For armchair anthropologists and intrepid travelers alike, the Orkney Islands are a treasure trove of archaeological wonders dating back more than 5,000 years to the Neolithic age. Allow me to provide a little perspective: the Great Pyramid of Giza arrived on the scene a distant five centuries later. This place is old. Orkney, an archipelago flung from the northern tip of Scotland, is sparsely populated, and its ancient marvels solemnly endure the passage of time with few of the typical tourist trappings standing between you and the touch of pre-history.
The informative presentations of Scotland’s preservation societies fail to strip the palpable air of mysticism from these monuments. Dotted across the landscape, circles of stony plinths—wilder cousins of Stonehenge—thrust up from the uniformly level turf; seemingly mundane hills house ancient cairns beneath the earth; and clusters of stone dwellings lie recessed in the ground, hidden beneath your feet. You could easily spend months exploring the thousands of archaeological sites that populate the island chain. If you don’t have months to spare, the sites below roll up grandeur, mystery, and accessibility into a tasty primer of Orcadian history.
Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, Skara Brae’s sod-covered roofs huddle along the southern shore of the Bay of Skaill. This area was nondescript coastline until the mid-Nineteenth century when a massive winter storm stripped the grass from the earth, revealing the outlines of several stone buildings. Exploring the layered stonework dwellings makes one prone to contemplation and feelings of displacement. Alas, the site’s time is sadly limited; with every passing year Skara Brae comes closer to catastrophic erosion courtesy of the cold Atlantic waves.
The Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar ranks as one of the most magnificent stone circles in the world. The purpose of the ring and the possible rituals conducted within its arc remain shrouded to modern eyes, though there is little doubt the ring played an important role in the lives of the Neolithic people due to its proximity to other ancient sites. Catch the ring’s enormous sandstone obelisks at sunset and do yourself a favor: walk the circumference of the ring and touch each stone in turn for a quick rush.
The Stones of Stenness
Like the last remaining teeth of some gargantuan maw, the jagged Stones of Stenness stand on a narrow strip of land between two large lochs on Orkney’s mainland. Visible for miles around, their height, maxing out at 19 feet, distinguishes them from their brethren in the Ring of Brodgar, and the site has been dated to 3000 BCE. Time has taken a toll on the Stones of Stenness – only four of the original 12 stones remain. Nineteenth century locals allegedly referred to these stones as “The Temple of the Moon,” sister to the Ring of Brodgar’s “The Temple of the Sun,” though historians remain dubious of these romantic labels.
Rising from the flat expanse of a farm field, the low mound of Maeshowe looks like any other rolling hill upon first sight. Closer inspection yields a low portal that leads into the dark recesses of a chambered cairn (a burial monument unique to the British Isles). Runic inscriptions from Ninth-century Norsemen “decorate” the interior walls proving that some things never change, even after twelve centuries. The most fascinating aspect of Maeshowe is the midwinter alignment, in which the setting sun casts a ray of light directly through its portal and illuminates the interior of the cairn on the darkest day of the year. It’s normal to feel a little creeped out by that.
The Broch of Gurness
Built several millennia after sites such as Skara Brae and Maeshowe, the Broch of Gurness is an Iron Age village overlooking Eynhallow Sound. The central broch, or tower, is spacious and easily defensible, providing a glimpse of the wild and violent time in which it was occupied. Interestingly, shards of a Roman vase were found upon excavation of the broch.
Whether you’re looking for a rich taste of history, extreme and austere natural beauty, or just a piece of quiet meditation, the Orkney Islands provide ample opportunities for you to indulge.
Been to Orkney yourself? What’s your favorite spot?