My curiosity about the Orkney Islands arose when I saw the August 2014 issue of National Geographic. It contained a twenty-page article about the monuments of Neolithic Orkney with beautiful photos. After reading I immediately planned the trip. A few months later I’m heading north in my motor home, passing lots of Neolithic sites in Scotland. Most of them I visit in cloudy weather, others in the rain. But as I approach John ‘o Groats, the cloud cover breaks open, so that from a few kilometers I see the islands bathing in bright sunlight like the promised land. It’s storming. I book a ticket for the foot ferry that leaves for the islands early in the next morning.
Arrival at Neolithic Orkney
The sea is calm and looks like a mirror. It is a sunny almost windless day. The crossing takes forty five minutes. Despite the good visibility, I don’t see any seals or whales. After arrival, I take a coach for the maxitour. This is the most comprehensive of the entire range of guided island explorations. The driver starts the engine and from then on talks non-stop at a leisurely pace about the Orkneys. He displays a pleasant mix of pride and self-mockery. What surprises me most are his stories about sunken warships: After World War I, a German admiral sank his fleet in the Scapa flow. And during World War II, the British army sank ships to close gaps between islands to protect the docked fleet. In vain, because a German submarine slipped through the barrier, causing death and destruction. Since then, Orkney has been a true diver’s paradise.
Our company first visits Skara Brae. It is a complex of ten neolithic buildings that came from under the dune sand in 1850. Investigation pointed out that after some 400 years of habitation it became suddenly abandoned around 2500 BC. You won’t find anything like this in Northern Europe older than this amazing highlight of Neolithic Orkney. Fist, we take a look a look at the found artifacts in the museum at the entrance. From there we walk into a reconstructed stone age house, complete with furnishings. It looks cozy and homely; stone cupboard, rugs, fire. The pointed roof and the round shape give the whole the experience of a yurt. If we continue on the dune path from there, we come to the amazing houses themselves. They are smaller than I thought and are close together. There is a path around it. The view over the bay is stunningly beautiful.
Ring of Brodgar
The next stop is the Ring of Brodgar, a stone circle with a diameter of just over hundred meters. After more than 4,000 years, twenty seven of the original sixty stones are still in a perfect circle. It is almost certain that the stones mark important positions of the sun and moon. Some are scratched with runes – Orkney was part of Norway until about 1500 – others with contemporary letters. They are markers in time that accentuate old age. Walking over the raised ring I feel nothing but awe. This is not only due to the historical significance of the stones, but also due to the sophisticated location in the landscape. Everything shows that this was once a very special place. Hesitantly, I occasionally put my hand on a stone.
Ness of Brodgar (an archeological dig at Neolithic Orkney)
The bus continues the tour through neolithic Orkney on a narrow headland between two lochs, one sweet and one salt. Here is the Ness of Brodgar. Since its discovery in 2003, archaeologists have been busy researching over fourteen archeological structures, the oldest of which was built around 3000 BC. There is a good chance that there are many more Neolithic remains underground in the near surroundings.
Stones of Stenness
Immediately after the Ness is another stone circle; the standing stones of Stenness. Here are four of the twelve stones in a circle with a diameter of 30 meters. Smaller than Brodgar, but built a 1000 years earlier. The highest stone measures five meters. They are a few centimeters narrow and slanted. Our coach driver tells us that the stones point to specific points in the sky. I have not read anything like this in the literature, but it could just be true.
A little further away is an absolute highlight of the Neolithic architecture Maeshowe: is a burial mound with a fourteen meter long entrance that leads to a square room of approximately twenty square meters. Vikings left behind a huge amount of runes here. Would they have known that on the shortest day the midwinter sun shines straight in? And that the position of the seven-meter-high hill was measured by the way in which the sunlight shines over the hills in winter time?
Goodbye to Neolithic Orkney
I will never forget how the summer sun lit up the monuments on this amazing day. After this neolithic highlight, I no longer visit Stone Age any monuments this holiday. Loch Ness, Loch Lomond, Glasgow and the River Tweed are still planned. Also beautiful. Back in the Netherlands I follow the reports about Neolithic Orkney. The finding of thirty buildings does not surprise me, because everything already seemed possible to me in this magical place. One of the buildings may have been a prehistoric sauna. Why not? Orkney will continue to fascinate me for a long time.