Maeshowe

Top choice archaeological site in West & North Mainland

Image by Justin Foulkes Lonely Planet

Constructed about 5000 years ago, Maeshowe is an extraordinary place, a Stone Age tomb built from enormous sandstone blocks, some of which weighed many tonnes and were brought from several miles away. Creeping down the long stone passageway to the central chamber, you feel the indescribable gulf of years that separate us from the architects of this mysterious tomb.

Entry is by 45-minute guided tours (prebooking online is strongly advised) that leave by bus from the visitor centre at nearby Stenness.

Though nothing is known about who and what was interred here, the scope of the project suggests it was a structure of great significance.

In the 12th century, the tomb was broken into by Vikings searching for treasure. A couple of years later, another group sought shelter in the chamber from a three-day blizzard. Waiting out the storm, they carved runic graffiti on the walls. As well as the some-things-never-change 'Olaf was 'ere' and 'Thorni bedded Helga', there are also more intricate carvings, including a particularly fine dragon and a knotted serpent.

Prebook tickets online as recommended, or buy them at the visitor centre in Stenness, from where the tour buses depart. Guides tend to only show a couple of the Viking inscriptions, but they'll happily show more if asked. Check out the virtual-reality tour in the visitor centre while you wait.

For a few weeks around the winter solstice the setting sun shafts up the entrance passage, and strikes the back wall of the tomb in spooky alignment. If you can't be here then, check the webcams on www.maeshowe.co.uk.


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