Archaeology in Orkney: What should I see? Handy map and bucket list

Are you coming to Orkney? Are you keen to see archaeology? Orkney is fantastic for archaeology! It’s difficult to choose what to see or where to go. Therefore, I have helped you out with this handy map (link at the bottom).

I would be happy to guide you, or you can visit on your own.

Some sites are free, some are ticketed, some are open and freely accessible all the time, while others are archaeological excavations that are only open as long as the archaeologists are working there. Below is a quick list.


Ness of Brodgar – Neolithic. The most spectacular and world renowned! Must not miss this! Dig active from early July to mid August.

The Cairns: Iron Age broch and surrounding buildings, and later phases. Dig usually active in June.

Swandro (requires ferry to Rousay)- Multi period, from Neolithic to Viking Age. Among other things they discovered a fabulous Pictish smithy! Dig usually active July-August.


Skara Brae: Extremely well preserved Neolithic village, intact with furniture! One of Orkney’s top attractions, so can be busy. An insider’s tip is to book on the twilight tours that run after normal opening hours in the summer. You get an enhanced tour with a Historic Environment Scotland guide after the crowds have left for the day.

Brough of Birsay: Tidal island. You can walk across two hours either side of the low tide. You can get tide times from the Kirkwall tourist information. Viking/Norse and Medieval. Spectacular nature and wildlife, too.

Broch of Gurness: Iron Age tower and village. Beautiful beach nearby.

Tomb of the Eagles: Neolithic stalled cairn plus Iron Age burnt mound. Fabulous visitor centre with excellent exhibition and super staff! Family friendly tour of the exhibition. Lovely walk to the site itself.

Maeshowe: Neolithic chambered cairn, with 12th century Norse runes on the walls. Hear the Vikings speak to you in graffiti! Pre-booking essential.

Free, but restricted access:

Grain Earth House: This is a hidden gem right in the main town of Kirkwall. Get the key from Judith Glue’s shop opposite the St Magnus Cathedral.

Free and accessible all the time:

Wideford Hill and Cuween Hill cairns: Two similar Neolithic cairns. There is a torch in a box on site, which may work if you are lucky. Climb in if you feel brave.

Rennibister Earth House: Iron Age underground chamber, identical to Grain (above) but open all the time. Just go in, but please be respectful to the farmer as they have kindly opened it to visitors even though it is in their farmyard.

Unstan: Neolithic stalled cairn which gives name to Unstanware pottery.

Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness: Two Neolithic standing stone circles. Ring of Brodgar is the larger, with 27 stones still standing.

Earl’s Bu and Round Kirk, Orphir: Medieval Norse (12th century). Bring a copy of Orkneyinga Saga to read about Earl Hakon, Sveinn Asleifarson and the dramatic scenes unfolding here at the Earl’s Bu and Round Kirk. Or watch the free 20-minute film in the Orkneyinga Saga Centre on the site.

Midhowe Broch and Midhowe Cairn (requires ferry to Rousay): A well-preserved Iron Age round tower house with village around it. Nearby is also a Neolithic stalled burial cairn, which is huge and now protected inside a hangar-like shed. Breath-taking! Open all the time.

Taversoe Tuick (requires ferry to Rousay): A two-storey burial cairn!

Dwarfie Stane (requires ferry to Lyness or Moaness): A huge rock, which in prehistory has been hollowed out with two rooms like stone beds with a stone pillow. In local folklore the home of a giant (despite the name) and his wife.

Wideford Hill Neolithic cairn
Wideford Hill Neolithic cairn
Dwarfie Stane, Hoy, Orkney
Dwarfie Stane, Hoy, Orkney
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