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Ancient Sites of Mainland, Orkney

A long time ago was a great treasure hidden here. Lucky will be he who can find the great fortune. Hákon single-handed bore treasure from this howe
Runic inscription on the wall of Maes Howe

This bit of Danish graffiti referred to the treasure—long since disappeared—at Maes Howe on Mainland, Orkney. Today’s visitor will find a different treasure than the Danes found, but it will be just as ancient and far more rewarding.

With more than 1000 listed sites—burial chambers, brochs, stone circles, and homes—Orkney’s pre-history is everywhere evident in the flat, fertile land and rolling green hills of its islands. Long before the Vikings made this land, off Scotland’s northeast coast, their stronghold in the 9th century, Neolithic man arrived—around BC 3500. The island of Mainland is so rich in monuments that it was made a designated World Heritage Site.

Skara Brae by Barbara Ballard The fury of a winter storm uncovered one of the island’s chief attractions—Skara Brae, built before Stonehenge—BC 3100-2500. The farming and fishing village, located beside the beach at the Bay of Skaill, lay hidden and protected under sand for centuries. Occupied for approximately 600 years, it consisted of 10 houses linked by passageways with the walls of drystone construction.

Skara Brae by Barbara Ballard Each house had a hearth in the centre and box beds placed around the walls. Animal skins and heather were probably used for bedding materials. Alcoves and stone shelves along the walls stored possessions. Primitive drains were unearthed during the excavations along with tools, grinding stones, pots, bone pins, beads, and carved stone containers holding red ochre.

Maes Howe courtesy Steve's Ancient Sites Four and a half miles north-east of the town of Stromness, a large (24 ft high and 115 ft in diameter) dome-shaped mound rises from green fields, marking Maes Howe Burial Chamber. A dry moat, 45 feet wide and 6 feet deep, encircles it. Erected before BC 2700, the tomb is considered to be the best example of its kind in Britain and a monument to the building skills of these prehistoric people.

Maes Howe passageway courtesy Steve's Ancient Sites No mortar was used, and some of the slabs—weighing up to 29.5 tons—were fitted so carefully together that a knife blade cannot be inserted between them. A rough estimate of the time and effort needed to quarry and transport the stone and build Maes Howe is 39,000 man-hours. A 52.5 foot long low entrance passage leads to the eerie interior, where, during the winter solstice, the sun shines onto the rear wall of the main chamber. In the 12th century, Vikings plundered the treasures of Maes Howe, leaving behind runic inscriptions and pictures of animals on the walls.

Ring of Brodgar courtesy Steve's Ancient Sites On a windy promontory between the Loch of Stenness and the Loch of Harray, a stone circle, the Ring of Brodgar (3000-2000 BC), imbues a strange sense of the past. Professor Alexander Thom said of the site, “The Brodgar site is the most perfect example of a megalithic lunar observatory that we have left in Britain.” Thirty-six stones—brought from a quarry north of Skara Brae—remain of the original sixty that made a circle 340 feet in diameter. A ditch cut into bedrock surrounds the stones. Burial mounds riddle the landscape.

Stones of Stenness courtesy Steve's Ancient Sites Surrounded by a rock-cut ditch and earth bank at the other end of the promontory, the Stones of Stenness embrace the sky. Although only four of these grey, weathered stones remain of the original 12, it is their height—the tallest is 19 ft—that makes them stand out.

Cremated human remains were found in the circle’s centre. This stone circle, 144 feet in diameter, was built approximately BC 3000. Sir Walter Scott in his Essay on Border Antiquities, written in 1814, wrote of the Standing Stones of Stenness:

"The most stately monument of this sort in Scotland, and probably inferior to none in England, . . .
according to an ancient custom, a couple who are desirous to attach themselves by more than an ordinary vow of fidelity, join hands through the round hole which is in one of the stones. This they call ‘the promise of Odin’.”

Unstan tomb courtesy John Allan Geograph Britain and Ireland Entered by a low narrow passage, the Unstan tomb in Stenness is an example of a stalled tomb; that is, it is divided into stalls like an animal barn. In this case, slabs of flagstone are used as dividers for a circular space. It yielded two human skeletons, animal bones, and pottery so distinctive it carries the name Unstan Ware.

Rennibister Earth House courtesy Derek Mayes Geograph Britain and Ireland On November 12th, 1926, a 2000-year-old earth-house (souterrain) was discovered on Rennibister Farm, four miles from Kirkwall, when the weight of a steam thresher collapsed its roof. Below lay a 12 x 18-foot drystone chamber with the bones of 18 people intermingled as if they were just dumped into the structure. The original entrance was a passageway, but the visitor today enters with the help of a ladder through a hole in the roof. Human remains were found in this earth-house, not a usual place for burial.

