The following itinerary describes daily activities which may change or be rotated and/or modified in order to accommodate alterations in opening hours, road conditions, weather conditions, flight or ferry schedules etc. Participants will receive a final itinerary together with their tour documents prior to departure. The tour includes breakfast daily, lunches & evening meals indicated in the detailed itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=lunch (on several days this will be a boxed lunch) and D=dinners.
Edinburgh - 2 nights
Day 1: Monday 1 June, Arrive Edinburgh
- Transfer from Edinburgh Airport for participants arriving on the ‘ASA designated’ flight
- Welcome Meeting
- Welcome Dinner at the Agua Restaurant & Bar
Our tour commences in Edinburgh, Scotland’s hilly capital, located on the southern shore of Firth of Forth. Travellers taking the ASA ‘designated’ flight are scheduled to arrive at Edinburgh Airport in the early morning. On arrival we will be met by our private coach and transfer to our hotel located in the heart of the Old Town. Note: if you are not arriving on the ASA ‘designated’ flight you will be required to make your own way to The Apex City of Edinburgh Hotel, or you may wish to contact ASA to arrange a private transfer.
Following a welcome meeting we dine together at the hotel’s Agua Restaurant. (Overnight Edinburgh) D
Day 2: Tuesday 2 June, Edinburgh
- The National Museum of Scotland: Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark, Curator of Prehistory (Neolithic)
- Afternoon at leisure
- Introductory Lecture
This morning we visit the National Museum of Scotland where 5,000 years of human life is celebrated. Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark, Curator of Prehistory (Neolithic) will lead a special tour to prepare us for our travels in Orkney and Shetland. Here we discover the early humans who arrived after the ice age (c.12,000 BC), the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers from 8,000 BC and their skilfully made stone tools, and the first farmers who arrived with their remarkable new culture in the northern isles and Scotland c.3,200 BC. The innovations of the Bronze Age (c.2,100-c.700 BC) are here in metalworking and culture, while the perilous tribal Iron Age (c.700 BC – AD 500) echoed to the carnyx and glittered with gold torcs that we see. The material wealth of the Romans, who advanced north into Scotland even though they never conquered it, is evident in weapons, inscriptions, coins and vessels, although ‘Celtic’ art remained a vibrant culture. Enigmatic Pictish stones are followed by the domination of the Norse Vikings (AD 800s-1200s); a highlight here is the silver of St. Ninian’s treasure (AD c.750-825) from the Shetland isle we shall later visit.
This afternoon we have plenty of free time to independently explore Edinburgh or discover the range of galleries in this remarkable museum: from meteorites and dinosaurs to Scottish history (including the famous Lewis Chessmen of the late 1100s AD), the Art, Design and Fashion, Science and Technology and World Cultures galleries,
Our day ends at our hotel with an introductory lecture and Welcome Dinner. (Overnight Edinburgh, Scotland) B
Overnight ferry Aberdeen - Lerwick
Day 3: Wednesday 3 June, Edinburgh – Dundee – Aberlemno – Aberdeen
- V&A Dundee – Scotland’s first design museum
- Aberlemno Sculptured Stones: featuring some of the finest Pictish carving
- Northlink Ferry: Overnight Aberdeen – Lerwick departing at 1900hrs
Today we check-out from our hotel and take our coach north to Dundee where we are treated to a special guided tour of the brand new V&A Dundee, Scotland’s first design museum. This landmark museum on the River Tay opened in September 2018 and contains exhibits as diverse as costume, interior design, illuminated manuscripts and engineering.
Following a lunch at leisure in the Museum café, we drive northwards through the Scottish countryside to Aberlemno. Here we visit four remarkable Pictish stones, carved between AD 500 and AD 800. They display the range of carvings, from the early enigmatic prehistoric symbols to battles and hunts and overtly Christian crosses and imagery.
