KIRKWALL, Scotland — A famous signpost at the Scottish village of John O’Groats marks it as the farthest tip of mainland Britain — 874 miles from Lands End in Cornwall, the country’s most southerly settlement.
Getting here is just the beginning of a journey that takes visitors more than 5,000 years back in time.
The Orkney Islands are at once remote and mysterious, yet sophisticated — transformed by the economic boom that followed the discovery of oil in the North Sea. Yet the islands also have archaeological wonders around every corner, along with spectacular scenery, wildlife and some incredible modern history.
Visitors to Scotland come expecting green mountains and deep glens, but the northeastern tip of Scotland is remarkably flat, and that flatness is all the more apparent on Orkney, which has almost no trees.
Thus, the 4,000-year-old standing stones of the Ring of Brogar — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — are startling. Thirty-six of the original 60 stones remain, in a perfect circle, each up to 13 feet tall, surrounded by a deep ditch cut into the rock. At dawn and dusk, the stones stand dark and imposing against the light reflecting off the Loch of Stenness below.
Farther along is the biggest tourist attraction on Orkney, the village of Skara Brae, protected under the sand for nearly 5,000 years until it was revealed by a huge storm in 1850.
Each of the stone houses still contains its central hearth, a pair of stone beds and a stone dresser used for storage and display of prized possessions.
Another must-see is Maes Howe, a Neolithic chambered tomb older than the Egyptian Pyramids that is most remarkable for the graffiti inscribed there more than 4,000 years later by 12th-century viking invaders. Like modern-day scribblers painting graffiti on a wall, they carved their names and the names of the women they loved in runes on the stones of the chamber.
Ruled by Norway until the 15th century — Norway still hasn’t formally recognized it as part of Scotland — the Orkney group contains more than 70 islands, but just 17 of them are inhabited.
Strategically important during both world wars — the German High Seas Fleet was scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919 — the Orkneys were given an unplanned new lease on life when Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the building of a series of barriers between the islands to block German U-boats’ access to Scapa Flow during World War II.
The Churchill Barriers created five causeways that linked the largest of the islands, known as the Mainland, to the southernmost island, South Ronaldsay, and some older residents left their islands for the first time when the causeways were built.
The barriers also mark the dividing line between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and visitors often are astonished by the very different water levels just a few yards apart on each side of the causeway.
The huge civil engineering project was carried out by thousands of Italian prisoners of war. They left behind them one of the most extraordinary objects in deeply Protestant Orkney — a lavishly decorated chapel.
The Italian Chapel was built from the meager resources available to the prisoners. Based on two Nissen Huts — semicircular wartime buildings made of corrugated iron — placed end to end, it was painted inside in rich colors to resemble tiled mosaics by a team led by one of the prisoners, Domenico Chiocchetti, while other prisoners built the altar from concrete, fashioned the wrought-iron screens and built the remarkable facade that hides the Nissen Hut shape.
Mr. Chiocchetti also was responsible for the statue of St. George that stands outside the chapel, built from the only things he had available — barbed wire covered with concrete.