back to Kirkwall at 1.35 and you would then need another bus to return to Stromness after seeing Kirkwall. See here for details. Arrival on Ferry 2 at SMH/Burwick faces you with additional journeys/problems getting to/from Kirkwall and doesn't connect with the 10am T11 dept from Kirkwall
d. Bike Rental? Possibly available at Stromness . The ride to SB, returning via the other 3 WHS elements is c18 miles and, the route, whilst not flat, isn’t particularly hilly. With the return passenger fare on ferry 1 costing between £36 and £42 return (dependent on Season) and a bike hire at around £13(?), I reckon that this is the cheapest way to see the WHS! BUT – you will see little else of Orkney (though, if you are confident in your cycling ability it should be possible to take in the Cliffs, Stacs and Puffins with a diversion to Yesnaby on the way out to SB).
e. Ferry/Coach tour! Ferry route 3. offers a combined Ferry/Coach tour ticket for £79 per pax - and thus "guarantees" connections and visits. So the coach tour is an additional £39 on top of the Kirkwall return fare. BUT this also includes the ticket for SB worth £12 at full rate – so £67 per pax for the ferries and bus tour – significantly cheaper than taking a car for a single traveler but a “judgement call” for 2 PAX v option a above?
On this occasion we chose option e. and our tour went thus
a. Daily departure from J O’G (May to Sept) at 8.45 with only a 10 minute earlier check in. Full day parking at the ferry is £2 (you could probably avoid this by parking up the hill and walking to the harbour). The boat is smaller than others crossing the Pentland Firth and (we were told) doesn’t operate in more than a 15/20ft swell (!!!). There was nothing like that for us and we arrived and transferred on time.
b. In theory you have from 10.45 to 12 noon in Kirkwall – on your own to do what you want. This has a fair bit of spare – presumably in case of rough crossings and late arrival at Burwick . In fact we got from 10.15 to noon. The interesting Cathedral (See Christer Sundberg’s review) and the excellent (free) Orkney Museum will easily take up this, leaving only time for the outside of the Bishop's and Earl's' palaces and a quick perusal of the town centre
c. Lunch at Stromness 12.45 to 1.45. Not a lot of eating choice - better to come prepared. 1hr is enough for a snack and seeing Stromness town/harbour.
d. Scara Brea 2 to 3pm. N.b If you are not visiting on a tour then on line pre-booking now seems essential (and cheaper). Notices stating “No Walk ins” were out when we visited. It appears that a large proportion of daily visit “slots” (certainly excluding early and late ones) are taken up by tour groups and our daily tour gets “first pick” at the 2pm one. Kirkwall is now a significant “cruise port” and, whilst some will drop 500 pax, others disgorge as many as 4000+ - and a lot of them will want to go to SB!!! If you are flexible, then check on THIS to avoid a cruise day – if only to avoid crowds. IMO, 1 hr is not quite enough for SB but then I like to savour archaeological sites. Except in winter, the ticket also includes a visit to the adjacent “Skaill House”, for which you pay slightly more whether you wish to see it or not. This is a nicely presented/furnished manor house going back to the 16th C which, in other circumstances, would be worth viewing in detail …but on a fixed tour every minute there is 1 less at SB!
e. Ring of Brodgar 3.15 to 3.45. With a walk from/to the car park this only gives time for a single circuit of the ring and a read of the information boards but I don’t think we would have spent much more even without any time pressure. “Site management” policies are now controlling access to the stones and we were not “allowed” to go into the Ring and touch them.
f. “Drive past” the Stones of Stenness and Maes Howe. In fact we were given 10 minutes at the Stones (most people stayed on the bus – typical “Coach Tourists”!!!!) and I am not sure we would have wanted much more if on our own. You also pass and have a quick view of the Ness of Brodgar and its excavations (which are open for visits in July and most of August - in May they are all covered by tarpaulin and old tyres). We had visited Maes Howe ourselves many years ago but anyone wanting to go inside now has to book in advance (very limited) at £9.50 pp within their available time. Those not doing so might be interested to investigate the “Grey Cairns of Camster” on the mainland 26 miles south of J O’G. These are Neolithic tombs you can go in for free but without the, much later and Viking, Runic script carvings…...and not of course “WHS”.
