Beyond Stonehenge

Scotland's Islands
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The Orkneys

On the distant Orkney Islands beyond the Scottish mainland's northern tip, timber was scarce so that more prehistoric homes and tombs were built from stone. The upshot is that a higher concentration of ruins offering clues to the domestic habits of the Neolithic peoples remain here today than in other parts of Britain. The Orkneys' most notable landmark is Skara Brae, a preserved Neolithic village remarkably untouched by the hands of time or technology. Along with artfully constructed stone walls, remnants here include cupboards, bedstands, and hearths all built from the same local sandstone. In one of the homes, decorated slabs were found marking the spot where two female bodies had once been buried.

Nearby, the massive Maes Howe chamber tomb forms the centerpiece of a prehistoric complex that also includes the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. The Howe consists of a long passage leading to a 4000 year-old central chamber some 15 feet high, all buried under a turf mound over 100 feet wide. The tomb includes Viking graffiti boasting of sexual conquests and plundered treasure. What the treasure was goes unsaid.

To the northwest, the Ring of Brodgar is strikingly elegant, with thin, pointed flagstones towering as high as 15 feet above the ground. It sits on a barren plateau 370 feet wide and is surrounded by a ditch that drops at points to a depth of 30 feet. Archaeological investigations have determined that the 60 stones originally comprising the circle (there are 29 still standing) together weighed a total of 12,000 tons. They were probably quarried from the surrounding ditch by workers using nothing but stone tools and their hands. The time it would have taken to complete such a demanding task is estimated around 80,000 hours of labor.

The Stones of Stenness to the south were once known as the"Temple of the Moon", the companion monument to Brodgar, the "Temple of the Sun." The tallest of the Stenness megaliths shoots up an astonishing 18 feet but, like most of the standing stones in the area, is surprisingly thin—ten inches at its widest point. Stenness is unfortunately in a much greater state of disrepair than its partner, owing among other things to vandalism and some misguided restoration efforts in the nineteenth century. Because of their proximity to Skara Brae (about five miles away) and other Neolithic settlements, it seems likely, according to Burl, that the areas surrounded by the stones were used for large gatherings.

Access: All of the prehistoric remains mentioned here lie near Stromness, one of the Orkneys' two major population centers on the island known as the Mainland. Skara Brae is on the west coast, nestled on the shores of the Bay o Skaill. The Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness are situated on either side of the main road from Stromness to Kirkwall, the B9055. Maes Howe is 1.5 miles southeast of Brodgar and Stenness.

The Hebrides

The largest land mass in the Outer Hebrides is the Isle of Lewis, a treeless expanse of peat bogs inhabited by a largely Gaelic-speaking populace. Neolithic sites cover the island, with the best-known being the four major stone circles found near Callanish. Calanais, the most dramatic of the four, has been buffeted by harsh North Atlantic weather for 4000 years or more. Situated on a ridge overlooking the waters of the East Loch Roag, the Calanais complex consists of a stone circle surrounding a chambered tomb and a tall center stone, as well as three stone rows extending out from the ring. Its environs have been somewhat spoiled by the addition of a visitor's center nearby, but the relative remoteness and inaccessibility of the monument should ensure that it never falls prey to the Stonehenge syndrome.

Access: You can reach the Isle of Lewis by plane or car ferry between Ullapool on the mainland and Stornoway, Isle of Lewis. The village of Callanish is 13 miles west of Stornoway; Calanais stands at the village's southern end.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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