Off the beaten track in Neolithic Orkney

Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn | Kat Nickola
Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn | Kat Nickola

Off the beaten track in Neolithic Orkney

by Kat Nickola
Stripes Europe

Most people think Orkney is off the beaten path, if they've even heard of it, so these sites are only for the true Neolithic archaeology fan and anyone who is ready to play “Indiana Jones.”  

“Where is Orkney?” you ask.  

Far to the north! Extending from northwest coast of Scotland, the Orkney Islands are an archipelago of utmost prehistoric importance. The largest island, simply called Mainland, is home to Orkney’s two largest towns: Kirkwall and Stromness.  

There are so many Neolithic sites in Orkney, that only the big ones get visitor centers and shops. Check out my previous article on these must-see places.

But, after you’ve seen them, it’s time to get down and dirty at some amazing archaeological sites that you can explore on your own. Visiting the following locations usually involves some amount of hiking, so be prepared for the weather. Almost all are open 24 hours.  

Go Underground

Nearest to Kirkwall is the Grain Earth House, a souterrain, or underground building. There is no consensus as to what these were used for on Orkney, but they were typically attached to a village. In order to visit, you must first stop by the Judith Glue shop in downtown Kirkness to get the key. Then, walk along the waterfront trail to the industrial area that has grown around this Neolithic building. A few miles away, there is another, larger souterrain called the Rennibister Earth House accessible on a local farm. 


Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn | Kat Nickola
Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn | Kat Nickola

Next up, burial cairns!

  • The Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn sits atop the massive hill just west of Kirkwall and is accessed via a trail across the peatlands. This can be wet and soggy, so wearing Wellies (waterproof boots) is a good idea. At Wideford Cairn, you will enter the cairn via a sliding hatch at the top, not via the original tunnel. Inside are four chambers where Neolithic peoples placed their dead over many generations.
  • The Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn is up another hill near the hamlet of Finnstown. This one is really fun as you get to crawl through the original tunnel entrance into the dark entry chamber. Bring a flashlight! There will be one to borrow inside a box near the entrance, but the batteries were out on my visit. This burial cairn also has four small chambers inside and a wonderfully dark atmosphere.
  • The last burial cairn is Unstan Chambered Cairn near Maeshowe. Instead of chambers, this cairn has separate ‘stalls’ made from standing stone that divides the space into different burial spaces.  

Note: If you love crawling into burial cairns, take the ferry to nearby Rousay, called the “Egypt of the North” for its huge number of stone structures and burials. 

Cuween Chambered Cairn | Kat Nickola
Cuween Chambered Cairn | Kat Nickola

Solo Standing Stones

Lastly, if you like standing stones there are a couple more to see. Aside from the large stone circles of Brodgar and Stenness, there are two massive, individual, standing stones on Mainland, Orkney.

  • Across the Loch of Stenness from Brodgar is the Deepdale Stone perched on a hill overlooking the loch.
  • In the northwest part of Mainland, is the Stone O’Quoybune watching over a lonely spot of fields and available for public access. 
Standing Stone near Barnhouse | Kat Nickola
Standing Stone near Barnhouse | Kat Nickola


There is so much history in Orkney. After the Neolithic peoples, Iron Age agriculture moved in, and people built brochs and roundhouses. Later, Orkney was absorbed into a Pictish territory whose people were then influenced by Celtic missionaries and possibly displaced by Vikings. The Vikings put Orkney back on the map of powerhouses as an Earldom of Norse influence. It remained part of Norway until 1472 when it was absorbed into Scotland as a dowry payment.  

Go and see these amazing marvels for yourself!


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