Discover the ancient island history of Orkney

    The Ring of Brodgar. © Daniel J. Allen / VisitScotland / Scottish Viewpoint
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    Located at the northern edge of the British Isles, the Orkney archipelago is a place of ancient high drama, with a landscape alive with the relics of its Neolithic and Norse settlers.

    The harbour at Stromness, Mainland, Orkney. © Daniel J. Allen / VisitScotland / Scottish Viewpoint
    The harbour at Stromness, Mainland, Orkney. Credit: Daniel J Allen/VisitScotland/Scottish Viewpoint

    There is no doubt that travelling to the extreme edge of Britain feels like you’re stepping off the edge of the world, but the 70 or so dramatic, windswept islands that make up Orkney are within easy reach, however you choose to travel there. Lying six miles off the most northerly tip of Scotland, these islands, only 16 of which are inhabited, lie on the same latitude as Oslo and St Petersburg. It is a come-hither place packed with ancient high drama, stone age superstars, an edgy, acclaimed nightclub, stunted trees and the distinction of having the world’s shortest scheduled airline flight between two of its islands, Westray and Papa Westray. The Gulf Stream keeps the climate mild and average temperatures differ by just 10°C between seasons. Perhaps it is due to these mild conditions that people have prospered here for thousands of years. It is worth remembering though, that whatever you do when you visit, don’t refer to the islands as ‘the Orkneys’. That, according to a local, is the equivalent of saying ‘The Lancashires’ or ‘The Anguses’ and will cause upset in many quarters.


    Old Man of Hoy, Orkney.<br /> © P.TOMKINS/VisitScotland/SCOTTISH VIEWPOINT
    Old Man of Hoy, Orkney. Credit: P Tomkins/VisitScotland/Scottish Viewpoint

    Given the mystical landscape of these islands surrounded by an endless sky and a powerful sea, it is not surprising that Orkney has such a rich and varied folklore. The islands are also one of the richest Neolithic landscapes in Europe and to visit here is to take a journey back in time to a treasure trove of world-famous attractions.

    St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney. © P.Tomkins/VisitScotland/Scottish Viewpoint
    St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney. © P.Tomkins/VisitScotland/Scottish Viewpoint

    The largest island of this virtually treeless archipelago is somewhat confusingly called ‘Mainland’. It is here that you will find Orkney’s small capital, the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall, a Viking town founded around 1035 by Earl Rognvald Brusason. The name ‘Kirkwall’ comes from the Old Norse, ‘Kirkjuvagar’ meaning ‘church-bay’ and refers to a much older church than the present day 12th-century St Magnus Cathedral. Known as the ‘Light in the North’, the cathedral, with its red sandstone walls, large columns, ramparts and vaulted ceiling, was founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in honour of his uncle St Magnus.

    The Ring of Brodgar. © P.TOMKINS/VisitScotland/SCOTTISH VIEWPOINT
    The Ring of Brodgar. Credit: P Tomkins/VisitScotland/Scottish Viewpoint 

    But of course history is never far from the surface in Orkney. Take for instance, the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. Predating Stonehenge it is where Stone Age people thrived long before the marauding Vikings who took the islands in the ninth century. As you walk the quarter mile or so towards the settlement from the visitor centre, the path is lined with markers to show that you are walking back through history. One marker commemorates the first man on the moon while the next announces the start of the Second World War. Farther back still is the Magna Carta, the Fall of Rome, the building of the Pyramids and finally, somewhere deep in the unimaginably distant past, the settlement of Skara Brae, an ancient settlement that unexpectedly emerged from beneath the sand after a severe storm in 1850.

    Originally embedded in a midden for insulation, these subterranean dwellings linked by covered passageways contain stone beds, central hearths, display cabinets and storage spaces. The passage continues to a larger space identified as a workshop. Funnily enough, it all still feels strangely sheltered. This is a fine example of communal Stone Age life, based on keeping domestic animals, fishing and cereal growing. When originally constructed the village was set well back from the shore, but time has seen it reach the very edge of the site. Radio-carbon dating allowed archaeologists to determine that the site was occupied for approximately 600 years between 3200BC and 2200BC.

    Besides Skara Brae, a plethora of Neolithic sites litter the landscape like freckles, from the atmospheric Ring of Brodgar Stone Circle, a mysterious wide circle of standing stones some over 5m tall, part of the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, to the Stones of Stenness, four huge megaliths that once formed an elliptical circle of 12 stones. Then there is Cuween Chambered Cairn too, a 5,000 year old Neolithic tomb, which when opened in the 19th century, was found to contain the remains of 24 dogs in addition to eight people.

    Another must-see on Mainland is Skaill House, Orkney’s finest large mansion which lies close to the shore at Skaill Bay and represents the last four hundred years in a continuous habitation of the area dating back 5000 years. The long history of the house which is filled with 17th century treasures has left it many legacies. It was found that it was built on the site of a pictish burial ground which may account for the numerous ghost stories surrounding Skaill.

    To plan your trip, visit

    Orkney Archaeology Tours offer all-inclusive holidays, short breaks and day tours led by professional archaeologists who are also accredited Orkney Tourist Guides

    Words: Gilly Pickup

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