The great bulk of the West Mainland is fertile, productive farmland, fenced off into a patchwork of fields. It’s fringed by some spectacular coastline, particularly in the west, and littered with some of the island’s most impressive prehistoric sites, such as the village of Skara Brae, the Stones of Stenness and the chambered tomb of Maes Howe.
Less than a mile northeast of the Stones of Stenness is Maes Howe, the most impressive Neolithic burial chamber complex in Europe. Dating from around 3000 BC, its excellent state of preservation is partly due to the massive slabs of sandstone it was constructed from, the largest of which weighs more than thirty tons. Perhaps its most extraordinary aspect is that the tomb is aligned so that the rays of the winter solstice sun reach right down the passage to the ledge of one of the three cells built into the walls of the tomb. The Vikings entered in the twelfth century, leaving large amounts of runic graffiti, cut into the walls of the main chamber and still clearly visible today.
North of Stromness is the best known of Orkney’s prehistoric monuments, Skara Brae, beautifully situated beside the white curve of the Bay of Skaill. Here, the extensive remains of a small Neolithic fishing and farming village, dating back to 3000 BC, were discovered in 1850 after a fierce storm. The village is amazingly well preserved, its houses huddled together and connected by narrow passages which would originally have been covered over with turf. The houses themselves consist of a single, spacious living room, filled with domestic detail, including fireplaces, cupboards, beds and boxes, all ingeniously constructed from slabs of stone. Unfortunately, visitor numbers mean that you can only look down from the outer walls. However, before you reach the site you can view a full-scale replica of the best-preserved house; it’s all a tad neat and tidy, but it’ll give you the general idea.