See also our article Orkney’s Ancient Sites
Off the northern coast of Scotland, the Orkney Islands are the place to go if you like to visit prehistoric sites. The count so far is over 1000.
The islands are reached by ferry from John o’ Groats or Scrabster. There are also scheduled air flights. For those without a car, a combination bus and ferry ticket is available with transportation available on landing. Tours around the island and to other islands in the group are offered.
Of the 70 flat and treeless islands that make up the group, 16 are inhabited. The largest island, Mainland, is home to the two main towns, Kirkwall and Stromness.
Orkney’s Norse heritage goes back to the 9th century and lasted until the 1350s. Kirkwall, a full service town, was founded by the Norse, and they left their legacy in the building of St Magnus cathedral. The medieval cathedral honours Earl Magnus of Orkney. It was begun in 1137, and building continued in one form or another for 300 years. Made of alternating bands of local red sandstone and yellow Eday stone, the cathedral incorporates three building styles: Gothic, Romanesque, and transitional.
Also in Kirkwall are two ruined buildings: the Renaissance style Earl’s palace, begun in 1600 but never completed and the 12th century Bishop’s palace, a hall house with a tower built in the mid 1500s. To learn about life on Orkney and its history visit the Tankerness House museum in a 16th century townhouse.
Other museums of interest on Mainland are the Orkneyinga Saga centre at Orphir where you can discover the story of the Vikings in Orkney and see a video show. Also here are the ruins of St Nicholas church, the only surviving medieval circular church in Scotland, built in the first half of the 12th century.
Mainland’s prehistoric sites are justly famous. Skara Brae was built 3100-2500BC. The farming and fishing village, located beside the beach at the Bay of Skaill was occupied for approximately 600 years. It is made up of 10 houses linked by passageways with walls of drystone construction.
Stone furniture survives in the now roofless houses. Long covered by sand, the site was uncovered by a storm. The houses are the best preserved group of Stone Age (main periods of settlement between BC 3100-2500) remains in western Europe. An exhibition and museum are located at the site.
The Italian chapel is a well known landmark. Although not strictly speaking on Mainland but on Lamb Holm island, it is reached by a connecting causeway from Mainland. It consists of two Nissan huts converted into a chapel by World War II Italian prisoners of war. Inside are a rood screen and fresco paintings.
At the port of Stromness is a museum with maritime and natural history displays. The Corrigall Farm museum is a group of stone, 18th century buildings restored to mid-19th century appearance. Roofs are heather thatched and turfed. There are exhibitions in the buildings.
Four and a half miles northeast of the town of Stromness is a large (24 ft high and 115 ft in diameter) dome-shaped mound, Maes Howe Burial Chamber. A dry moat, 45 feet wide and 6 feet deep, encircles it. A stone-built passage is 39 ft long and leads to a large burial chamber with three cells in the walls. Viking runes are carved on the walls. Erected before BC 2700, the tomb is considered to be the finest example of its kind in Britain. There is an exhibition on the site.
On a windy promontory between the Loch of Stenness and the Loch of Harray, a stone circle, the Ring of Brodgar (BC 3000-2000), was a megalithic lunar observatory. Thirty-six stones remain of an original circle of 60 with an enclosing ditch.
Surrounded by a rock-cut ditch and earth bank at the other end of the promontory are the Stones of Stenness. Although only four of these grey, weathered stones remain of the original 12, it is their height—the tallest is 19 ft—which makes them stand out.
Entered by a low narrow passage, the neolithic Unstan tomb at Stenness is an example of a stalled tomb. The main chamber is over 25 feet long and is divided into five sections by vertical flagstone slabs. In it were human bones and pottery.
Another site, a 2000-year-old earth-house (souterrain) was discovered on Rennibister Farm, four miles from Kirkwall. The drystone chamber was the resting place for the bones of 18 people. Access is by a trap door and ladder down into a chamber with five wall recesses and an entrance passage. It is thought to date from the Iron Age.
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.
Situated on farmland at Tankerness is the Iron Age structure, Minehowe. It’s 29 steps down to an underground chamber with another set of steps to a further chamber. It dates somewhere between BC 2000 and AD 500. Its use is uncertain but thought to be religious. Bones, pottery and other artifacts were found in the chamber. The area was an important metalworking centre.
