ORKNEY – the islands of Pre-historic Scotland

Published on 8 February 2021 at 14:33

Standing Stones of Stenness (Courtesy of Orkney.com)


Judith seems to have dedicated herself to the writing of blogs. Keep it up!

A little while ago, I wrote about Kilmartin Glen and Dunadd and the strong sense of my heritage which I feel every time I go there; equally evocative is Orkney, the archipelago of islands a few miles off the north coast. Orkney is green and fertile, well known for its craftsmen and the richness of its agriculture. Orkney however is absolutely famous for its relics of Neolithic times. So much in such a small space!


I’ve been there several times, flying with Loganair or sailing with Northlink Ferries, which arrive in Kirkwall, the capital, or in Stromness in the west, a small village (actually Orkney's second largest town!) with twisting streets and picturesque houses, which has been a port for centuries. Look on a map and see how it sits at a crossroad in the ocean. There are several reasons why I go – the landscape, the food, the people, and the crafts, but at the top of my list are the ancient monuments, dating from Neolithic times, 5,000 years ago. There are several sites which you can visit, including the Ring of Brodgar, Maes Howe, the Tomb of the Eagles, the Knap of Howar, the Brough of Birsay - and my favourites Skara Brae, and the incomparable Stones of Stenness.

If you have a real interest in the importance of these ancient monuments and World Heritage Sites you might take a look at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/514/

The Stones of Stenness were erected on a small rise between the lochs of Stenness and Harray. You can best appreciate it by going early, before other people arrive, and, standing in the middle, turn 360 degrees to look out over the countryside.  Imagine the people chosing the site, erecting the stones and, later when the stones had been put in place…  Who were these people and why did they build the circle?  Who knows – I feel that it’s best left to our imagination because we all need a mystery in our lives in this time of social media and too much information!

Skara Brae is very different; a village (but not as you imagine a village) on the shore, which, in 1850, was uncovered by a storm from the sand under which it had lain for centuries. You can look down on the “streets” and the homes of these islanders of 5,000 years ago and even see their furniture and fireplaces.  I try to picture what their life must have been like; it must have been hard, but the sea was a rich source of food. 

Skara Brae (Courtesy of Orkney.com)

I always explore the visitor centre because there I can learn more about Orkney and its people. The archaeologists of Orkney have delved into the past and brought their knowledge to us. 

For me the best time to go is in spring, perhaps into May, when everything is green and the days are long as Orkney heads into June and the midnight sun.

By the way: Remember to call it Orkney or the Orkney Islands, not the Orkneys! Just as it is Shetland, not the Shetland Isles.

Extra information on all the monuments mentioned above can be found at https://www.orkney.com/

Another very accessible site is: https://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/orkney-blog/orkney-history-sites/

Please remember to always check ahead that the place you want to visit is actually open.



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Gary Martin
3 years ago

Enjoyed this very much indeed. Thank you for such an interesting article.