Highland Cows

Today we undertook a tour of key sites on Orkney which comprises an archipelago located off the northeastern coast of Scotland which is home to one of the richest surviving Neolithic (New Stone Age) landscapes in N.W. Europe. Here can be found impressive domestic and ritual monuments which afford exceptional insights into the society, skills and spiritual beliefs of the people who built them.

Interspersed with the prehistoric sites we encountered a farming landscape with cattle and sheep plus the famous Italian Chapel dating from World War Two.

Maes Howe

Maes Howe

Maes Howe dates from around 3000 BC and hence is some 5000 years old. It is considered the finest chambered tomb in north-west Europe. To mind there are strong similarities with Newgrange in Ireland. I am also mindful of the social organisation in those far off days which must have been capable of marshalling a huge workforce at a time when the early people were living close to the environment and were restricted to just stone tools and, possibly, no wheeled vehicles.

In essence Maeshowe consists of a grassy mound (35m across and 7m high) situated on a large circular platform surrounded by a ditch beyond which is an earthen bank.

Incredibly, the interior has remained watertight over the millennia. No photographs of the interior are permitted. Inside the mound is a small room measuring 4.7m in diameter  and 4.5 high, probably intended for burials.

Like many other monuments from this era (incl Stonehenge), the passageway is aligned with sunset three weeks before and after Dec 21st (the shortest day).

From the runic carvings in the interior, it is evident that Vikings penetrated the interior in the middle of the 12th century AD. The Norsemen called the site Orkahaugr.

Skara Brae

Skara Brae

This site is located on Mainland Orkney, north of the Scottish mainland and about eighteen miles west of Kirkwall, the principal town on Orkney.

This village was occupied for about 600 years (3100 BC to 2500 BC) , a period which spanned two distinct phases of occupation with most of that which is currently visible representing the final phase which was built over the levelled earlier site.

The site was originally exposed by the very forces which continue to threaten it today: a wild storm and coastal erosion. Back in the settlement’s Neolithic prime it is believed there was a considerable buffer of land between the village and the coast virtually all of which has now been eroded, a process which may have already destroyed other parts of the site.

It is believed that Skara Brae was a self-sufficient community which eventually dispersed when the people reverted to more single family type homesteads under a regional identity. However, this is one theory. The archaeology does suggest that, when occupied, the Skara Brae site was home to a remarkably successful and stable small community which lasted for some 600 years.

Looking down  through what may have been turf roofs, we can identify with a range of basic furniture including beds and dressers, albeit made from stone. The passage ways would have been roofed to afford protection from the persistent Orkney wind.

The site was preserved over the millennia due to a combination of robust construction (in an organic refuse tip) and filling up with sand after abandonment.

Skara Brae is one of a collection of important prehistoric sites on Orkney with neighbours including Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stennes and Maes Howe.

Ring of Brodgar

Ring of Brodgar.

The famous Ring of Brodgar, a prehistoric circle-henge which is located some 10 miles WNW of Kirkwall on Mainland Orkney an island  which lies N.E. of the Scottish mainland.

This circle stands on a low-lying neck of land between the lochs of Harray and Stenness. This is an area rich in prehistory with the following in close proximity:

The circle stands on a plateau measuring 370 feet (113m) across, sloping down to the east and surrounded by a rock-cut ditch up to 30 feet wide and 10 feet deep (9m x 3m).Wide causeways are present at the north-west and south-east. It is believed an outer bank existed with a height of about 9 feet (3m) but this has disappeared due to a combination of natural erosion and robbing by local farmers.

The stone circle is positioned close to the inner edge of the ditch. Originally sixty but now twenty nine standing stones cover an area of 91000 Sq feet, it is the third largest of its kind in the British Isles.More information:

  • No central feature and the stones have an average height of 7 feet.
  • Constructed around 2700 BC .
  • Unusually, there are no obvious astronomical alignments.
  • Construction may have entailed 80,000 hours of manual labour at a time when only stone tools were available.

