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    A traveller’s guide to ancient Orkney history

    5 min read

    By Lorraine Mccall
    More by Lorraine

    Orkney history of human life dates back 12,000 years. This remote Unesco World Heritage site offers a fascinating insight into human development through the ages.

    Wilderness Guide and Orkney expert, Lorraine Mccall reveals the basics of ancient Orkney history throughout the Neolithic period.

    The Orkney archipelago is a unique mixture of ancient and modern. These magical islands are a dream for archaeologists, birdwatchers, historians, divers, storytellers, and those who love beaches and wild open spaces. They played an important part in both the first and second world wars and more recently have been at the forefront of developments in wave and tidal power.

    The Neolithic Heart of Orkney is a Unesco World Heritage site and it is this great heritage that we are going to look at in more detail:

    12000 years ago the last ice age was in retreat. With the retreat of the ice came the arrival of the Hunter Gatherers from the south. It may have been possible to walk from the British Mainland on to Orkney during this process. At this time Orkney was not an archipelago but one island. Sea levels have been gradually rising since.

    orkney history

    The Old Man of Hoy. This iconic sea stack is only a few hundred years old.


    Dwellings were found close to the sea but data is sparse as the rising seas have hidden evidence. There are signs of ‘middens’ or dumps that were the result of the waste from eating nuts and shellfish and remnants of bone from fishing and hunting sea and land mammals.

    Middens and tools have been discovered in places like Stenness on the mainland and in other islands including Stronsay and Papa Westray. Museums in Kirkwall and Stromness show early tools like arrowheads. The island must have been a good place for hunting and fishing because what is now known as the Mesolithic, mid-stone age, lasted for some 3000 years.

    Sometime around 6000BC a great tidal wave, the Storegga Tsunami came from the North almost submerging the island and causing devastation to the land, the animals and people. This was the beginning of the end of the Mesolithic age.

    What happened to the Hunter Gatherers?

    By 3,300 BC there was no longer any evidence of these people. Did they move on or were they slowly integrated into the new way of life? The fact that there is no written language leaves a lot to circumspection and archaeologists have no definitive answers.


    The Neolithic...............

    Orkney had a warmer, more pleasant climate then, the land was fertile, sea levels were rising and more people were moving around by boat from the British mainland, Ireland and Europe.

    Farming would have developed over a few hundred years. Early farmers would have been incomers as they were growing barley and wheat and rearing non native sheep and cattle.

    Destruction and Construction

    The new arrivals certainly left their mark. At the end of the Neolithic period there were no trees to speak of left on Orkney. Subsistence farming would have used a slash and burn technique to clear large areas of forestry for farming, gradually over time covering bigger areas, destroying more woodland.

    Initially, wood was also used for shelter but as forests declined the farmers would have turned their minds to the old, red sandstone which is relatively soft and could be used for cutting out flagstones for building. This lack of wood is probably the most important factor in the stone legacy that has been left behind from this era.

    Daily Living

    Farming the land allowed people to set up permanent homes allowing possessions to accumulate. Communities got bigger as food could be grown and stored, the culture changed and people had time to develop other skills. Craftsmen, toolmakers and jewellery makers all had a part to play in the new age. Evidence of tool making, jewellery and pottery has all been discovered.

    Seasonal changes would have become very important for cultivating the land and raising the animals. The wind and the tides would impact on both the farming and the ability for people to move around.The Neolithic can be broken into two main timescales, early Neolithic was in existence from around 3600BC to 3000BC and late Neolithic from around 3000BC to 2100BC mainly typified by building styles.

    Early Neolithic

    Earlier buildings tended to consist of two buildings side by side with adjoining passage. Burial chambers from this period were similar to those found in other parts of the country with the chambers separated like animal stocks.

    Human remains tended to be whole and many burial chambers also contained bones of specific animals like in South Ronaldsay the Tomb of the Eagle and the Tomb of the Otter or red deer on Papay. Stone pottery discovered then is known as Unstan Ware and is characterised by its round bottom pots.

    The Knap Of Howar – Papay

    Papay or Papa Westray is the most northerly island of Orkney. As well as being a birdwatchers paradise it is also a beautiful place in early summer when the wild flowers of the machair are in full bloom. If you can tear yourself away from the flora, fauna and stunning beaches the Knap of Howar is worth a visit.

    From the early Neolithic period around 3,500 BC, the Knap of Howar is the oldest stone building yet discovered on Orkney and one of the oldest in northern Europe. There are 2 structures joined by an adjacent passage, the larger one looking like the dwelling place with signs of hearth and recesses. Due to discovery of flints and stone tools, it is generally thought that the second building was a workshop.

    The assembly of the building raises questions as to what was here before as the midden (or rubbish) from previous settlers was used to settle the stonework but no other evidence of a previous even earlier site has been discovered to date. Another big difference from later sites is that the buildings stand alone, later buildings tended to be communal.

    orkney history

    Skara Brae, part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney world heritage site by the Bay of Skaill, Orkney. Image from VisitScotland.

    Late Neolithic

    Later buildings were characterised by one big room with a stone dresser opposite the entrance and a central hearth with bed recesses on either side, usually joined to other buildings with adjacent passages like those found in Skara Brae and Barnhouse.

    Burial chambers were central chambers, accessed through long passageways with recesses on all 4 sides. Maeshowe chambered cairn is the classic example. These later chambers are unique to Orkney. Stoneware during this period was known as grooved ware and tended to have flat bottoms and an unusual design of triangles and diamond.

    This culture developed and lasted for over a thousand years before gradually giving way to the Bronze Age. Developments throughout Britain and Europe were relatively slow to catch on in Orkney and it is thought that the religious cultures and practices of the Neolithic age hindered progress.


    Want to Explore the Wonders of Orkney Up-close? Head over to our Orkney Islands walking tour page to discover more.

    Meet the Author: Lorraine Mccall

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