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 during the period 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. Maeshowe was looted by Vikings in about the 12th century. 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
Visit August 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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"
The site has 4 locations
The site has 14 connections
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