Though the Orkneys
are on the northern frontiers in Europe, they nevertheless form
an integral part of the European megalithic civilisation –
and are on par with monuments in the heartland of that civilisation.
What was it that made the Orkneys exceptional?
Orkney Islands sit on the northern tip of the British mainland.
It is rumoured that one inhabitant once wrote “Bergen, Norway”
as his nearest train station, rather than Edinburgh – let
alone London as the nearest capital. The islands seem remote and
yet they are the centre of a megalithic community whose traces
remain clearly distinguishable in the landscape.
The Ring of Brodgar, one of the highlights of any visit to the
islands, has an area of 90,790 square feet (8,435 m2)
and thus ranks third in size after the Outer Circle at Avebury
and the Great Circle at Stanton Drew, in what many consider to
be the true heart of the Megalithic World, the coastal areas of
south-western England and French Brittany. Though Europe’s
western facing Atlantic coasts, from Orkney down to Morocco, are
known to have communicated throughout Megalithic times and are
considered to be “one”, the question remains why this
civilisation stretched so far north. Or to rephrase the problem:
it is not odd to find megalithic monuments in the Orkneys, but
why are they so monumental – on par with monuments found
in the heartland of this civilisation? For some, it has lead to
theories that suggest that the Orkneys were a staging post for
ancient sea routes to the Americas – in Megalithic times
– which is not that farfetched as the islands were indeed
such posts in post-Columbian days. Today, it is known that this
megalithic civilisation, from at least 3000 BC onwards, used the
boat as the main means of transport and communication. Though
it is thus possible that Atlantic crossings occurred, what is
missing so far is proof that they did.
the Orkneys? What are the Orkneys? The name has been traced to
the Picts, where the name is believed to come from Insi Orc, the
islands of the tribe of the wild boar. This may be a clue –
then again, it may not be.
What is known, is that the islands lacked timber, which meant
that the houses were made in stone. Hence, settlements such as
Skara Brae have survived across the millennia and provide us with
a unique insight in the life of the megalithic builders in 3000
BC. But precisely because they had to build in stone, it should
not be taken for granted that their lifestyle reflected that of
communities elsewhere in Europe. Though Skara Brae is the most
popular, the earliest house site was at Knap of Howar in Papa
Westray. Skara Brae itself was inhabited from around 3100 to 2500
BC, an impressive 600 years. It now sits on the edge of the beach,
but in olden days, would have been more inland and thus offered
more protection from the elements that so often do not look benign
on the Orkneys – the god of wind being the one that toys
most with the islanders. The stone structure must have offered
some protection, even though the weather in 3000 BC is believed
to have been a few degrees warmer.
The rooms of the Skara Brae houses contained cupboards and storage
spaces, large dressers, seats and even box beds made from split
stone. As the houses were interconnected, it was suggested that
the people had a communal way of life – which is largely
typical of island communities. In winter, when life is played
out more indoors then outdoors, it must also have meant that the
families were not tortured by the elements to meet each other
– or keep the homes warm – a more difficult task than
elsewhere because of the absence of wood.
For everything else, the Orkneys were a wonderful place to live:
the community fished, collected shellfish, oysters, etc., as well
as grow barley and wheat, and had domesticated cattle, such as
pigs, sheep and goats. Bone dice and jewellery were found as well,
suggesting life was not all work, but also play.
finds at Skara Brae are so remarkable that some believe it is
too good to be true. Did average Joe Bloggs really live like that?
Some observers have therefore wondered whether these houses were
perhaps not intended for the gods – not physical beings,
but spiritual presences, very much like “ghosts”,
residing there. Along a similar vein, Euan MacKie suggested that
Skara Brae was no peasant village, but a “palatial structure”
housing wise men engaged in astronomical and magical work –
a college of priest. Though these theories have found a willing
ear in some corners, the archaeological evidence on the ground
does not correspond with these conclusions. Of course, it does
not exclude the likelihood that amongst the people in Skara Brae
some were indeed priests.
