Places to Visit on Orkney - 4

A Neolithic Stone Circle and Henge

What and Where is The Ring of Brodgar

Close by to Maes Howe is The Ring of Brodgar. This is a large Neolithic stone circle and henge, although, as there is no embankment, it is not technically a henge. It dates from around  the same time period as both Maes Howe and Skara Brae, that is about 2,500 BC to 2,000 BC. Around it are at least 13 prehistoric burial mounds and another upright standing stone. Some of these mounds are, as yet, unexcavated. The ring is among the largest and best preserved in Britain.

The Ring of BrodgarCredit: M E Park

The Ring of Brodgar is visible from a distance, and pointed out by the guides at Maes Howe. It is sitting on a slightly raised section of land between the lochs of Harry and Stenness.  The site is very much central to West Mainland Orkney. From below, the stones protrude slightly into the sky line making it an impressive site. This ‘hill’ is just above The Ness of Brodgar, which is in the process of being excavated, and is a massive temple complex and of huge significance. All these finds are suggesting Orkney as a centre for religious worship throughout Britain, in the Neolithic age and beyond, and suggests links with Stone Henge in the South of England, along with others to Europe and beyond.

The ring comprises of, originally, 60 large upright stones of local origin arranged in a wide circle of 103.7m. This is almost exactly 125 Megalithic yards and makes it the same size as the henge at Avebury.  It is also surrounded by a large ditch or henge, thought to have been 5 meters across and 3 meters deep. The ditch is now  partly silted up. There are two access points across the ditch to the ring. Some of the stones are fallen or missing and many damaged due to many factors but especially time and weather. Only 27 remain standing, some of these being re-erected ones. One of the stones, after a lightning strike, lies broken only a few feet from its original position. It is my understanding that the centre of the ring has never been properly excavated and although it does not seem to have had any stones with in there may have been wooden structures. How the stones arrived at the site is unknown but the man hours needed to build the circle and excavate the ditch is just staggering. This means that it must have been a significant cultural investment  for the Orkney Neolithic community.

The ring has a number of Astronomical alignments, which were probably intentional. These alignments relate to the solstices and equinoxes, among others. Specific stones align with notches in the surrounding hills at sunrise and sunset on the solstices. There are also lunar links to the stones.

Viking GraffittiCredit: M E Park

Each individual stone itself is fascinating. The textures and colours are just amazing, and beautiful. There is graffiti on some, if not most, of the stones with carved dates ranging over centuries. There are Viking runes carved into one of the stones which were only discovered when it was re-erected in 1907. There are other stones with runes.  Some of the graffiti is love related and The Ring had been known as a lovers tryst for long and weary. Why? I have no idea as there is not much in the way of habitation around and so the lovers would have had to have some form of transportation, or have faced a long walk to get there.  I find it sad when I see ones dated 1914 and around that date. I wonder if soldiers going to war carved them and I also wonder if they returned. What is even sadder is the more modern graffiti. You would hope that, in these days, people would have more respect for the history and magnificence of such an important site.

When the Vikings settled on Orkney there is evidence that they respected the religious aspects of the stones and utilised them for their own religious purposes. To the Vikings the Ring of Brodgar became know as the Temple of the sun and that young people prayed to, and took vows to, Wodin there. Perhaps that explains the Viking runes on some of the stones.

The Surrounds

A Rock HuggerCredit: M E Park

The land surrounding the ring is rich in wildlife and regular tours around the Ring of Brodgar, many of them organised by rangers,  are as much about the flora and fauna as about the Ring itself. As I mentioned it is on a small hillside and, therefore ,the walk there is not really suitable for wheelchairs, in my opinion. It is very muddy, after rain,  so I would recommend walking boots or at least sturdy shoes. The paths, although covered partly with mesh, are slippery, so make sure you have a sure footing.  I would also recommend wrapping up warm, as it is quite windy up there and the stones give only limited protection. This is a fragile environment and it takes a lot of investment by Historic Scotland to support. Please respect the signs, and the cultural importance, and stay on the marked paths. So often I see tourists in the centre of the ring where you are not supposed to go. The surrounding land is often sown with specific type of wild flowers and plants to attract insects and birds. The colours in the summer are just magnificent.  This also makes it a wonderful place for visiting ornithologists. I once saw the most amazing flock of Twites, fluttering about on the fences at the edge of the area. Such a noise arose from these birds that we could hardly hear ourselves think.

The car park is a short distance away and on the opposite side of the road. In the summer there is a mobile information truck that parks here but I have never managed to catch it when it is open so I have no idea what is inside. There is a semi-circular notice board at the edge of the car park which give a short history and time line of the site. It is worth reading and looking towards the points of interests it highlights. In the summer there are many coaches in this car park and so it is quite dangerous with them coming and going so please be careful of any children you may have with you. Also take care when crossing the road as traffic is very fast. The car park is on the edge of Harray Loch and my husband parks in this very spot to go fishing on the loch.

BrodgarCredit: M E Park

It is worth visiting this site at different times of the day. Sunrise and sunset are particularly spectacular times and on a sunny day the views are just outstanding. Standing there on a summer's day, in the middle of all that history, with azure skies and lochs, a patchwork of emerald-green and rich golden fields, listening to the twittering of the Twites and all the other birds, the scent's of the wild flowers all around you, it is one of the most wonderful things I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

The Ring of Brodgar


A neolithic stone circle with henge.

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