Low-lying, far-flung, bleak but beautiful: Orkney is the wild, wind-blasted setting for one of the richest Neolithic landscapes in the UK. Picture 70 or so islands cast off the top of Scotland, only 16 of which are inhabited, with wave-battered beaches, brown trout-filled lochs, tiny villages hunkered into the earth and, scattering the land, around 2,000 archaeological sites. The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, on the main island, has a cluster of prehistoric treasures within tripping distance of each other, on the slither of land between lochs Harray and Stenness. Think towering megaliths, brooding stone circles and ancient burial mounds.
Ring of Brodgar
This stone circle has the wow factor. 104 metres (340 ft) in diameter, it’s one of the largest ceremonial stone circles in the UK. Although it’s thought that there were 60 stones originally, now there are just 27. Guide and archaeologist Caz Mamwell told me that the Ministry of Defence used to teach soldiers how to drive tanks here. “Why build a ditch when you have a ready made Neolithic henge to use for training?”
Stones of Stenness
Weave your way through grazing sheep to find the four stones left standing at Stenness. A local farmer tried to blow up all the stones in 1814 because he was fed up with people tramping across his land. He toppled the famous Stone of Odin first – lovers would clasp hands through the hole in the giant megalith and swear everlasting love. He drilled holes in it and filled them with gunpowder. However, by time he got to the second stone a rider had galloped into town to fetch the sheriff.
Maeshowe Chambered Cairn
Just a (small) stone’s throw from the Ring of Brodgar, sits Orkney’s largest burial monument, Maeshowe. It’s older than the Egyptian pyramids and the inner walls are covered with 12th-century Viking graffiti. Emerging from the entrance tunnel into the stone chamber, you can see runes scratched across the surface, roughly translated ‘Ogmund was here’. Viking treasure hunters are thought to have broken in through the roof and sheltered here during a snowstorm.
On a grass promontory jutting into Stenness Loch, the Ring of Brodgar on the horizon, this grassy mound looks like Maeshowe from the outside. Inside it is divided by flagstone slabs into separate cells, where archeologists in 1884 found crouched skeletons and piles of pottery. The Vikings also did some scribbling in here. There’s less scrabbling in the dark in the Unstan tomb since a concrete ceiling and skylight was added in 1934.
The Barnhouse Stone
This lonely lichen-covered stone might seem insignificant compared to the giant megaliths nearby. But the Barnhouse Stone, around half a mile south-east of the Stones of Stenness, is perfectly aligned with the Maeshowe entrance to the north-east. At the midwinter solstice, as the last of its rays hit the entrance to the tomb, the sun is directly above this 3m (10ft) stone.
The Watch Stone
This solitary giant stands at an impressive 5.6 metres (19ft) tall, looming over a narrow road separating Stenness and Harray lochs. A stump of a second stone was found nearby, and it’s possible that these two stones formed part of a huge circle that was lost when sea levels rose. It’s also been suggested that the monolith was perhaps a marker for watching the sun’s progress leading up to the winter solstice.
How to get there
Flybe (www.flybe.com) flies to Kirkwall from Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Inverness. Or catch a ferry from Aberdeen (6hr), Scrabster (90min), Gills Bay (1hr) or John O’Groats in Caithness (40min). For timetable information and fares visit www.northlink
Find out more
Orkney archaeology tours
Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site
Birsay Bay Tearoom
Serves the best cheesecake in the world and home-grown vegetables from its own market garden.
The Albert Hotel
Mounthollie Lane, Kirkwall KW15 1JZ
Unwind in the cosy Bothy Bar in this boutique hotel, and enjoy live music and a range of Orkney ales.