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A Treasure Hunt on Ancient Orkney

An archipelago of green islands, stripped bare of trees and cut off from mainland Scotland by the fastest flowing tidal race in Europe - Orkney has captured the imagination of travellers for centuries. Unassuming and peaceful, the islands are packed with Neolithic sites, standing stones, chambered cairns, fortifications and ruined palaces.

Armed with Orkney Explorer Passes, we left the north coast of Scotland behind and travelled across the narrow sea to unlock thousands of years of history.

1 - Sine waiting on the ferry to Orkney
Sine from Absolute Escapes boarding the ferry to Orkney
 

We were swept away on a treasure hunt through the ages of time. Here are our top picks for why you should do the same:

The Mysteries of Neolithic Orkney

There are almost 3,000 Neolithic sites on Orkney alone, making the entire area a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the most famous is Skara Brae, one of the best preserved prehistoric settlements, which dates back an incredible 5,000 years.

Skara Brae, Orkney
The ancient village of Skara Brae
 

Together with the Standing Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar, as well as several other iconic Stone Age structures, they are known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. Spectacular and mysterious, these impressive monuments give us an insight into prehistoric life, but with no written sources their purpose will forever remain enigmatic.

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney
The Ring of Brodgar - dating back to the 3rd millennium BC
 

Predating Stonehenge, they may have been the centre of Neolithic culture, as the first Orcadians arrived here 6,000 years ago.

As you walk around the settlements, gently touch a standing stone and breathe in the fresh sea air, you can’t help but feel a strong connection to the souls that lived here thousands of years ago.

An ancient broch on Orkney
Sine outside an Iron Age Broch on Orkney
 

Underground Burial Chambers

From the windswept green pastures, we headed underground to the world-famous chambered burial cairn of Maeshowe, thought to date from around 2700 BC. This is one of the only sites on Orkney that requires advance booking, but you are rewarded with a fascinating guided tour. Accessible by a long, dark passageway of sandstone boulders, this is one of Europe’s finest chambered tombs.

Maeshowe Chambered Cairn
Maeshowe Chambered Cairn
 

At winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) something truly magical happens at Maeshowe, when the light of the setting sun shines straight down the passageway, illuminating the chamber with golden rays. 

Maeshowe has also been marked by the Vikings, who broke into the cairn in the 12th century and meticulously carved graffiti runes on the walls, including a dragon, serpent and walrus.

A detail of the runic inscriptions at Maes Howe
Ancient graffiti inside Maeshowe
 

The Viking Connection

The heritage of St Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney, is found everywhere on the islands. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Magnus was a pious and gentle Viking, who, alongside his cousin Hakon, ruled over the islands between 1105 and 1114, until he was betrayed and murdered. Today his story has passed into legend.

In Kirkwall, St. Magnus Cathedral was founded in memory of Magnus, who was elevated to sainthood after a series of miracles following his death. A visit to the magnificent Cathedral, known as the 'Light in the North', takes you to the heart of Christian Orkney.

St Magnus Cathedral
St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall
 

A short distance away, the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces are impressive fortifications with strong ties to Norse culture, and closeby, Orkney Museum has a fascinating collection of artefacts. A stroll around the centre of Kirkwall will keep you firmly on the treasure trail.

The Earl's Palace, Kirkwall
The Earl's Palace, Kirkwall
 

Wartime Orkney

Carved into the landscape, the events of the great World Wars of the 20th century can be seen all over Orkney. Most famous perhaps, the sheltered waters of Scapa Flow, which served as a British naval base due to their strategic position on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. 

After a devastating attack, Winston Churchill ordered the construction of giant causeways to secure the area - these and several sunken warships are crucial reminders of the historic battle, dominating the scenery. If you want to experience Scapa Flow up close and personal, we would recommend Scapa Scuba Diving, who offer dives in the largest collection of underwater wrecks in the world.

Churchill Barriers at Scapa Flow
The Churchill Barriers
 

But something beautiful and delicate was also built during this time: The Italian Chapel, a masterpiece of ingenuity by the Italian war prisoners sentenced to complete Churchill’s fearsome barriers.

Italian Chapel, Orkney
The Italian Chapel
 

Orkney is a melting pot of history, from the ancient settlers who made the green islands their home, decorating them with majestic monuments, to present day life, riddled with Norse culture. A trip to Orkney is a journey back in time through the layers of a landscape bursting with treasures - so why not discover them for yourself?

Sine Nielsen
P.S. If you'd like to experience Orkney for yourself, Absolute Escapes offer award-winning self-drive holidays in Scotland. Why not incorporate Orkney into a breathtaking road trip on the North Coast 500, or combine Orkney and Shetland for an unforgettable island adventure? If you're looking for something a little more active, we also offer a centre-based walking holiday on Orkney, allowing you to discover this amazing archipelago on foot.  
 

Ferry to Orkney

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