The area around the Ness of Brodgar in Stenness is probably one of the most important archaeological landscapes in Northern Europe. The concentration of monuments give an intriguing glimpse into life in Orkney 5000 years ago. The Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness are the most striking remains of the past on the peninsula, but these really are just the tip of the iceberg. The landscape within the area is littered with sites, that are often overlooked. The Brodgar ring, for example, is surrounded by a complex of Bronze Age burial barrows, mounds, cairns and prehistoric earthworks. The most visible of these, the four mounds known as Salt Knowe, Fresh Knowe, South Knowe and Plumcake Mound.
This walk can be approached in one of two ways, either from the Standing Stones of Stenness or the Ring of Brodgar. However in this instance let’s assume you are starting in the car park at the Ring of Brodgar; follow the wooden boardwalk in the direction of the Ring itself being careful as you cross the road and then follow the path up to the Ring.
Once at the entrance to the Ring you are standing looking at the largest stone circle in Scotland and the third largest in Britain. Originally thought to have been made up of 60 standing stones the ring is surrounded by a deep ditch which was cut out of the bedrock, a remarkable feat considering they would have only had tools made of bone, wood and antler. Now walk round the back towards the back of the South Knowe which is the mound that is next to the Ring rather than heading towards the Salt Knowe which is near Stenness loch.
Stop here for a moment and look around and see that you are in the middle of a natural amphitheatre formed by the surrounding hills and then flanked by the two lochs of Harray and Stenness. Looking towards Stenness there are low mounds these are Bronze Age burial mounds. Now walking in the direction of the single standing stone in the field below, which is known as the Comet Stone follow the RSPB path down towards Brodgar Farm. Once on the road you will pass the field on your right which contains the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar which has revealed a spectacular Neolithic complex. If you happen to be passing during late July or August, excavation work will be going on and you could join one of the guided tours of the site; it’s well worth it as new things are being discovered the whole time!
Continue down the road and you will pass on your right the bungalow Loch View which has two standing stones in their garden, as well as a mound which dates from the Neolithic period as well. Once across the bridge on the right is the impressive Watch Stone, which was originally one of a pair and with the other stones on the route may have formed a ceremonial avenue between Brodgar and Stenness.
Passing the red roofed house ‘Odin’ on the left which takes its name from the Odin Stone. This was a large standing stone with a hole through it which stood in the field nearby until 1814. This stone was particularly specia in the customs, traditions and folklore of the Orcadians. Tradition has it that ailments could be cured, binding rituals associated with weddings took place, and agreements were sealed at the stone. Because of this a large number of people visited the ancient site regularly and according to the tenant Captain Mackay, this was ruining his land, so he took down the stone allegedly using the stone fragments to help construct a byre. The native Orcadians were so infuriated by Mackay's actions that attempts were made to burn him out of his farm!
Carry on down the road and you will come to the Standing Stones of Stenness the oldest known stone circle in Britain. If you stand close to the large hearth in the middle on a calm day and clap you hands (or sing if you want!) you can easily hear the acoustic effect. Looking across the fields you can also spot Maeshowe, Orkney’s finest example of a Neolithic chambered tomb, which also contains the largest collection or runes on stone in the world.
Crossing the style in the corner of the site follow the path down towards the ancient village at Barnhouse. The village was discovered in 1984, here several small dwellings were discovered. The structures were round, probably with timber and turf roofs. However two of the Barnhouse buildings are very different, being much larger and more elaborate than the other buildings here. These differences give rise to the theory that the structures were built to house someone of importance within the society which lived here.
You now have two options carry on down to the bird hide and take the chance to see some of the wonderful birds on Harray Loch, or retrace the route back to the Brodgar car park.