Written by Laurie Goodlad
With Unesco World Heritage Status, The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is undeniably one of the most incredible trios of archaeological sites in Scotland – if not the world. Made up of the Ring of Brodgar, Stenness Standing Stones and Maes Howe, these three fascinating sites are all within a stone’s throw of each other and have forced archaeologists to rethink settlement patterns throughout Neolithic Britain.
The Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness are both huge prehistoric stone circles. The Stones of Stenness are believed to be the oldest stone circle in the UK – even older than the famous and iconic Stone Henge – and is made up of four stones up to six metres in height. Originally the circle held 12 stones, although the remainder are no longer standing. The Ring of Brodgar is sure to take your breath away. With 36 massive stones still standing in this impressive stone circle with a surrounding ditch.
Maes Howe is an altogether different structure that stands from the surrounding flat farmland like a great green pimple. So prominent on the landscape, Maes Howe is an impressive Neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave, dating to around 2,800 BC. Maes Howe is the largest and best-preserved example of a chambered cairn in Orkney. One of the most incredible things about Maes Howe is its connection with the winter solstice. For several days around midwinter, the final rays of the day’s sunlight slip through the passage of the cairn, illuminating the darkened back wall and bathing it in soft, winter light
These incredible sites offer a tantalising glimpse into the life of Neolithic settlers some 5,000 years ago, and, although they ask more questions than they answer, they certainly indicate that Orkney was an important centre of the Neolithic world
Photography by Laurie Goodlad
Recent winner of the World Cup of Brochs, Mousa Broch on the small uninhabited island off Shetland’s east coast, is the best-preserved and most complete example of a broch from anywhere in the world.
Brochs, unique to the north and west of Scotland, were built during the mid-Iron Age, some 2,000 years ago. Archaeologists still debate what they were used for – were they defensive or offensive? Were they homes for high-status chieftains or large agricultural grain stores? Were they roofed or roofless? – nobody knows, and all we can do is guess at their purpose.
Mousa is nonetheless an impressive sight, standing at over 13 metres tall and dominating the narrow confines of Mousa Sound.
The Scottish Crannog Centre is a living history heritage site on the shores of Loch Tay. Sadly, the reconstructed Crannog was lost to fire in 2021, but the centre remains open with lots of hands-on activities for all the family, including fire-starting and cooking demonstrations.
Crannogs were a common feature of Iron Age Scotland. They are roundhouses that were built on artificial islands on inland lochs. Most appear to have been made for one family, and the earliest examples of these dwellings date back some 5,000 years.
The Crannogs found in the Perthshire area were timber-built structures, supported on piles or stilts bedded into the loch bed. In areas where wood supply was limited, rocks were used to form crannogs.
Photography by Laurie Goodlad
A fascinating site encompassing some 5,000 years of human habitation in Shetland, Jarlshof is a complex and awe-inspiring multi-period site at the southernmost tip of Mainland Shetland.
Visitors to the site are guided through each era of human occupation, from the small, individual Neolithic farmstead, through the Iron Age where communities formed and came together under a changing climate, into the Broch era and the later Wheelhouse period. From here, there’s a wholescale change, most visible in the architecture that dramatically departs from the roundhouses of pre-Viking times, with the arrival of Viking and Norse settlers to Scotland’s shores.
Jarlshof offers an almost uninterrupted pattern of habitation and remains one of the best multi- period sites in Europe.
Okay, so this one involves a bit of effort to get to, but it’s oh so worthwhile! St Kilda will blow your mind and carry away a piece of your heart forever. The weather-beaten archipelago of St Kilda lies some 40 miles from the Outer Hebrides.
As Britain’s most remote point, it feels like the final frontier, a wild and foreboding place that echoes noisily with the sound of hundreds of thousands of seabirds. Until 1930, it was home to a population of resilient islanders who had occupied the islands for some 2,000 years.
Evidence of the lives they carved out on this remote outpost of the British Isles are scattered all over the islands today, from the roofless ruins of homes on the once-bustling Main Street to the lonely cleats that cling to the slopes of Conachair.
Photography by Laurie Goodlad
We’re heading back to Neolithic Orkney and the prehistoric village of Skara Brae, which provides a unique glimpse into the daily lives of the first farmers who tilled the earth and set down their roots in the Northern Isles.
Like many throughout Scotland’s islands – including Jarlshof – the site was uncovered by a violent storm in the 19th century. This Unesco World Heritage site, set on the picturesque shores of the Bay of Skaill, includes eight stone-built dwellings dating back 5,000 years.
Orkney’s northern island of Papa Westray, lovingly known as Papay, is home to northern Europe’s oldest preserved stone house. Set on the small island spanning no more than four miles by one mile and with unrivalled views out to sea, this Neolithic farmstead is incredibly well- preserved and dates back almost 6,000 years to 3,700 BC.
If you’re visiting Papay, you can take the world’s shortest scheduled flight – a journey that will take less than two minutes to complete!