g. Finally there is a short stop at Kirkwall, followed by a return crossing of the “Churchill Barriers” at Scapa Flow and a 15 minute stop at the “Italian Chapel” built in 1943/4 by Italian POWs. There is an extra entry fee if you want to go in. And so back to the 17.30 ferry with 10 mins to spare...…a short crossing and on time arrival into J O’G at 6.10pm.
We were reasonably pleased with what we got. The “coach tour aspects” weren’t too onerous with only short drives and no “grouped visits” (none of them was “guided”), the driver’s chatter wasn’t too excruciating and the fellow passengers were no “bother”. We had no congenitally “late arrivers” and we kept to time, no inane questions, no personal introductions, no “sing song” and no tips at the end…! The impression was that this was all “situation normal” for this tour. We hadn’t wanted to go for an in depth wildlife visit (In all honesty there are good locations for this on the mainland) or a “full house” of islands. Whether it is the right “1 day” option for you, only you can decide. IMO - if you don’t have a car it could well be – especially as you could do the Thurso to Wick bus trips as part of it. If you do - then do you want the “uncertainties” of option a. with the extra freedom and slight extra cost or the “certainties” of option e with the loss of freedom and a slightly reduced cost? In the words of the old English saying “You pays your money and you takes your choice!”
Since I had read „At home“ by Bill Bryson with its great chapter on Skara Brae I had dreamed to visit the Orkneys. And when I planned my trip to Scotland for summer 2019 it was my top priority to see these islands.
We travelled around the whole northern coast of the country including the most important Islands and I found the landscape absolutely stunning: The lushness of the vegetation and the shades of green in the wonderful Glencoe valley asked for a longer exploration then we had time for. Five days on the Isle of Skye were hardly enough, even more so since it included a day trip to the Outer Hebrides and a great, long, rough and very expensive day trip to St. Kilda. More about that in another post.
When we continued north towards the Cape of Wrath and the Orkneys the vegetation changed a lot but the landscape remained fascinating: Trees disappeared almost completely, there were only bushes, meadows and mainly moss. This increased until we arrived on the Orkneys with their scraggy vegetation. It seems that the Orkneys have been lacking trees for thousands of years and even its neolithic population - and everybody after them - had to look for other material. Fortunately there is the typical tabular Orkney flagstone that can be found almost anywhere and that seems very easy to work with. This combination makes the Orkneys the most fascinating neolithic sites of northern Europe.
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney
The title of this WHS is fitting: It contains possibly the best sites of the archipelago in a relatively small area: Skara Braeis an miraculously conserved village with sewage system and interior decoration, the Ring of Brodgar is a stone ring that is much older and larger (but simpler) then Stonehenge and Maes Howe is the most sophisticated artistic and architectonic feat on the islands with the nice icing of its collection of Viking runes. The forth site is smaller and a bit less impressive: The Stones of Stenness.
The title implies a connection between the four sites and three of them (Skara Brae has a separate buffer zone) are so close and beautifully situated between two lakes that a sacred or at least ritual connection between the sites seems obvious. There are many more ancient sites between and around them: stone rings, hill tombs and the interesting Barnhouse settlement, many of a similar age, but they are only in the buffer zone. In recent years the main focus of archaeologists has lain on the Ness of Bordgar, a huge complex of buildings that has only partly been excavated and it is already called by some archaeologists the most important archaeological dig in the world. It shows very different buildings then Skara Brae, much bigger, which had clearly a public function.
Right on the shore of the Loch of Stenness, one of the two lakes, lies the Unstan Cairn, a beautiful tomb that is also one of the oldest buildings of the island (and in the UK and in northern Europe…).
