The Orkney archipelago has been inhabited for at least 8,500 years, and the treasures
left behind still have the power to amaze.
BY JIM GILCHRIST
In the Orcadian evening sunlight, the Standing Stones of Stenness cast long shadows over the gilded turf. Between 5,000 and 4,500 years old, the remaining handful of upright stones is one of the earliest stone circles in Britain, indeed the world, predating the main structures of Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt by some five centuries.
The stones rear inscrutably into the sky at the southeast end of the Ness of Brodgar, a narrow neck of land between the saltwater of the Loch of Stenness and the fresh water Loch of Harray on the mainland of Orkney, that windswept archipelago lying beyond the northernmost tip of mainland Scotland.
Just a mile up the isthmus from Stenness, a larger stone circle, the Ring of Brodgar, 32 metres across (about 105 feet), rises from the moorland heather above the lochs, with 36 of its former 60 stones still upright, while half a mile to the east, the great passage tomb of Maeshowe drowses within its grassy hillock. Six miles to the northwest, on the coast, lies the astonishing Stone Age domesticity of Skara Brae, the best-preserved prehistoric farming settlement in northern Europe.
So archaeologically significant is this concentration of prehistoric monuments that in 1999 they were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site -- the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, comprising the Stenness and Brodgar rings and some associated stones, Maeshowe and the outlying Skara Brae.
Now, however, a relatively recent discovery at the Ness of Brodgar itself has resulted in a major excavation over some 6.5 acres, unearthing an astounding assembly of buildings -- including what appears to be a Neolithic temple. These discoveries not only suggest the site to have been pivotal in relation to the surrounding monuments, but also are quite simply revolutionizing our understanding of their period, placing these supposedly remote islands firmly at the heart of Neolithic or "new Stone Age" Europe.
The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2015 issue of Scottish Life.
Click here to preview our feature article on the remote Ardnamurchan Peninsula by Ben Williams.
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Photo © Andy Bennetts / Scottish Viewpoint; Crown Copyright HES