An hour’s drive takes us to Aberdeen, our gateway to the northern island of Shetland. We board our ferry, where we shall settle into our cabins and sail out from the Mainland before having dinner together on board. Gillian will provide a scene-setting talk for our time in Shetland. (Overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick) BD
Lerwick, Shetland - 4 nights
Day 4: Thursday 4 June, Arrive Lerwick – Sumburgh – Lerwick
- Arrival Lerwick by Northlink Ferries at 0730hrs
- Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement, Sumburgh
- Light lunch at the Sumburgh Hotel
- Sumburgh Head: Visitors Centre, Lighthouse & Seabird Colonies of the RSPB Nature Reserve
- Iron Age Broch and Village at Old Scatness: Guided tour by regional archaeologist
We breakfast on board, having already berthed in Lerwick. On disembarking, we board our coach and travel south through the villages and sweeping rural landscape of mainland Shetland. Along our coastal route we may see Shetland ponies and seals, signs of generations of peat digging, and locations from the TV detective series, Shetland.
At the southernmost tip of Shetland, with nothing between us and the Atlantic and Northern America, a narrow strip of land now serves as the island’s airport; but 1,000 years ago was a vital site for the Vikings. We visit their settlement, later called Jarlshof (meaning ‘Earl’s House’) by Sir Walter Scott. The Vikings were not the first to live here; for we walk through almost 4,000 years of almost constant habitation; Neolithic and Bronze Age homes sit side by side, and later Iron Age houses and remarkable brochs (windowless towers built on the shores) were followed by Pictish round Wheelhouses, complete with art. The Norse Vikings then built their very different early Medieval Longhouses and settlement and this area continues to be studied as an archaeological site of great importance. The Norse did not lose power in Shetland until AD 1468. A medieval house here, with its barn and drying kiln, from the AD 1300s and 1400s is remarkably similar to local houses built in Shetland until relatively recently. We can view all this from a platform built into the ruins of the AD 1500s house that looms over the site.
After a light lunch at the nearby Sumburgh Hotel (used as a nursing home in the Shetland series), we visit Sumburgh Head Lighthouse and the RSPB reserve. We hope to see the regular fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes and shags, as well as the ever popular puffins.
There is plenty of time for a visit to Old Scatness, where a site archaeologist will give us a guided tour of the excavated Iron Age broch and an impressive and thought-provoking reconstruction.
We shall head north again to Lerwick via a different route. We settle into our rooms at the Queen’s Hotel and have dinner. (Overnight Lerwick, Shetland) BLD
Day 5: Friday 5 June, Lerwick: Day Excursion to the Island of Unst with Dr Val Turner
- Ferry trip to the Shetland Island of Unst (via Yell and Bluebell Sounds)
- The Underhoull to Lund Trail: a Viking World (incl. the Underhoull Longhouses, Underhoull Broch, boat noosts & St Olaf’s Chapel) – approx. 2 hrs
- “Viking Haroldswick”: Longhouse & Skidbladner Reconstructions
- Unst Heritage Centre & Unst Boat Haven
- Settlement of Skaw & Muckle Flugga
- Muness Castle
Today we explore the Viking heritage of Scotland, accompanied by Dr Val Turner who has been Shetland’s Regional Archaeologist since the post was created in 1986. Dr Turner has Project Managed two big excavation on behalf of her employers, Shetland Amenity Trust: Old Scatness Broch saw the twelve-year excavation of an Iron Age Broch and Village, which has rewritten the story of Scotland’s Iron Age; and Viking Unst saw the excavation of three longhouses and the construction of a replica longhouse and restoration of a replica Viking longship.
An early morning breakfast fuels us for our drive and the ferries that take us to the island of Unst, the most northern island in Britain. On arrival we drive to Underhoull where we commence a two-hour scenic coastal walk across to Lund. Along our journey we pass the Underhoull Longhouses, the Underhoull Broch which commands excellent views of the bay below, some stone-lined boat noosts (places where longships were pulled ashore and berthed) and St Olaf’s Chapel. This 12th-century chapel, whose interior features a Pictish fish or serpent, was probably built for the occupants of the nearby Viking/Norse settlement. The graveyard includes three distinctive Viking stone crosses.