Yet only the four main sites are part of the core zone, the rest of the mentioned buildings is in the buffer zone. Considering the proximity and the connection between all of them an extension of the site seems not only logical but also necessary. It would make most sense to include most of what is now the buffer zone into a new core zone.
A similar thing can be said about the core zone of Skara Brae, a few miles further west: There are strong indications that the piece of grass land next to it might be part of the same village but for decades there has been no money to start digging there. This is absolutely flabbergasting: one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in the world and there is not money (in the first world) to continue digging!
Great archaeological sites outside the WHS:
While this two areas are certainly reason enough to travel to the Orkneys they are by far not the only reason to travel there. They say you can’t build a house on the Orkneys without finding traces of an ancient building. While I cannot say if this is literally true I can attest that the five days we spent on the Orkneys were hardly enough to see the most important sites. There are so many more sites and so many of them are so remarkable that they should not be missed and some of them would easily deserve to be part of the WHS or even a separate one.
I will point out here only the most important sites that I would consider a must to every dedicated visitor:
The Island of Rousay lies north of Mainland Orkney. Its West coast is called “the Egypt of the North” for the amazing density of ancient buildings and it could be a WHS in its own right. Several of them are remarkable: The Taversoe Tuik, a Neolithic chamber tomb that is unique for its two floors, the Blackhammer Chambered Cairn, the Know of Yarsoand - as the highlight - the huge Midhowe Chambered Cairn, the largest prehistoric building on the Orkneys (also neolithic). The neighbouring Midhowe Broch is from a later period, the Iron Age, and was altered and reused over hundreds of years.
All these buildings were built of stones but had a roof made with organic material that is now lost. The same is true for Maes Howe, which was completed - historically incorrectly - with a stone ceiling. Most tombs on Rousay have an even less historic concrete roof with windows that light the previously dark spaces and make a visit easier and potentially nicer. But the light together with the wet weather allows the growth of moss on the stones and this will lead over time to great damage to the structures. I hope they will clean them and close the window holes in order to keep this heritage from getting lost.
On the way back to the ferry we walked further down, closer to the sea. Thereby we passed the extensive ruins of Skaill Farm from the 18th century. This was doubly interesting as there was a team of experts and volunteers at work who were most kind in explaining us their finds and the different levels that were discernible. Even better, further on we found a large team of young people excavating a site right next to the sea called „Swandro site“. This was found only recently and seems a rather unique site on the Orkneys insofar as it includes finds from very different periods encompassing thousands of years. A young lady was so kind to explain to us what they were doing. It seems like a big puzzle and they have to document every new layer and try to figure out which stone belongs to which structure and period while the sea is gradually washing away the site. This is quite a tragedy: A very complex, possibly unique site has to be excavated and documented as quickly as possible before will disappear. You can follow their work online (and make a contribution) on https://www.swandro.co.uk . To get to Rousay in the summer there are several ferries a day from Tingwall House on Mainland Orkney. It might be of advantage to make a reservation (only by phone), especially if you bring a car.
Probably the most enjoyable neolithic site on the Orkneys needs a further journey: We took a small plane from Kirkwall airport to the northern Island of Papa Westray. Those flights are often very cheap on the condition that you spend at least one night on the island, probably a means to help the economy there. There is literally only one, quite decent hotel on the island. The flight was a treat since it gave us the opportunity to see the archipelago from the air, even the small, private, inaccessible islands. Just for that it was worth the trip! The other great thing about the flight was, that when we checked in they just asked for our names but didn’t even want to see our ticket or identification. I think this may be the only country in the world where people still trust you to be honest! If it hadn’t happened before this was the final moment I fell in love with this country.
