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 & dinners indicated in the detailed itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=lunch (on several days this will be a packed lunch provided by the hotel) and D=dinner.
Day 4: Thursday 13 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 but the Atlantic between us and Northern America, a narrow strip of land now serves as the island’s airport; but 1000 years ago it 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 4000 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 here by Pictish round decorated wheelhouses. The Norse Vikings then built their very different early medieval longhouses here; this area continues to be studied as an archaeological site of great importance. The Norse did not lose power in Shetland until 1468. A medieval house here from the 1300s and 1400s, with its barn and drying kiln, 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 16th-century 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 (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve. We hope to see the regular fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes and shags, as well as the ever popular puffins.
We next visit 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 Shetland Hotel and have dinner. (Overnight Lerwick, Shetland) BLD
Day 5: Friday 14 June, Lerwick: Day Excursion to the Island of Unst with Dr Val Turner
- Ferry trip to the Shetland Island of Unst (via Yell and Bluemill 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 major excavations for 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 northernmost island in Britain. On arrival we drive to Underhoull where we commence a two-hour scenic coastal walk across to Lund. On 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. Its 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 to 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 farther 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 by cruel Laurence Bruce, this is a fine example of tower house architecture. (Overnight Lerwick, Shetland) BL
Day 6: Saturday 15 June, Lerwick – St Ninian’s Isle – Mousa – Lerwick
- Crofthouse Museum
- St Ninian’s Isle Walk – led by regional archaeologist (approx. 3hrs)
- Boat excursion to Mousa Broch
We begin our day with a curator-led tour of Shetland’s exceptional Crofthouse Museum. Here we witness 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 complement each other; an Iron Age settlement (c.800 BC to c.AD 400), a stone church and the remains of a later ruined church (c.1100s) all share this isle. It was here that the St. Ninian’s Treasure (c.750-825) was found by a schoolboy in 1958. During this walk we will be accompanied by one of Shetland’s regional archaeologists.
We then travel by boat to Mousa Island where we visit the well-preserved Mousa Broch, the tallest broch still standing. This is likely a result of its small diameter and thick walls. (Overnight Lerwick, Shetland) BL
Day 7: Sunday 16 June, Lerwick – Noss Island National Nature Reserve – Island of Bressay – Lerwick
- Walking Tour of Lerwick’s Old Town
- Shetland Museum & Archives
- Wildlife Cruise of Noss National Nature Reserve and Bressay
We begin the day with a walking tour of Lerwick’s Old Town led by a local guide. At the restored historic Hay’s Dock we take a guided tour of the Shetland Museum & Archives to explore Shetland’s rich heritage and culture.
Following a light lunch at a local café we drive 20km to Sandsayre Pier for our afternoon 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 also keep an eye open for seals, porpoises, whales, otters and dolphins. (Overnight Lerwick, Shetland) BL
Day 8: Monday 17 June, Lerwick – Shetland Mainland – Kirkwall
- Stanydale ‘Temple’, near Bixter
- Scalloway Museum, Scalloway
- Light lunch at a Local Restaurant
- Clickimin Broch, Lerwick
- Northlink Ferry: Lerwick – Kirkwall (1730-2300)
After breakfast, we check out of our hotel and drive to mysterious Neolithic Stanydale Temple. Although we shall see many megalithic structures in Orkney, this is the only one surviving on Shetland. It comprises a wall of large boulders, some weighing up to 300kg, forming an oval enclosure measuring 14m by 10m. Its scale suggests that it was a public building but its purpose 5000 years ago can only be imagined.
We visit Scalloway museum that 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 during World War II. Nearby is the Scalloway Castle. Currently closed for essential restoration work,this late 16-century castellated tower house was the home of Patrick Stewart, the Earl of Orkney and Shetland. His oppressive rule earned him the name ‘Black Patie’.
After a light lunch at a local restaurant, we take the short drive to Clickimin Broch, located on the outskirts of Lerwick, overlooking the Clickimin Loch. Once inside, the broch towers above us. To the west of the tower survive a collection of structures dating from c.1000 BC to AD 500.
We return to Lerwick to take our evening ferry to Kirkwall. Dinner will be served on board. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BLD
Day 9: Tuesday 18 June, Kirkwall
- Walking tour of Kirkwall
- St Magnus Cathedral
- Earls and Bishops Palace
- Orkney Distillery Tour
- Evening lecture by guest speaker
After our late arrival in Kirkwall the previous evening we enjoy a leisurely start to the day. At 10am we embark on a guided walking tour of Kirkwall to be introduced to the town’s history and major landmarks.
After time at leisure for lunch we then continue with a guided tour of the medieval St Magnus Cathedral and hear the interesting 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. Across the street from the cathedral Gillian will guide us through the ruins of the medieval Earl’s Palace and the medieval Bishop’s Palace.
Our afternoon finishes with a visit to the Orkney Distillery, makers of Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin. We take a tour of the distillery and learn about the botanicals used that were brought to the island by the Viking settlers, before sampling the product for ourselves!
This evening we gather for a presentation by a guest lecturer who will introduce us to some of the current archaeological projects currently underway in the Orkney Isles. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BD
Day 10: Wednesday 19 June: 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 then a short but glorious sea crossing carries us to the small Orcadian island of Rousay. Rousay abounds in prehistoric sites; over 100 have been recorded so far. The variety of structures found include brochs, burial cairns, standing stones, Norse burial cists, earth-houses, burnt mounds or knows, 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; we take turns to climb down into it.
