Neolithic Orkney – Ruth Craine takes us on a journey around an island steeped in history

Maeshowe’s chambered Neolithic Cairn

Around half a mile away from the Tomb of The Eagles are the remains of a Bronze Age building known as Liddle Burnt Mound it is approximately 3000 years old

The Orkney Islands are fascinating and steeped in history. Myself and OMR love visiting and summer 2022 will be our 4th trip on the ferry north 20 miles or so across the Pentland Firth. 

There are more than 70 islands and islets, only about 20 of which are inhabited. The largest of the islands is Mainland or Pomona, which is divided into East Mainland and West Mainland.

The small southern islands of Lambholm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay are connected to Mainland by causeways built during WWII.

I’ve had to split the history into two articles, this one, the Neolithic period on the islands and a second article which will cover the years from the 12th century to the end of World War II. Both will concentrate on mainland Orkney and the southern islands as mentioned above.

We begin our journey with some old stones.

Situated in West Mainland the Stones of Stenness today consist of four upright stones around 6 meters tall. They form part of a circle that originally would have had twelve stones. In the centre the focus point would have been a large hearth. The stones were encircled by a large ditch and bank, these have been lost over time by ploughing.

The body of water behind the stones is the Loch of Stenness, the mountains in the distance are on the island of Hoy. The resident sheep use the stones for shelter from the sun, the Orkney breeze, and the occasional downpour.

About half a mile along the road from the Stones of Stenness  stands the larger Ring of Brodgar. 

Both sites, along with a new dig on the Ness of Brodgar are part of the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. The spectacular ring stands on an eastward sloping plateau on the Ness of Brodgar, which is a thin strip of land separating the lochs of Stenness and Harray.

The interior of the ring of stones has never been fully excavated, or scientifically dated, therefore the monument’s actual age remains uncertain. It is assumed to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC.

The stone ring was built in a true circle and is almost 104 metres wide. Although not based on any archaeological evidence, it is thought to have originally contained 60 megaliths, only 27 stones remain upright today. These stones vary in height ranging between just over 2 metres to a maximum of 4.7 metres.

With a diameter of 103.6 metres the Brodgar ring is the third largest stone circle in the British Isles. It covers an area of 8435 square metres, it is beaten only by the outer ring of stones at Avebury and the Greater Ring at Stanton Drew in England.

It came as a bit of a shock during our 2019 visit to find that you can no longer wander among the stones, as we did when I took the photo below in 2017. There have been a few incidents of vandalism, this has resulted in an outer circular walkway being constructed to keep all visitors in one place.

Moving on from the standing stones we travel to the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland Orkney where we find Skara Brae.

Skara Brae is a stone built Neolithic settlement. It was occupied from around 3180 BC to about 2500 BC, it is Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids.

In the year 1850 a severe winter storm hit Scotland, killing over 200 people and causing widespread damage. In the Bay of Skaill the storm stripped the earth and sand from a large knoll known as ‘Skerrabra’. After the storm had cleared the local people found the outline of a village consisting of a number of small houses without roofs.

The original inhabitants of Skara Brae made and used a style of pottery called grooved ware. Their houses used earth sheltering and were sunk into the ground, doing this provided them with stability and also acted as insulation against Orkney’s winter climate. The average size of each house measures 40 square metres, with a large square room containing a stone hearth used for heating and cooking. It would seem that no more than fifty people lived in Skara Brae at any given time.

The Grooved Ware People who built Skara Brae were mainly pastoralists who raised cattle and sheep. Excavations in 1972 unearthed seed grains indicating that barley had been cultivated. Fish bones and shells are common finds indicating that dwellers ate seafood.

Occupation of the site continued for about six hundred years. Around 2500 BC the climate changed and became much colder and wetter. This may have been when the settlement was abandoned by its inhabitants. There are many theories as to why the people left, another one points towards a massive storm.

The picture below shows the inside of one of the Neolithic houses. Each dwelling contains a number of stone built pieces of furniture, these include seats, dressers, cupboards and storage boxes. The houses were entered through a low doorway which had a stone slab door, this was closed by a bar that slid into holes cut in the stone door jambs. A sophisticated drainage system was incorporated into the design of the village, including a primitive form of toilet in each house.

The houses have similar furniture, the beds and dressers are in the same place in each house, with the dresser standing against the wall opposite the door, making it the first thing seen by anyone entering the dwelling. The houses had a larger bed on the right side of the doorway and a smaller one to the left.

