Explore Orkney

Tour/Activity , United Kingdom

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Today its time to explore Orkney at you leisure Acting like milestones back through time, Orkney’s remarkably well-preserved archaeological and historical sites reflect over 5,000 years of human interaction with the island landscape. There’s a saying in Orkney that if you stick a spade in the ground, you’ll probably unearth an archaeological site. The islands have one of the highest concentrations of ancient sites in Europe and exciting new discoveries are continually being made.

The Broch of Gurness is perched on the edge of the Orkney's West mainland - part of a coastline that, at one point, would have been lined with brochs. Across Eynhallow Sound you can see another well-preserved example at Midhowe in Rousay. Gurness is a substantial broch, measuring around 65ft in diameter. Defended by two rock-cut ditches and a rampart, this was clearly a place of power. It's thought the surrounding village could have featured around 14 houses and you can still see examples of all three elements at the site. The Broch of Gurness is around 2000-years-old and is one of the most fascinating sites to visit in Orkney, with unrivalled access to the its buildings, ancients stones and structures.

Earl's Palace, Birsay. This 16th century courtyard castle was built by Earl Robert Stewart, half-brother of Mary, Queen of Scots. Although now only a shell of what came before, it's not hard to get a glimpse into what this structure would have looked like in its heyday. The palace was designed in a Renaissance style, with towers, a turnpike staircase and four wings surrounding the large central courtyard.

It's thought it was a place of relative opulence, with painted ceilings and brightly coloured wall-hangings, but it was also a fortified residence, featuring gun holes in every wall, suggesting the earl was no stranger to trouble.

The palace was only in use for a short time. It's estimated it was built between 1569 and 1574, but the overthrow of the Stewart earls in 1615 saw its story come to an end. By 1700, the roof was missing and the once grand palace was in ruin. Nowadays, it's a fascinating place to visit, providing a real hands-on experience. It's free and open all-year-round. The parish of Birsay has been at the centre of some of the most important moments in Orcadian history, from the Iron Age to the Picts, Norse and more. In the village, just along the road from the Earl's Palace you'll find the St Magnus Church. A predecessor of the current church could have been the first burial place of St Magnus, Orkney's patron saint.

Skaill House is the finest 17th century mansion in Orkney. Home of the man who unearthed Skara Brae in 1850, and covering thousands of years of Orkney history, a visit to Skaill House will give a valuable insight into Orkney's diverse and exciting past.

Overlooking the spectacular Bay of Skaill, the house was originally built in 1620 by Bishop Graham and has been added to by successive Lairds over the centuries. Just a short distance from the house lies the neolithic village of Skara Brae, and the southern wing of Skaill House stands on a pre-Norse burial ground.

The house was opened to the public in 1997 after careful restoration work, and is very much the family home as it was in the 1950s. Captain Cook's dinner service, Neolithic and Iron Age finds, Stanley Cursiter paintings, the Bishop's original bed, and many other items of interest collected by the twelve Lairds of Skaill can be seen around the house.

Stromness Museum. Explore exciting collections from Orkney's maritime and natural history, including First World War artefacts from the scuttled German High Seas Fleet, items from Orkney's involvement in the Hudson's Bay Company, and collections brought home from Orcadians travelling abroad. We have a wealth of material relating to Dr John Rae, the Orcadian explorer and surveyor of the North-West Passage.

Purpose-built in 1856, the Museum houses numerous Victorian natural history collections of birds and eggs, mammals, shells, fossils, butterflies and moths, as well as antiquarian collections of artefacts. We have ongoing events, activities and talks throughout the year, so check with our website to find out what's on. The Museum also hosts a special audio tour of the town with voices from the past and present guiding listeners through centuries of Stromness history.

The spellbinding stone circle - the Ring of Brodgar - is arguably the most iconic symbol of Orkney's prehistoric past. It is a site of ritual and ceremony, and hauntingly beautiful. The Ring of Brodgar is an archaeological treasure and without doubt one of the islands' most visited attractions. It is one of the most photographed attractions in Orkney - particularly at sunset. The ring was built around 2500-2000BC and covering an area of almost 8,500 square metres it is the third largest stone circle in the British Isles - just pipped by Avebury and Stanton Drew.

Sitting within a natural amphitheatre of hills and surrounded by a ditch, 27 of the original 60 stones survive today. According to legend, it was a religious shrine and possibly a place of ritual, while others believe the ring was built for the astronomical observation of the equinox and solstice. The truth is, we don't know for sure which only adds to the mystique.

Nearby, the solitary Comet Stone keeps a watchful eye, while just one mile from the site The Standing Stones of Stenness cast their spell. Four giant megaliths, at a towering six metres, date back to 3100BC making it one of the oldest stones circles in Britain. Close by, the Barnhouse settlement reveals an excavated group of house dwellings dating from 3300-2600BC.

The Italian Chapel consists of two Nissen huts transformed into a beautiful chapel by Domenico Chiocchetti and his colleagues, Italian prisoners of war captured in North Africa and transported to the Island of Lamb Holm in Orkney. In October 1939 a German submarine under the command of Gunther Prien entered Scapa Flow and sank the British battleship 'HMS Royal Oak' with the loss of 834 lives. Winston Churchill, at that time First Sea Lord, visited Orkney and the decision was taken to construct barriers to close off four of the entrances to Scapa Flow to make the base for the home fleet more secure. A shortage of manpower to construct the barriers coincided with the capture of thousands of Italian soldiers fighting in North Africa, so a decision was taken to transport 550 men to Camp 60 on Lamb Holm and a similar number to Camp 34 on Burray.

Following a request from the camp priest, Fr Giacobazzi, it was agreed that two Nissen huts would be joined together to provide a chapel. Among the Italians in Camp 60 was an artist, Domenico Chiocchetti, and he was given the task of transforming the two Nissen huts into a chapel. He was assisted by other tradesmen - in particular Giuseppe Palumbi, a blacksmith, and Domenico Buttapasta, a cement worker.

Domenico Chiocchetti carried in his pocket a small prayer card given to him by his mother before he left his home in Italy, and it was the image on that card of the Madonna and Child by Nicolo Barabino that Chiocchetti based his painting above the altar in the Chapel. When the Camp Commander, Major Buckland, realised that the prisoner was a very talented artist he was allowed to continue painting to make the building more attractive. Now, decades after the completion of the Chapel, it is one of Orkney's most loved attractions, with over 100,000 visitors every year.

There is also strong friendship with the town of Moena in Italy, the home of Chiocchetti, and Orkney, and members of the family visit the islands from time to time. Chiocchetti's daughter, Letizia, is an Honorary President of the Preservation Committee. Antonella Papa, a restoration artist from Rome, who had previously done work in the Sistine Chapel, has also spent time working in the Chapel to refresh areas of Chiocchetti's painting.