Orkney in Five - Historical Sites

Orkney has so many hidden secrets it can be impossible to see everything when you’re here. Away from our main sites there are real treasures to be found.

To help, every month we ask local residents to share some of their own recommendations on life in Orkney, including what to see, where to go and things to do.

For April, local historian Tom Muir from the Orkney Museum has highlighted some of his favourite haunts in Orkney.

The Brough of Deerness

The Brough of Deerness - image by Colin Keldie

At the easternmost part of the Mainland lies the Brough of Deerness. If you walk about a mile beyond the Gloup you will find a set of wooden steps built into the side of the cliff which leads down to a sheltered bay. Between a crack in the rocks you will find another set of stone steps cut into the cliff and a narrow path that leads up to the Brough. This was the home of a Viking chief and a small but thriving community. In the centre is a small stone church which dates from around the 12th century and recent excavations have revealed that there was an earlier Pictish phase before the Vikings took over. The Brough of Deerness is also stunningly beautiful. The red sandstone cliffs that form this part of the Mainland are studded with sea caves – used as a refuge from the Press Gang by local men during the Napoleonic Wars.

View our short film with Tom to see some of his historical haunts

Login’s Well and the Cannon, Stromness

The cannon in Stromness

Just a few yards south of the wonderful Stromness Museum is Login’s Well. This well was used by the Login family, who owned an inn opposite and supplied fresh water to visiting ships. These included whalers and ships of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Captain Cook’s ships also took on water here, as did Sir John Franklin’s ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, before they sailed to their doom in the Arctic. Further along the street you will see an old cannon sitting between benches. During the Anglo-American War in 1813 the American privateer Scourge captured the brig Liberty. Damage to the ship meant that they needed to seek safety in Stromness Harbour, but ran onto a sandbank and the crew had to surrender. The cannon was placed where it remains, to defend Stromness, but the only time that it was fired was to welcome the arrival of the ships of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Fishermen’s Huts, Marwick Bay, Birsay

The Fishermen's Huts at Sand Geo in Birsay, Orkney

On the 6th January 1896 the Bristol registered steamship Monomoy was wrecked at Marwick Bay. This forced local fishermen to abandon the Bay as a centre for their activities and to move half a mile down the coast to Sand Geo, a narrow, sheltered inlet that faces the Atlantic Ocean. Three huts were built, and boat nousts were cut into the earth at the top of the low cliffs where the boats were to be kept safe from the sea. The stone built huts were where sails and fishing gear was stored. To make life a little bit easier, a winch was salvaged from the wreck of the Monomoy and placed at the head of the geo, in order to haul the boats up the shore and so to their nousts. The huts have been sensitively restored and add charm to the beautiful scenery. Part of the boiler from the Monomoy was washed ashore at Marwick Bay in 1985 and can be seen on the beach.

The Dwarfie Stane, Hoy

The Dwarfie Stane in Hoy, Orkney - image by Colin Keldie

Nestling into the side of a moorland valley lies one of the most unusual ancient monuments in the country. The Dwarfie Stane is a unique, rock-cut tomb around 5,000 years old. This whole valley has been associated with supernatural creatures for centuries, if not longer; the name itself suggests a link to dwarves, as does the nearby inland cliffs, the Dwarfie Hammars, and Trowie Glen – ‘trow’ being the Orkney name for the fairy folk. It feature in Sir Walter Scott’s 1821 novel ‘The Pirate’, and was used as a place of refuge by a Victorian eccentric, Major William Henry Mounsey. In 1850 he cut his name backwards in Latin on the end of the stone, along with a Persian inscription which translates as “I have sat two nights and so learnt patience.” It seems that Major Mounsey provided the main course for the ferocious local midges!

Quoyness Cairn, Sanday

Quoyness Cairn in Sanday - image by Colin Keldie

Walking along the coast at Elsness in Sanday, you pass a long curving beach of white sand, while among the turf above the shore you’ll see the remains of old kelp pits, now filled with stones thrown up by the sea. The walk is well worth it though, as you reach the impressive tomb of Quoyness. It is Neolithic and is remarkably intact. It was first excavated in 1868 and then by Gordon Childe (the excavator of Skara Brae) in 1952. Crawling through the low tunnel leads you into a large central chamber with six side cells running of it. It soars up to over 3 meters high with the walls sloping inwards so that it can be capped with flat slabs. A modern window in the roof provides light. This tomb gives you the impression of the skill of the builders and just how awe inspiring it must have seemed to the community that used it.

If you have been inspired to visit any of the sites Tom has chosen, find out more about our islands from the Visit Orkney website.

Orkney.com Newsletter

Sign up to our newsletter

Sign up to receive our newsletter and get the latest updates from our beautiful, vibrant islands.
Sign Up Now