Things to do in Scotland – top ten ancient sites in Orkney
Ten fascinating ancient sites in Orkney
Delve into the rich heritage of the Orkney Isles with our guide to ten of the finest ancient sites to be found on the islands – including Europe’s best preserved Neolithic village.
1 SKARA BRAE
A stone-built settlement which is northern Europe’s best preserved Neolithic village and a World Heritage Site.
Explore what life was like on Orkney 5,000 years ago by wandering around the buildings, which were uncovered by a storm in 1850, and by entering a replica construction.
The nearby visitor centre is home to some of the many artefacts uncovered on site over the years, including jewellery, tools, pottery and stone objects.
Skara Brae, Orkney KW16 3LR; tel: 01856 841815.
2 MAES HOWE
Maes Howe Chambered Cairn is part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site and is a huge tomb of packed stones and clay, built around 5,000 years ago.
The site was originally used as a place of burial and thousands of years later, was broken into by Norse invaders who carved runes on the walls.
The cairn is a masterpiece of Neolithic design because of its huge size and the scale of the stones used in an era before heavy machinery. Visitors enter the tomb by a long passageway which leads to a central chamber with three cells leading off.
The passageway appears to have been specifically lined up so that the rays of the setting sun shine down it on 21 December, the shortest day of the year.
Once inside, don’t miss the fascinating graffiti left by the Vikings in the form of carved runes (pictured).
Maes Howe, Orkney KW16 3HH; tel: 01856 761606.
3 UNSTAN CHAMBERED CAIRN
A chambered Neolithic cairn near Stromness. The burial chamber is divided into five compartments which run off a six-metre-long passageway. Unstan Ware pottery was discovered at the cairn in the 1880s and these vessels may have been deliberately placed alongside the bodies buried here.
Unstan Chambered Cairn, nr Stromness, Orkney; tel: 01856 872044.
An Iron Age site close to Tankerness, which consists of a deep chamber, a mound and stone steps down to the site. It was built around 2,000 years ago and despite been explored by Time Team archaeologists in the year 2000, is still something of a mystery to historians.
Minehowe, near Tankerness, Orkney KW17.
5 TOMB OF THE EAGLES
A 5,000-year-old Stone Age tomb in a spectacular location on a cliff edge at South Ronaldsay. The tomb was discovered in the 1950s, containing bones and artefacts which were placed there in the Neolithic Age.
Today, visitors can handle artefacts in the visitor centre, then walk past a Bronze Age site to the Tomb, which takes its name from the large number of eagle bones found there.
Tomb of the Eagles, Liddle, St Margaret’s Hope, Orkney KW17 2RW; tel: 01856 831339.
6 STONES OF STENNESS
A huge Neolithic monument which is part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. The stones were erected between 4,500 and 5,400 years ago and appear to have been part of ceremonies involving relations between the living and the dead.
Visitors can see the four surviving standing stones, which were once part of an area around thirty metres in diameter.
Stones of Stenness, nr Stromness, Orkney KW17.
7 RING OF BRODGAR
Part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, Ring of Brodgar is a henge and stone circle which is around 4,000 years old and comprises thirteen prehistoric burial mounds and a huge ditch.
Ring of Brodgar, near Stromness, Orkney; tel: 01856 841815.
8 NESS OF BRODGAR
An archaeological site near Loch of Harray, which stands close to the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. The Ness of Brodgar will be the subject of an excavation during the summer of 2014 (17 July to 21 August) during which time guided tours will be available.
The site was occupied as early as 3,500 BC and remains include housing, stone slabs and a large ceremonial building.
Visit the Ness of Brodgar website.
9 QUOYNESS CAIRN
An Iron Age chambered cairn dating to c2,900 BC which stands on a peninsula close to the island of Sanday. The main chamber, which is surrounded by six smaller chambers, approached by a long, roofed entrance passage.
Quoyness Cairn, south Sanday island; tel: 01856 841815.
10 BROCH OF GURNESS
An outstanding Iron Age settlement which is unique to the north of Scotland. The Broch of Gurness is one of 500 brochs which exist only in Scotland – huge stone monuments which were usually surrounded by settlements.
The village at Broch of Gurness was built between 500BC and 200BC and the site remained in existence as a farmstead until the eighth century.
Today, visitors can explore the remains of Orkney life 2,000 years ago, see Iron Age artefacts at the visitor centre and enjoy coastal views across to the island of Rousay.
Broch of Gurness, Orkney KW17 2NH; tel: 01856 751414.
(All images copyright VisitScotland)