Neolithic times in Orkney

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  • Looking over a field to Maeshowe, Stenness
    Maeshowe, Stenness
  • Quoyness Chambered Cairn, Sanday, Orkney
    Quoyness Chambered Cairn, Sanday, Orkney
  • Ring of Brodgar, Mainland, Orkney
    Ring of Brodgar, Mainland, Orkney
  • Skara Brae
    Skara Brae
  • The Taversoe Tuick, Chambered Cairn, Rousay, Orkney
    The Taversoe Tuick, Chambered Cairn, Rousay, Orkney

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney can be found on the West Mainland. This is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is important not only in Scottish history but worldwide.

Orkney’s 5,500 year-old Neolithic Heartland was granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1999. This includes the magnificent Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness.

Close to the dramatic white beach at the Bay of Skaill, Skara Brae is one of the best preserved groups of prehistoric houses in the whole of Western Europe. This incredibly well preserved stone village dates back some 5,000 years, with stone beds, lintels and cupboards still intact. It is now one of the most famous Neolithic sites in Europe.

Skara Brae gives an incredible sense of how people lived their day to day lives 5,000 years ago. After the site was abandoned it was covered by wind-blown sand keeping it preserved in its current state. It was unveiled to the world after a particularly fierce storm washed away a large sand dune back in 1850.

Visitors can now see the ancient homes fitted with stone beds, dressers and seats while a replica construction allows you to understand the interior. Step inside the informative visitor centre to use touch-screen presentations, enjoy fact-finding quizzes and see artefacts discovered in archaeological excavations of the 1970s.

The great stone circle of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness also stand majestically at the centre of this World Heritage Site, while the chambered tombs of Maeshowe and Unstan are considered among the best examples of their kind in Europe.

The island’s ancient Ring of Brodgar in Stenness is a spectacular stone circle surrounded by a large ditch. It is a wonderful sight to see, due to the unusual true circular layout of the ring.

The Stones of Stenness are thought to be the earliest henge monument in the British Isles. There are still four surviving standing stones, stone stumps and concrete markers which outline an oval of around 30 m in diameter.

Nearby is the fourth site of the World Heritage Site, Maeshowe, the finest chambered tomb in north west Europe and over 5,000 years old. The original purpose of these structures is unknown, but it is believed that they could be part of a large ceremonial area. It is thought that the passing of the year may have played an important role in ritual, and if you visit at the summer or winter solstice, the precise alignment of these monuments in relation to the sun may convince you of this theory.

Visit the Knap of Howar in Papa Westray, thought to be the oldest standing stone houses in north west Europe, where people lived around 6,000 years ago. You’ll see two well-preserved houses with stone cupboards and stalls, intact doorways, and stone benches.

Excavations constantly unearth new and important relics from the past and impressive remains can be found on many of the isles.

The Stone Age Isbister Chambered Cairn, better known as the ‘Tomb of the Eagles’, is one of Orkney’s top archaeological sites. The ‘Tomb of the Eagles’ was discovered by chance by local farmer Ronnie Simison in the 1950s and consists of an amazing collection of bones and artifacts placed here 5,000 years ago. 

The Picts lived as farmers and fishermen on Orkney, leaving behind a very different legacy. Circular brochs were the focal point of settlements, built to resist attack and display power along the coastline. The symbol of the eagle was an important part of life for the Picts and various examples of this and other carvings can be found at the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall.

No one can know what life was like for people on these islands thousands of years ago, but thanks to these extraordinary ruins you can get a strong impression of the world of Neolithic Orkney.