From Lund we transfer by coach to “Viking Haroldswick”. Here we explore the Skidbladner, a full-size replica of the 24 metre-long Gokstad ship found in a Viking burial mound in Norway in 1880. There is also the reconstructed Viking Longhouse where we may gain further insights into the Norse way of life. Nearby, the Unst Heritage Centre and the Unst Boat Haven bring us forward to more recent history and reveal how generations of crofters and fishermen have lived and worked in Shetland.
Next we drive north to the tiny settlement of Skaw, located on a peninsula in the northeast corner of the island. If the weather is clear, we may view Muckle Flugga, a small rocky island considered the northernmost point of the British Isles, although technically the nearby smaller islet of Out Stack is actually father north. The Muckle Flugga Lighthouse was built by David and Thomas Stevenson. Thomas’s son, Robert Louis Stevenson, visited in 1869 and it is said he returned home with the inspiration for his next book – Treasure Island.
Time allowing, our journey back to the ferries will include a brief stop to see Muness Castle. Built in 1598 AD by cruel Laurence Bruce, this is a fine example of tower house architecture. (Overnight Lerwick, Shetland) BL
Day 6: Saturday 6 June, Lerwick – St Ninian’s Isle – Mousa – Lerwick
- Crofthouse Museum
- St Ninian’s Isle Circular Walk – led by regional archaeologist (approx. 3hrs)
- Time at leisure
- Mousa Boat Dusk Trip: Storm Petrels at Mousa Broch
We start our day with a curator-led tour of Shetland’s exceptional Crofthouse Museum. Here we are witness to the tough life of a sea-based crofter.
A short drive takes us to the beauty and peace of St. Ninian’s Isle where we cross the tombolo (a beautiful sandy natural causeway) for our 3-hour guided walk, where nature and history nestle side by side; an Iron Age settlement (c.800 BC to c.AD 400), a stone church and the remains of a later ruined church (AD c.1100s) all share this isle. It was here that the St.Ninian’s Treasure (AD c.750-825) was found by a schoolboy in 1958. During this walk we will be accompanied by one of Shetland’s regional archaeologists.
Later this evening we enjoy a real highlight of the tour as we head to Sandsayre Pier and take a boat across to Mousa Broch to experience the nightly swap-over of nesting storm petrel birds roosting in the ruins and nearby field walls. We are so far north that it never gets dark here at this time of year, so the swap-over in the safety of the half-light ‘dusk’ is nigh on midnight. (Overnight Lerwick, Shetland) BL
Day 7: Sunday 7 June, Lerwick – Noss Island National Nature Reserve – Island of Bressay – Lerwick
- Wildlife Cruise of Noss National Nature Reserve and Bressay
- Lunch at Leisure in Lerwick
- Orientation walk of Lerwick with local historian Douglas Sinclair
- Shetland Museum & Archives
A very short leisurely walk to the nearby pier slipway starts our morning cruise to the stunning Noss National Nature Reserve and the isle of Bressay. We get close to the 25,000 seabirds who nest on these noisy cliffs and we keep an eye open for seals, porpoises, whales, otters and dolphins.
A walking tour of Lerwick town follows and the afternoon and early evening are free time at leisure. (Overnight Lerwick, Shetland) B
Kirkwall, Orkney - 9 nights
Day 8: Monday 8 June, Lerwick – Shetland Mainland – Kirkwall
- Clickimin Broch, Lerwick
- Stanydale ‘Temple’, near Bixter
- Light lunch at the Scalloway Hotel
- Scalloway Castle and Museum, Scalloway
- Northlink Ferry: Lerwick – Kirkwall (1730-2300)
After breakfast, we check-out of our hotel and take the short drive to Clickimin Broch located on the outskirts of Lerwick. The broch, a sophisticated type of stone-built round house found only in Scotland, overlooks the Clickimin Loch. Once inside, the broch towers above us. To the west of the tower survive a collection of structures dating from c.1,000 BC to AD 500.