After arriving with our tiny plane on Papa Westray and checking in we walked a mile or so to our main attraction: The Knap of Howar, a pair of houses on the west coast of the island, similar to the houses in Skara Brae but even around 500 years older! They are the oldest building in the UK and the oldest surviving dwellings north of the Mediterranean! They are free to visit, it was a beautiful afternoon and there was nobody else around. Like Skara Brae they look like the inhabitants had just left them. We could enter the houses, sit in the niches they build into the wall, lie on their beds. Who has ever lain in bed that is 5500 years old? After enjoying this we continued our walk along the coast of the northern half of the island, most of which is a natural reserve for birds with interesting rocks all the way around.
Of the other Neolithic buildings on the Orkneys we visited I will here only recommend one more: We found the Wideford Hill Cairn near Kirkwall especially beautifully built and it is easy to reach. The beauty of its architecture recalled Maes Howe.
On the southern Island of Hoy with its impressively high cliffs is another unique site that we did not have the time to visit: Dwarfie Stane is the only tomb on the Orkneys carved out of massive rock. Like most Neolithic buildings on the Orkneys it is older then the first Egyptian pyramids.
While the Orkneys are most incredible for the age and sophistication of their neolithic buildings there are also later buildings of great interest that should not be missed:
On the west coast of Mainland there is the Broch of Borwick: Like all brochs it is much, much younger then the Neolithic buildings but still around 2000 years old. This is attractive as it can be linked with a walk along the fantastic cliffs on that coast, along the Yesnaby Coastal Walk.
At the north end of this coast is another great combination of archaeology and landscape: The Brough of Birsay: This little island can be reached by foot but only at low tide. This has remains of several periods: it was inhabited by the Picts and it may have been the seat of one of their kings. Then it was taken over by the Vikings. There are extensive remains of the foundations of Viking houses, which is insofar unique as the Vikings normally built with wood. Here, as in Jarlshof on the Shetlands, they were forced, like everybody else, to build in stone. Therefore there is much more left to see then in most, even the more famous (and inscribed) Viking sites which often are rather disappointing. There was also a monastery and the island is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga as the seat of the first Norwegian Earl on the Orkneys. The short hike around the island leads to a lighthouse and offers fantastic cliff views (you can tell, I love cliffs).
Very impressive in the Northeast of Mainland, opposite Rousay, is the Broch of Gurness, especially for the well-preserved broch village around it. It is nonetheless a challenge to make sense of the structures: Did they have roofs? And if yes, how were they built if there was no wood available?
After the broch and the Viking era the last great era of the Orkneys was the medieval era (from 1000 AD on) which is linked in many places to the Orkneyinga Saga: On Mainland there is a massive ruin of a Bishops Palace in Birsay (on the mainland, not the island). There are more interesting looking buildings on the island of Wyre and Egilsay but we did not have the time to travel there.
But the main buildings from around 1000 AD are conveniently in the capital Kirkwall: The elaborate Bishop’s and Earl's Palaces and above all they grandest building on the islands: St.-Magnus-Cathedral, built of beautiful red stone.
It is really worth exploring these islands for their unique heritage as well as for their landscape. After five days we had the feeling we had seen the most important sites but certainly not exhausted the archipelago.
I'll always associate the Orkney Islands with the 2019 World Heritage Site meet-up, since they were the first place I met some of the regulars from this forum, to include Nan in Kirkwall, Hubert in Stromness, and a near miss of Philipp and Jasam and their wives, whom I unknowingly passed by at lunch. Orkney also had an exceptionally interesting World Heritage Site, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, the components of which have been very well documented below. Of the components, I most enjoyed Skara Brae, a neolithic coastal settlement uncovered in the 19th century, though I'd also highly recommend a visit to the mounded tomb of Maes Howe, which generally requires an advance reservation for a guided tour. If there is time, the walk between the two groups of standing stones is very scenic, and takes one right next to the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site, which I though was well worth the detour. Summer turned out to be a great time to explore this site, and I can only hope the weather is as nice for other visitors as it was for me.
Logistics: Many others have documented how to get to Orkney via Stromness, but if you have your own car, I can recommend the short ferry ride from St. Margaret's Hope to Gills Bay, from where one can drive along causeways around the Scapa Flow to Kirkwall on Orkney.