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. As well as neolithic man, the Vikings also used the site.
The Brough of Birsay is on a tidal island offshore from the northwestern point of Mainland. Here there are remains of Pictish and Norse settlements that include farmsteads, domestic buildings and a Norse cathedral dating from the early 12th century. The Pict remains contain metalworking debris. There is a museum at the site. Graves have been unearthed on the island.
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.
The island of Hoy, second largest of the Orkney islands, is noted for its cliff scenery, the best known of which is the Old Man of Hoy. The rock stack can be viewed from a ferry. An RSPB nature reserve is on the island. The Scapa Flow Visitors Centre is a naval museum that tells the story of the Germans who deliberately sank their fleet of 74 ships in 1919 after they were interred by the British at Scapa Flow. A neolithic tomb called Dwarfie Stane is on this island.
Shapinsay, Rousay, Eglisay, Wyre, Stronsay, Sanday, Westray, Papa Westray, and North Ronaldsay make up the northern group of the Orkney islands. These islands have a number of RSPB nature reserves, and most have sandy beaches. None are much populated with people.
On Shapinsay is Victorian Balfour castle, the Shapinsay Heritage centre, and prehistoric Burroughston Broch. Rousay has many interesting prehistoric sites that include Midhowe Chambered Cairn, built in BC 3000. The ‘Great Ship of Death’ contained the remains of 25 people. Midhowe Broch, another chambered cairn, is nearby. Taversoe Tuick Chambered Cairn is a Neolithic chambered mound with two burial chambers that contained the bones of five people and pottery.
On Wyre island is Cubbie Roo’s castle, one of the earliest stone castles to survive in Scotland. Its name comes from a legend abut a giant of Orkney. It was built around 1145 by a Norseman, Kolbein Hruga. The small rectangular tower is near the ruined St Mary’s Chapel of the late 12th century.
On Westray, the largest island in this northern group, is Noltland castle, a ruined Z-plan tower of the mid 1500s. It has a large number of gun loops and an impressive staircase. The ruined 17th century St Mary’s church at Pierowall has a number of finely lettered tombstones. Another church, the roofless 12th century Romanesque Westside church, is one of the best preserved in Orkney. The Westray heritage centre offers displays of nature and local heritage.
The Knap of Howar on Papa Westray is two Neolithic standing stone houses with stone cupboards and stalls. On the tiny island of Holm of Papay near Papa Westray is a chambered cairn with 14 cells and wall carvings.
The Quoyness chambered cairn on the island of Sanday is megalithic with retaining walls, a passage, a main chamber and six cells. 500 prehistoric burial mounds are found at Tofts Ness.
Orkney Tourist Information Centres
The Travel Centre, West Castle St
Kirkwall KW15 1GU
Tel. 0 1856 872 856
E-Mail: Visit Orkney
Open: Oct-April: Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 10am-4pm; in summer seasonal opening hours
Stromness Visitor Information Centre
Ferry Terminal Building, The Pier Head
Stromness, KW16 3AA
Tel. 0 1856 850 716
E-Mail: Stromness Visitor Information Centre
Open: Oct-April: Mon-Fri 9.30am-3.30pm, Sat 8.30am-2.30pm
Kirkwall Tourist Information Centre
6 Broad Street
Kirkwall, Orkney, KW15 1NX
Tel. 0 1856 872856 or 0 1856 872001
Fax. 0 1856 875056
E-Mail: Visit Orkney
For opening times and full details of attractions see the Attractions section of our website.
