We had a fantastic time back at the start of November in Orkney. Our other holidays this year have involved a bit of jetsetting around the place (Netherlands roadtrip in the summer, and Yorkshire/London at the beginning of the year) so we deliberately made a decision to pack up the car, put the dog in the boot and head north to Orkney for almost two weeks. When we told friends our holiday plans, comments ranged from “It won’t be enough time to see everything”, to “why on earth are you going to Orkney in November, the weather will be terrible” and “how are you going to fill your time on an island?!” – well, as well as having some much needed chillout time, we certainly did fill our time with the sights and sounds of Orcadian life, and the weather was not all bad as you can see from the actual blue sky below!
In today’s post, I’ll share some of the most popular attractions associated with the Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site. The biggest advantage of heading to Orkney in November is that we had these pretty much to ourselves, there was not a coach party in sight as you would get in the summer months. Obviously there is the option of all kinds of weather being on the cards, but we live in the north of mainland Scotland anyway, so we know that there’s no such thing as experiencing bad weather, as long as you are wearing the right clothes (though I was pleased not to have to wear my new fetching waterproof trousers)!
The first place on our list was the Ring of Brodgar, one of Orkney’s most popular attractions – especially at sunset for photographers. It’s right in the heart of the Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ring was built around 2500-2000BC and it’s the third largest stone circle in the British Isles. There were originally 60 stones but now there are just 27 remaining, spanning an area of over 8000 square metres.
Historic Scotland operate free guided tours of the Ring of Brodgar- you can just go there for yourself, but we’d highly recommend doing a tour (advance booking essential) as there is so much information there to learn. In fact there’s so much still unknown about the purpose and use of the ring, and the people that built it, it’s worth hearing all the different theories and coming to your own conclusions.
On the same day, we also visited Stromness Museum, where is a whole trove of exhibitions relating to Neolithic Orkney as well as other notable periods in history on the island. In particular the ‘Skara Brae Buddo’ figurine which has been dated back to neolithic times was fascinating to see.
The following day, as the weather forecast was good, we headed out again, this time to Skara Brae and Maeshowe. Again, Historic Scotland staff were on hand to provide information about each. (It’s worth noting that you can only visit Maeshowe by booking onto their guided tours). Here’s some information from Visit Orkney:
“Maeshowe is believed to be one of the finest burial chambers in Western Europe. Beneath a large grassy mound, an enormous cairn reveals a level of craftsmanship that is astonishing – not least because the tomb is said to be 4,800 years old.
Maeshowe is considered to be a masterpiece of Neolithic design. The mound is a distinctive feature on the landscape, but it is what lies within the tomb that enthrals archaeologists and visitors alike. Inside the massive central chamber, with its cells to the sides, the stonework of the corbelled roof tells us that the masons of day were indeed highly skilled.
Maeshowe was known as Orkahaugr – Mound of the Orks – by the Vikings. Norsemen broke into the tomb in the 12th century and left their mark in the shape of runes carved in the walls of the main chamber telling boastful tales of their conquests. These are now considered examples of the finest runic writing discovered anywhere in the British Isles.
Visitors enter the cairn through a passage so low that bending double is the only option! It’s worth it though. Maeshowe is also the site of a special event every year. During the winter solstice the midwinter setting sun shines through the entrance passage, illuminating the rear wall of the chamber. It is a mystical experience and a phenomenon that occurs for just three weeks either side of the shortest day of the year. If you can’t experience it for yourself, watch it via dedicated webcams at Maeshowe.”
This photo below was taken outside of Maeshowe – as you can see, the sun sets between the hills of Hoy and the setting light shines right into the passageway and chamber. I hope to tune into the webcam at some point in December, let’s hope that none of the huge sheep are not blocking the path of the light!
We then headed back to Skara Brae – widely known as the best preserved stone age village inEurope, right in the heart of Neolithic Orkney – and even older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge! Again I’m relying on Visit Orkney to give you the facts below as they are much more succinct than I am!
The settlement was discovered in 1850 when a great storm battered the bay and blew away the sand to reveal a glimpse of what lay beneath the ground. The site was excavated by Laird William Watt of Skaill who unearthed a stunning find – the preserved ruins of a prehistoric stone village, intact with the furnishings of the day and linked by a communal covered passage.
There’s also a reconstructed hut which you can enter, and a really good interactive exhibition inside the visitor centre.
Finally, the last historic attraction from Orkney I’ll share today is Tomb of the Eagles, while not part of Neolithic Orkney, is a Bronze age burial chamber which was discovered by a local farmer, Ronnie Simison in the 1950s, and excavated over a number of years. A number of bones and artefacts were discovered and are available to see in the exhibition centre. After seeing quite a number of specimens ranging from tools, skulls, jewellery and weapons, we walked along the spectacular cliff edge to the tomb.
I forgot to take any pictures, but I did get filmed coming out of the chamber which will surely provide you with some entertainment! Entry is either by crawling on your hands and knees, or using the provided skateboard to roll yourself in.
Hopefully this post has given you a good flavour of the attractions in Neolithic Orkney that you can expect to see. Come back later in the week for another Orcadian holiday post!
This is not a review post. Please check the websites for opening hours and ticket prices.