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An Archaeologist’s View of Orkney & Shetland

From £1395.00
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Skara Brae
Departing by Coach
Duration 6 Days
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The islands of Orkney and Shetland are littered with archaeological remains. People first came here over 5000 years ago and many of their remains survive. New archaeological sites are discovered every year.

Some, such as Skara Brae, were buried under sand, only to be exposed by a winter storm thousands of years later; Skara Brae presents a fascinating glimpse of stone age life from the beds with their little shelves and cubby holes, to the remains of jewellery and medicine. Research is ongoing here and elsewhere excavation by archaeologists continues to uncover new information.

The islands are therefore of enormous interest to anyone who enjoys first-hand contact with ancient settlements and buildings, and the people who once lived here.

During our time on Shetland we will visit the uninhabited island of Mousa with its 2000 year old full size broch; the prehistoric and Norse settlement of Jarlshof; St Ninian’s Isle with its 6th century church and the ruined castle of Scalloway. We then travel to Orkney where we visit the Italian Chapel; the Tomb of the Eagles, which offers a unique ‘hands-on’ experience – an opportunity to handle 5000 year old artefacts excavated from an extensive cliff-top site; Maeshowe, the finest chambered tomb in Western Europe and Skara Brae & Skaill House. En route to Aberdeen, we will also stop for a photo opportunity at the dramatic ruins of Dunnottar Castle.

We will stay on both Orkney and Shetland, allowing more time to appreciate the special charm of these islands. We sail with Serco Northlink Ferries on their modern, purpose-built vessels, the Hrossey and the Hjaltland, from Aberdeen overnight to Lerwick. We then have two full days to tour Shetland, staying overnight at the historic Busta House Hotel in Brae. After rejoining the ship for an evening sailing to Kirkwall, we have a further two full days touring Orkney, before our short crossing back to the mainland.

NC500: Please note that this itinerary features part of the North Coast 500, the highly scenic coastal route which begins and ends in Inverness.

Please note that space at the Busta House Hotel is limited however we can provide alternative accommodation at the nearby Brae Hotel. Dinner will still be served at the Busta House Hotel and transfers will be provided (excludes 12 July 2022).

What You’ll Love

  • Mousa Broch – the best preserved Iron Age tower in existence
  • The multi-period settlement of Jarlshof
  • Neolithic Orkney – a UNESCO World Heritage Centre
  • Handling 5000 year old artefacts at the Tomb of the Eagles
  • The Churchill Barriers and Italian Chapel, poignant reminders of more recent history
  • Accommodation
  • Services of an archaeological expert as tour manager
  • Comfortable coach travel throughout
  • Meals – as per the itinerary
  • Ferry crossings

Single Supplements apply. Subject to availability.

Itinerary

Day 1

We depart from your local pick-up point and travel north, stopping for lunch en-route (not included). Continuing north, we will stop for a photo opportunity at Dunnottar Castle, a dramatic ruined clifftop fortress which can trace its origins to a 3rd century Pictish fortress and was once the home of the Earls Marischal, one of the most powerful families in Scotland.

We then continue to Aberdeen where we board the Northlink Ferry ‘Hrossey’ (or her sister ship ‘Hjaltland’) for our overnight sailing to Lerwick (departs 19.00hrs).

Once on board we shall check-in to our comfortable cabins which all have en-suite facilities. The ship has a delightful restaurant where we will have dinner, thereafter you may wish to relax in the bar or lounges. There is also a well-stocked gift shop for souvenir shopping or essential items.

Day 2

Our ship is due to arrive in Lerwick at 07.30hrs. After breakfast on board (available from 07.15hrs) we will leave the ship and commence our tour of Shetland travelling through small communities such as Gulberwick and Cunningsburgh. At Sandwick we transfer to a small ferry to cross as foot passengers over to the fascinating little island of Mousa, where we will visit the 2000 year old iron age broch. Remarkably the broch of Mousa still stands to its original height of 13m. The island is also a nature reserve and is rich in wildlife. Storm petrels, Arctic terns and Skuas nest here, and harbour seals lounge on the shore. Keep a sharp eye on Mousa Sound and you may also spot porpoises and the odd killer whale. If for any reason (weather or boat problems – sadly it can happen) we will visit Scatness Broch on Mainland Shetland.

