It is hard not to feel a sense of awe when exploring Orkney. Monuments of civilization going back as far as 5,000 years are woven into the landscape and the fabric of life on the island. In this post we’ll share some of what we learned as we visited many of the prehistoric Orkney sites.
Standing Stones of Stenness & Barnhouse
Historic Scotland offers free walking tours of both the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar several times a week. We highly recommend taking part in these guided walks. We learned a great deal and even our young kids enjoyed them.
On our first morning in Orkney we headed to the Standing Stones of Stenness to join the 10 a.m. walk. The weather was a bit overcast and blustery (thankfully the rest of the week was warm and sunny). On our walk we learned that the four remaining stones were once part of a ring that was possibly the oldest stone henge in the British Isles.
The towering stones are still impressive today and one can’t help but wonder how many different kinds of people have passed by them in the thousands of years since they were erected. Over that time not everyone has appreciated them though. In the 1800s a farmer from mainland Britain owned the land where they stand and he grew tired of people coming to visit them so he decided to blow them up. He succeeded in destroying two stones before native Orcadians learned what he was doing and sent him packing. One of the remaining stones still has drill marks, evidence that it would have been the next to fall.
A short walk from the Ring of Brodgar is the Barnhouse Settlement, which was constructed around 3000BC. The stone houses had stone walls and stone furniture. Here the kids got to take part in demonstrating how the residents might have slept in an upright crouching position.
Ring of Brodgar
On a much sunnier day we joined the guided walk at the Ring of Brodgar, the third largest stone henge in Britain. The stones from the ring were each quarried from a different part of the island, and each stone faces its origin. This suggests that the construction of the site was a community effort undertaken by people living all across the island.
Like the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar is free to enter and you can visit any time of the day. We returned several times during the trip so that we could see the stones under different conditions. One afternoon there were bus loads of tourists inspecting the stones. We returned later that night after dinner and we had the site completely to ourselves.
During our visit the inner section of the ring was closed because heavy rains over the prior three summers along with lots of visitors resulted in significant damage to the turf. Historic Scotland is working on repairing the damage so we’ll hopefully be able to walk the inner ring the next time we return.
At Maeshowe we learned the fascinating story of two civilizations; the people who built the tomb around 2800BC and the Vikings who looted the tomb in the 1100s and left graffiti on the interior walls.
We were entertained as our guide interpreted the runes for us in a theatrical Viking voice. One example of the writing is “These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean.”
Reservations are required to visit Maeshowe and no photos are allowed inside.
Unstan Chambered Tomb
Unlike Maeshowe, the Unstan Chambered Tomb does not require a reservation and can be visited any time. Our guidebook suggested that crawling would be required to enter but we were able to crouch down and make it through the entrance. There were no Viking runes to see in this tomb but it was still worth a short visit.
Skara Brae is Orkney’s most famous (and popular) neolithic site, so we planned our visit for a day when there were no cruise ships visiting the island. The site houses an excellent interpretive exhibit with activities for kids. There’s also a full size recreation of a stone house that visitors can enter to get the feeling of what it was like to live there 5,000 years ago.
Skara Brae is right on the coast and was discovered in 1850 when a strong storm hit the island, uncovering the ruins. The kids couldn’t resist going down to the sandy beach to wade in the chilly water.
Brough of Birsay
Visiting the Brough of Birsay requires a little bit of planning because it is on an island except for a few hours a day when the tide is low enough to walk to it. Here we explored the remains of Pictish and Norse buildings. The coastal landscape here is truly stunning, and this is one of the places where puffins can be found in the summer months (more about that in our next post!).
Broch of Gurness
Dating from 500BC, the Broch of Gurness is one of Orkney’s newer archaeological sites 🙂 It was interesting to see how this Iron Age settlement differed from the earlier sites with regard to layout and construction techniques. Here there’s also a small museum where the kids got to try their hand at making flour using a stone mill.
Tips for visiting Prehistoric Orkney Sites
Here are a few tips for making the most of your visit to Orkney’s historic sites:
- Check cruise ship arrivals and plan your visit to the most popular sites for days where there are no large ships in port.
- Check opening times. Many of the sites are open 24 hours a day and the sun does not set until 10:30 p.m. in midsummer. Most cruise ship visitors have to be back on their boats by late afternoon and by going early or late you may find that you have the site to yourself, which is great for taking photos or silent contemplation.
- Consider an annual membership to Historic Scotland to save on admission fees. We purchased a year-long family membership during our visit to Urquhart Castle for 101GBP which was much less than we would have spent on entrance fees at each individual site.
- Take advantage of the free guided walks. These were a highlight of our trip and we learned a lot more than we would have if we had only used a guidebook.
Orkney is simply brimming with prehistoric ruins to explore, which is even more remarkable when you consider that it is a relatively small island. New discoveries are still being made today. The week after we left the island the summer dig season began at the Ness of Brodgar, which could be the earliest and most important site yet discovered. Hopefully when we return the site will be open for visitors to enter. There are even more sites that have been detected using modern technology but not yet excavated. Others have been partially excavated and re-buried, left for future generations to explore and interpret.
Our visits to prehistoric Orkney sites were exactly the kind of educational experiences that we had hoped for when we decided to take a year long family sabbatical. Each of us learned something new and we gained a new appreciation for our place in the world and civilizations that have come before us.
Check back soon for more highlights from our week on Orkney!