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.3000 BC, the dead were laid with their ancestors’ bones. 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 truly monumental; 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 stands 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. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BLD
Day 11: Thursday 20 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 via Eynhallow Sound. This solid Iron Age structure glowered at the distantly visible Midhowe Broch across the waters on Rousay. The Broch of Gurness boasts many features such as room divisions, an interior spiral staircase and a surrounding ditch. Its stone walls rise high above us, reminding us of the powerful defensive function of these structures. Huddled around is the best-preserved broch village in Scotland; its many dwellings, built between 500 and 200 BC, are squeezed 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 1800s, it demonstrates an ancient technique, barely changed since the Norse or ‘Click’ Mills (so-named due to the noise they made) used in the Viking era. Within 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 a 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 ports reveal how troubled the times were in the 1500s. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BLD
Day 12: Friday 21 June, Kirkwall: Day excursion to Papa Westray Island
- Ferry to Papa Westay Island
- Knap of Howar Neolithic House
- Island tour including the remains of St Tredwell’s Chapel, St Boniface Kirk and a nature walk
This morning we board our ferry as foot passengers to sail to Papa Westray, where we transfer along the spine of the island to a peaceful field beside a rocky shore. Here we visit the extraordinary, partly subterranean, Knap of Howar: this is the oldest house in Northern Europe. We enter through its original threshold which is joined by a very low corridor to a contemporary ‘workshop’. Its wall cupboards, room dividers and hearths seem pristine, but Unstan Ware pottery found here proves that this early farmstead is c.5500 years old; that’s older than Skara Brae and nearly 1000 years older than the pyramids. A picnic lunch gives us a leisure time to enjoy the atmosphere of this special site.
We then tour 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 revered until recently as a pilgrimage site associated with miracle cures by St Tredwell, a holy virgin who lived in the 700s. We also visit the 12th century St Boniface Kirk, the only church other than St Magnus’ Cathedral to survive the Reformation and continue in use. This site shows evidence of occupation from the Iron Age, and was a monastic settlement established in the 8th century. Our visit to Papa Westray concludes with an excursion to the north of the island where we enjoy a short nature walk. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BLD
Day 13: Saturday 22 June, Day Excursion to the Island of Hoy
- Ferry to island of Hoy
- Dwarfie Stane
- Rackwick Bay and Beach
- Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum
A drive across to Stromness and a ferry trip takes us to the mountainous island of Hoy for 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.
Our tour includes a visit to Rackness Bay and Beach where we enjoy a picnic lunch, and the Hoy Heritage Centre, which gives an overview of life on Hoy.
We visit the recently opened Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum, which tells the story of the naval anchorage during World War I and World War II, before sailing back to the Orkney Mainland and our hotel. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BL
Day 14: Sunday 23 June, Kirkwall – Orkney Mainland – Stromness – Kirkwall
- Marwick Head Nature Walk
- Unstan Chambered Cairn Tomb
- Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn
- Rennibister Earth House
This morning we drive to the Marwick Head Nature Reserve where a local wildlife expert will guide us on a walk to learn about the flora and birdlife of this dramatic stretch of coastline. From the cliffs we can look into the heart of a seabird colony that includes fulmars, kittiwakes and guillemots.
We then drive to the Unstan Chambered Cairn, a burial mound that sits on a peninsula jutting out into the loch. Views across to the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness provide a fresh view of these truly unique Neolithic monuments. Unstan Chambered Cairn, which was probably built as a communal burial place, is another example of 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.
After lunch in the picturesque harbour town of Stromness we drive to Cuween Hill and 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 walk 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 5000 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, remains a mystery; theories include that they were storehouses or defensive hiding holes. 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. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BL
Day 15: Monday 24 June, Kirkwall: Orkney Mainland
- Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site: Maeshowe Chambered Cairn
- Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site: Standing Stones of Stenness
- Barnhouse Neolithic Settlement
- Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site: Ring of Brodgar
- Ness of Brodgar Archaeological Site
Today we visiting some of Orkney’s most important archaeological sites in the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ World Heritage Site, the collective name given to a group of Neolithic monuments found on the mainland, which was 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.
We begin with a guided tour of the cathedral-like Maeshowe Chambered Cairn. 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 12th-century Norse crusaders on the walls of the main chamber.
Nearby are the Standing Stones of Stenness. Over 5000 years old, this constitutes one of the earliest stone circles on Orkney. Although only four of the original 12 stones still stand, these are impressive as each reaches a height of 6 metres.
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; the site has 15 small round free-standing dwellings in varying stages of development.
We pass the solitary Comet Stone before our walking tour around the Ring of Brodgar. A perfect circle, built in c.2500 to 2000 BC, this was one of the last of the stone circles. The third largest stone circle in Britain, it covers an amazing 8500 square metres, and all its stones had been brought from a different part of the island. Twenty-seven of its original 60 stones survive.
We finish the day with a visit to the Ness of Brodgar where a member of the excavation team will accompany us around the site and explain the findings from the past several archaeological seasons. Our visit will be very special as this is the last year that the Ness of Brogdar can be visited. At the end of 2024 the site will be shut down and reburied. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BL
Day 16: Tuesday 25 June, Kirkwall: Skara Brae
- Morning at Leisure in Kirkwall
- Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site: Skara Brae, including an exclusive out-of-hours visit to the interior of the Neolithic houses
After a morning at leisure in Kirkwall, we embark on one of the highlights of our tour – Skara Brae. Located on the shores of the Bay of Skaill, this site 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 3300 BC and 2200 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.
The Neolithic homes themselves are fragile and not open to the public. However, we will take a special out-of-hours guided tour of these extraordinary structures and feel for ourselves just how homely they were! Our visit will also include time to visit the 17-century Skaill House with its collections of prehistoric and historic items (including Captain Cook’s dinner service) and paintings. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BD