Stones of Stenness

Stones of Stenness

The Isle of Orkney is one of the best places to visit if you’re interested in neolithic sites, and there’s no better attraction to see than the Stones of Stenness. This stone circle is one of several Neolithic sites on the Isles, grouped in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.

The Stones of Stenness are four towering megaliths stretching six metres into the sky and surrounded by the gorgeous Orcadian landscape. These standing stones are even older than the famous Stonehenge, stretching back 5,400 – 4,500 years to prehistoric Scotland. And while only four of the twelve remain to the modern day, they’re incredibly impressive.

We’ll be diving into the history of this unique stone circle, the folklore surrounding it, and all the other details you need to know. Let’s dive into everything you need about the Stones of Stenness.

Stones of Stenness History

The Standing Stones of Stenness may be the oldest stone henge in the British Isles. While its early history is left in the annals of the past, these great stone circles were used as the centre for ancient rituals 5,400 years ago.

The Stones of Stenness were famous in Scotland from the 18th century. In fact, they were visited by Sir Walter Scott in 1814, who declared that the standing stones were “probably once the alter on which human sacrifices were made.”

While later studies of the standing stones dismissed Sir Walter Scott’s claims, these towering stones stoked the imagination and fear of the local population. In the same year, an immigrant to Orkney who owned land near the standing stones attempted to remove them, but local outrage saved the angular slabs.

However, the Odin Stone was not as lucky, and the tenant farmer destroyed a stone that once was. If they had continued, the Stenness Circle as we know it today may have been much different.

In the late 1900s, archaeologists discovered the remains of animals in the rock-cut ditch that surrounds the monument. These bones were from cattle, sheep, and dogs (although in prehistoric times, they may have been closer to wolves). The ditch surrounding the standing stones held a treasure trove of culture, although there’s still debate about where the remains came before the stones or the other way around.

Today, the Standing Stones of Stenness are a top-rated attraction that brings thousands of visitors to the Orkney Islands every year. They form part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a fascinating heritage site.

The intricate stone headland and designs of the standing stones on Orkney make it one of the most sophisticated civilisations of the time, in parallel with North Africa and Mesopotamia.

Folklore of Stones of Stenness

As one of the earliest stone circles in Scotland, the Stones of Stenness have an abundance of folklore surrounding it. From the many animal bones found on the site to the early Nordic history of Orkney, speculation and mysticism have been around for as long as the surviving stones themselves. Further investigations even revealed a hearth in the centre of the stone circle, with more burnt bone, broken pottery, and charcoal.

The Stones of Stenness were believed to have been used as a worship or ceremonial site since their creation, although their true purpose is lost to time. When Norse settlers came to Orkney, it’s likely that they used the standing stones as a part of rituals for their Gods – perhaps all the way to the 18th century!

Norse couples were said to visit the Stones of Stenness on the New Year, pledging their loyalty to each other and sending prayers to the Norse Gods. They would make their way to the nearby Odin Stone, which represented the Temple of the Moon and pray together while holding hands.

How to Get to Stenness Standing Stones

The Orkney Islands sit far north of the Scottish Mainland, and reaching it requires more planning than a normal vacation to Scotland. You’ll have to take a ferry or a plane, with a little bit of a drive to reach the Stones of Stennes. Don’t worry, though; here are the easiest ways to reach the Standing Stones of Stenness.

By Ferry

There are quite a few options for reaching Orkney via ferry. The quickest trips are from Thurso and Gills Bay, reaching Stromness and Kirkwall (Orkney’s largest town) in around an hour.

There are also ferries from Aberdeen and Lerwick, which take around six hours to reach Kirkwall. Since the Orkney Islands are part of an archipelago, you’ll need to take your own car onto the ferry if you’re planning to drive.

By Plane

Loganair offers a variety of flights in and out of Orkney if you’re planning for a quick trip. You can grab a flight from many of Scotland’s major cities, including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness, and Aberdeen. And if you’re planning to visit Orkney from England, there are even flights from London (albeit with connecting flights).

By Car

Once you’ve arrived in Kirkwall, the Stones of Stenness are only a 16-minute drive away! Here’s how to get there:

  • From Kirkwall, head north west along the A965 (while admiring the gorgeous views of landmarks like Bay of Firth, Tormiston Mill and Maeshowe).
  • Once you’ve passed the Barnhouse Stone, you should see signs for the Standing Stones of Stenness. Turn right onto the B9055, and the Stones should be on your right.