We drive on to mysterious Neolithic Stanydale Temple. Although we shall see many megalithic structures in Orkney, this is the only one surviving in Shetland. It comprises a wall of large stone boulders, some weighing up to 300kg, forming an oval enclosure measuring 14m by 10m. From its scale, it was clearly a public building but we can exercise our imaginations and consider what its purpose was 5,000 years ago.
After a light lunch at the Scalloway Hotel, we visit Scalloway Castle and the museum. This late AD 1500s castellated tower house was the home of Patrick Stewart, the earl of Orkney and Shetland. His oppressive rule earned him the name ‘Black Patie’. The nearby Scalloway Museum takes us from earliest history, through the traditional lives on Shetland to ‘The Shetland Bus’, the clandestine and dangerous heroic wartime operation which ferried men across the North Sea between Shetland and occupied Norway in World War 2.
We return to Lerwick for our evening ferry to Kirkwall. Dinner will be served on board. Gillian will give us a short briefing for tomorrow. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BLD
Day 9: Tuesday 9 June, Kirkwall: Day excursion to the Island of Rousay
- Ferry trip to Island of Rousay
- Taversöe Tuick Chambered Cairn
- Blackhammer Chambered Cairn
- Midhowe Chambered Cairn
- Midhowe Broch
We take a late breakfast this morning and a short but glorious sea crossing carries us to the small Orcadian island of Rousay. Rousay abounds in prehistoric sites with over 100 recorded so far. The variety of structures found include brochs, burial cairns, standing stones, Norse burial cists, earth-houses, burnt mounds or knowes and Celtic chapels.
Our circular coach tour of this island takes us first to Traverse Tuick, the tiny but unique double-storey Neolithic chambered cairn, into which we take turns to climb down.
Not far down the road is the long chambered Blackhammer Cairn with its decorative facing stones. The structure is a typical stalled cairn, with an interior divided into seven compartments by pairs of upright stone slabs. Here, in c.3,000 BC, the dead were laid with their ancestors’ bones and yet, although each of these tombs may have been used for hundreds of years, only a few skeletons were found in each. At least 15 such cairns have been found on the island of Rousay alone.
After a light lunch in a local restaurant with sea views, we drive on to Midhowe Cairn which we reach by a short but steep walk down the fields to the rocky shore. This vast Neolithic burial mound was monumental and we view its interior compartments and impressive stonework from walkways above it. Chambered tombs of this kind were communal burial places; the remains of at least 25 humans have been found here.
There are more than 500 surviving examples of brochs in Scotland. Many stood alone, but brochs in Orkney and Caithness, including Midhowe and nearby Gurness, were surrounded by sizeable settlements. The remains of the Midhowe broch’s circular wall stand to a height of approximately four metres and within the structure the general layout of the ground floor has been remarkably well-preserved. As we enter, we can see the height, the separate rooms and the hearth and vital water well, all within this highly defensible stone tower that dominated the shoreline.
We drive round the island, past Wasbister Loch where Iron Age lake dwellings called crannochs once jutted out onto the waters. We pass Saviskaill beach, a common spot for seals, before catching our early evening ferry back to Kirkwall. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BLD
Day 10: Wednesday 10 June, Kirkwall: Day excursion to Westray & Papa Westray Islands
- Ferry to Westray & Papa Westay Islands
- Westray Heritage Centre: The Orkney Venus
- The Links of Noltland archaeological site, Westray
- Castle of Noltland, Westerly
- Knap of Howar Neolithic House, Papa Westray
- Island Walk incl. the remains of St Tredwell’s Chapel, Papa Westray
We take an early ferry for a fabulous day visiting two islands, Westray and Papa Westray. Westray Heritage Centre houses the Orkney Venus (locally nicknamed the ‘Westray Wifie’). This tiny carving is one of only a few carvings of people that have been found in Neolithic Orkney and is Scotland’s earliest representation of a human. It was found as recently as 2009 and is proudly kept here on the island where it was found.
