Orkney's mysterious Stone Age monuments have long intrigued scientists, historians, and visitors, alike. Now, recent discoveries made since the millennium, raise the Heart of Neolithic Orkney into a class of its own.
For decades, the ancient monuments of Orkney, especially those clustered on the largest island (called The Mainland), have attracted researchers. The massive stone circles chambered tombs, and buried villages, some of them (at more than 5,000 years) older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids, were inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1999.
The UNESCO designation of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney, as the site is named, led to further investigation of large areas of the site that was still unexplored and unexcavated. And in 2002, on a narrow spit of land known as the Ness of Brodgar, evidence of something much bigger - much bigger in fact than any Stone Age discoveries anywhere in Europe - began to emerge.
The Ritual Center on the Ness of Brodgar
The Ness of Brodgar is a bridge of land between two of Orkney's sea lochs, Harray and Stenness. Two of Orkney's important monuments are situated at either end - The Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.
When archaeologists began doing geophysical studies in 2002 they had no idea they would eventually discover a collection of temples and ritual buildings, bounded by dressed stone walls at either end, surrounded by pavements and walkways and stretching over an area equivalent to about four English football pitches.
The biggest of the buildings, 82 feet long by 20 feet wide, was discovered in 2008. It is surrounded by walls five meters thick (about 16.5 feet wide) that still stand three feet high. No one is yet sure what the complex was used for but, since many of the buildings have hearths but don't seem to be domestic, researchers believe they were used in rituals and sacrifices perhaps concerned with death or the afterlife.
Carbon dating shows that the buildings were in use from about 3200 BC, for a period of about 1,000 years. Their sophistication - from the neatly shaped and fitted stone to evidence of painted interior walls and decorated pottery - continues to astound researchers.
Visiting the Ness of Brodgar
Digs take place every summer. Individuals and family groups are welcome to visit, see the dig in progress and have free tours between dates that are announced before the start of the digging season.
The Standing Stones of Stenness
The Stone Age monuments that had already been discovered on Orkney, form the rest of the UNESCO World Heritage site, The Heart of Neolithic Orkney. Dramatic and atmospheric in Orkney's bleak northern landscape, they continue to hang on to their mystery.
The Standing Stones of Stenness may be the oldest stone circle and henge in the British Isles. Carbon dating puts its origin to about 5,400 years ago. Today, only four of its original 12 monumental stones remain.
A large hearth inside the stone circle may have been used for ritual purposes, and perhaps even the preparation of communal feasts (animal bones have been found in excavations). The site is looked after by Historic Environment Scotland and free to visit, year round.
The Ring of Brodgar
The massive ceremonial enclosure called the Ring of Brodgar includes a dike and a stone circle that once contained 60 stones, evenly positioned six yards apart. Thirty-six of the original stones remain. It is considered to be one of the largest stone circles in Britain.
The Ring and the 13 prehistoric burial mounds that surround it have never been excavated so no one is sure about how old they are or their purpose. It's assumed that the ring dates from between 2500 and 2000 BC.
The views from here across the Orkney mainland and the nearby hills of Hoy are impressive and show the shallow, but massive natural amphitheater that makes up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney site.
Tip: Orkney brochures suggest that The Ring of Brodgar is wheelchair accessible but the approach can be muddy and slippery so independent wheelchair users should probably have a helper.
Maeshowe (pronounced mays how) is one of the best preserved and largest chambered cairns in Europe. It was built about 5,000 years ago of enormous flat stone slabs covered with earth. It sits in splendid isolation in the middle of an otherwise empty field.
The passage, along with an equally ancient monument called the Barnhouse Stone, just beyond, line up with the setting sun, lighting up the inner chamber for about six weeks around the winter solstice. A midwinter Maeshowe webcam broadcasts the event.
The shape of Maeshowe is repeated in many unexcavated mounds all over Orkney. After a while, our guide explained, most people begin to see man made-mounds in every hillock and rise on the islands.
- Timed tours begin hourly between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and must be booked in advance.
- Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 1 to September 30 and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. October 1 to March 31.
- Admission is charged
Winter Solstice and Sunset
These are the most popular times to visit Maeshowe and the tours on these days are booked up as far in advance as five years - so don't set your heart on being there then. At other times of the year, special lighting is used to give you a very effective impression of what the solstice is like inside the cairn.
Viking Mischief at Maeshowe
The later Viking settlers on Orkney considered the island's mysterious burial mounds to be haunted. Sometime in the 12th century, a group of Norse crusaders, celebrating their safe return, may have broken into Maeshowe.
If the island's Viking saga, "The Orkneyinga" can be believed, they spent three drunken days trapped inside the tomb getting up to no good. This may explain why, unlike other chambered burial mounds that have been found in Northern Europe, the roof of Maeshowe had collapsed and had to be rebuilt.
The Maeshowe Runes
It certainly goes some way to explain why Europe's largest collection of runic carvings, 30 in all, are incised on the walls of Maeshowe. According to our guide, a storyteller from Dragon History, like modern graffiti many of the runes are pretty rude and suggestive.
They slag off women of loose morals or boast of sexual conquests. Most of those that can be shared with a family audience, give the impression of having been inscribed by a crowd of boastful, Viking party animals.
One, composed of artistic twig runes, says, "These runes were carved by the man who is the best carver of runes in the Western Oceans."
Another, carved about 12 feet above the floor (imagine one Viking sitting on another's shoulders perhaps), says, "Tholfir Kolbeinsson carved these runes very high up."
Skara Brae Risen From Beneath the Sands of Time
Skara Brae is a remarkable Stone Age village. Its 5,000-year-old houses are virtually intact after being buried for millennia.
The approach to Skara Brae, from the visitor center, about a quarter of a mile away, is lined with markers that take you back in time -- past the Declaration of Independence, past the Magna Carta, the birth of Christ, the building of the Pyramids and Stonehenge, until, at last, in the unimaginably distant past, the village of Skara Brae.
The name comes from a large sand dune washed away in the mid-19th century. Because Skara Brae had been completely buried in sand - on land that had never been farmed - the houses were almost perfectly preserved. Imagine the astonishment of the Laird of nearby Skaill House, around 1850, when he discovered what a gale had revealed on his beach.
A Real Cozy Cottage
Before hiking out to the site, spend some time in the replica at the visitor center. It is an exact copy of house 7 at the site. Standing in it, you can easily identify the beds, the hearth, even the dresser where pots and pans were kept and food kept off the floor.
The house is so complete you could almost imagine sheltering in it yourself. Displays of artifacts found at the site include gaming dice, tools, and jewelry. At the site, three such houses are linked by passages that would have been roofed over at one time. The passage continues to a larger space identified as a workshop.
We visited on a blustery January day - so blustery in fact that one of our group had to stay behind lest she be blown away. The stormy, late afternoon sky was rapidly darkening and the sea, less than 100 yards away, was fierce and wild.
Perhaps Skara Brae is easier to visit on a milder day. But imagining the primitive people who sheltered here from violent weather more than 5,000 years ago added immeasurably to its impact.
- Open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. April 1 to September 30 and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. October 1 to March 31.
- Admission is charged.
- Visitors center with shop and refreshments
- Motorised wheelchair available on first come first serve basis for disabled access.