I visited this WHS in July 2019. Seeing that our trip to St Kilda got cancelled on both days, I was determined to at least make up for it partially with a visit to Neolithic Orkney. So the day before my visit, I bought car ferry tickets for Jacob Choi and myself through the Northlink Ferry website. Even though on their website Northlink state that you have to be there 90 minutes before departure, in reality 45mins to 1hr should be enough especially on the way to Stromness from Scrabster.
That said, I didn't want to risk missing the ferry so at around 2am I was already driving from Stein in Skye to Scrabster via Portree. After the cattle grid areas full of sheep since it was lambing season, the roads were in a very good state and I only had to be careful of the occasional HUGE stags drinking near the waterstreams by the roadside and obviously stay awake. Jacob religiously followed Nan's and others' advice to make sure I remainied awake and after 5.5hrs of driving we made it to the Scrabster ferry point. The weather was gorgeous and after having a quick breakfast we saw the sun rise opposite the Holburn Head Lighthouse just a short walk from the ferry.
The car ferry from Scrabster took around 90 minutes to get to Stromness. Apart from being the only option if you want to travel by rental car, compared to the other ferries departing from John O'Groats, the Northlink Ferry drops you off at Stromness which is right in the middle of all the 4 locations of this WHS (Kirkwall and St Margaret's Hope are quite far away). From Stromness you can also easily rent a bike to cover all the sites on a sunny day. It can get VERY windy on the ferry but the car ferry is relatively new and can easily withstand even the roughest seas apparently. If you're lucky to find sunny weather, you'll easily spot puffins, gannets, dolphins, sharks and maybe some whales (depending on the season you visit) en route to the Orkneys.
Arriving early in Stromness meant that we were ahead of most of the tourist groups so we decided to head to Skara Brae first (top left photo). This turned out to be a very wise move as from here we also managed to book 2 spots for a guided tour of Maes Howe in the afternoon. Archaeologisits believe that the settlement of Skara Brae was inhabited for several centuries from around 3100 BC and that it did not grow larger than eight structures housing 50 to 100 people. Structure 8 is the only building in the settlement which is not a house and is indeed the largest structure. It appears to have been a workshop for making stone tools and perhaps pottery, bone tools and wooden implements. There was a central hearth but no box beds or dressers. Another remarkable structure is Structure 1 where you can see what looks like a very neat stone set of shelves. With a zoom lens you can also spot the small but important stone carvings found at Structure 7. These carvings are right on the edge of one of the box beds made of local flagstones. Several artefacts were found here such as gaming dice, whalebone pins, stone balls, tools, etc. and some of them can be seen at the visitor centre together with a replica 'earth-roof' structure where an informative video is played. Skara Brae lay buried under the sand for almost 4500 years until it was discovered in 1850 when a storm stripped the grass from the dunes.
The two stone circles of the Ring of Brodgar (bottom left photo) and the Stones of Stenness (top right photo), together with the astonishing nearby mound of Maes Howe (bottom right photo), the many smaller mounds, standing stones and the central stone aligned with the mountains in the background, indicate that the centre of Neolithic Orkney was a place of immense ceremonial significance. What they really signified we can only guess now, but like Callanish in Lewis, Machrie Moor in Arran, Stonehenge in Wiltshire, Newgrange in Ireland, and the Megalithic temples in Malta and Gozo, they are evidence of communal efforts on a grand scale, by people whose beliefs united them with a much wider society.
The Ring of Brodgar was originally made up of 60 stones in a huge circle, surrounded by a ditch 10 metres wide and 3 metres deep, which would have taken some 80,000 working hours to cut with stone tools! Nearby, only 4 stones remain at Stenness, out of the original 12, encircled by a ditch cut from solid rock with an outer bank. From Maes Howe, you will easily spot both locations as well as the central stone and other stone dangerously located by the roadside and the only farmhouse in the vicinity with which there were several disputes over the years.
