Ring of Brodgar | Kat Nickola

Ring of Brodgar | Kat Nickola ()

Fancy yourself touching the oldest known standing stone circle in Europe? What about crawling into an ancient burial cairn (stone mound)? You can feel like “Indiana Jones” meets “Outlander” on Orkney.

I can hear you now, “Wait, Where?”

The Orkney Islands are an archipelago extending from the northwest coast of Scotland. There are 70 islands, but people live on only 20 of them. The largest island, simply called Mainland, is home to Orkney’s two largest towns: Kirkwall and Stromness. Kirkwall is the largest, and a good base for exploring the area. You can fly into Kirkwall on Scotland’s Loganair, take the overnight ferry from Aberdeen, or take a short ferry into Stromness from Thurso in the Highlands of Scotland.

No matter how you arrive, the trek to Orkney is worth it. Now, rent a car and start exploring. Yes, they drive on the left side of the road, but there is lots of open space and few vehicles on the road so you’ll be able to manage. Brush up on your manual transmission skills (stick shift), though, if they are rusty.

Major Neolithic Sites

The Orkney Islands hold the U.K.’s best preserved and most extensive archeological remains from Neolithic times. These islands were not obscurely in the ‘middle of nowhere’ during the 3000s B.C., but instead appear to have been a center for culture. There are Neolithic village sites, burial cairns, and standing stones all over the place.

On Mainland, be sure to visit the sites of UNESCO’s Heart of Neolithic Orkney. This includes the largest standing stone circle called the Ring of Brodgar, and the nearby oldest stone circle called the Standing Stones of Stenness. While visiting the Ring of Brodgar is limited to the periphery, you may wander around and within the magical Stones of Stenness. They are both on a small landbridge between the Loch of Stenness and the Loch of Harray which has the small Barnhouse Settlement along its shore. Within sight of these massive stone rings is the Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, for which you must book a ticket ahead of time. This tomb is very large, unlike others on Orkney, and even includes some infamous Viking graffiti!

Eight kilometers away, on the western coast, is the world’s best-preserved Neolithic village. Skara Brae is a site to behold, so be sure to book ahead. The hardy people of this time dug their homes and alleyways out of a fortified sand dune, built up walls and furniture of stone and even dug drainage for sanitation. There is an impressive house recreation so you can really get the feel of living in one of these homes. I’m sure you’ll notice how well the stone and turf help to block the ever-present Orkney winds. Your ticket also includes entry to the nearby Skaill house, home of the Laird’s of Breckness, the 7th of which unearthed Skara Brae.

Visiting the Neolithic places of Orkney puts its ancient importance into perspective. Without easy road connections, these islands seem remote to us. But to the peoples of the past, waterways were the highways and Orkney was the center of it all.

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Kat is a travel and lifestyle writer based in Kaiserslautern, Germany with a special interest in anything outdoorsy or ancient. She has a bachelor’s degree in geography from Penn State University and has been a travel writer for a long while. Currently, she is in the depths of an archaeology dissertation for a degree at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

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