Table of Contents







Link to Orkneyjar

This site has a wealth of information on the history, archaeology and culture of Orkney
















A reconstruction of a first century British Curragh (a big coracle),made of wicker work and covered with 3 cow hides. It is capable of carrying 10 people. It was being paddled on the River Great Ouse at the 2008 Bedford River Festival.

Replica Curragh on the Great Ouse (©Simon Speed)

















































Bowls from the tomb at Unstan, Orkney

Neolithic Pottery from Orkney

Unstan Ware is generally associated with settlements and tombs belonging to the Early Neolithic while Grooved Ware is Late.

It would seem that the flat-bottomed Grooved Ware vessels developed in Orkney and then spread throughout Britain, notable appearing at some of the large henge monuments in the south. It has been suggested that they would have been very suitable for the fermenting of beer, an age-old sacramental beverage.

Merryn & Graham Dineley (2002)









Neolithic Settlements in Orknesy

Neolithic Settlements in Orkney














Quoyness, Sanday. Interior of a Maes Howe-type tomb






Carved Stone Slab found at Pierowall, Westray

Carved Stone Slab found at Pierowall, Westray













Heart of Neolithic Orkney. Map

Heart of Neolithic Orkney













Neolithic Orkney


During the last Ice Age (ca. 70,000-10,000 BC), huge ice sheets covered virtually all of the British Isles making them pretty much uninhabitable. Certainly this was the case in Scotland.  However, the summer grazing was good in the lowlands of the south-eastern England and, since sea-levels were much lower at the time, much of what is now the North Sea was dry land and the herds of migratory animals, such as reindeer, had easy access to it.  Upper Palaeolithic artefacts (belonging to the final phase of the Old Stone Age: click the link, right) dredged up from the sea bed show that human hunters were in hot pursuit but they did not stay in Britain long enough to leave any traces.

Global warming, when it finally came, made Britain a much more hospitable place and, since it was still connected to the continent, it was wide open to colonization by plants and animals (including people). By the 9th millennium BC, the lowlands and much of the highlands were covered by forests.  These were full of game but, unlike the reindeer and bison of the previous era, they did Gannet Colony on Bonaventure Island, Quebecnot travel in large herds along predictable routes that left them open to ambush, but tended to be more solitary and elusive.  Even so, in terms of bio-density, they provided much more meat per given area and people soon moved in. A wide variety of plant resources, including nuts, berries, fungi, tubers and edible roots were also readily available among the trees. 

Other environments had similar concentrations of resources, among them the coastal areas of western Scotland and the Hebrides. The Atlantic cliffs were the breeding grounds for millions of seabirds, which (along with their eggs) have been a mainstay of the local diet right down to the last century. All sorts of different species of molluscs can be found in the intertidal zone or just offshore, and huge shell middens, representing hundreds of occupations, have been excavated on the small island of Oronsay.  Fish bones were present, 90% of which were deepwater fish that would certainly have required boats. Sea mammals, especially seals and otters, provided both meat and fur. In addition, there were deer on the hillsides and wild boar in the forests, along with salmon and trout in the streams. The Haida of the Pacific coast of Canada lived in a very similar sort of environment and were able to establish permanent villages based on a similar economy. Like them, the early inhabitants of the west coast of Scotland had to have been skilled boatmen, in and out of coastal waters in craft that were probably much like a leather curragh of Ireland. These are relatively easy to make, lightweight but very sturdy, although unlikely to leave any physical trace.

Looking to Hoy from Thurso in Caithness

Looking across the Pentland Firth to Hoy

About six thousand years ago a new way of making a livelihood, agriculture, made its appearance in Britain and quickly spread throughout the islands. It was based on harvesting crops of wheat or barley and herding sheep, goats and cattle. None of these were native but originated in what we now call the Middle East some four or five thousand years earlier. It quickly spread from the Balkans throughout Europe, reaching Britain by about 4000 BC.

By that time the land link to the continent had been flooded by rising sea levels, so the plants and animals must have crossed by boat. The question that troubles prehistorians is were they acquired by natives or were they brought by newcomers or a bit of both? The latest evidence, base on genetics, suggests the latter but there is still considerable debate on the matter. Whatever the answer the new lifestyle spread rapidly throughout the islands and within a century or two at most farming had arrived in the Orkney Islands, in the far north of Scotland.