Balfour Town, Island of Shapinsay
Tel. 0 1856 872 856 (Kirkwall TIC)
Barnhouse Neolithic village
Island of Mainland, near Stenness
Bishop’s Palace and Earl’s Palace
Kirkwall, Mainland, on A960
Tel. 0 1856 871 918
Island of Rousay
Broch of Gurness
Aikerness, northwest of Kirkwall, Mainland
Off the A966 on sand track
Tel. 0 1856 751 414
Brough of Birsay
Tidal island offshore from north-western point of Mainland
On north-east corner of island of Shapinsay
Corrigall Farm Museum
14 miles (22.5km) northwest of Kirkwall, Mainland
by the A965 and A986
Cubbie Roo’s Castle
Island of Wyre
Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn
.5 miles south of Finstown, Mainland, on the A965
Dwarfie Stane Neolithic Tomb
3.5 miles from Rackwick, on island of Hoy toward north end
Earl’s Bu and St Nicholas Church
Orphir, 8 miles (13km) west-south-west of Kirkwall, Mainland
Tel. 0 1856 721 205 or 0 1856 841 815 (Skara Brae)
Island of Eynhallow
Reached only by private hire boat from Mainland, Orkney or Rousay
Tel. 0 1856 841 815 (Skara Brae)
One mile (1.6km) northwest of Kirkwall, Mainland, in Hatston Industrial Estate; off the A965
Tel. 0 1856 841 815 (Skara Brae)
Hackness Martello Tower and Battery
On the south-east end of island of Hoy
Tel. 0 1856 701 727
Holm of Papa Westray Chambered Cairn
Island of Holm of Papa Westray
On Lamb Holm from Mainland
On the A961
Knap of Howar
On the island of Papa Westray, .25 miles west of Holland Farm
Knowe of Yarso
On the island of Rousay, 3 miles from the pier
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
Near Midhowe chambered cairn
Island of Rousay, on the B9064
Midhowe Chambered Cairn
Near Midhowe Broch, on island of Rousay; on the B9064
Off the A960 on minor road
Orkney Brewery Visitor Centre
Quoyloo, Stromness; one mile from Skara Brae
Tel. 0 1856 841 777
Orkneyinga Saga Centre
Nine miles west of Kirkwall at Orphir, Mainland
On the island of Westray
Quoyness Chambered Cairn
Island of Sanday, on southern point of Els Ness
2.5 miles from Kettlehoft village
Rennibister Earth House
On A965, western Mainland
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)
Scapa Flow Visitors Centre
Island of Hoy
Tel. 0 1856 791300
Shapinsay Heritage Centre
Balfour village, Island of Shapinsay
Tel. 0 1856 711 258
Sanwick, Orkney, 19 miles north-west of Kirkwall on B9056
Tel. 01856 841 501
Web: Skaill House
Skara Brae Prehistoric Village
On the B9056, 19 miles north-west of Kirkwall, Mainland
Tel. 0 1856 841 815
St Magnus Cathedral
Mainland reached by ferry from John o’ Groats or by plane
Tel. 0 1856 874 894
Stones of Stenness Circle and Henge
Five miles (8km) northeast of Stromness
Stromness, Mainland, on the A965
Tel. 0 1856 850 925
Tankerness House Museum
Tel. 0 1856 873 191
Taversoe Tuick Chambered Cairn
Island of Rousay; .5 mile west of pier
Island of Sanday
Tomb of the Eagles
Near Isbister, Mainland on a farm
Tel. 0 1856 831 339
Island of Rousay
Unstan Chambered Cairn
3.5 miles (5.8km) north-east of Stromness, Mainland
Westray Heritage Centre
Island of Westray
Tuquoy, island of Westray
Reached by ferry from island of Mainland
Tel. 0 1856 872 044 (ferry service)
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:
Maes Howe and Maes Howe interior, Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness, Barnhouse, Minehowe and Minehowe outer ditch, Brough of Birsay inscribed stone, Isbister Chambered Cairn Tomb of the Eagles, Grain Earth House, Dwarfie Stane, Midhowe Broch on Rousay, Blackhammer: Steve's Ancient Sites
Geograph Britain and Ireland as follows:
Kirkwall from airplane: Stanley Howe
Kirkwall harbour: Bob Jones
St Magnus archway: Peter Knudssen
Earl’s Palace: DJB
Orphir round church remains by David Wyatt
Italian chapel: Stephen McKay
Italian chapel interior: Sylvia Duckworth
Unstan: John Allan
Rennibister: Derek Mayes
Broch of Gurness: Colin Smith
Stronsay island: Dr Julian Paren
St Boniface church on Papa Westray: Will Craig
Cubbie Roo: S Allison
Westray Noup Head: DJB
Noltland castle: Stuart Wilding
Knap of Howar: Becky Williamson
Quoyness cairn: Callum Black
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