Orkney: Neolithic World Heritage Site

We’ve spent the last couple of days exploring the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage site together with some of the West Mainland’s other attractions. The weather has been poor (rain, rain, and more rain), but you can’t win ’em all….

Overview: 2 days, 47 miles

We’re now in the Western part of the Orkney Mainland (green on the map above). We left our campsite at Grimbister on Sunday morning eager to get to the main sights that had brought us to Orkney in the first place.

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is a ceremonial landscape packed full of historic features. It’s centred on the narrow strip of land between two lochs (Stenness Loch and Harray Loch):

Whilst no individual site takes that long to visit, there are lots of them and you could spend days here exploring. We only visited the main sights, but even so, there was a huge amount to take in. Every site is amazing in its own way….

Stones of Stenness

The Stones of Stenness are thought to be the World’s earliest standing stone circle, in use by around 3100 BC.

Unfortunately, as is the way with many ancient sites, the Stones of Stenness have been significantly messed about with in recent centuries. In the early 19th century, the tenant farmer destroyed a nearby standing stone (the “Odin stone”), knocked one of the standing stones in the circle over and even tried to dynamite another, so fed up was he with visitors traipsing across his land to look at the stones.

More well-intentioned attempts to “put things back as they were” have often drawn heavily on the imagination of those involved, and have had to be “undone”. This attempt was very pretty, but apparently all wrong:

Barnhouse Neolithic Village

The ceremonial causeway from the Stones of Stenness leads to Barnhouse, around 200 metres away. This is a neolithic village discovered in 1984 and thought to have been inhabited between around 3200 and 2900 BC.

There isn’t much to see above ground, and what you can see has been reconstructed on top of what remains of the original walls, just to give visitors an idea of what was there. Traces of thirteen houses have been found; these would have been similar to the houses at Skara Brae.

Ness of Brodgar

Right in the middle of the isthmus is the Ness of Brodgar, an active archaeological site sandwiched incongruously between two modern buildings. This is open each summer (July / August) whilst excavations are ongoing but when we visited it was firmly covered for the winter with tarpaulins weighted down by piles of tyres. The Ness of Brodgar seems to have been a fascinating ceremonial site; I’m sure we’ll see much more about it on TV over the next few years.

Ring of Brodgar

A bit further up the road is the Ring of Brodgar, a much larger stone circle from the late neolithic period (2500 – 2000 BC). This one has a henge (circular enclosure) 104 metres in diameter, making it one of the largest neolithic henges in Britain. The surrounding ditch is 10 metres wide and 3 metres deep.

Originally, there would have been 60 standing stones in the circle, of which 27 remain today. The stones are different types of sandstone, suggesting that they were perhaps brought from various parts of Orkney to represent the different groups of people involved in this great communal endeavour.

Maeshowe

Maeshowe, a neolithic chambered cairn, was fantastic. Visiting Maeshowe is a bit like visiting Newgrange in Ireland: you have to book a tour starting at the visitor centre, from where you’re taken to the site by bus.

No photos are allowed inside the tomb, but this is due to the practicalities of having a group of people all clicking away in a confined space whilst the guide is trying to keep everyone’s attention and explain what it’s all about. I bought a postcard of the interior to take a photo of:

It’s thought that the tall upright stones you can see in the photo above (of which there are four, one in each corner) may have stood in the open before the chamber was built around them.

Three recesses (one in each of the walls you can’t see in the ‘photo above) may have held human remains, but none remain to be examined by archaeologists today. In the 1860s, James Farrer (an antiquarian and MP for South Durham) removed the keystone on top of the roof and the roof (unsurprisingly) fell in. Once the stone was dug out, some human bones were found together with some horse bones. Unfortunately, Farrer left them on a train between London and Edinburgh and they haven’t been seen since…..

The presence of horse bone means that it’s more likely that the bones came from the Norse period than the Neolithic. There is some evidence that the Norse repaired the low earthen bank surrounding the cairn in the 9th century, and it’s thought that the chamber might have been reused for a Viking burial during that period.

The fabulous thing about Maeshowe is that later in the Norse period, visitors left 30 or so incriptions in runes on the walls (there are more inscriptions in runes at Maeshowe than at any other site worldwide). Some are quite rude, the kind of thing you might find on the inside of the door in a public toilet nowadays, but others are much more interesting.

One confirms a story told in the Orkneyinga Saga about a group taking shelter in the cairn for three days in the 1150s. Another mentions treasure, which supports the idea of an earlier Viking burial in the chamber – you wouldn’t refer to the kind of bones and pottery you find in a typical neolithic burial as treasure, but Viking grave goods would certainly fit the bill…. My favourite bit of graffiti was one where the scribbler hadn’t weighed things up properly before starting scratching, had run out of space and had to turn a corner to finish his inscription. It seems that even the mighty Vikings committed schoolboy errors from time to time….

Skara Brae Neolithic Village and Skaill House

Skara Brae is the site that put Orkney firmly onto our list of places to visit. It’s another neolithic village, thought to have been occupied from around 3100 to 2500 BC. The remains of six houses have been found together with a further building that may have been a workshop.

In 1850, a huge storm blew sand away from the Bay of Skaill on the West coast of the Mainland, and the neolithic village of Skara Brae was revealed. A sea wall has had to be built to stop the village being washed away.