If you have time, do visit the Ness of Brodgar which is open to the public in the summer months with tours at 11am, 1pm and 3pm. Here you will have the chance to watch excavations taking place or even lend out a helping hand on special organised tours. The Ness of Brodgar is a very large site compared to the other inscribed sites and is currently divided in three trenches. In due time it should easily be part of an extension.
A guided visit of Maes Howe will give you a good idea of what the large slanting standing stones were used for. Mainly these were used as the basis supporting the whole covered mound. Photography is not allowed inside but I managed to at least take a couple of photos going out of the mound. Maes Howe turned out to be a highlight of my visit to the Orkneys as it not only helps you appreciate the centre of Neolithic Orkney but also surprises you with the sheer amount of Viking carvings and etchings. As described in the Orkneyinga Saga, Maes Howe was looted by Vikings in the 12th century. The several runic inscriptions on the walls of the chamber represent the largest single collection of such carvings in the world. In my opinion the runic inscriptions rival those found in Scandinavia!
All in all I really had a good time and I enjoyed this WHS (apart from the very early wake up call). There are 2 UNESCO plaques at Skara Brae and Maes Howe and 2 information boards with the UNESCO symbol at the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness.
I didn't quite know what to expect, when I made plans to visit the Orkney Islands. On the one hand, it's a neolithic site and those tend to be rather simple, if not outright dull. On the other hand, I have been curious about the Orkney Islands in general. Add to this me getting a WHS tick and I was good to go. As it turned out, this was the highlight of my 2019 UK trip.
The site covers so much for a neolithic site: two stone circles (Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness), a winter solstice oriented tomb grave (Maeshowe) and really tangible remains of a neolithic village (Skara Brae). The cherry on top are the viking inscriptions in the tomb and the active excavation site at Ness of Brodgar (picture). And the gorgeous landscape of the Orkney's which is effectively part of the site as the tomb grave was aligned for the winter solstice with the hills of Hoy, the neighboring island.
There are fairly expensive direct flights from Scotland (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness). You can also connect by plane to the Shetland Islands.
Seeing it’s an island, the other options always involve a ferry ride. Existing ferry lines are:
- Scrabster to Stromness: Scrabster is connected to the Scottish Rail network (Thurso).
- John o’ Groats to St. Margaret’s Hope: There is a direct bus connection from Inverness including the ferry ride.
- Aberdeen to Kirkwall: Long boat ride. Continues to the Shetlands
Be advised, that even if you are driving by car, it will probably take you the better part of a day to get from Edinburgh to the Orkneys. Also, check-in times for the ferries tend to be rather early (one hour or earlier before scheduled departure).
There are public buses on the island, but even in high season they don’t run frequently. In addition, google maps has the departure times wrong. I repeatedly waited for buses that didn’t come. I ended up walking from Skara Brae to the Ring of Brodgar. Be advised, that Orkney is not really nice hiking territory as they don't have trails. It’s probably smarter to simply rent a bike as the islands aren’t that big.
To see other islands, you can take several ferries that run multiple times a day.
You can also bring your car, but you must reserve a place on the ferry. It’s not ensured that you will get a place short notice in high season.
The Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness are accessible for free. Maeshowe (the hill) can be seen from the road, but to get in you need a ticket. Tours start at the visitor center and an online reservation is advised. If you don’t have a reservation, my recommendation would be to head to the visitor center first thing in the morning to get a ticket. Skara Brae also requires a (separate) ticket, but you do not need to reserve.
At Brodgar they offer free guided tours. Between Stenness and Brodgar lies the Ness of Brodgar where during the summer months active excations take place and they also offer free tours.
Where to Stay
In high season (July, August) you need to reserve your accommodation well in advance. My recommendation would be to stay in Stromness as 1) you are within walking distance of the ferry port (Scrabster) and 2) Stromness is the nicer city than Kirkwall, being an old fishing town and harbour.