Barnhouse courtesy Steve's Ancient Sites Cuween Chambered Cairn hilltop view courtesy Colin Smith Geograph Britain and Ireland The Barnhouse settlement, also near Stenness, was once a neolithic homestead. Dating from about BC 3000, Cuween Cairn, at the top of a hill near Finstown, was fashioned by cutting into solid bedrock. Like many prehistoric tombs, the main chamber has others branching from it. Experiencing this tomb requires crawling on hands and knees through a narrow passage about three feet high. The main chamber of the tomb is lit during the autumn equinox, when the sun’s rays align with the entranceway. The skulls of 24 dogs lay inside, and archaeologists can only guess at the reasons why—perhaps a sacrifice.

Minehowe outer ditch courtesy Steve's Ancient Sites Situated on farmland at Tankerness, Minehowe is aptly named—its entrance is akin to a mineshaft leading deep into the earth. The Iron Age structure—archaeologists described it as a "descent into the underworld"—29 steps down, dates somewhere between BC 2000 and AD 500. At the bottom of the first flight of steps is a small landing with two chambers. A second set of stairs disappears into darkness and leads to a lower rectangular chamber that stretches to the 20 foot high roof above.

Minehowe courtesy Steve's Ancient sites Minehowe is only one part of a large and important Iron Age settlement and ritual area. A great ditch and a ceremonial path to a nearby broch (fortified drystone tower) are part of the complex. Minehowe was also an important Iron Age metalworking centre. Ore, crucibles, moulds, whetstones, metalwork, and furnace bases were part of the treasure unearthed. Archaeologists also discovered bones, shells, and items of Roman origin—a brooch, glass, and pottery—proving the existence of some type of trading.

Broch of Gurness courtesy Colin Smith Geograph Britain and Ireland Sited on a promontory overlooking Eynhallow Sound is the best-preserved broch in Orkney, the Broch of Gurness (also called the Knowe of Aikerness), built in the first century AD. The remains of the thick stone-walled round tower, once 39 feet high, were protected by three lines of ditch and rampart defenses. An underground collecting tank guaranteed a plentiful water supply. Prehistoric homes surrounded the broch, and their remains now form an aisle leading to the broch. Both Norse and Pict artefacts were discovered here.

Tomb of the Eagles courtesy Steve's Ancient Sites Grain Earth House courtesy Steve's Ancient Sites The Tomb of the Eagles near Isbister on a farm is so called because eagle claws were found along with human skulls in the 5000-year old stalled burial chamber. Grain Earth House is an Iron Age earth house or underground chamber supported on stone pillars. Wideford Hill is a neolithic chambered cairn with three concentric walls and a burial chamber with three large cells.

Discoveries are not uncommon, especially on Mainland, the largest and most inhabited of Orkney’s islands. The presence of the ancient past is strong, a reminder of Orkney’s heritage, and a treasure we can all enjoy today.

Visitor Information

Barnhouse Neolithic village
Island of Mainland, near Stenness

Broch of Gurness
Aikerness, northwest of Kirkwall, Mainland
Off the A966 on sand track
Tel. 0 1856 751 414

Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn
.5 miles south of Finstown, Mainland, on the A965

Grain Earth-House
One mile (1.6km) northwest of Kirkwall, Mainland, in Hatston Industrial Estate; off the A965
Tel. 0 1856 841 815 (Skara Brae)

Gurness Broch
Mainland, off the A966 on sand track

Maes Howe Chambered Cairn
Nine miles (14.5km) west of Kirkwall, Mainland
On the A965; Orkney coach 91 goes to the site
Tel. 0 1856 761 606

Tankerness, Mainland
Off the A960 on minor road

Ring of Brodgar Stone Circle and Henge
5 miles (8km) north-east of Stromness, Mainland
On the A965
Tel. 0 1856 841 815(Skara Brae)

Skara Brae Prehistoric Village
On the B9056, 19 miles north-west of Kirkwall, Mainland
Tel. 0 1856 841 815

Stones of Stenness Circle and Henge
Five miles (8km) northeast of Stromness, Mainland

Tomb of the Eagles
Near Isbister, Mainland on a farm
Tel. 0 1856 831 339

Unstan Chambered Cairn
3.5 miles (5.8km) north-east of Stromness, Mainland

Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn
Two miles (3km) west of Kirkwall, Mainland, then .5 mile on foot from the road

Photos by Barbara Ballard and courtesy:
Geograph Britain and Ireland as follows:
Broch of Gurness and Cuween Chambered Cairn hilltop view: Colin Smith
Rennibister Earth House: Derek Mayes
Unstan tomb: John Allan
Remaining photos courtesy Steve's Ancient Sites

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