Geographically, the Orkney archipelago is a continuation of Caithness, cut off by rising waters during the last great glacial melt about ten thousand years ago. There are about 70 islands altogether making for a decidedly amphibious environment. The islands are mainly low-lying, apart from some steep hills on Hoy and rugged cliffs on the western side of the larger islands. The underlying rock is mainly Old Red Sandstone, which occurs as well-bedded flagstones, fairly easy to split off and an ideal building material. This is fortunate because the islands are largely devoid of trees and have probably been so since the Neolithic. The seas around Orkney are tempestuous but were (until very recently) rich in resources— given the proper skill and the right equipment. The cliffs were the breeding grounds for vast numbers of seabirds and large colonies of seals populated the beaches.

The First Farmers

The distance from Caithness is relatively short, only a few kilometres, but the intervening stretch of sea—the Pentland Firth—is one of the most treacherous in the world. Violent tidal races flow from the North Sea, colliding with those from the Atlantic, and gale force winds are by now means infrequent. Crossing it in small open boats would be perilous at the best of times but having to transport livestock and seed corn would have been an enormous gamble, especially if you had to deal with cattle that were not that far removed from the wild and weighed over a ton and a half. It was long thought this was a process of colonization and that the islands had been unoccupied up to that point. But recent surveys have turned up typical of the Mesolithic flintwork, so it is possible that local adoption also played a role.

The Cliffs at Yesnaby with Hoy in the background

The Cliffs at Yesnaby with Hoy in the background

The earliest sites are characterized by a particular type of pottery known as Unstan Ware, after the tomb where it was first identified. It is a coarse-tempered ware characterized by shallow bowls with rounded bottoms and rims bearing simple patterns ofKnap of Howar incised or impressed decoration. As of 2012, the only early neolithic to be fully excavated is at Knap of Howar on Papa Westray, one of the smaller outlying islands to the north and therefore probably not first places to be settled.  The surviving buildings are not even the earliest on the site.  Although they were lived in for over eight centuries, from about 3700-2800 BC, they were set in a deposit of midden material which must have come from an earlier occupation

The site, which appears to be a single dwelling homestead (right), does not look very much different to the black-houses that were the standard rural dwelling in the Hebrides well into the twentieth century. These consisted of a pair of oblong buildings linked by a short passage— a dwelling place with a workshop/storeroom attached. A large number of bones from cattle and sheep were found, along with plenty of shell and fishbone but virtually nothing in the way of grain and little evidence of grinding. Perhaps that was left for others to provide in some sort of reciprocal relationship.

The settlement of Skara Brae (ca. 3200-2300 BC), on the west coast of the main island, is much bigger and much better known (left).  It was excavated by Vere Gordon Childe, one of the leading archaeological lights of the 1930s and 40s, who uncovered a semi-subterranean village connected by tunnels leading to houses furnished with box beds and other stone furniture, presenting a rather cozy picture of community living.

Although there are many similarities between the two sites, they are distinguished by their pottery. The people who built Skara Brae used a different type of pottery, Grooved Ware, which tends to be flat-bottomed and straight sided. Excavations at Pool on the island of Sanday uncovered a sequence of occupation showing that it was later than Unstan Ware and did not represent a different tribe, for example.

Looking across Eynhallow Sound to Rousay and Westray

Orkney is very much a watery world and, before the development of paved roads, communication was primarily by water and settlements tended to be located on the shore. Pollen and charcoal samples from a number of sites indicate that the earliest farmers encountered an landscape that was covered by mixed birch-hazel woodland but that this had given way to an open, grassy environment by the Late Neolithic. This was no doubt the result of land clearance for agriculture and the felling of trees for fuel and structural purposes. 

Death and the Afterlife

The presence of so many communal tombs in the islands suggests profound, otherworldly beliefs, perhaps even a notion of the afterlife. We are only beginning to come to grips with the variety and sophistication of beliefs and practices these monuments represent. There are essentially two types of tomb in Orkney— the so-called Orkney-Cromarty and Maes Howe types— and they too can be distinguished by their pottery with Unstan Ware associated with the former and Grooved Ware with the latter.

Taversoe Tuick, Rousay

Knowe of Yarso, Rousay

There are many more tombs of the Orkney-Cromarty type and it seems likely that each was used by a single, small community— perhaps just a family farmstead. They did not require a huge amount of labour and the architectural principles where much the same as those used in their houses. Maes Howe-type tombs, on the other hand, are rather thin on the ground but they required a great deal more effort to build. The internal masonry is very precise and the overall bulk of the tombs are much greater. While the earlier tombs were meant to be seen, these were meant to dominate the landscape. They signify a more complex society, able to draw resources— both material and human— from a wider area.


