Orkney in Scotland is overrun with stunning landscapes dotted with more ancient cultural sites than anywhere else in Europe. Forged by 5000 years of history, the archipelago of Orkney is made up of around 70 islands, nearly 600 miles of coastland and features a population of just 21,500.
Equally famous for its sandy white beaches and dramatic cliffs as its ancient monuments, a complex known as the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and consists of the incredible ancient village Skara Brae, amongst other sites. More recent historical sites include the striking Italian Chapel, built from two Nissen Huts by Italian prisoners of war during World War Two.
A magical experience for nature and history lovers alike, the whimsical and ancient Orkney Islands make for an essential visit. Here’s our pick of 10 of Orkney’s most stunning historic sites.
1. Broch of Gurness
Located on the northeast coast of Mainland Orkney, the Broch of Gurness is one of the most impressive brochs in Orkney. Though many brochs would have once stood alone, the Broch of Gurness was once surrounded by a settlement of people. Excavations in the early 20th century demonstrate that the village began between 500 and 200 BC, and would have consisted of a number of stone houses, sheds, ditches, ramparts and an entrance causeway. The broch was later abandoned and the ditches filled in some time after 100 AD. The site was then a single farmstead until the 8th century, and the last activity there took place in the 9th century when a Viking woman was buried there with her grave-goods.
Today, the site is a popular visitor attraction. Next to the visitor centre are the relocated remains of a late Iron Age or Pictish house. Located in a scenic spot, it also forms part of many popular walks in the area.
2. Ness of Brodgar
An archaeological site that forms part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Ness of Brodgar is a site that consists of a number of decorated stone slabs, a 6m thick stone wall and a large Neolithic temple thought to have been built between 3,300 and 3,200 BC.
Until 2002, the site was best known for being the location of the Ring of Brodgar. However, an archaeological excavation at the time revealed a massive complex of monumental Neolithic buildings as well as pottery, bones and stone tools. Archaeology also revealed that the site had been largely closed down and dismantled by 2,200 BC.
3. Ring of Brodgar
Undoubtedly one of Orkney’s most visited attractions, the Ring of Brodgar forms part of the Heart of Neolothic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site. The stone circle was built in around 2500-2000 BC and covers an area of some 8,500 square metres, making it the third largest stone circle in the British Isles. 27 of the original 60 stones survive, and legend has it that it was once a shrine, place of ritual and was built for the astronomical observation of the equinox and solstice.
Today, the site is hugely popular amongst visitors, who enjoy the ancient magic of the site. It’s also a photography hotspot, particularly at sunset, sunrise and during special events such as the summer and winter solstices.
4. Skara Brae
Skara Brae is a stone-built Neolithic settlement located on the Bay of Skaill that forms part of the Heart of Neolothic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site. Made up of ten clustered houses, they once contained stone hearths, beds and cupboards as well as a primitive sewer system with toilets that once flushed waste into the ocean. The site was originally occupied from around 3180 BC to around 2500 BC and is regarded as Europe’s most complete Neolithic village.
Even though it is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza, the state of preservation at the site has led to it being dubbed the ‘Scottish Pompeii’. It is a hugely popular site.
5. Tomb of the Eagles
Located on the dramatic South Ronaldsay cliffs, the Isbister Chambered Cairn – better known as the ‘Tomb of the Eagles’ – is one of the most visited archeological sites in Orkney. Discovered by local farmer Ronnie Simison when he was digging for flagstones in the 1950s, the Stone Age tomb revealed a striking collection of over 16,000 bones and a number of artefacts that were placed there some 5,000 years ago. Also placed there were the remains of 8-20 birds, which were placed there later.
Though the tomb is no longer open to the public, it is still possible to walk around the site. A stunning mile’s walk from the site takes you to the visitor centre, which contains a wealth of information about the tomb and Orkney’s ancient past more generally.
Maeshowe is western Europe’s finest chambered tomb (cairn) and has been described by Historic Environment Scotland as ‘a masterpiece of Neolithic engineering’, and ‘an exceptionally early architectural accomplishment’. Situated close to the Loch of Harray’s south-eastern shore, Maeshowe was built around 2,800 BC (around 300 years earlier than the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt) and is widely considered to be a wonder of Neolithic architectural design. The burial mound itself measures approximately 37m in diameter by 7.4m high, and it has been estimated that 100,000 man hours were involved in its construction.
Archaeological studies suggest that the burial mound was built atop an earlier Neolithic structure, possibly a dwelling. In around 2,000 BC Maeshowe fell into disuse, and for 3,000 years Maeshowe sat dormant, until 1153 when Vikings led by Earl Harald Maddadarson broke in through the roof and sheltered there, and left behind some of the most complete runic writing found anywhere in the UK. Today, Maeshowe remains a striking feature in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site and is an unmissable attraction.
7. St Magnus Cathedral
Founded as a resting place for St. Magnus’ relics, work on St Magnus Cathedral started in around 1137. It was later assigned to the inhabitants of Kirkwall by King James III of Scotland in a charter dating to 1486. Remarkably, St Magnus Cathedral managed to escape being destroyed during the Reformation, though the organ, many treasures and rich vestments were removed and the walls whitewashed. From 1845, the government carried out extensive restoration work, and later, a new choir and presbytery were fitted with pews and galleries.
The cathedral deteriorated until the 20th century, but between 1913 and 1930, restorations were made which significantly aided the preservation of the cathedral. Today, the cathedral – which is the most northerly in the British Isles – is both a working church and popular attraction, and a fine example of Romanesque architecture.
8. Standing Stones of Stenness
Forming part of the Heart of Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Stones of Stenness, are a group of 4 upright stones that are all that survive of what was originally a much larger stone circle. The stones are enormous in size, emphasising how the earliest stone circles of the Neolithic period appear to have been much larger than the later ones (though dating is difficult it appears the Stones were constructed by at least c.3,100 BC). Some estimates even suggest that the stones were the earliest henge monument in the British Isles.
Today, the stones are hugely popular and are best visited in tandem with the other sites part of the Heart of Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site collection.
9. The Italian Chapel
Located on the uninhabited island of Lamb Holm, the Italian Chapel – or La Bella Cappella Italiana – is a stunning ornate Roman Catholic chapel that was build by Italian prisoners of war in the 1940s. The prisoners of war were captured on the North African campaign, then shipped to Orkney to build the Churchill Barriers (a series of naval defences). As a way of constructing a place of worship, the Italians were permitted to convert two Nissen huts into a chapel, and scavenged materials to build it.
Today, the chapel is notable for its frescoes of angelic figures, stained glass windows and an altarpiece depicting the Madonna and Child.
10. The Bishop's and Earl's Palaces
Situated near the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the medieval residences of Bishop’s Palace and Earl’s Palace are some of the oldest surviving domestic buildings in the town, and form part of the medieval cathedral complex at its heart. The Bishop’s Palace was created from the 12th century in tandem with St Magnus Cathedral. The ornate Earl’s Palace was added later, in the early 1600s, as part of the Earl of Orkney’s ambitious plans to make the palace part of a stunning palace complex.
The Bishop’s Palace also marks the location where King Hakon IV of Norway died, which marked him as the last Norwegian monarch to rule the Hebrides. Today, its façade still captivates onlookers, while the Earl’s Palace is remarkably well-preserved.