Thursday, February 23, 2023

Heart of Neolithic Orkney

On Mainland, the largest island of Orkney, lies a spectacular group of Neolithic sites now designated as a World Heritage Site, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.  It includes the best preserved Neolithic settlement in western Europe, Skara Brae, two significant stone circles, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness,  and an enormous burial mound, Maeshowe, as well as other smaller sites. .


Skara Brae is simply astonishing!  We drove to the north edge of the island and discovered a village underneath our feet!  Skara Brae was discovered after a significant storm hit Scotland in 1850, eroding soil from the shoreline of the Bay of Scaill, and exposing the stone houses.  Excavation and archeological dating has concluded that the site was occupied from about 3180 BC to 2500 BC.  Along with the sites describerd below, this area is older than both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Egypt.

Wandering among the ruins certainly felt like stepping back in time.  The rooms were totally built into the earth (actually old midden beds of discarded shells) giving them protection from winter winds.  Most of the homes were connected with tunnels, and they had small rooms with a drain that served as indoor toilets.  You can see the sandstone of Orkney in the flat rock slabs used for construction, including construction of beds and dressers.

It was altogether amazing to stand on that shoreline and realize how long ago people lived here!  There was evidence of grooved ware pots, as well as beaded jewelry, so it wasn't totally a primitive lifestyle.  Archeologists have concluded they were mainly pastoralists, raising sheep and cattle in addition to the seafood they consumed.

A short distance from Skara Brae is the Ring of Brodgar, a large almost completely circular henge that originally consisted of 60 large stones.  They are surrounded by a hand-dug ditch in the sandstone bedrock about 10 feet deep and 30 feet wide.  Inevitably you are left wondering what its purpose was and what sort of ceremonies went on here.  And how they dug that ditch with no metal tools!

The individual slabs were enormous, and of course composed of sandstone.  More than one slab featured more modern stone-carved graffiti!

Just down the road from the Ring of Brodgar are the Stones of Stenness, which may be the oldest henge site in all the British Isles.  Originally it was 12 stones; today only four remain, though they are huge, up to 16 feet tall.

The last of the big Neolithic sites we visited was Maeshowe, an enormous burial mound, surrounded by a large ditch, again dug into the solid bedrock.  You can see the edge of the ditch in front of the mound.  It looks simple from the outside but that hides a remarkable layout of chambers large and small built entirely out of sandstone slabs.  

Inside you can see the flat bedrock slabs forming the walls and corbelled roof, and the entrances to the small burial chambers off the main room.  This room is about 15 feet square and over 12 feet high.  We were told these flat slabs of stone fit so well you could not even slide a knife in between them.  We were not allowed to take photos onside so this and the one below are taken from the internet.

The most remarkable feature of Maeshowe is the entry passageway.  It's 36 feet long but only 3 feet high and consists of only 6 massive long sandstone slabs tor the walls and roof. Obviously you have to crouch or crawl to get in.  But the remarkable thing is that the passageway is aligned such that the back wall of the central chamber is illuminated on the winter solstice!  

Just how do you suppose these Neolithic people understood enough about the movements of the heavens to accomplish that?


Ness of Brodgar

In the centre of this landscape of ancient sites is an even more intriguing one, only recently discovered,  that was not open to the public when we visited.  It is the Ness of Brodgar, older than all the monuments described above, an incredible archeological dig that has uncovered several buildings entirely just below the ground surface.  One building has been described as an enormous Neolithic Temple, and others show evidence of painted interior walls and stone roof slates, both previously unknown in buildings of this age.  Altogether it is recognized as one of the most important modern archeological discoveries in the world.

I've included this one photo to give you a sense of the complex mix of Stone Age buildings being uncovered here.  I would absolutely love to go back and see this!


  1. Ancient peoples and their cultures were far more sophisticated than they're usually given credit for. As were Neanderthals. In other words: we ain't so special.

  2. What an amazing trip you had !
    So wonderful that you are sharing this with us. C

  3. That is just incredible, all of it. I too would love to visit these sites but it's not likely to happen, unless I win the lottery. Which means buying tickets. Thank you for sharing this amazing place!!

  4. Wow amazing photos. especially those first two!!

  5. Incredible…wow! Love this! I would love to visit too!

  6. This is the sort of thing that fascinates me.

  7. Homeland of my maternal ancestors. Most of them were recruited to Canada as skilled blacksmiths and stone masons. Seeing all the stone work at Stenness makes me wonder if my ancient ancestors had a hand on it. I'd love to visit too!

  8. I find this almost chilling. So awesome.

  9. I'm sure there was a sense of wonder standing among the ruins, with a recognition of those who walked among the stones so very long ago. I've not been to Scotland, but the San Gervaiso ruins on Cozumel created those feelings for me. What these ancient people did, without the technology and equipment we now take for granted is awe-inspring. Thanks for sharing the photos and narrative.
    It certainly increases my desire to visit someday.

  10. Amazing photographs, such an interesting place to visit.

    All the best Jan