Scotland’s Northern Isles are so densely packed with preserved evidence of human prehistory, it can be overwhelming, not only to visitors who count their time here in days, but for life-long residents as well.
If numbers are what you need to help that sink in, consider that a search on Shetland at the excellent Megalithic Portal’s Megalith Map turns up nearly 150 sites of interest. Moving the map south a bit to Orkney nets you nearly 400 additional ancient site results.
Add this to the fact that excavations at sites like the Ness of Brodgar indicate a culture that thrived in and around Orkney first before moving south several hundred years later to build sites like Stonehenge. It’s no wonder, then, that archaeologists and television presenters alike are starting to think of Orkney as the capital of ancient Britain.
All of this combines to saturate the area in the same sense of deep time that I touched on in my post about St. Mary’s Old Kirk, and hinted at in my earlier piece about Dun Hallin broch, both sites further south and west on the Isle of Skye. While Skye certainly has its share of evocative archaeological sites, Orkney’s ancient heritage is older, and the evidence far more abundant.
Take a look, for example, at the so-called "Comet Stone" that sits between two of Mainland Orkney’s iconic stone circles.
Radiocarbon dating indicates work at the Standing Stones of Stenness (above) began sometime around 3,100 BC.
The larger and much more complex Ring of Brodgar, meanwhile, is younger, dating to between 2,500 and 2,000BC.
Another prime example of Orkney’s ancient heritage is found about six miles west, at the very edge of the Bay of Skall. Skara Brae is among the best-persevered Neolithic villages in the world, with recognizable dressers and beds, built in stone. It even had a primitive drainage system or sewer, with recessed areas in the walls that may be the world’s first indoor toilets.
Inhabited for about 1,000 years beginning around 3,200 BC, Skara Brae eventually became buried in its own garbage (or midden). Once abandoned, the full expanse of the village was lost for four thousand years, until 1850 when a storm battered the coast and high tides exposed a part of the structure.
A similar, though even older structure can be found on the island of Papa Westray, about 20 miles north of Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital. Known as the Knapp of Howar, the site comprises two connected buildings that were most likely part of a farm. Built around 3,700 BC and in use for as long as 900 years, the Knapp of Howar is the oldest preserved dwelling in Northern Europe. By the time Egypt got around to constructing its first pyramid (the Step Pyramid of Djoser) Orkney’s Knapp of Howar was 1,000 years old and already abandoned, and Skara Brae had been inhabited for over 500 years.
Of course, so much of Orkney’s prehistoric past is still on display primarily because ancient residents made abundant use of the area’s flagstone deposits to build monuments, tombs, and other structures, some of which have survived through several millennia. To humans, who measure their time in days and decades, this lends the standing stones and sites like Skara Brae a sense of immortality. But make no mistake, all these sites are vanishing—just not on timescale that most people perceive.
Walk up close to any of Orkney’s standing stones, the exposed walls of Skara Brae, or even one of the many comparatively recently built stone walls that keep the cattle penned in on one of Orkney’s modern farms, and you’ll notice an abundance—and likely a variety—of lichen.
The lichen on the old rocks here fascinates me, in part because science very recently discovered that some types of lichen (particularly the yellow varieties which get their color from vulpinic acid) are a combination of not two, but three organisms: fungi, algae (or cyanobacteria), and a type of yeast. The fungi attaches to rocks (or just about any other surface) via strong filaments, which also protect the entangled algae and provide stability and structure. The algae, meanwhile, uses photosynthesis to turn the sun’s energy (plus carbon dioxide) into sugars that the fungi can't get from the rocks or other substances it’s attached itself to. What role does the yeast play? Well, science is still in the process of working that out.
Regardless, these three mindless organisms have found a way to combine and, ever so slowly, derive sustenance from a combination of the sun cycle, the surrounding air, and the process of very slowly turning massive, ancient rocks into pebbles and dirt. Here in Orkney, munching on stones that have stood upright in the sun (and the rain and the wind) for five thousand years or more, the smallest, simplest forms of life come together to literally eat away at some of the oldest evidence of the passing of human time.
Percy Shelly’s depiction of Ozymandias proclaimed himself “King of Kings” in Egypt a couple thousand years after many of Orkney's ancient structures were built, only to have time turn his monuments and empire to ruin and rubble. But so much evidence of the achievements of ancient Orcadians is still here. And new wonders are still being discovered at sites like the Ness of Brodgar, helping us piece together details of who these people were and how they lived.
Get here while you can if you want to experience these sites for yourself, though. If left solely to the lichen, it may take a few thousand more years for these sites to crumble. But erosion, climate change, and rising sea levels will likely make much shorter work of erasing Orkney’s ancient past.