On returning to the mainland we will stop at Hoswick Visitor Centre for lunch (not included). Later we will travel the short distance to the outstanding Prehistoric and Norse Settlement of Jarlshof, with over 3 acres of remains, spanning 3000 years since the days of the Stone Age, including oval shaped bronze age houses, an iron age broch and wheel houses, Viking long houses and medieval farmhouses.

We then visit the nearby cliffs at Sumburgh Head, where the North Sea on the east meets the Atlantic Ocean on the west. The cliffs here are quite spectacular. This is an RSPB reserve and in April and July we should have an opportunity to watch the puffins and other seabirds.

Later we transfer to our accommodation at the Busta House Hotel, situated at Busta Voe, north of Lerwick. The hotel dates back to 1588, with a colourful history that includes tales of family feuds, secret marriages and tragic events. Today, the hotel offers all modern conveniences and comfortable, individually decorated bedrooms. The bar features a selection of around 160 malt whiskies and an open peat fire, just the place to relax in the evening. Please note the hotel does not have a lift or ground floor rooms and may not be suitable for those with limited mobility. Dinner will be served in the evening.

Day 3

This morning after breakfast we travel northwards, stopping first at St Ninian’s Isle and its church dating from the 6th century when Christianity first came to Shetland. It is also famous for its treasure of 9th century silverware found by a young schoolboy in 1958 which was believed to have been hidden to prevent Viking raiders removing them.

We travel to Scalloway, the former capital of Shetland where we visit the ruined castle built in 1600 by the infamous Earl Patrick Stewart. After time for lunch in Scalloway (not included) we continue through Tingwall Valley, the site of the old Norse parliament (Ting) before returning back to Lerwick with time to explore the historic town before we board our ship for Orkney. Dinner is served on board.

On arrival in Orkney (expected at 23.00hrs) we will transfer the short distance to Kirkwall to our accommodation. All rooms have en-suite facilities.

Day 4 

This morning following breakfast we will depart on a tour of the south end of mainland Orkney, crossing the Churchill Barriers which were built after the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak in October 1939.

The causeways are built of 5 and 10 ton concrete blocks and have good roads on the top connecting Burray and South Ronaldsay to the Orkney mainland. We also stop off at the beautiful Italian Chapel, built on the site of a former prisoner of war camp. Several hundred Italians, captured during the North African campaign of World War II were sent here to work on the Causeways and converted two huts into a chapel. The marvellous paintings in the interior were done by Domenico Chiocchetti, one of the prisoners who has returned several times to restore and repaint parts of the building.

We will continue to drive south over causeways to South Ronaldsay, where we visit the Isbister chambered tomb. Popularly known as the Tomb of the Eagles, due to the number of talons from sea eagles found there, the cairn dates from about 3,000BC and was in use for about 800 years. Like so many of Orkney’s prehistoric monuments it was discovered purely by accident, by a local farmer 50 years ago, and consists of a rectangular main chamber divided into stalls and cells which contained the remains of over 300 individuals.

Nearby, the Liddle Burnt Mound was discovered by the same farmer. For decades this structure was thought to have been a family dwelling but recent research has cast doubt on this and, indeed, on our ideas about the Tomb of the Eagles; these issues are explored in their own interpretation centre and museum.

We then return to Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, where have free time to explore its environs at leisure. Places of interest include St. Magnus Cathedral – one of Europe’s greatest architectural masterpieces, its red and yellow sandstone still vibrant after 861 years; the Earl’s Palace and the Bishop’s Palace and The Orkney Museum.

Dinner will be served at the hotel in the evening.

Day 5

This morning after breakfast, we have an all day excursion of west mainland Orkney visiting the Heart of Neolithic Orkney – World Heritage Sites. We begin at Maeshowe, the finest chambered tomb in Western Europe. Built before 2700 B.C. Maeshowe was raided by Vikings in the 12th Century. It thus houses the largest collection of runic inscriptions to be found in any one place in the world.

We shall also visit the Standing Stones of Stenness, with the adjacent Neolithic village of Barnhouse, before continuing to Skara Brae, with its new visitor centre depicting the history of this world famous monument and Skaill House, a fascinating architectural medley to the side of Skara Brae.

We return to our hotel, where dinner is served this evening.

Day 6

After breakfast we check out of the hotel and transfer to St Margaret’s Hope to catch the Pentland Ferries late morning sailing to Gills Bay. We will then return to our original pick up points by early/late evening.

(please note Aberdeen and Dundee are not available as drop-off points).


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