The decorative arts were certainly flourishing by the time of Skara Brae and in a number of different mediums. Elaborately and laboriously carved portable stone objects have been found in what otherwise appear to have been dwelling places. These obviously had meaning to the inhabitants but we can only guess as to exactly what it was. The most obvious interpretation is that they were symbols of authority— religious, political or (more likely) a combination of both.

Representations of humans or animals, which were fairly common elsewhere in Europe and the Near East at about the same time, are rarely found in the British Isles but two of them have been found in Orkney, including the so-called Westray Wife, found at Links of Noltland in 2009, and the Brodgar Boy (left) found at the Ness of Brodgar a year later.

The walls of their dwellings and their tombs were carved with reliefs in geometric and curvilinear patterns, the latter closely resembling designs found as far away as the tomb of Newgrange in Ireland. Hundreds of examples of decorated stones have been uncovered at the ongoing excavations at the Ness of Brodgar and many more will undoubtedly appear in subsequent seasons. Their sheer quantity for the first time gives art historians a real chance of at least beginning to understand their meaning


During the later part of the Neolithic, the British Isles was characterized by stone circles, large and small along with a host of smaller stone settings and individual standing stones (orthostats in archaeo-speak). Stones of StennessHowever, nowhere was there such a concentration of these as that part of the main island known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, which is set in a natural amphitheatre of low hills encompassing a pair of lochs— one freshwater (Loch Harray) and the other salt (Loch Stenness)— separated by a narrow isthmus. At either end of the isthmus, about 1.5km apart, are two great stone circles, the Stones of Stenness (left) to the south-east and the Ring of Brodgar to the north-west. Both of them are ‘henge’ monuments, that is to say they are defined by ditch with an external bank.

However, there are two other sizeable henges in the immediate vicinity that must be taken into account—the Ring of Bookan, which lies about a mile to the northwest of Brodgar.  This is just about the same distance as separates Brodgar and Stenness and all three are in rough alignment.  In addition there is the great chambered tomb at Maes Howe, which sits in the middle of what is essentially a henge that clearly pre-dates it.

Associated with this complex is the contemporary collection of buildings at Barnhouse which lies barely 50m from the Stones of Stenness. Excavated in the late 1980s, the site consists of a number of structures with unusual features including a large oblong building with an outer wall and a hearth in the entrance passage. It is thought that the site may have been home to a community of priests who were responsible for looking after the nearby monuments.

Maes Howe

Maes Howe from the North-east. Note the bank and ditch of the surrounding henge

However, just as prehistorians were getting to grips with this new development, a new site appeared that changes everything— the Ness of Brodgar. As its name suggests, it is located at the tip of the promontory of the Isthmus of Brodgar. Since its discovery in 2003 it has been subject to continuous annual excavations and the results have been staggering. Barely one-tenth of the site has been uncovered but already a number of very intriguing structures have been found, surrounded by an enormous enclosure wall 4m thick. Establishing the relationship between this settlement and the monuments surrounding it will be an enormous challenge.

The End of the Neolithic

From early in the third millennium BC until near its end, Orkney was one of the premier centres of Neolithic culture in the British Isles, if not the pre-eminent one (according to the BBC). By about 2100 BC, however, the settlement at Skara Brae was abandoned and the great tombs such as Maes Howe were finally sealed. At the Ness of Brodgar, an enormous feast was held, involving the slaughter of hundreds of cattle, after which the site was buried under hundreds of tons of midden (compost) material and abandoned. The succeeding Early Bronze Age period was impoverished by comparison, no monumental tombs nor elaborate stone circles were built and settlement was relatively thin on the ground. The explanation for all of this is one of those ‘big questions’ that archaeologists love. Stay tuned.

Futher Reading

Davidson, A.L. & A.S. Henshall (1989) The Chambered Cairns of Orkney
Garnham, Trevor (2004) Lines on the Landscap, Circles from the Sky
Renfrew, Colin (ed.) (1985) Prehistoric Orkney
Richards, Colin (ed.) (2013) Building the Great Stone Circles of the North
Wickham-Jones, C. (2006) Between the Wind and the Water. World Heritage Orkney