The reason why some believe Skara Brae is a priestly compound
is because they are relatively close to the megalithic monuments.
Though the Orkneys are by no means vast, the actual concentration
of megaliths is in an even smaller area – a neck of land
between the lochs of Harray and Stenness. Here sits the Ring of
Brodgar, the Ring of Stenness that is a mile south-east, and the
less well-known Ring of Bookan, the same distance north west.
The conical mound of Maes Howe is 1 ½ miles to the ESE.
It suggests that this small area was somehow religiously important
to the community, and no doubt it has something to do with the
lay of the land and their mythology. Despite the composition of
the three rings somewhat resembling Orion’s Belt, it may
be more likely that the site was special because of the manner
in which it played with the surrounding landscape on key calendar
days – something we will return to later.
a deeper look into the rings themselves is required. In 1694,
James Garden wrote to the famous “archaeologist” John
Aubrey about “two rounds set about with high smooth stones
or flags about twenty foot above ground, 6 foot broad and a foot
or two thick, and ditched about: whereof the largest [Brodgar]
is 110 paces diameter, and reputed to be high places of worship
and sacrifice in Pagan times… the ancient Temples of the
Gods.” Though Garden could probably have never fathomed
it, it is believed to date from 2700 BC. Of this Ring of Brodgar,
only 29 of an original sixty stones remain, with a small stone
in the middle. As to a “Temple of the Gods”, Dr Robert
Henry in the 18th century stated that the stones were known as
the Temple of the Sun, and Stenness was known as the Temple of
In the late 20th century, Alexander Thom believed that the circle
was laid out using the megalithic yard (0.829 metres), with Brodgar
having a diameter of 125 megalithic yards. If true, it underlines
that the builders of these structures were indeed part of the
larger Megalithic Culture – which no-one really doubts to
begin with. Intriguingly, Thom also said that the structure was
perfect for observations of the sun and the moon, thus underlining
the old name chosen for the ring – Temple of the Sun.
To quote another famous 20th century archaeologist, Aubrey Burl:
“Brodgar could comfortably have accommodated 3000 men, women
and children. Even if this number is halved to allow space for
the ceremonies, this still permits an assembly of 1500. This is
not unlikely. With known settlements such as Skara Brae only five
miles away, with Rinyo village on Rousay, the Knap of Howar homesteads
on Papa Westray, with the cluster of houses at Barnhouse hardly
a mile to the south-east of Brodgar, and with other hamlets and
farms as yet undiscovered, a population of two or three thousand
on Orkney and its outlying islands is not an improbability.”
Burl thus concluded that the ring was used as “a church”,
where the community convened to partake in religious ceremonies.
Where did this leave the other rings?
Ring of Stenness is less known, if only because only four massive
standing stones remain, even though the tallest is an impressive
five metres tall. In Britain, only Stonehenge exceeds their height.
Built between 3100 and 2700 BC, the ring originally consisted
out of twelve stones. At the centre of the ring was a large hearth
(very similar to those at Skara Brae) with a post hole beside
it. Some believe that it may have held some form of totem pole.
The third ring, the Ring of Bookan, is even less known than Stenness.
Though it is also a massive earthwork made up of an enclosing
ditch surrounding an oval raised platform, measuring about 44.5
metres by 38 metres (almost identical to that of the Stones of
Stenness), it lacks an entrance causeway and outer bank, present
in its two neighbours. Within the ditch are a number of stones
and a rough mound. It has been suggested that this is the remains
of a cairn, but this remains speculation and others argue for
the presence of a platform.
should not concentrate just on the rings. There are intriguing
standing stones nearby, such as Barnhouse Stone. The most intriguing
stone, the Stone of Odin, was holed, but destroyed in 1814. It
was known as the Stone of Sacrifice and was used by young couples
who plight their troth by clasping hands through the stone.