After a guided tour of the centre we drive out to the Links of Noltland site where she was found. If excavations are ongoing, the site director will give us a tour of this wonderful settlement (c.3,300 -800 BC) that emerged from the sands of the shore. This area of dunes behind Grobust Bay is also the site of Orkney’s largest Bronze Age settlement, with paved storehouses with cupboards, divisions to the living quarters, even a sweat room, middens (rubbish dumps) and evidence of cultivated fields. However, this is a dig against the clock; the winds from the sea threaten to destroy the sites before long.
As we head for the ferry to take us to Papa Westray, we pause to explore the ruined Castle of Noltland. This formidable tower house, bristling with gun holes, was built in the AD 1500s. Although it was never finished, there are many fascinating details to discover in the stonework.
Our ferry takes us as foot passengers to Papa Westray, where we walk a couple of view-filled miles (transport will be available for those who wish it) along the spine of the island to a peaceful field beside a rocky shore. Here the surprising partly subterranean Knap of Howar greets us: this is the oldest house in Northern Europe, and we can simply walk in under the original threshold. It is joined by a very low corridor to a contemporary ‘workshop’, although there is a regular doorway for this too. The wall cupboards, room dividers and hearths seem to have been built yesterday but Unstan Ware pottery found here proves that this early farmstead is c.5,500 years old; that’s older than Skara Brae and nearly 1,000 years older than the pyramids. A picnic lunch gives us a leisurely time to enjoy the atmosphere of this special site.
To return to our ferry and our journey back to Kirkwall, we take an idyllic walk along the east coast of the island, along the grassy track above the shore and past the remains of St Tredwell’s Chapel perched on a small mound on a peninsula in St Tredwell’s Loch. Built on an Iron Age site, this medieval church was long revered until recent centuries as a pilgrimage site, associated with miracle cures by St Tredwell, a holy virgin who lived in the AD 700s. A nearby sandy bay welcomes us back to the ferry pier. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BL
Day 11: Thursday 11 June, Kirkwall – Orkney Mainland
- Iron Age Broch of Gurness
- Dounby Click Mill
- Causeway to Brough of Birsay: remains of Pictish, Norse and later settlements
- The Earl’s Palace, Birsay
After breakfast, we drive to the Broch of Gurness by Eynhallow Sound. This solid Iron Age structure glowered across the seas to the distantly visible Midhhowe Broch across the waters on Rousay. Gurness broch boasts many features such as room divisions, a spiral staircase inside and surrounding ditch outside. Its stone walls rise high above us, reminding us of how defensive these structures were. Huddled around the broch is the best-preserved broch village in Scotland; its many dwellings, built between 500 and 200 BC, are squashed side by side within an outer wall. By the AD 300s though, the broch village had fallen into disuse and a Pictish ‘Shamrock’ shaped house was built within its ruined area.
We drive on, pausing at the Dounby Click Mill. This is the last of the horizontal watermills of Orkney. Although this is a restoration of a mill from early AD 18oos, it demonstrates an ancient technique, barely changed since the Norse or Click Mills (so-named due to the noise it made) used in Viking times. On entering the small stone mill, we may view all of its internal machinery including a horizontal paddle wheel, grind-stones, hopper and meal bin.
After lunch, we drive to the Brough of Birsay where we walk across the tidal causeway. Once on the isle, we tour the remains of a secluded medieval monastery and view (a copy of) the carved Pictish Stone that survived here. A walk up onto the top of the headland should give us glimpses of puffins and other sea birds.
Our coach ride back to Kirkwall includes a stop at the picturesque Earl’s Palace in Birsay. This fine courtyard castle was the home of Robert Stewart, half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots; its many gun holes reveal the troubled times of the AD 1500s.
