Today, April 18, is World Heritage Day. Here at Historic Scotland we’re very lucky to look after five sites throughout Scotland that have been recognised as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, so to mark the occasion we asked Dr Kirsty Owen to tell us all about The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site (WHS).
The site consists of Maeshowe Chambered Tomb, the Ring of Brodgar and its surrounding ritual complex, the Standing Stones of Stenness and Skara Brae Prehistoric Village. These monuments all date from a period when the great civilisations of the world began to emerge, and it is amazing to think of the vigour of the Orcadian community some 5000 years ago. Its outstanding architectural achievements stand in direct contrast to its small size, yet these beautiful sites place Orkney alongside the great civilisations of North Africa and Mesopotamia.
Orkney is made up of 40 islands and many islets off the north coast of mainland Scotland. The Orkney WHS is on Mainland Orkney. Taking a trip to Orkney features on many to-do lists when visiting Scotland, and it’s not hard to see why! Here are the four must-see World Heritage Sites that reward explorers who make the trip to Orkney.
Cairn is a Scottish Gaelic word that means ‘man-made stack of stones’. Maeshowe, a Neolithic chambered tomb, is arguably the finest Neolithic building in northwest Europe and a masterpiece of ancient engineering. It originally belonged to some of the earliest farming communities in Scotland, dating from before 2700 BC.
Maeshowe’s unique story continues when it was broken into about 1,000 years ago by Norsemen. They left their mark in the astonishing runic graffiti, alongside the stunning ‘Maeshowe Lion’ carving. If you visit in midwinter and are lucky enough to get clear skies you can witness the central chamber illuminated by a shaft of light from the setting sun. From June to August you can book a very special Twilight Tour of the site.
Spectacular to behold, this massive ceremonial enclosure and stone circle is thought to date from between 2500 and 2000 BC. The individual stones have a mixed history: some are lost, some still lie where they fell or were pushed, some were re-erected by the Victorians, while the remainder have stood through the test of time. One of the standing stones still carries a Norse runic inscription. Found around the stone circle are at least 13 prehistoric burial mounds. Our rangers on Orkney lead regular walks around the stone – a wonderful way to discover not only the history but also the important wildlife of the Ring of Brodgar.
Among the earliest monuments in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney WHS is this Neolithic ceremonial enclosure or henge. The henge was the substantial ditch and outer bank around the circle of standing stones. Constructed around 3100-2900 BC the Stones of Stenness may be the earliest henge monument in the British Isles. The four surviving standing stones, stumps and concrete markers outline an oval that would have measured an impressive 30 metres in diameter. A Watch Stone stands on the roadside at the Bridge of Brodgar. During the summer you can take advantage of our ranger-led guided tours around Stenness.
World-famous Skara Brae is the best preserved Neolithic settlement in Northern Europe. Once an inland village beside a freshwater loch, Skara Brae now looks out over a wide, sandy beach and is surrounded by a stunning variety of wildflowers and birdlife. The village was first uncovered during a winter storm of 1850. Wild winds ripped the grass from a high dune and exposed the ruins of ancient stone buildings. Today, you can follow a path overlooking these ancient buildings, still equipped with their stone furniture, and step inside a replica house.
Skara Brae, around 5,000 years old, was inhabited before the Egyptian pyramids were built, and flourished for centuries before construction began at Stonehenge.