Most interesting of all is the Watchstone, a stone giant at the
southern end of the neck of land between the two lochs. Like a
number of other solitary standing stones in Orkney, local tradition
has it that the Watchstone dips its “head” to drink
from the loch at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Just over 5.6
metres high (around 19 feet), the Watchstone was originally one
of a pair of standing stones, outliers to the main Ring of Stenness,
that perhaps marked the approach to the entrance to the Ness o’
We know there are two, as in 1930, the stump of the Watchstone’s
companion was unearthed in the bank by the side of the road. The
stump was 1.45 metres (4 ft. 9 in) wide, 12.7cm (5 in) thick,
and at least 90 cm (3 ft) high. It was aligned exactly north-east
and south-west, at an obtuse angle to the Watchstone. This led
to the theory that the two stones were the remnants of a south-eastern
section of a large stone circle, the rest of which has disappeared.
However, it is more likely that the two massive megaliths were
once part of a stone-flanked ceremonial route between the Brodgar
and Stenness complexes. The other stones, such as the Odin and
the Comet Stone, were also believed to be part of this processional
way. The possibility of a ceremonial route connecting the two
rings is intriguing, but a series of geophysics surveys carried
out across the Ness o’ Brodgar have found no evidence of
any such stone avenue. Therefore, it is now believed that the
twin stones may have represented a symbolic “gate”
between the two stone circles. Similar “gates” have
been found in the Lake District, in
Kirksanton (the Giant’s Grave).
rings, it is now accepted, have astronomical alignments, to the
sun and the moon. The two wide causeways of the rings are aligned
with the rising of the sun on the summer solstice, and the setting
of the sun on the winter solstice, underlining the astronomical
connection. But that is not all.
A local man, Charles Tait, has highlighted an interesting connection
to the Watchstone and the midwinter solstice. At this time, the
sun sets in its most southerly position. From the Watchstone,
viewing the winter solstice sunset, the sun disappears behind
Ward Hill on Hoy for a few minutes. But that is not all: it then
becomes visible again, as if “reborn”, at the bottom
of the hill’s northern slope, before finally setting for
the night. On the midwinter solstice, from the Watchstone, we
can thus witness a double sunset. As the date marked the death
and revival of the sun king – the shortest day of the year,
which in these northern latitudes is very short – such “rebirth”,
his victory over death, must have been an impressive visual display,
which may have been one of the primary reasons why the site was
selected for religious worship: the myths were imprinted on the
But though primary, it is not the sole reason. A few days after
the solstice, the sun sets behind Ward Hill, but this time reappears
in a horizon “notch” formed by the island’s
hills. This phenomenon prompted the idea that the stone was perhaps
a marker for watching the sun’s progress as it sets further
and further south – hence its name “Watchstone”?
The various marker points afforded by the Hoy hills would allow
the watcher to gage the approach of the solstice – thus
making sure that the main event itself would not be missed.
important reason why this neck of land was chosen can be found
in the nature of the lochs: there is the salt water Loch of Stenness
and the fresh water Harray Loch. The neck of land thus keeps the
salt and fresh water apart. Little is known of megalithic mythology,
but it is my firm conviction that much of the creational mythology
is common to mankind across the world – and thus dating
back to our earliest ancestors, before their migration began.
In many creation myths, as reported in Giorgio De Santillana and
Hertha Von Dechend’s Hamlet’s Mill, specific emphasis
is placed on the separation of salt from fresh water, symbolising
chaos and order respectively. Where salt and fresh water met,
religious centres came about that formed part of a ceremonial
landscape (for discussion of this symbolism, see Hamlet’s
Mill, but specifically my own The Canopus Revelation).
