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Publication Account

Date 1996

Event ID 1016341

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


The Ness of Brodgar was a perfect place to choose for a great ceremonial monument, giving the impression of being surrounded by water and sky and yet firmly in the fertile heart of Orkney. Its open location is echoed by the vastness of the circle. In essence, this is a henge monument with two entrances enclosing a prefect circle of standing stones, 103.7m in diameter; there is no trace of a bank, despite the great volume of rock and soil that must have been dug out of the ditch, about 10m wide at ground-level and more than 3m deep (now half-full of silt). In the mid 19th century only fourteen stones were standing, but others have been re-erected so that there are twenty-seven standing, and the positions are known of another thirteen; assuming that the stones were put up at approximately equal distances, it is likely that there were originally sixty stones in the circle. Apart from those surviving as broken stumps, the existing stones vary between about 2m and 4.5m in height. It has been suggested that the circle was designed as a lunar observatory, using the Hellia Cliff on Hoy which is outlined on the horizon as a foresight, but the date at which this could have been possible is calculated at c1500 BC, which is almost certainly much later than the date of construction. As yet there is no precise dating evidence but the early to mid 3rd millennium would be the most likely context. There has been no excavation within the circle to discover whether any trace exists of internal structures.

Sometime in the 12th century, a Norse visitor carved his name on the south face of one of the stones in the northernmost arc of the circle (the third stone to the north of the entrance); the stone is now a broken stump, but his runic letters are clear, together with a small cross incised beneath them. These are twig runes or tree runes, so called from their appearance, and they are cryptographic but easily read by counting the branches on either side of each rune and then reading off the number on the "following table: counting (from the right) gives 12 (mistakenly written 21 on the rune) 2334 r (as an ordinary rune) 22. Reading from the lefthand side and then the top of the table, these pairs of numbers give biorn, a common man's same even today, Bjorn.

There are two very large burial mounds to the north-east of the Ring of Brodgar, between the modern road and the loch, and another large mound, known as Salt Knowe, to the west; smaller mounds are scattered over the Ness of Brodgar from south of the great circle to the Ring of Bookan to the north , but very little is known of their contents or date. Close to the shore of the loch to the north-west of the Ring is a large disc barrow, so-called because the burial mound is surrounded at a short distance by a bank. This type of barrow was fashionable in southern England but is rarely found in Scotland, underlining the direct links with the far south that are demonstrated by the rich burial at Knowes of Trotty (no. 69).

North of Brodgar, the Ring of Bookan may be another, smaller henge monument (HY 283144), while to the immediate east is a standing stone known as the Comet Stone, set on a low platform on which the stumps of two more stones are visible. A pair of standing stones, some 8m apart, adorn the very tip of the promontory near Brodgar farm (HY 303128). It seems likely that in prehistoric times the promontories of Brodgar and Stenness were still joined as a narrow neck of land.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Orkney’, (1996).

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