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    All About Neolithic Orkney

    10 min read

    By Lorraine Mccall
    More by Lorraine

    Older Than Stonehenge, Older Than The Great Pyramids

    The structures and dwellings of Neolithic Orkney have been confounding archaeologists for centuries. Is it possible to discover the secrets of this little-known age? 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 Sites in Orkney

    The most concentrated group of Neolithic structures found anywhere is on a narrow neck of land that splits the east and the west of the mainland. 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.

    Orkney's Standing Stones

    Ring of Brodgar, the Orkney Isles

    Ring of Brodgar, the Orkney Isles

    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

    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. It’s 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 they were 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 Stennes

    Stennes Standing Stones, the Orkney Isles

    Stennes Standing Stones, the Orkney Isles

    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 power that surpasses time.

    The Odin Stone

    One of the oldest recorded standing stones was the Odin stone, which stood between the Stones of Stenness and the Ness of Brodgar. This immense structure had a hole about 5 feet from the ground. Written records point to the stone as a place where people pledged oaths. People married by standing on either side of the stone and joining hands through the hole. However, if things were not going so well, they could return and join hands again to get ‘divorced’.

    In the 1840s, an incomer destroyed the stone by pulling it down to use in building 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 Chambered Cairn, the Orkney Isles

    Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, the Orkney Isles

    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 on 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 return of the longer days.

    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 about what these inscriptions mean.



    Barnhouse was discovered in the 1970’s. What we see today is a reconstruction of what some of these small dwelling sites would have looked like in the past. The buildings have a lot of similarities with those in Skara Brae – The stone dresser opposite the entrance and 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 while building the other structures and was destroyed upon 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 would have attracted much traffic.

    The Ness is about 500 metres 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

    Skara Brae, the Orkney Isles

    Skara Brae, the Orkney Isles

    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 & Accommodation

    Getting there……

    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.

    A larger ferry leaves from Scrabster, going into Stromness. Click here for Orkney ferries information.

    Where to stay……

    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

    The Orkney Guide Book.                                   Charles Tait

    The Peedie Orkney Guide Book.                        Charles Tait





    The Orkney Islands are one of our favourite areas to visit! If you’d like to join us on a guided holiday to Orkney, check out our trip below…

    Meet the Author: Lorraine Mccall

    “For the last twenty years, I have explored Scotland through backpacking, mountaineering, sailing, and sea kayaking. I am also growing interested in cycle touring and hill running. My interests have always been interwoven with my work, and jobs have included 4 years working onboard an old Gaff Rigged Schooner (or pirate ship!). Our sailing ground was mainly the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides but also included journeys to Orkney, Shetland, Norway and Iceland. I've also run Wilderness Therapy Courses based in Applecross in the North West Highlands but involved working with groups on multi-day camping trips throughout the Highlands. I've worked as a trekking guide throughout Scotland but with the odd foray abroad to Africa, China and the Himalayas. I am also a qualified Ambulance Technician.”

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