Modern Technology like radio carbon dating is helping our understanding of the past and gradually making prehistory become closer to history. But there is a long way to go.
The main Neolithic Orkney sites
On a narrow neck of land that splits the east and the west of the mainland is the most concentrated group of Neolithic structures found anywhere. From the Ring of Brodgar, to the Stones of Stenness, the Barnhouse dwelling site, the chambered tomb of Maeshowe and the more recent discovery of the site of Ness. No trip to Orkney would be complete without spending a reasonable amount of time here. Arriving early morning or late evening when the sun is rising or setting helps to feel the power of these magnificent structures and when the sun has gone down on a clear night the centuries gradually drop away until you are transported back to a very different world.
From stone circles, known as henges, to individual standing stones, Orkney has a proliferation of Standing Stones. At least 600 years before the wheel was invented, how were people moving and erecting these colossal structures? One theory which was recently tested out on a BBC programme is that seaweed was used to slide these giant stones from the sea.
The Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney
This circle of standing stones is known as a henge, a circle of stones with a circular trench around the outside and replicates many found throughout the world. Originally there were 60 stones of which 27 remain. It is estimated that it took 100,000 man hours to erect. No mean feat, and obviously important. What was the significance? Some of the more popular theories are as follows:
A planetarium – these early peoples would have been finely tuned to the movement of the stars and the moon, was this a place of learning to study the stars
A communal meeting place – could this have been where the people came together from the island to discuss matters of importance
Pagan ritual – a place for people to come together to celebrate the changing seasons
Politics – similar to community but a place of extreme importance for leaders to meet
………….but of course all the above are wrong. Once upon a time a group of giants lived on Orkney. They were friendly, happy giants but could only come out in the dark. The giants knew that the big yellow ring in the sky was dangerous for them but unsure why. One night they had a guest, a fiddler from a nearby island. The giants had never heard such beautiful music before and danced the night away. They were so happy and the music was so good that they forgot about the danger from the sky. As the night gave way to a beautiful, red rising sun the giants were struck by the beauty and forgot to go back into hiding. As the first rays began to come over the horizon the giants were immediately turned to stone creating the ring of Brodgar. In a nearby field stands the comet stone which was once the fiddler. Each year as daylight disappears at midwinter, the stones take a walk to the Loch of Stenness for a drink!
The Standing Stones of Stenness
This site is dated around 3000BC, older than the Ring of Brodgar and was once a henge with a hearth in the middle. The stones lie between the Barnhouse village and Maeshowe. Was there a connection? Sunrise and sunset are the times to see these majestic structures when they take on a beauty and a power which surpasses time.
The Odin Stone
One of the oldest recorded standing stones was the Odin stone standing between the Stones of Stenness and the Ness of Brodgar. This was an immense structure with a hole about 5 feet from the ground. Written records point to the stone being a place where people pledged oaths, people married by standing either side of the stone and joining hands through the hole. If things were not going so well, however, they could return and join hands again to get ‘divorced’.
The stone was destroyed by an incomer in the 1840s who pulled the stone down to use in the building of a cow house. This caused great disturbance to the people of Orkney and many attempts were made on the man’s life and property.
Maeshowe Burial Chamber
Maeshowe is a chambered cairn which was built around 5000 years ago. It is typical of a late Neolithic chamber. Maeshowe is of particular significance for a few weeks either side of the winter solstice, as the sun rises a beam of light shines from the summit of Ward Hill on the island of Hoy directly into the passageway of the cairn lighting up the central chamber. This shows the importance of the turning of the seasons, this new farming culture would have relied upon and celebrated the returning of the longer days.
Maeshowe burial chamber
It was rediscovered by a group of Vikings during the 12th century who sought refuge inside writing base graffiti in runes on the walls of the tomb. The runes are too prolific to have been from this one recorded visit and it is likely that the tomb was raided on various occasions. There are also early inscriptions from the Neolithic age, patterns of diamonds and triangles, which have also been found on pottery from this time. To date nothing is known as to what these inscriptions mean.
Barnhouse was discovered in the 1970’s. What we see today is a reconstruction of what some of this small dwelling site would have looked at in the past. The buildings have a lot of similarities with those in Skara Brae – The stone dresser opposite the entrance, bed recesses on either side of a central hearth, but there are also differences, two of the 15 buildings discovered are much bigger than the others and it is thought they may have been communal meeting places.
This small village was disbanded and demolished about 500 years earlier than Skara Brae but we do not know why. One theory is that it was there to house workers whilst building the other structures and destroyed on completion.
Barnhouse is also well known for being the very first place where fermented ale was discovered in some Unstan pottery. Our special Scottish relationship with drinking alcohol certainly goes back a long way!
The Ness of Brodgar
The new discovery of the Ness of Brodgar in 2003 is making historians and archaeologists rethink the importance of Neolithic Orkney. Was it actually the centre of this era rather than a small outlying island? It would have been on the main trade route between northern Europe and the British mainland and so would have attracted a lot of traffic.
The Ness is about 500metres long and two hundred metres wide incorporating a group of buildings much bigger than any others, the largest of which is known as The Cathedral. The bones of 400 hundred cattle have been discovered on site, was this sacrificial or part of a very large feast? It is almost certain that these buildings were ceremonial, bringing a large group of people together from a wide area, easily accessible by boat. Excavation is still taking place in the summer months and we can expect many more discoveries.
Skara Brae, part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney world heritage site by the Bay of Skaill, Orkney.
In the 1850s a major storm hit the west coast of Orkney leading to the discovery of the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. This is the best preserved site of the period including at least 6 dwelling houses and a workshop. There are also signs of the world’s oldest loo.
All the dwelling places are joined by passageways but there are also signs of doors that show a level of privacy was important.
The village was discovered by the resident laird of Skaill House. Visiting Skara Brae also allows entry into this 17th century mansion house and it is worth a visit if only to compare the simple dwelling houses of the Neolithic period to this massive house built to serve one family.
Getting there and Accommodation
There are direct flights to Kirkwall on Orkney from all the major airports in the UK.
There are 2 ferries from the north of Scotland, one from St Gills Bay which goes into St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay. It is possible to drive from South Ronaldsay onto mainland Orkney through crossing the Churchill Barriers.
There are a number of hotels, bed and breakfasts and hostel accommodation throughout Orkney. Orkney can understandably get very busy in the summer months and it is better to book accommodation in advance.
There are camping/caravan sites throughout the island including close to the 2 main towns of Stromness and Kirkwall. Wild camping is allowed and is a great way to visit the smaller islands. Please follow guidelines on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
Ordnance Survey Landranger Series covers the Orkney Isles. No 5 covers the northern isles including Papay, No 6 covers the mainland including the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, and No 7 covers South Rondaldsay and Hoy. Buy online.
Orkney, A Historical Guide. Caroline Wickham-Jones