Best Time of Year to Visit Stenness

The Isle of Orkney is beautiful no matter what time of year you plan to visit, which is also true for the Stones of Stenness. Without a doubt, though, late spring to early autumn offers the best time to see the Stenness Ring.

During spring and autumn, the weather is still excellent for an outdoor adventure, and attractions tend to have fewer visitors. If you want to enjoy the Stones of Stenness all to yourself, then late May and early September are your best bets.

In Scotland’s peak tourist season, however, you can enjoy the best weather the country has to offer (even in far-flung Orkney). And while there may be more tourists, it’s also the best time to see the stones at sunset and sunrise.

Things to Do at the Standing Stones of Stenness

Once you’ve arrived and taken in the majesty of the Standing Stones of Stenness, you may ask yourself, “What exactly is there to do around here?” Fret not, here are the top things to do at the Stones of Stenness during your visit.

Take a Picture With these Towering Megaliths

Take a Picture with Towering Megaliths

As one of the earliest stone circles, even older than the Stone Henge Monument, taking a visit to the Stones of Stenness without taking a picture to commemorate the occasion is like you weren’t there at all!

The site includes only four megaliths of the original twelve, with the fifth being the large prone stone nearby, there are several angles and ways to capture the towering structures. And with a maximum height of six metres, you can play around with perspective and size to your heart’s content.

Spot Other Standing Stones Nearby

Standing Stones

While the Stones of Stenness are the main attraction, there are a few other notable stones that you can check out in close vicinity to the main ring.

The Watch Stone

The Watch Stone is a massive stone monolith that stands overlooking the Bridge of Brodgar, like a giant awaiting a toll before you pass through. If you’re planning to visit other sites in the area, like the Ness of Brodgar, then you’ll probably pass by the Watch Stone at least once or twice.

You can find the Watch Stone south east of the Bridge of Brodgar, where Harray Loch and Stenness Loch meet. It’s also between the Ness of Brodgar excavation site and the Stones of Stenness, which can be seen from both sites.

Barnhouse Stone

The second stone is the adorable Barnhouse Stone that sits about a half mile south east of the Stones of Stenness. The stone is adorned with a lichen crown and is about 3 metres tall. While the stone may seem disconnected from the other major monuments at the Heart of Orkney, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Barnhouse Stone is aligned with Maeshowe, the ancient burial cairn whose entrance faces the stone exactly, even though they are 750 metres apart. This revelation renewed the way these structures were seen, and its complexities make your visit to this site all the more fulfilling.

Catch the Standing Stones of Stenness at Sunrise

Stones at Sunrise

If you have the opportunity, seeing the Stones of Stennes during the sunrise or sunset offers a particularly magical way to see this prehistoric site. The long shadows that these megaliths cast are utterly breathtaking as the sun arcs across the sky and makes for atmospheric pictures.

Enjoy a Picnic in the Stones of Stenness Shadow

Picnic at Stones of Stenness

The Isle of Orkney is especially wonderful for a picnic day out. Grab some snacks, a picnic blanket, and something to drink from Kirkwall and indulge in the majesty of the Stones of Stennes. If you find time in the late afternoon, you can shield yourself from the sun by sitting in the shadow of one of the stones.

Otherwise, you can bring along an umbrella and appreciate this Orkney stone circle while you and your friends or family relax and unwind.

Visit the Other Sites at Neolithic Orkney

Neolithic Orkney

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is one of the most popular attractions to visit, and the Stones of Stenness aren’t the only Neolithic sites you can visit. In fact, the attractions at the Heart of Neolithic Orkney are interconnected and likely form a larger structure.

Highlights at this heritage site include:

The Ring of Brodgar

One of the biggest stone circles on the Orkney islands, the Ring of Brodgar, has an approximate diameter of 104 meters, with about 27 stones that remain of the 60 that were there. It’s a monumental site that should be on the top of your to-do list.


What looks like a small hill near the Stones of Stenness is actually a large burial tomb. Maeshowe is one of Europe’s finest chambered cairns and was said to have been built over 5000 years ago. It’s an essential place for fans of neolithic sites.

Skara Brae

If you’ve wanted to look back in time and see how your prehistoric ancestors lived, there’s no better place than the Village of Skara Brae. Skara Brae is a stone’s throw from the Stones of Stennes, so be sure to add it to your itinerary when you can.

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