Recently, an extensive occupation level from the Neolithic period has been discovered on the Ness of Brodgar. We did visit this site but timing was not opportune as the exposed archaelogy was in process of being covered up following conclusion of the summer dig yesterday.

Stones of Stennes.

Stones of Stennes

Although impressive, the remaining stones at Stenness represent a fraction of the original complex which may well have rivalled the nearby Ring of Brodgar in size. Summary facts and information:

  • Located 9 miles west of Kirkwall, capital of Mainland Orkney, adjacent to the B 9055.
  • Erected during the Late Neolithic period, about 3000 BC.
  • Classified as a circle-henge with the outer ditch cut through rock and extending to 19 feet in width and up to 6ft 6 inches deep.
  • Outside the ditch was a bank some 21 feet in width and about 6 feet in height.
  • The central area enclosed by the ditch had a diameter of about 148 feet with one wide entrance at the north.
  • On the central plateau had been a ring of 11 or 12 very tall sandstone slabs of which only four remain erect. the stone may have been set in an elipse (106 feet N-S) or a circle (104 feet in diameter). The tallest slab stands at the south and is 18 ft 9 ins high, 4 ft 7 ins wide and weighing 6 tons.
  • The Stennes Stones may have been built on the site of an earlier prehistoric construction or site of occupation.
  • In common with many other such prehistoric circles it is possible that the site was aligned with the mid-winter sunrise.
  • Close to the site are two sole standing stones: the Barnhouse Stone, 765 yards to the S.E. and the Watch Stone, 130 yards to the N.E. One of both of these may have formed part of a row or avenue of similar stones linked to the circle.

Broch of Gurness

Broch of Gurness

A broch is, usually, a tall, conical-shaped tower with concentric circular walls. The structures date from the Iron Age and are unique to Scotland with the majority  of the 500 structures spread throughout northern and western Scotland and the islands. I have visited reasonably well-preserved brochs on Skye and Lewis. Brochs appear to have been high status dwellings built with defence in mind sitting at the heart of the local community, perhaps along the lines of the role played by stone churches in medieval times.

The Broch of Gurness dates from around 200BC on a site with a history of occupation dating back to around 400 BC. The archaeology suggests a circular tower 20 metres in external diameter and up to 10 metres tall. Around the broch grew up a community comprising stone houses, yards and storage sheds. Due to structural weaknesses, this broch suffered a partial collapse resulting in abandonment of the tower around AD 100. Subsequently, the site seems to have been occupied by single-family farmsteads until falling out of use around AD 600.  A single Viking era burial was made in the  abandoned site around AD850.

Within the site was discovered the “Shamrock House”, as it has been christened.This is a typically Pictish design, and was found buried in the rubble on the south-eastern part of the site. The house was subsequently moved, by modern archaeologists, stone by stone, to the right of the modern entrance.

An interesting feature of this -and some other broch sites- is a carefully constructed drystone walled well chamber in the broch interior. The structure still contains water but, in common with the other broch sites, it is not clear whether the elaborate structure was purely a water source or used in conjunction with some other purpose.

The broch site forms part of Orkney’s rich archaeological heritage and lies about sixteen miles from Kirkwall.

Italian Chapel

Italian Chapel

Italian Chapel

The Italian Chapel is about eight miles south of Kirkwall, the principal town on Orkney.

This fascinating building was constructed by Italian prisoners of war (WW2) during the period 1943-5 . The core building comprises two Nissen huts but the fixtures and decoration were made from concrete and other materials ‘scavenged’  during a period of major shortages. The result is a great credit to the British authorities (for permitting the chapel to be built), Father P Gioacchino Giacobazzi an artistic prisoner named Domenico Chiocchetti plus other skilled helpers.The same men restored the building in the 1960s and again in the 1990s.

The prisoners were primarily engaged in building Churchill Barriers which had a dual purpose of connecting the islands and acting as barriers to German U-boats getting into Scapa Flow. The catalyst for the construction work was the sinking by U-47 of the battleship Royal Oak in 1939 with loss of over 800 lives.

Churchill Barrier.

Sheep roundup.