History. That is the calling card for the Orkney Isles. Certainly there is a unique culture, scenery, whisky and gin distilleries, artisans, fishing, crafting - all the things that one will find in other parts of Scotland, but the history found here is impressive and unique.
Orkeny’s history goes back to the Neolithic period and research has found that in those times, Orkney was one of the most important places in Europe. Archeological discoveries here date to the time before the birth of Christ, before the Egyptian pyramids, and it is thought that Orkney may in fact have been the origins of civilization that later spread to the rest of greater Britain. A joke here on the isles is that you can’t put a spade into the ground without turning up something historical - and that may not be far from the truth.
Let me begin by saying there are many resources you can seek out that will be far better researched, and provide far more detail than what I will include here. This blog is about my day seeing some of these historic sites, it’s not meant to be a reference for the history that is to be found here and is certainly worth searching out.
First stop was the Stones of Stenness (photo above). At more than 5,000 years old this may well be the oldest of all the henge sites in Britain. Today all that remains are a few vertical standing stones of what was a circle of 12. These stones are part of the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.” Originally there would have been a large hearth at the center and the circle was surrounded by a ditch with a bank but that has been lost to time. These stones are the first stop on a “trail” of sites all within a few miles of each other.
The Ring of Brodgar is a massive stone circle. It’s enormity is best captured from a distance but access to the stones for a closer view is free. Picture #4 is courtesy Susanne Arbuckle. See note below. Click on any image to enlarge.
Next up, a very short distance away is the famed Ring of Brodgar. Rivaled only by Stonehenge in popularity, the Ring of Brodgar is a massive stone circle. It would have originally been comprised of 60 vertical standing stones, some 36 survive today
. While the Stones of Stenness date to 3100 BC, this massive circle, covering 8,500 square meters was constructed between 2500 and 2000 BC and is the 3rd largest stone circle in the British Isles.
This circle too is surrounded by a stone cut ditch and embankment, the type of which would have encircled the Stones of Stenness but is no longer existent.
From the Ring of Brodgar another short drive takes you to the crown jewel of these sites, Skara Brae…
People were living at Skara Brae before the pyramids of Egypt were constructed. By the time Stonehenge was constructed in England, Skara Brave was already abandoned after some 300 to 400 years of continuous habitation. It is the most complete Neolithic village in all of northern Europe.
As you walk toward the site, in order to instill a sense of how far back in history you are traveling, a set of stones provides an historic timeline through the ages. Click on any image to enlarge.
The site contains 9 distinct houses and a 10th structure thought to have been a workshop. The roofs are long gone, but the rest of the homes, from stone walls to furniture, are remarkably intact. The preservation can be contributed to the fact that the site was completely covered for hundreds of years, only to be revealed in 1850 by a ferocious storm.
Each home is remarkably similar, each containing a dresser located directly across from the entrance, a central hearth, and stone box beds that would have been filled with soft bedding materials. The entire village is joined by passageways and while these and the doorways are quite small, that is not an indication of the size of the people, but rather it was about keeping the warmth from the central fires in each home from escaping.
As it is now, the village shows life as it was some 2,000 to 2,500 years ago. There is evidence however that these homes are actually built on top of earlier structures dating back even further. Indeed even today, new structures are sometimes built atop old here on Orkney.
The site sits right on the beach of Skaill Bay but the shoreline would have been much further away thousands of years ago. A major storm washed away part of the village in 1924 and it’s likely earlier storms also damaged the site. It’s thought there might have been 10-12 homes here for perhaps 70 inhabitants. To protect against further destruction the site is protected by a sea wall. Click on any image to enlarge.
As an aid to picturing life in the village, a replica house has been built, complete with a roof that researchers believe to be the type that might have been used but they can’t be certain. Here you can clearly see the dresser - used for storage and perhaps to display any prized possessions. You can also see the box beds and its not much of a leap to joke that these were the beginning of IKEA furniture, “some assembly required.” Click on any image to enlarge.
The inhabitants of Skara Brae were quite skilled and in their own way, liked beautiful things. An exhibit of tools and jewelry found on the site can be seen at the visitor center display where there is also a souvenir shop and cafe.
Sitting on a hill overlooking Skara Brae is another related historic site worth a visit. This is Skaill House. This was the home of William Watt, the local laird credited with the discovery of Skara Brae. The 17th century home was first constructed in 1620 and was home to 12 successive lairds, all related. It is open for tours from April to October. Click on any
image to enlarge.
Skara Brae’s importance cannot be overstated. From it a great deal has been learned yet one mystery remains - why was it abandoned? Even Indiana Jones lectured about Skara Brae in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
A new discovery, still being excavated between the two stone circles, Ness of Brodgar may yet reveal new discoveries. Taken as a whole, this section of Mainland, Orkney is of such value that it has been named a World Heritage Site. No visit to Orkney could be complete without seeing these sites.
NOTE: My friend and awrd winning travel blogger Susanne Arbuckle served as my host and guide for my visit to Orkney where she makes her home. You can follow her on Twitter, @ScotAdventres or on her Facebook page, Adventures Around Scotland - Scotland Travel Blog.