22nd - 27th August 2014: Orkney Islands

A six day visit around the wonderful Orkney Islands was a great way to see many of the ancient sites (just a very long way to drive).

Day 1: Kirkwall Museum, Tomb of the Eagles & Cuween Hill Cairn

Kirkwall Museum -

Tomb of the Eagles -

tomb of the eagles

© 2014 ~ Ancientcraft / Tomb of the Eagles

Cuween Hill Cairn - Cut into solid bedrock, the cairn on Cuween Hill has a central chamber with four smaller chambers off each wall. Dating from around 3,000 BC, the cairn was first excavated in 1901 and the remains of at least eight people were recovered along with the skulls of 24 small dogs.

Cuween Hill Cuween Hill

Day 2: Broch of Gurness, Skara Brae, Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe and Unstan chambered tomb

Broch of Gurness - An Iron Age village here began sometime between 500 and 200 BC, with a stone tower or broch at the centre of the settlement, which originally reached a height of around 10m. The broch features two hearths and a subterranean stone cistern with steps leading down into it. The site is surrounded by three impressive ditches cut out of the rock with stone ramparts, encircling an area of around 45m diameter.

broch of Gurness

Skara Brae ( Bay of Skaill) -

The neolithic settlement of Skara Brae consists of eight clustered houses/workshops and is considered to be the best preserved groups of prehistoric houses in Western Europe. It was was occupied from roughly 3180 BCE–2500 BCE

scara brae

Discovery of the settlement occured following a severe storm in the winter of 1850 that caused widespread damage and over 200 deaths aross Scotland. The wind stripped turf from a large knoll known as "Skerrabra" and afterwards William Watt of Skaill (the local laird) began an amateur excavation of the site, but abandoned the work in 1868.

A replica construction (see image below) allows visitors to fully appreciate the interior of a prehistoric house.

Stones of Stenness - It may be the one of earliest henge monument in the British Isles, built around 5,400 years ago. Originally 30m in diameter and laid out in an ellipse, the henge once had a ditch that was 4m wide and around 2.3m deep. Now only four standing stones remain.

At the centre of the ring, there is a large stone hearth constructed from four large stone slabs. Pottery and animal bones recovered during excavation tell us that Neolithic people fed at the site

In December 1814 Captain W. Mackay (a newcomer to Orkney who owned farmland around the stones, decided to remove them, complaining that people were trespassing and disturbing his land by using the stones in rituals. He started by smashing the Odin Stone, which caused outrage and he was stopped after destroying one other stone and toppling another.


Maeshowe (below) - Said to be the finest chambered tomb in the whole of north-west Europe, Mashowe is more than 5000 years old. The 11m long entrance passage leads to the central almost square chamber measuring about 4.6 m on each side. The height of the chamber today is 3.8 m and capped by a modern corbelled roof - the original roof may have risen to a height of 4.5m or more

It was broken into Maeshowe and looted by the famous Vikings Earl Harald Maddadarson and Ragnvald, Earl of Møre in the mid-twelfth century. There men carved ove 30 graffiti runes on the walls of the main chamber.

In 1999, Maeshowe was designated part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, along with Skara Brae, Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness.


Unstan chambered tomb - This fine example of a Neolithic tomb cairn, with five chambers along a 6.4m passageway was built sometime between 3400 and 2800 BC. Two crouched skeletons were found in one of the side cells and several more in the main compartment, along with animal bones and charcoal. The first discovery of a distinctive style of pottery was made here in 1884 and have come to be known as Unstan Ware; which was identical to that found at the Knap o' Howar on Papa Westray.

Day 3: Birsay, Harray Potter Ltd, Hoy, Ring of Brodgar

Harray Potter Ltd - A brief and very interesting visit to Andrew Appleby's Fursbreck Pottery to see his experimential Neolithic groove ware pottery as part of the Orkney Prehistoric Pottery Research Associates (OPPRA).


Birsay - The causeway (below) that leads to the prehistoric and Norse settlements on the tidal island of Brough of Birsay.


Ring of Brodgar - Considered by many as the finest known truly circular late Neolithic or early Bronze Age stone ring; a fantastic sunset provided the perfect opportunity for some Stone Age costumed photo's at the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 104m diameter ring  originally comprised up to 60 stones, of which only 27 still stand and is surrounded by a large circular ditch or henge. It was one of the first sites to be scheduled in the British Isles (1882).

Day 4: Westray, Papa Westray & Wideford Hill Cairn

Westray - An early morning ferry to Westray, lead to the current excavation on the beach at the Links of Noltland to meet Site Director Hazel Moore and her team. I was lucky enough to be shown two small polished axes that had only recently been found and discussed their possible use with Hazel and Emily Glass. I also went into the Westray Heritage Centre to have a look at the Westray Wife (to compare against the one I make).


westray-dig westray-wife

Papa Westray - Another ferry for a two hour turn-around on the small island of Papa Westray to visit the Knap of Howar ('knoll of mounds') which is the earliest standing North European Neolithic farmstead known, being occupied from 3,700 BC to 2,800 BC.

Wideford Hill Cairn - Following a short walk on the north-western slope of Wideford Hill is the 5,000 year old cairn. It has exterior stonework that gives the structure a "stepped" appearance and comprising of three concentric rings. Access to the small chamber is via a slidding roof on the top, as the original entrance is deemed too small. The original excavation was completed in 1849 which recovered animal bones, but no pottery or identifiable human remains.


On the long journey home, I stopped off at the Scottish Crannog Centre in Loch Tay.

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