While You Are There
Kirkwall boasts a Viking church. There are also two Whisky distilleries on the main island: Highland Park and Scapa. You need to reserve in advance, though, if you want to join a tour. For divers or those interested in history, the German WW1 naval fleet was scuttled in Scapa Flow.
On the island of Rousay, you can visit more prehistoric ruins, e.g. Midhowe Broch. The island of Hoy offers nice hiking and birding opportunities.
Ever since I encountered a group of “druids” dressing up at the parking lot of Stonehenge, I have had 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.
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 at my own speed. The tour bus was quite cramped and came with a “funny” guide, which can get on your nerves after some time.
From Kirkwall where I was staying overnight, I had planned to take the 2 pm 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 a 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 footpath leads you along the circle, and you can get up and close to 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 taxis available, and the hourly bus had just gone. I couldn’t get any data on 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.
In hindsight, I could have done better logistically. If you get stuck in Kirkwall like me, I think it would be 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.
For over 25 years I have been traveling to World Heritage Sites around the world. This is a film about the Orkney Island north of Scotland (Swedish voice-over and English subtitles).
Orkney Coaches run a fantastic service linking the four parts of the WHS with Stomness and Kirkwall. A day ticket cost 7 pounds, and I felt right at home on the bus (the driver was from Tasmania). I found the ancient dwellings at Skara Brae very intesting, but Maes Howe seemed a smaller version of the mound at Newgrange, Ireland.
Connecting from the Scottish rail system to Kirkwall was made very simple with a return ticket costing 28 pounds, which covered the journey fron Thurso to Kirkwall via John O'Groats and Burwick and back again to Wick, in itself an interesting journey.
I have made two trips to Orkney. It's a magical place. The neolithic sites of the Ring of Brogdar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe and Skara Brae are all wonderful. Part of the magic is that it's not over crowded. The rest of Orkney is worth visiting as well. St. Magnus Cathedral is fascinating. And the town of Stromness is more than a ferry port. South Ronaldsay, where my grandfather grew up is over the Churchill Barriers. You can visit the Italian Chapel which was done built by 20th century POWs. There are many jewelry designers and other artists on the island. Go to Hoy to say a more wild place than Orkney's mainland. You can see towers that were built for defense during the Napoleonic Wars. From near Longhope you can look back over the Pentland Firth to the mainland of Scotland. Read George Mackay Brown's stories to learn more about Orkney.
My trip to the Orkney Islands was wonderful. I spent one full day and parts of two. With my friend I visited the Ring of Brodgar, the Maeshowe tomb, and the settlement of Skara Brae. All were very interesting.
The ring is very large and can be walked around freely (unlike, say, Stonehenge). You can walk right up to the slabs. It's right off the road.
The tomb is awe-inspiring. The space is maybe 15'x15'x15'. It is pretty completely dark except for the light from the guide's torch (flashlight for us Americans). My friend and I were the only folks in the tomb with the guide, and it was all the better for it. Not only do you get a 5000-year old stone tomb that took a hundred thousand man hours to build, but you also get a collection of 11th century Viking graffiti, too. The tomb is in a grass mound a short way from the road; you must buy a ticket (I think it was 10 quid) at the converted farmhouse opposite.
And the settlement is the most beautiful. Set right by the ocean, it is a sprawling area of holes in the ground, surrounded by rocks, and with some treasures inside. You can actually see a 5000-year old "stone dresser", which is clearly a shelving unit built out of rock for the room's inhabitants. It's still standing. On a nice day this is a really wonderful place to be. Another 5 or 10 quid.
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- Full Name
- The Heart of Neolithic Orkney
- Unesco ID
- United Kingdom
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- Archaeological site - Prehistoric
- By ID
As "Orkneys": Less restrictive site required
Nominated and deferred on recommendation of the Bureau as "Maes Howe and Brogar" for extension and increased protection
On T List as "Mainland Orkney"
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