The kind of place you pine for, Orkney is overrun with stunning landscapes that host more ancient cultural sites than anywhere else in Europe. This archipelago’s Neolithic roots extend from its ceremonial stone circles and age-old burial tombs to its prehistoric village. Whether an Italian chapel or Viking graffiti, a new surprise awaits upon every island, just as a portion of the past lurks under every megalith. Discover Orkney’s greatest historic sites and let the magic unfold.
A magnificent example of prehistoric architecture, Maeshowe is one of the finest Neolithic buildings and chambered cairns in Europe. This otherworldly chambered tomb may look like an eye-catching mound of grass from the outside, but like all of Orkney’s historic sites, inside awaits a maze of information. With its one-metre-wide entry, Maeshowe was made from an assortment of small and gigantic stones over 5,000 years ago. The entrance is aligned with the setting of the midwinter sun, which causes ethereal rays to illuminate the tomb’s chamber and the Barnhouse Standing Stone each year. During the 12th century, Viking crusaders sought shelter from a storm and broke into Maeshowe, where they carved Norse graffiti runes on the walls.
Older than the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge, Skara Brae is nicknamed the ‘Scottish Pompeii’ for being so impeccably preserved. The jewel of Scotland’s many historic sites, this ancient settlement dates back to the Neolithic era and consists of remarkable stone dwellings complete with ancient ‘fitted furniture’ and covered passageways. The ruins revealed themselves when the sand that frosted a mound on the Bay of Skaill was whisked away during a ferocious storm in 1850. Today, visitors can marvel at this archaeological masterpiece and the first-class visitor centre. It’s an exceptional glimpse into a bygone past.
Housed on the uninhabited island of Lamb Holm, the Italian Chapel or La Bella Cappella Italiana is a beautiful ornate Roman Catholic chapel built by Italian prisoners of war in the 1940s. This heavenly worship house, with its Madonna and Child above the altar and mesmerising attention to detail, symbolises cultural and spiritual freedom. After being captured on the North African campaign during WWII, the Italian prisoners of war were shipped to Orkney to build the Churchill Barriers (a series of causeways or barriers constructed as naval defences) following a deadly torpedo attack launched by a German U-boat at Scapa Flow. In order to save their sanity, the Italians converted two Nissen huts and scavenged materials to build the chapel, which can be visited today.
Come rain or shine, the Standing Stones of Stenness will never fail to take your breath away. The ancient circle, which dates back over 5,000 years ago, dominates the skyline for miles and consists of four enormous upright megaliths standing up to six metres (19 feet) tall. However, it originally hosted 12 stones. Thought to be one of the earliest henge monuments in the British Isles, this ceremonial site, which once had a massive hearth at its core, is one of Orkney’s most famous.
St Magnus Cathedral or the ‘Light of the North’ in Kirkwall is the most northerly cathedral in the UK. This holy place took 300 years to build and was founded in 1137 by Earl Rognvald, a Viking who created a site to honour his uncle, St Magnus. Famed as one of Orkney’s many Viking splendours and one of Scotland’s best preserved medieval cathedrals, St Magnus boasts majestic Romanesque architecture and hypnotic stained-glass windows. Inside stand huge Norman pillars much like the ones found in Durham Cathedral; some of the builders were masons from Durham. Outstanding views can be seen from the tower. Although St Magnus was initially under Norwegian jurisdiction, King James III assigned it to the people of Orkney in 1486.
Dating back to around the 3rd millennium BC, the Ring Of Brodgar Stone Circle and Henge at Stenness on the West Mainland is categorically one of the most breathtaking prehistoric monuments in all of the British Isles. Although originally comprised of 60 towering rocks, this enormous stone circle consists of around 30-some stones and a minimum of 13 prehistoric burial grounds. Overpowering to experience in person, this ancient monument is encompassed by a vast rock-carved ditch and was described by Scots geologist Hugh Miller in 1846 as ‘an assemblage of ancient druids, mysteriously stern and invincibly silent and shaggy’.
Skaill House has quite the backstory as the former residence of the laird that discovered the hidden prehistoric village of Skara Brae after a storm back in 1850. With views out to the dramatic Bay of Skaill, this 17th-century mansion was built by Bishop Graham in 1620 and has endured multiple extensions carried out by various lairds over time. The southern wing of the house sits unassumingly on a pre-Norse burial ground, while various accounts state that the premises are haunted. Visitors can explore this historic house, which has been restored to its former glory as a family home during the 1950s, complete with Iron Age collections, of course!
The Brough of Birsay is a machair-encrusted tidal island drenched in narratives from the past. It can only be reached by causeway between June and September when the tide permits. The site is a fascinating riddle of Pictish, Norse and medieval remains that each merit exploration. Highlights include a Pictish symbol stone, Viking-age settlement ruins (including houses, barns and even a sauna), an ancient monastery and traces of an even earlier Pictish settlement. The tiny visitor centre boasts Viking artefacts and early sculptures. Now watched by passing birds and a small lighthouse, the Brough of Birsay was once a Pictish power centre.
Overlooking Eynhallow Sound, Orkney’s Broch of Gurness is an impeccably preserved Iron Age complex and one of Scotland’s most impressive examples of prehistoric settlement ruins. The broch village, which is surrounded by soul-moving views, is but one of at least 10 brochs that punctuate the nearby shores. The word ‘broch’ was conjured up during the 1980s by Scottish archaeologists and refers to an Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structure and type of ‘complex Atlantic roundhouse’ found only in Scotland.
Found basking near St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the medieval residences of Bishop’s Palace and Earl’s Palace are a reminder of Orkney’s rich Norse and ecclesiastical heritage. Bishop’s Palace, one of the most well-preserved buildings of its era, was constructed during the early 12th century and marks the spot where King Hakon IV of Norway died, making him the last Norwegian monarch to rule the Hebrides. The remarkably ornate Earl’s Palace was built in the 1600s by Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney. Today, its façade still captivates onlookers.