While in Orkney on the recent trip, we mixed a history-seeking outing into our scotch-centric itinerary. A group of monuments known as the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” offers a remarkable record of life on this remote archipelago that dates back 5,000 years. Of the four locations, two can be visited completely free, so I would be entirely remiss if I found myself in the area without stopping by.
One of those is the Ring of Brodgar, a vast circle of 36 upright-positioned stones.
As with many such installations, theories on their utility abound, but none can be positively proven. The ceremonial nature of this circle is rather obvious, but that’s all that can be said with certainty.
A smaller set – and arguably more picturesque – is called the Stones of Stenness.
Stock pictures of the place usually depict grazing sheep, so I was not surprised to see a few sheep in my frame.
As you can probably gather, it was a cold winter’s day – wind chill of about 20°F. The snow on the ground, in my humble opinion, greatly contributed to the somewhat mystical atmosphere of the place.
The Maeshowe chambered cairn is one component of the site requiring advance reservations to see with a guided tour. The mound is picturesque enough when seen from the outside…
… and impressively built, if somewhat barren, on the inside…
… and then the guide will highlight runes and writings on the walls – admittedly dating from more recent times of the Vikings era – that make the place entirely fascinating.
The guide, by the way, did a fantastic job explaining how the place offers numerous insights into the workings of the local prehistoric society, while repeatedly impressing on us that we do not actually know the true purpose of this cairn. There are hints of it being a shelter, a temple, a burial place, or even a dwelling, but just as with the stone circles, there is no sufficient evidence to elevate one theory over all others. The only thing that is absolutely clear is that on the winter solstice – and only then – for just a few fleeting moments the rays of the sun penetrate directly into the central inner chamber, giving the indication that the days will start getting longer and that the spring is coming. Usually, at that point, festivities ensued.
The remaining component of the serial site is the village of Skara Brae. That is supposedly the most interpretative component, combining visible remnants of a settlement with a museum. Unfortunately, it can be closed on a given day due to “bad weather” with minimal notice.
And so it was when we arrived. I am somewhat skeptical of the notion that a layer of snow on the ground and a wind chill on a moderately cloudy day can truly constitute an instance of bad weather for people who make Orkney their chosen place of residence. On the other hand, the actual remains of the village are a quarter of a mile down the coast from the visitor center; you can walk around the perimeter of the site and towards the settlement even during the closure, but I judged it not worth the effort in the cold and wind – so maybe the bad-weather bit was not completely invalid.
We spent a few minutes looking at the structures near the visitor center before leaving. Coming back another day was unfortunately not an option.
The four components are located pretty close to each other in the western part of the Mainland Orkney. The Stones and the Ring sit on the major road that runs westward in the direction of Skara Brae and are impossible to miss; each of them can be explored fairly quickly (although the parking lot for the Ring is a few hundred yards down the road from it). Maeshowe will take a bit over an hour, including the shuttle rides there and back from the visitor center. I suspect Skara Brae would require at least an hour, if not more.