The whole village is pretty much underground, not because it was dug into the ground but because the houses were built inbetween mounds of midden (rubbish). Passages between the houses were roofed over (what a great idea). The entrances to the individual houses could be closed off, so these were individual dwellings linked by passages into a little village.

I’ve wanted to visit Skara Brae since I saw it on TV for the very first time. The first thing that strikes you is, of course, that it’s much smaller than it seems on TV. I think I now know what the big attraction of this site is: the stone furniture. There would have been some scrub-like woodland originally on Orkney, but this would have been gone by 5,000 years ago. In the absence of wood, furniture made of stone seems like a reasonable idea.

All of the houses are the same size and have the same layout (is this some kind of neolithic housing estate?); each house comprised a single room with a central hearth, a dresser against the wall behind it, and beds on either side of the room.

The dressers fascinate me. I wonder what people put on them? Was there a neolithic equivalent of “granny ornaments”? Seeing Skara Brae in the flesh was even better in many ways than seeing it on TV (though only TV presenters like Neil Oliver seem to be allowed into the houses; us mere mortals have to look down into them from a pathway that runs round the site). I now noticed the little recesses by the beds. In a time before mobile phones, books etc, what would you put on your bedside shelf? Sometimes, these really old sites can struggle to fire my imagination, but the furnished houses at Skara Brae are fantastically mind-boggling….

Next to Skara Brae is Skaill House, the house of the local laird. This is included in the ticket for Skara Brae, so we went in to take a look.

The thing that caught my eye here was Captain Cook’s dinner service, which somehow came into the possession of the laird when Cook’s ships were in port at Stromness in 1780, their first British landfall on returning fom Cook’s third voyage (Cook himself had been killed the previous year in what is now Hawaii, so he wouldn’t have missed his plates).

This is not at all how I would have imagined a great explorer’s dinnerware:

After a very busy day, we spent Sunday night in the Skara Brae car park, which was thankfully quite sheltered from the relentless wind.

Monday’s first stop was Marwick Head, a few miles further North. The cliffs here are impressive, and Mark reckons that they’d be absolutely covered in birds in nesting season.

We did see a few birds flitting about:

The tower you can see on top of the cliffs is the Kitchener Memorial. Kitchener is, of course, the man probably best remembered for his WW1 poster:

We didn’t learn at school that Kitchener came to an unfortunate end in the cold waters off Orkney. He was the most senior officer on either side of the conflict to die on active service.

On 05 June 1916, HMS Hampshire hit a German mine off Marwick Head and quickly sank. The ship was carrying a secret delegation, including Kitchener, to Russia. There were only twelve survivors; 737 crew and passengers were lost.

The memorial was built in the 1920s and paid for by public subscription. It was nice to see that when it was renovated in 2016, a commemorative wall was added (the curved wall in front of the memorial tower), on which is listed the names of all those who were lost.

Birsay

A few miles North of Marwick Head, Birsay was the power centre of Orkney during the 11th century. Orkney’s first cathedral was probably on the site of the current church, although there is no trace of it today.

The main site to visit in Birsay nowadays is the Earl’s Palace, built in the 16th century for Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney. Robert was an illegitimate son of James V of Scotland, half-brother to Mary Queen of Scots, and a wrong-‘un. As unpopular as Robert may have been in Orkney for his tyrannical rule, his son Patrick was apparently even worse….

Patrick had an Earl’s Palace built for himself in Kirkwall, which is now in a similar state of decay (we didn’t pay to visit it as you can easily see the ruins across the road from the cathedral and we had plenty of explanation about it in our guide book).

Patrick was such a bad landlord that he was summoned before the Privy Council in 1609 and imprisoned. His response was to incite his son Robert to start a rebellion in Orkney in his favour. This didn’t end well: Robert was hanged for his part in the rebellion and his father Patrick was beheaded.

Given all this family carry-on, it’s little wonder that the palaces soon fell into a state of decay. A list of contents of the Earl’s Palace at Birsay, prepared when the palace was requisitioned by Cromwell’s troops in 1653, notes of the contents of the kitchen “nothing but Mukk and Filth”. “Blimey”, quipped Mark, “that sounds just like your dad’s house” (the best jokes always having a strong core of truth…..).

Just offshore is the Brough of Birsay, where there are remains of a Norse settlement on top of Pictish remains. We didn’t make it across as the island is only accessible at low tide; when we arrived at Birsay the tide was just coming in. As the next low tide wasn’t until 8pm, we decided to give it a miss.

Kirbuster Museum and Corrigall Farm Museum

Finally for this post, we visited two small free farm museums. Mark does love a shed full of mysterious old implements!

Kirbuster Museum has the last extant example in Northern Europe of an unrestored “firehoose”, with a central hearth dividing the room into the “ootbye”, which might be occupied by calves or a brood sow, and the “inbye”, occupied by the family. The stone “neuk” beds looked exactly like the beds at Skara Brae! Perhaps they’re more comfortable than they look….. The name perplexed me – I wonder if East Neuk Campervans (made in Scotland) also come with stone enclosures for beds?

Corrigall Farm Museum showed us the traditional roofing in Orkney: big stone slabs (they won’t blow away in the wind!) covered in turf for insulation.

Phew! After two very busy days we were very happy to park up at Aikerness Beach on the Eastern side of the Mainland and relax for a while.

It’s a good thing that I took a photo as soon as we arrived; within ten minutes the rain was lashing down again….. It’s really no wonder that Orkney is so flippin’ green!

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