One building on the site is different, it has no storage boxes or dresser and has been divided into small cubicles. Fragments of stone, antler and bone were discovered indicating that this building may have been a workshop used to make tools such as bone needles or flint axes. Interestingly the site provided the earliest known record of the human flea in Europe.

Travelling south from Mainland Orkney to the Island of South Ronadsay, the next fascinating place on the Neolithic tour is The Tomb of the Eagles.

A visit to the Tomb of the Eagles starts with a talk in the visitor centre, where you are shown some of the things which have been found in the chamber and the immediate area outside, these items included several human skulls.

Life expectancy was normally around 30 to 40 years, one elderly lady was found to be about 45 when she died. We were also shown and allowed to hold a selection of tools and the talons from the eagles who were also buried there.

The Tomb itself also called Isbister Chambered Cairn, is a Neolithic chambered tomb located on a cliff edge at Isbister. It was discovered by chance when a local farmer called Ronald Simison was digging in 1958.

He initially conducted some of his own excavations, then he contacted an archaeologist by the name of John Hedges who mounted a full study.

There were 16000 human bones found at the site, as well as 725 from birds. These were identified as predom – inantly belonging to the white-tailed sea eagle, representing between 8 and 20 individuals. Dating techniques revealed that the eagles died between 2450 and 2050 BC, around 1000 years after the tomb was built. This confirmed along with evidence from other sites that the neolithic tombs on Orkney had remained in use for many generations. It is still not known why the eagles were taken into the tomb and buried with the humans.

Access to the tomb is along a low narrow passageway, just over 9 feet long and about 3 feet high. A trolly about the size of a double width skateboard is your means of transport to the interior. It’s described in the visitor centre as a very simple and efficient way of getting in and out. What they don’t tell you is that everything is very damp and extremely muddy, even on the nicest of days. The trolly, although big enough for a normal sized human becomes a little more tricky when you try getting in with a DSLR camera around your neck, ever effort was made as to not get it covered in mud whilst I  propelled myself along using my fingertips.

The inside of the tomb is also damp and muddy, and is slightly smaller than the map on display in the tourist centre exhibition would have you believe. Below is  one of the photos that I managed to take inside, before emerging once again to the sunny outside world looking as though I’d been in a mud bath. Clothing ruined but at least I’d managed to keep the camera clean, OMR found all this highly amusing.

Around half a mile away from the Tomb of The Eagles are the remains of a Bronze Age building known as Liddle Burnt Mound it is approximately 3000 years old.   The mound was created by deposits of burnt stone and peat ash, this together with an impressive water heating system, using hot stones in a stone trough indicate that quite a quantity of hot water was produced here. The primary use of the building still remains a mystery. The mound takes its unusual name from that of of the farm whose land it was discovered on and can be seen below.

The final place we visit on the tour of Neolithic Orkney is Maeshowe, which is the large mound seen in the photo below.

Maeshowe is a Neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave, it is a scheduled monument and is part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney group of sites. It appears as a grassy mound rising from a flat plain near the Loch of Harray. It has been estimated that is was constructed around 2800 BC.

It is one of the largest tombs in Orkney, the mound encasing the tomb is 115 feet in diameter, rising to a height of 24 feet. It is surrounded by a ditch between 50 to 70 feet away. The entrance passage is 36 feet long and 3 feet in height, this leads to a central almost square chamber measuring about 15 feet on each side. It is aligned so that the rear wall of its central chamber is illuminated on the winter solstice. The grass mound also hides a complex of passages and chambers built of crafted slabs of flagstone weighing up to 30 tons. We did go inside but I it wasn’t really suited to taking photos.

Not all passage graves have been found to contain evidence of human remains, Maeshowe is one of these, suggesting the site was used as an observatory, calendar, and for ceremonies rather than as a tomb.

A Neolithic ‘low road’ connects Maeshowe with the village of Skara Brae, passing by the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. These low roads connect Neolithic ceremonial sites throughout Britain. Some archeologists think that Maeshowe was originally surrounded by a large stone circle, but as yet I don’t think there is an evidence of that.

Like the inhabitants of Skara Brae the people who built Maeshowe were also users of grooved ware, the distinctive type of pottery that spread throughout the British Isles from about 3000 BC.

This brings us to the end of our tour of Neolithic Orkney, I hope you have enjoyed the photos and the accompanying narrative, thank you for reading.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank the creators of many web sites, the authors of numerous books, the writers of lots of leaflets and the erectors of several notice boards, without whom my research would have been impossible.

Writing & Images Ruth Craine 2022