We return to the hotel for a short talk by Gillian and dinner. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BLD
Day 12: Friday 12 June, Kirkwall – Orkney Mainland – Stromness – Kirkwall
- Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site: Skara Brae & The Ness of Brodgar
- Afternoon at leisure in Stromness
- Scarpa Flow
- The Ophir Round Kirk & Orkneyinga Saga Centre
We spend the morning visiting Skara Brae, a member of the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’, the collective name given to a group of Neolithic monuments found on the mainland, which were proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. This group of monuments consists of four sites: Maeshowe – a unique chamber cairn and passage grave; the Standing Stones of Stenness – four remaining megaliths of a henge, the Ring of Brodgar – a stone circle forming a henge monument, and Skara Brae – a cluster of eight houses reputed to be the best-preserved Stone Age village in Europe.
Skara Brae, located on the shores of the bay of Skaill, was revealed after a terrifying winter storm blew the sand-dunes away in 1850. The homes had survived virtually intact, protected by the sand that filled them; hearths, beds, dressers (or altars), storage tanks and even indoor toilets survive, all dated from between 3,300 BC to 2,200 BC. The people who lived here would have seen, or even taken part in, the building of the stone circles of the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and the Ness of Brodgar ceremonial centre. While the homes themselves are too fragile to enter, we have access to an exact replica so that we can feel just how homely it was. A small museum and film, as well as café and shop, make this a site to linger in. There is time to visit the AD 1600’s Skaill House with its collections of prehistoric and historic items (including Captain Cook’s dinner service) and paintings. Alternatively, you may wish to use your free time to walk along the fabulous bay and enjoy the scenery.
Our coach takes us down past the Neolithic Heart of Orkney – the Ring of Brodgar, the Ness of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness – to provide a sense of connection between these and Skara Brae.
On arrival in the picturesque harbour town of Stromness we have free time for lunch and to view the town’s many attractions. There is an art gallery, winding streets, great little museum (with finds from the Ness of Brodgar), and independent cafés and shops full of unique gifts.
Alternatively you may wish to take a walk past the poet George Mackay Brown’s house, and the well that was used in the AD 1700s by Captain Cook’s vessels (the HMS Resolution and the HMS Discovery) on their fatal return from seeking the North-West Passage. Sir John Franklin’s ships also loaded up here in AD 1845 on their Arctic Exploration. If you continue up to the end of town there is also an enjoyable walk along the coast.
Our return drive to Kirkwell takes us along the south coast of the Orkney mainland, along Scapa Flow where Lord Kitchener’s ship was destroyed and where the World War I interned German battle fleet was scuttled. The tragedy of the World War II torpedoed HMS Royal Oak, continues to be marked by a buoy. We also make a short visit to the circular church of Orphir built in AD 1100s and its visitor centre where we hear of the dramatic Viking Orkneyinga Sagas.
This evening is free time for your own choice of dinner venue. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) B
Day 13: Saturday 13 June, Kirkwall: Day Excursion to the Island of Hoy
- Ferry to island of Hoy
- Dwarfie Stane
- Old Man of Hoy Sea Stack
- Hackness Martello Tower and Battery
- Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum
A drive across to Stromness and a ferry across to the island of Hoy takes us to this mountainous island and a day’s guided tour. The rocks here were carved out to make the 8.5m long Dwarfie Stane, possibly the only Neolithic rock-cut tomb in Britain. We consider the effort required to carve out this tomb using just stones, antlers and bones. We pass on to the cliffs and view the Old Man of Hoy, the sea stack made famous by the transmission on television of its climb by Chris Bonnington and his team in 1967.
