Travel & Archaeology

Orkney and Shetland

Celtic heritage mixed with a Scandinavian feel

The Northern Isles of Scotland contain some of the best archaeology Britain has to offer, and their remote location adds a sense of adventure to their exploration. Whether you are arriving by sea or by air, the trip is well worth it; exceptionally well-preserved prehistoric sites are set amid beautiful scenery, and a tangible celtic heritage is mixed with a distinctly Scandanavian feel – closer to Norway than to England, the Northern Isles belonged to the Norwegian crown until 1469.

Prehistory: The first settlers arrived here at least 6000 years ago, island-hopping by boat from mainland Scotland. These Stone Age farmers quarried the unique Orcadian sandstone for domestic as well as ritual building, and this has resulted in a remarkably complete archaeological record of Neolithic life. Archaeologists here are able to study whole Neolithic landscapes with stone-built settlements, tombs and ritual monuments.

The World Heritage Neolithic village at Skara Brae even has stone furniture still in its original position, within houses built around 3000 BC. Of similar date is Maes Howe, one of Europe’s finest chambered burial tombs, whose interior can still magically illuminate during a midwinter sunset. This megalithic architecture of Orkney culminates in great stone circles at the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness, two ceremonial monuments which invite us into the Neolithic mind, perhaps evoking in us similar thoughts about life and the cosmos as for those who designed, built and used them.

Celtic Fastness: During later prehistory, in the more threatening and warlike times of Celtic Europe, the distinctive blockhouses and brochs of the Northern Isles became the local response to a changed world. A visit to Jarlshof on Shetland, and to the ongoing excavations at nearby Old Scatness, bring these centuries vividly to life, and there are many other fine examples on the islands. This is when a strong Celtic heritage took root – the Romans may have sailed around northern Britain to check that it was an island, but they had little influence on this remote Celtic fastness.

Norse Legacy: Christianity eventually found its way to the Northern Isles around 600 AD, via the Picts and Scots, but a hoard of church silver found buried on St Ninian’s Isle in Shetland reminds us that a new foreign threat was soon on the horizon – the Vikings. Initially agressive raids during the 8th century were followed by colonisation, intermarraige and conversion to Christianity. A Norse earldom was created which controlled the Northern Isles for the next 600 years.

Norse longhouses are visible at sites such as Jarlshof on Shetland, and you should allocate time too for the interesting Orkney Museum in Kirkwall and its adjacent St Magnus Cathedral, founded in 1137 by Norse Earl Rognvald. In the 15th century the earldom of the Northern Isles passed from Norway to Scotland, and castles and crofts became an integral part of traditional island life, as illustrated at Scalloway Castle and the Shetland Croft Museum.

More on the Northern Isles of Scotland read our Recommended Publications