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Orkney Islands

Main attractions

Yesnaby Castle, western coast of Mainland
Yesnaby Castle, western coast of Mainland / , Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Some of the wonders of Orkney Islands are known internationally, but the true scale of the cultural heritage found on these small islands is hard to grasp. Remote, desolate islands are packed with remnants of past cultures and too often it is obscure to us: why this or that was built and even - how it was accomplished.

Some of the highlights of Orkney Islands are:

  • Neolithic settlements - some of the best preserved ancient settlements in the world.
  • Neolithic cairns - large, complex megalithic structures with diverse architecture.
  • Stone rings and standing stones - well preserved megalithic stone rings as well as numerous giant standing stones.
  • Brochs - belong to the most amazing dry stone structures in the world. These Iron Age towers have thick walls with passages inside the walls.
  • Early medieval churches - Orkney Islands served as the northernmost centre of early Christianity in the world.
  • Sea stacks and natural arches - harsh seas are eroding the Old Red Sandstone of islands and as a result there have formed numerous amazing coastal formations.

Natural landmarks

Sea stacks

Selected list out of many amazing formations:

  • North Gaulton Castle - western coast of Mainland. Very tall and thin rock spire in the sea.
  • Old Man of Hoy - Hoy. 137 m tall, incredibly thin sea stack which may collapse soon.
  • Yesnaby Castle - western coast of Mainland. Spectacular, 35 m tall rock spire rising from the sea. A hole goes through the rock closer to its base and rock spire seems to defy gravity.

Natural arches and blowholes

  • Blaster Hole in Horse of Copinsay - Horse of Copinsay. Impressive sea jet - when the storm is from east, there can be observed up to 60 m high spouts produced by wave power.
  • Geo of Ork - Shapinsay. Rounded opening in sharp promontory of Shapinsay Island.
  • The Gloup - Rousay. Partly collapsed sea cave, divided from the sea by 80 m wide land bridge. The chasm is some 40 m long and 25 m deep, with boiling sea below.
  • Vat of Kirbister - east coast of Stronsay. Impressive natural arch.

Man made landmarks

Skara Brae - unique Neolithic village, Scotland
Skara Brae - unique Neolithic village / yellowbook, / CC BY 2.0.

Neolithic settlements and houses

  • Barnhouse Settlement - Mainland. Well preserved remnants of Neolithic settlement, base parts of at least 15 houses have been found.
  • Knap of Howar - Papa Westray. The oldest preserved house in Northern Europe, one of the best preserved Neolithic settlements in Europe, occupied in 3500 – 3100 BC. Similar to the more famous Skara Brae but older. Consists of two dry stone houses.
  • Links of Noltland - Westray. Remnants of Neolithic settlement. Here found central house of the village as well as valuable artwork – Westray Wife, the oldest representation of human face in United Kingdom.
  • Ness of Brodgar - Mainland. Important Neolithic settlement with interesting finds which show how people lived here 3500 BC and later. Found remnants of houses, which were painted in bright colors, pottery, tools. Remnants of some 100 m long stone wall – possible border between nearby sacred sites and village. Found also temple like structure.
  • Skara Brae - Mainland. Mainland Orkney. Impressive, extremely well preserved Neolithic settlement. Occupied in 3180 BC – 2500 BC. Remaining ten stone houses.

Brochs

Brochs are a "speciality" of Scotland and are common in Orkney islands. There dry stone towers represent high achievement of Iron Age structural engineering.

  • Burroughston Broch - Shapinsay. Earth covered round stone structure from Iron Age. Remains of stone furniture still located in chambers.
  • Broch of Gurness - Mainland. Neolithic settlement surrounding a central tower – broch. Walls of broch are up to 4.1 m thick.
Inside the Grain earth-house, Orkney Islands
Inside the Grain earth-house / , Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Earth-houses

Unique monuments are earth-houses - secretive underground chambers with dry stone walls of very high quality. The purpose of these Iron Age structures is not fully understood.

  • Grain earth-house - Mainland. One of the deepest known underground dwellings of Iron Age - earth-houses. Stone corbelled roof is 2 m below the ground level.
  • Mine Howe - Mainland. Prehistoric monument of unknown purpose - a subterranean chamber, which goes down 29 steps to 6 m depth. Especially impressive is the 4 m high corbelled roof made of dry stone. Exact age of the structure is not known, it is created in Neolithic or Iron Age.
  • Rennibister earth-house - Mainland. Earth house, built sometimes around 1000 BC. The large chamber is supported by 4 pillars and 5 alcoves in walls. It contained bones of 6 adults and 12 children, which, possibly, were added here in later times.
Entrance in Quoyness Cairn, Orkney Islands
Entrance in Quoyness Cairn / , Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Cairns and passage graves

Islands are very rich with these impressive archaeological monuments. Here is listed just a selection:

