A few miles north of the small town of Stromness in Orkney there are two lochs - Loch of Harray and the Loch of Stenness. Between the two a small strip of land known as the Ness of Brodgar rises gently and as it widens a place of historic importance appears. The neolithic or early bronze age stone circle is iconic of Orkney’s historic past and part of the Neolithic Orkney UNESCO heritage listing.
It dates back to the 3rd millennium BC making it over 5000 years since it was formed and older than Stonehenge in the South of England. However, the centre of the ring has never been excavated so the site could be even older.
As you leave your car the call of curlews and arctic skua will hit you, carried on the wind. Bog cotton will wave as you cross the boardwalks and slowly walk the short distance to the stone circle. The wild location of these stones brings the past into the present giving your mind space to imagine how this landscape would have appeared when the stones were freshly cut and new. It feels as if the ring is part of the geology, not a manmade structure and given how many millennia they have stood the local landscape has incorporated these stones into itself.
What is the Ring of Brodgar?
The Ring of Brodgar is a stone circle and henge made up of 21 standing stones (originally 60) and a number laid on the ground, surrounded by a large ditch. There are also 13 burial mounds nearby which are all part of the complex. The ring is a perfect circle measuring 104 metres in diameter with the stones spread around the edge.
It is the third widest stone circle in the British Isles and bizzarley as if there is a blue-print for stone circles the diameter is the same size as the inner rings at Avebury in the south of England. The stones are all different shapes and sizes, some split others leaning at interesting angles, some have toppled over and two have been struck by lightening. The smallest is just over 2 metres with the highest being almost 5 metres tall.
What was the Ring of Brodgar Used For?
Well, this is the million dollar question. Given the age of the stones and the lack of documentation everything is presumed. However it is thought that the Ring of Brodgar was used as a meeting place for ceremonies and could hold up to 3000 people. Archeological finds would suggest that its use involved feasting and commemorating the dead.
Its location in a natural amphitheater surrounded by hills and flanked on either side by Loch of Harray and Loch of Stenness makes it a very public location. It would have dominated the landscape and been a focal point for nearby communities. The center of the henge itself may have been a sacred place, with access limited only to certain people.
Visiting the Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar can be visited at any time and there is no entrance fee. Parking is in a large organised car park just off the road and then board walks take you across the fields to the site. It may be tempting to park nearer to the site but the road is narrow and at busy times when cars, tractors and buses are trying to navigate believe me your car is better off in the car park.
The board walks take you straight to the standing stones and then you can follow the path around the ditch. At various times of the year there may be areas closed off. This is to protect the land and allow the grass to grow back. It can get very muddy at times and with the gentle slopes it is easy to gracefully slide to the ground (yep, I’ve done that!).
Best Time of Year to Visit Ring of Brodgar
The site is open all year round and looks spectacular at any time. In late summer the heather that surrounds the stones is deep purple and looks stunning as a back drop to photographs and in the winter views across Loch of Stenness to Stromness and the snow capped peaks of Hoy beyond can’t be beaten. In the summer months the site can be busy, especially when cruise ships are docked in Kirkwall. Visiting early in the morning or the evening when they have returned to the ships is best. Alternatively hang around for a while, visitors arriving by bus with a guide will only stay for a brief lap of the ring and then move on leaving you with the peace you need.
Things to Look for at Ring of Brodgar
The burial mounds set away from the circle and ditch. They look like dumped earth but are in fact part of the complex
The unique flowers and insects that make this area their home
Graffiti from the past. Whilst graffiti of historic monuments is now a criminal offence it has been happening at the Ring of Brodgar for centuries. Viking runes placed in the 12th Century possibly by “Bjorn” (yep, he wrote his name!) sit alongside victorian graffiti and tell the story of visitors over the centuries.
The stones split by lightening strikes.
Otters and seals in the surrounding lochs
The Ring of Brodgar is fantastic location for photography as well as being really frustrating. Stone circles are a nightmare to photograph unless you have a drone and so it is much easier to do small sections of the ring. You will never get the whole ring in one image and the scale of the site will never be reproduced in a 2D print.
Start with a few stones together and slowly work inwards until you are photographing the individual stones in detail. Each has its own character, colouring and lichen patterns. When photographing groups of stones include the landscape behind to give a sense of scale and to show how the stones fit into their landscape. Both Loch of Harray and the Hoy hills can be seen from the ring and are dramatic in their own ways.
Sunrise and sunset at the Ring of Brodgar is magical and usually people free. Again, take time to move around the site, photographing individual stones, as well as groups of stones. Following the path down towards the road but at the opposite side of the ring to the car park gives the perfect position to photograph the ring at sunset with the sun behind the stones.
In the early morning, mist hangs over the stones giving a surreal feel to the landscape and over winter a sugar coating of frost can glisten in the morning sunlight. Snow sometimes covers the stone, but this isn’t seen every winter on Orkney. Fog is consistent on Orkney and low cloud can come in at any time. This can be used to give the stones an isolated and wild feel as they disappear into the gloom.
The stones are also the perfect point of interest when photographing the northern lights. From the corner of the site to the south of the ring the view to the north with the stones silhouetted is perfect for showing the dancing night sky.
How to Get to the Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar is on the B9055 and is clearly signposted from the main A965 which runs between Kirkwall and Stromness. This road passes the Standing Stones of Stenness and the large archaeological dig at the Ness of Brodgar before reaching the large car park for the Ring of Brodgar on the right. You will see the ring on your left before you get to the car park.
The T11 bus goes from Kirkwall right past the stone circle as well as the other neolithic sites on Orkney Mainland before reaching Stromness.
Other things to do Nearby
Maeshowe Burial Chamber
Standing Stone of Stenness
Unstan Chambered Cairn