Our tour includes the Hackness Martello Tower and Battery that defended merchant ships in the AD 1800s Napoleonic era; barrack room furniture and memorabilia vividly bring this age to life. We continue by exploring the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum, which tells the story of the naval anchorage in World War I and II, before sailing back to the Orkney Mainland and heading to our hotel. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BL
Day 14: Sunday 14 June, Kirkwall: Shapinsay Island & Orkney mainland
- Ferry to Shapinsay Island
- Burroughston Broch
- Odin’s Stone
- Shapinsay Heritage Centre & Mill Dam RSPB reserve (time-permitting)
- Tour of Highland Park Distillery, Kirkwall
Our morning ferry takes us the short hop across to Shapinsay island where we sail past the Victorian Balfour Castle and the Lighthouse on Helliar Holm. We drive across the island to visit the peaceful Iron Age Burroughston Broch, far from the tourist trail and set in an idyllic shoreside location overlooking the North Sea.
At the head of Veantro Bay we pause at Odin’s Stone to see this solitary Neolithic standing stone, thought to be associated, 4,000 years after its original use, with Viking offerings to Odin.
Time permitting, we shall visit the Shapinsay Heritage Centre and the RSPB reserve, Mill Dam, home to a wide variety of wildfowl. In summer, you may see large numbers of breeding pintails, redshanks and wigeons.
After lunch, we voyage back to Kirkwall in time to enjoy a ‘wee dram’ on our tour of the Highland Park Distillery.
This evening and dinner are free time. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) B
Day 15: Monday 15 June, Kirkwall: Orkney Mainland
- Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site: Standing Stones of Stenness
- Barnhouse Neolithic Settlement
- Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site: Maeshowe Chambered Cairn
- Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site: Ring of Brodgar
- Unstan Chambered Cairn Tomb
Today we continue visiting some of the most important archaeological sites of Orkney in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. We begin at the Standing Stones of Stenness. Over 5,000 years old, it is one of the earliest stone circles on Orkney and, although only four of the original 12 stones still stand, they reach up to an impressive 6m in height.
Just yards away, we explore the Barnhouse Neolithic settlement, perched on the edge of the Loch. The site, provides an interesting contrast to the neighbouring village of Skara Brae; there is evidence of 15 small round free-standing dwellings in varying stages of development.
From the Barnhouse Settlement we can see Maeshowe Chambered Cairn; we shall drive round to visit this cathedral-like tomb on a guided tour. Considered the finest chambered tomb in north west Europe, it is more than 5000 years old. This impressive monumental tomb also features runic graffiti left by Norse crusaders in the 12th century on the walls of the main chamber.
We pass the solitary Comet Stone and a picnic lunch prepares us for our walking tour around the Ring of Brodgar. A perfect circle, built in c.2,500 to 2,000 BC, this was one of the last of the stone circles. The third largest stone circle in Britain, it covers an amazing 8,500 square metres, and all its stones had been brought from a different part of the island. 27 of the original 60 stones survive.
We drive back past the Ness of Brodgar site and move round to the Unstan Chambered Cairn. This burial mound sits on a piece of land jutting out into the loch and the views across to the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness provide a fresh view that few ever see of these truly unique Neolithic monuments. This chambered cairn, which was probably built as a communal burial place, is another example of a a stalled cairn. Excavations here uncovered a remarkable collection of pottery bowls, all of the same design. Similar bowls were subsequently found in several other Neolithic tombs in Orkney, and are known as Unstan Ware. Several of the reconstructed vessels are in the National Museum of Scotland. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BL
Day 16: Tuesday 16 June, Kirkwall: Orkney Mainland
- Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn
- Rennibister Earth House
- St Magnus Cathedral: Guided tour
- Afternoon at Leisure in Kirkwall
A short drive from Kirkwall takes us to the foot of the rough track leading up to Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn. The view alone from here across the sea and hills would be worth the short work but this small, very personal, intimate Neolithic tomb has a surprise within it; its stonework and corbelling is astonishing. The cairn attests to a belief in an afterlife 5,000 years ago; there is evidence of complex burial rites. Bones of men, dogs and oxen were found buried here.
Descending to the coach we are just minutes from Rennibister Earth House, thought to date from the first millennium BC. The function of such Iron Age underground tunnels, called souterrains, remain a mystery; theories include that they were storehouses, defensive hiding holes or maybe something else. We climb down the short metal ladder into the remarkably constructed site. Inside the main chamber, the drystone walls curve upwards to a corbelled roof supported by four stone pillars. There are also five small stone alcoves built into the walls of the chamber.