  • Blackhammer Chambered Cairn - Rousay. Impressive chambered cairn, most likely built sometimes around 3000 BC. Interior of this underground structure is divided into seven compartments with large stone slabs.
  • Dwarfie Stane - Hoy Island. Unique monument – chambered tomb carved in single block of sandstone. Possibly the only sample of Neolithic rock cut structures in Britain.
  • Fresh Knowe - Mainland. Enormous Bronze Age (or late Neolitic) mound, 38 by 26 m across, 5.7 m tall.
  • Holm of Papa cairn - Papa Westray. 20 m long chambered cairn, built sometimes around 3500 BC, with ancient carvings on its stones. Possible burial site of Knap of Howar inhabitants.
  • Maeshowe - Mainland. Enormous Neolithic cairn and passage grave. Grass covered, 7.3 m high and 35 m wide mound with a ditch around it. Inside the mound is passage grave built of stone slabs weighing up to 30 t. Rear wall in the central chamber is illuminated in winter solstice. Built before 3000 BC. Contains numerous runic inscriptions left by Vikings.
  • Midhowe Chambered Cairn - Rousay. One of the best examples of Orkney - Cromarty chambered cairn. This impressive megalithic grave was built in the 3rd millenium BC. It contains 23.4 m long central chamber which is divided into 12 compartments with large stone slabs.
  • Quoyness Cairn - Sanday. Magnificent chambered cairn, built sometimes around 2900 BC. Approximately 4 m high. Nearby 12 Bronze Age mounds.
  • Southcairn - Holm of Papa. 20 m long chambered cairn, built roughly at 3500 BC. The chamber of this ancient monument is divided in compartments by large stone slabs. Unique features are ancient carvings on stones of this cairn, including "eyebrow motifs".
  • Taversoe Tuick - Rousay. Unique Neolithic circular cairn with two floors, where each floor is accessed via separate passage.
  • Tomb of the Eagles - South Ronaldsay. Impressive Neolithic chambered tomb built sometimes around 3000 BC or earlier. 16,000 human bones were found here, as well as bones of white-tailed sea eagle from later period.
  • Unstan Chambered Cairn - Mainland. Large Neolithic chambered cairn of unusual type, built between 3400 and 2800 BC. Very well preserved, original roof replaced with modern concrete roof. Type locality of Unstan pottery – shallow, elegant bowls.
Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Islands
Ring of Brodgar / , Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Stone rings and standing stones

  • Mor Stein - Shapinsay. 3.2 m high standing stone.
  • Ring of Brodgar - Mainland. Circle of standing stones inside of a henge. Developed around 2500 – 2000 BC. Northernmost circle henge in Britain. Diameter of stone circle is 104 m – the third largest in British isles.
  • Standing Stones of Stenness - Mainland. Group of prehistoric standing stones. Central structure is a ring of thin stone slabs – only 4 of the original 12 stone slabs are still standing. Around this ring there is cut a ditch in the rock – up to 2 m deep. Erected around 3000 BC.
  • Stone of Setter - Eday. Megalith - standing stone of amazing form, 4.6 m tall. It resembles a rised palm of hand.
  • Watch Stone - Mainland. Enormous standing stone, 5.6 m high and 1.5 m wide.

Other megalithic monuments

  • Liddle Burnt Mound - South Ronaldsay. Remains of structure surrounded by a mound. Erected sometimes around 1200 - 1500 BC. It is possible that this was a large hearth where food was cooked for a larger community.
  • Underwater structures near Damsay - in the sea near Damsay. Megalithic structures under the sea level, including an enormous stone plated placed on four pillars.

Urban planning monuments

  • Brough of Birsay Viking settlement - Brough of Birsay. Well visible fundaments of buildings in the former Viking village. It is known that here was the main residence of Jarl Thorfinn the Mighty (1014 - 1065). Village is built over earllier Pictish village.
  • Kirkwall historical centre - Mainland. The largest town in Orkneys has well preserved historical centre, formed by many houses from the 17th - 18th century which are lined along crooked, narrow streets.
  • Old Stromness - Mainland. Characteristic small town of Orkney Islands with narrow, winding streets and historical buildings of grey stone.
Ruins of Noltland Castle
Ruins of Noltland Castle / , Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Castles

  • Birsay Earl's Palace - Brough of Birsay. Ruins of castle built in the 1570s - 1580s.
  • Cubbie Roo's Castle - Wyre. Ruins of old castle, built sometimes around 1150.
  • Kirkwall Bishop’s Palace - Mainland. Ruins of bishop’s palace, built in the 12th century, fallen in ruins by 1320. Extended in the 16th century.
  • Noltland Castle - Westray. Ruins of magnificent castle, built in the 1560s. Castle has very impressive spiral staircase.

Palaces

  • Balfour Castle - Shappinsay. Neogothic country home, built in 1847 in the site of older structure.
  • Kirkwall Earl's Palace - Mainland, centre of Kirkwall. Ruins of Renaissance palace, started in 1607 by Earls of Orkney - local tyrrants.
Egilsay St. Magnus Kirk
Egilsay St. Magnus Kirk / , Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Churches

  • Brough of Birsay church of St. Peter - Brough of Birsay. Remains of small church built in Romanesque style, built around 1100 AD in the site of earlier Pictish church. Place of pilgrimage until the early Middle Ages.
  • Egilsay St. Magnus Kirk - Egilsay. Unusual church with a round tower, similar to lighthouse. Build time is unknown, but the base part might be more than 1000 years old.
  • Eynhallow Church - Eynhallow. Ruins of very old church from the 12th century or earlier. Church is located on a very small island.
  • Kirkwall St. Magnus Cathedral - Mainland. Northernmost cathedral in the British isles, excellent example of Romanesque architecture. Construction started in 1137, built over 300 years. Dungeon – prison under the church.
  • Orphir St Nicholas round church - Mainland. Ruins of the only medieval round church in Scotland. Built sometimes between 1090 and 1160 in Romanesque style.
  • Papa Stronsay chapel - Papa Stronsay. Ruins of chapel from the 11th century. Under it may lie remnants of the 8th century Pictish monastery - northernmost early Christian structure of the world.

Other man made landmarks

  • North Ronaldsay dry stane dyke - North Ronaldsay. Unique system of dry stone walls around the island. The purpose of these walls is - to keep sheep AWAY from the central part of the island. North Ronaldsay sheep is unique breed which survives on seaweed found along the beach.
  • Tankerness House - Kirkwall, Mainland. One of the best preserved town houses from the 16th century in Scotland. Now serves as local museum.

List of described attractions

ArrowDwarfie StaneRock cut architecture

Map of Orkney Islands

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