During the ice age, Scotland was buried under a massive ice sheet and the region would have been more or less uninhabited. But today Scotland's northern Orkney Islands boast some of the best ancient Neolithic monuments to be found in Europe.

Not only that, but the Orkney Islands also boasts Scotland's best-preserved "Broch". Brochs were a kind of Iron Age Scottish skyscraper that dominated this northwestern extreme of Scotland. The Orkney Islands have an interesting history from having some of Europe's best Neolithic monuments to having a particularly rich Viking influence to possibly being the farthest north the Romans ventured.

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The Heart Of Neolithic Orkney

"The (Heart of Neolithic Orkney) constitutes a major prehistoric cultural landscape which gives a graphic depiction of life in this remote archipelago in the far north of Scotland some 5,000 years ago."

UNESCO

The often-forgotten islands of Orkney are a gold mine with fantastic Neolithic monuments and the best of them are UNESCO listed under the title "Heart of Neolithic Orkney."

  • Designated: UNESCO World Heritage Since 1999

The story here is the 5,000-year-old prehistoric history of the people of Scotland's Neolithic (this was around the time of the building of the pyramids in Egypt). Each of these monuments is a masterpiece of Neolithic design and construction in itself. But together they represent one of the richest surviving Neolithic landscapes in Western Europe.

There are currently four sites making up the "Heart of Neolithic Orkney." They offer a glimpse into the domestic and ritual lives of people who lived long ago.

In addition, there is also the Ness of Brodgar that has been excavated since 2003. this 2.5 hectares site between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness has provided evidence of housing, decorated stone slabs, a massive stone wall with foundations, and a large building described as a Neolithic temple. The earliest structures are believed to have been built between 3,300 and 3,200 BC while the site was abandoned by around 2,200 BC.

Related: Guide To The Scottish Highlands & Why You Should Visit

The Four Sites of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney

Maes Howe: A Unique Chambered Cairn and Passage Grave (It Was Looted By  The Vikings)

Standing Stones of Stenness: There's More Than Stonehenge! This Henge Has Four Remaining Megaliths

This may be the earliest henge monument in the British Isles. It is a ruin of what was once a much more impressive monument. The enormous Stones of Stenness are all that remains of a great stone circle on an ancient ceremonial site.

Ring of Brodgar: A Henge Monument With Large A Stone Circle (Originally With 60 Stones) And A Circular Ditch

The Ring of Brodgar Stone Circle and Henge is an enormous ceremonial site dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. These are one of the most spectacular prehistoric monuments in the British Isles.

The Ring of Brodgar comprises:

  • A massive stone circle, originally consisting of 60 stones – 36 survive today
  • At least 13 prehistoric burial mounds
  • A large rock-cut ditch surrounding the stone circle

Skara Brae: Northern Europe's Best Preserved Neolithic Village With Eight Houses

Related: This Uninhabited Scottish Isle Is A Day Trip To The Iron Age

Visiting The Heart of Neolithic Orkney

Today the four sites are managed by Historic Environment Scotland and are open to the public.

Maeshowe Chambered Cairn:

Admission to the Visitor Center at Maeshowe Chambered Cairn is free of charge, but bookings in advance are recommended to guarantee entry. As part of the visit, one will hear a talk about bringing Neolithic Orkney and the World Heritage Site back to life.

  • Closed: The Cairn Remains Closed For Now
  • Visitor Center: Free Admission
  • Opening Hours: Daily, 9.30 am to 5.30 pm (Summer Hours)

Skara Brae Neolithic Village:

Skara Brae Neolithic Village is one of the principal attractions in the Orkney Islands. When visiting one can see the external spaces, most of the internal spaces that are open to visitor access (including a Replica House), the visitor center, an exhibition, there are also coffee, cake, and soft drinks available most of the day.

  • Admission Fee: From 7 Pounds ($10)
  • Opening Hours: Daily, 9.30 am to 5.30 pm (Summer Hours)

Ring of Brodgar Stone Circle and Henge:

Today one can feel oneself step back in time as one walks among these ancient monoliths. The Ring of Brodgar is free to visit and open year-round. Visitors are asked to follow the one-way system on their visit.

Some parts of the inner path may be closed off from time to time to enable the grass path to regenerate.

  • Open: Year-Round All The Time
  • Admission: Free

Stones of Stenness Circle and Henge:

Of the original 12 stones up to 6 meters high, only four of them remain today. They were encircled by a large ditch and bank, the form of which has been lost over time by plowing.

  • Open: Year-Round All The Time
  • Admission: Free

Next: The Skara Brae Prehistoric Village Is Home To Another One Of Britain's Neolithic Stonehenge Sites