Following our visit to Rennibister Earth house we return to Kirkwall for lunch at leisure. We then continue with a guided tour of the medieval St Magnus Cathedral and hear the great stories connected with it. It was founded in the 12th century by the Viking Earl Rognvald in honour of his uncle, St Magnus whose relics were hidden within its walls. Known as the ‘Light of the North’ it was built by the same Norman masons who built Durham Cathedral.
The remainder of our afternoon is at leisure in Kirkwall. You may wish to visit the ruins of the medieval Earl’s Palace and the Medieval Bishop’s Palace just opposite the Cathedral (covered by your ticket for Skara Brae), explore the Orkney Museum, shop for those take-home gifts or simply relax. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) B
Overnight ferry Kirkwall to Aberdeen
Day 17: Wednesday 17 June, Kirkwall – South Ronaldsay – Aberdeen
- Churchill Barriers
- Italian Chapel
- Orkney Wine Shop
- Orkney Fossil and Heritage Centre
- Liddle Burnt Mound, South Ronaldsay
- The Isbister Chambered Cairn: The Tomb of the Eagles, South Ronaldsay
- Farewell Dinner
Our last day in Orkney takes us on a special route to the island of Ronaldsay in the south east. We drive over the Churchill Barriers, constructed to protect Scapa Flow in World War II and now linking the island to the mainland of Orkney. The Italian prisoners of war who built the Barriers also built for themselves the beautiful and touching Italian Chapel. Constructed of two Nissan huts, they decorated the interior with 3D wall paintings that create the impression of a stone chapel, and the sanctuary image was taken from a painting of the Madonna kept in the pocket of one of the prisoners. Everything they used was recycled. It is a very remarkable place.
We stop briefly at the Orkney wine shop and then move on to the Orkney Fossil and Heritage Centre where we have lunch and explore the exhibits at leisure. From there, we travel down to the Cairns excavation, if the dig is open, for a tour of this ground-breaking work on an Iron Age broch.
We wind our way through lanes to the Tomb of the Eagles (or Isbister Chambered Cairn), found and excavated by land owner, Ronnie Simison in the 1950s. His daughter now runs the site and provides the pre-site talk; her personal connection (by someone who, as a child, thought it was normal to have 5,000 year old skulls in boxes under the stairs) brings the story to life. The Visitors Centre includes fascinating information about life in Orkney, and how rising sea levels after the last Ice Age, 9,000 years ago, affected the first settlers.
En route to the tomb, we visit the Bronze Age Liddle Burnt Mound; here in the Bronze Age 3,000 years ago, stones were heated and placed in water to create a steam room.
Our very last site of the tour includes a pleasant easy walk along the cliffs to the Neolithic Tomb of the Eagles, so-called because sea eagle talons were found in the tomb with the skeletons. We enter by lying on the famous ‘trolley’ or crawling on our knees; inside we enter the world of the dead that we have discovered was so much a part of life in the Neolithic. Built around 3,000 BC, the Tomb of the Eagles was in constant use for hundreds of years. As we return to the visitor centre and refreshments, we saunter along by the birds and flowers of the sea cliff.
On our return to Kirkwall, we enjoy a final dinner before checking in for our late-night overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. (Overnight ferry Kirkwall-Aberdeen) BLD
Day 18: Thursday 18 June, Arrive Aberdeen
- Airport transfer for participants travelling on the ASA ‘designated’ flight
Our tour ends as we berth in Aberdeen. In the morning you will be required to check out of your cabin. We arrive at 7am; breakfast is supplied on board before disembarkation. Participants travelling on the ASA ‘designated’ flights will be transferred to the Aberdeen Airport for their flight back to Australia. Alternatively, you may wish to extend your stay in Britain. Please contact ASA if you require further assistance. B