The same seems to apply to the Orkneys, and the connection with
the creator god, visualised by the sun god, is equally present.
creation myths also speak of a land of the first time, an island,
in the form of a conical hill. And the ceremonial landscape of
the Orkneys has just the thing: Maes Howe. The conical mound of
Maes Howe was broken into by Norsemen and Viking crusaders in
the mid 12th century. Afterwards, the chamber top collapsed, filling
the main chamber wit hearth and stones. When the Rings began to
become appreciated, the mound was lagging behind in receiving
its due attention. It was not inspected until 1852, when it was
referred to as M’eshoo or Meashowe. It was broken into in
1861 by J. Farrer, who has been described as “an assiduous
if by present standards unscientific digger of mounds”.
What they found was a seven metres high hill, containing a chamber.
No mortar was used, yet the stones fit so well together that a
knife cannot be inserted between them.
Today, it is believed to have been built in ca. 3000 BC from local
sandstone, with some of the slabs weighing up to thirty tonnes.
It makes the construction older and more impressive than the nearby
rings. There is a nine metres long inner passage that gently slopes
up to the chamber, which is about 4.6 metres square. Like the
rings, the mound incorporates astronomical knowledge, as the passage
points roughly to the midwinter sunset. The winter sun strikes
the back wall of the chamber near the shortest day of the year,
though the sun shines directly into the chamber for forty days
on either side of the solstice. As such, Maes Howe is often labelled
as one of the finest examples of prehistoric architecture –
yet in remains a second-rank citizen in Orkney’s megalithic
list of fame.
Maes Howe in its surrounding landscape, we find that it predates
the rings, but postdates – by about a century – the
construction of Skara Brae. This is, of course, logical: people
would first need a space to live, before beginning the construction
of a conical mound, followed by the construction of the rings.
As the conical mound, in my opinion, is an expression of the “mound
of creation”, it would seem logical to construct this first.
Like the rings and standing stones, Maes Howe is incorporated
into the ceremonial landscape. As early as 1894, a local schoolmaster,
Magnus Spence, found that the passageway of Maes Howe was not
only “roughly” orientated to the winter sunset, but
also aligned with a standing stone at Barnhouse. This stone, together
with the Watchstone, and the centre of the stone circle of the
Ring of Brodgar, were aligned to the axis of the setting sun on
the winter solstice. It is definitive proof that we should not
look towards each structure in isolation, but see the entire area
as one religious centre. Spence eventually found other alignments
and argued that the annual movement of the sun was encoded in
the landscape; the stones tracked the movement of the sun –
and creator – god.
are clear parallels between the Orkneys and the megalithic concentration
in the area of Wiltshire, where we find the two major circles
of Avebury and Stonehenge relatively closely together. There is
a further parallel, between Silbury Hill and Maes Howe –
though the parallel is in its appearance, namely that of a conical
mound in an otherwise relatively flat landscape and – again
in my opinion – in its symbol as a representation of the
mound of creation.
This is not the only connection. As early as forty years ago,
a link between the two areas was suspected, because both contained
a type of pottery known as “Grooved Ware”, found in
both sites – and for some time believed to be found only
in those two sites. Though since found elsewhere in and near Neolithic
monuments, it remains a fact that the largest concentration of
this pottery is located in two widely separated areas, in the
far north and northwest of Scotland on the one hand and in southern
England and East Anglia on the other – each of which had
the Orkneys and Wiltshire respectively as its inner core.
the Orkney and Wiltshire were constructed in roughly the same
era, they did not share the same fate. The Wiltshire landscape
continued to be added to for much longer, whereas in the Orkneys,
“shortly” after the completion of Stenness in ca.
2700 BC, by ca .2600 BC Skara Brae was abandoned – and any
new additions to the ceremonial landscape stopped. After building
for 400 years, it was only used for a century. Why? No clear answers
are given, and archaeologists call in “possible climate
changes”, but no clear evidence is at present available.
These people came here to build – on an island in the far
north – a visual representation of the “Island of
Creation”… but almost as soon as it was created, they
abandoned it. Perhaps they were more interested in origins, rather