The Knap of Howar: Stone Age Wonder

The Knap of Howar: Stone Age Wonder

Updated On: May 06, 2024 by   Panseih GharibPanseih Gharib

Have you ever felt the thrill of a treasure hunter on the verge of a groundbreaking discovery? As a history enthusiast myself, I’m captivated by the unsolved mysteries of ancient civilisations, especially those evidenced by the enduring monuments scattered across the globe. The Neolithic era, a period shrouded in a fascinating enigma, holds a particular allure.

Prepare to embark on an extraordinary expedition in this blog post. We’ll delve into the captivating story of Knap of Howar, Europe’s undisputed champion as the oldest surviving stone house. This remarkable relic stands proudly on Papa Westray, an island embraced by the rugged beauty of Scotland.

So, lace up your metaphorical boots and get ready for an archaeological adventure unlike any other. Knap of Howar awaits, promising a glimpse into a bygone era where humanity’s ingenuity first began to take root.

Overview of Knap of Howar

The Knap of Howar, located on the island of Papa Westray in Orkney, Scotland, is considered to be the oldest preserved stone house in Northern Europe.


Nestled on Papa Westray, a charming island gem within Scotland’s Orkney archipelago, lies Knap of Howar. This historic site is readily accessible by plane or ferry from mainland Orkney. Imagine the journey itself – a scenic voyage through the heart of the Scottish islands.

Knap of Howar’s unique location boasts breathtaking views. Originally positioned further inland, protected by towering sand dunes, the passage of time has brought the sea closer. Today, you can stand at the site and gaze out over the clear blue waters, the vastness of the ocean stretching before you. But Knap of Howar isn’t just a haven for history buffs; nature enthusiasts will find themselves equally captivated by the rugged beauty of the surrounding landscape.


The Knap of Howar, nestled on Scotland’s Papa Westray island, isn’t just a historical landmark – it’s a tangible link to humanity’s distant past. Dating back to a staggering 3700-3500 BCE, it holds the distinction of being the oldest preserved stone house in all of Northern Europe.

Imagine a time before grand cities or metal tools. The Neolithic people who built Knap of Howar were resourceful farmers and seafarers. Their ingenuity is evident in the two adjoining stone structures, meticulously constructed using dry stone walling techniques. These weren’t just dwellings; excavations revealed evidence of hearths, storage compartments, and even ceremonial artefacts, suggesting a rich and complex way of life.

Originally built inland and protected by dunes, the landscape has shifted over the millennia, bringing the sea closer to Knap of Howar’s doorstep. This shift offers a glimpse into these early inhabitants’ dynamic relationship with their environment.

Knap of Howar remained occupied for over 900 years, offering invaluable insights into the evolution of Neolithic society. Discoveries like tools, animal remains, and pottery paint a vivid picture of their daily lives, agricultural practices, and connection to the natural world.

Though initially misinterpreted as Iron Age structures, Knap of Howar’s true significance was revealed in the 1970s. Since then, it has become a cornerstone of our understanding of Neolithic Orkney and a testament to the enduring human spirit that continues to inspire us today.

Features of Knap of Howar

The site at Knap of Howar boasts two remarkably preserved stone houses, complete with cupboards and stalls, dating back to the Neolithic period. These ancient dwellings were contemporary with Orkney’s famous Skara Brae settlement and offer a fascinating glimpse into the daily lives of our ancestors.

The Knap of Howar contains two well-preserved stone houses that date back to around 3700-2800 BC. These houses were built using stones and have survived for thousands of years. It’s fascinating to see how the people who lived here had cupboards and stalls in their homes, showing that they likely used these spaces for storage and maybe even for keeping animals.

During its heyday, the Knap of Howar was a contemporary of Orkney’s well-known Skara Brae settlement. Both sites were bustling with activity during the Neolithic period, providing a glimpse into ancient farming and daily life.

While Skara Brae is often hailed as one of the best-preserved Stone Age civilisations, the Knap of Howar is significant as the oldest preserved stone house in northern Europe.

These two neighbouring sites offer visitors a unique opportunity to explore and understand the history and culture of this remote part of Scotland.

Neolithic Farmstead

The Neolithic farmstead at Knap of Howar had multiple uses and was likely inhabited by a small community. It served as both a dwelling and a place for agricultural activities. The two stone houses with their cupboards and stalls suggest that the inhabitants stored food and kept animals there.

Excavations have also revealed evidence of farming, such as tools used for cultivation and processing crops. The site’s location near the coast may have allowed the people to fish or gather seafood as well.

Visiting the Knap of Howar

The Knap of Howar: Stone Age Wonder

The Knap of Howar welcomes visitors year-round, but the ideal time depends on your preferences.

  • Spring (May-June) offers pleasant weather, fewer crowds, and a chance to witness wildflowers in bloom.
  • Summer (July-August) boasts the warmest weather, extended daylight for exploration, and the possibility of local festivals or events.
  • Autumn (September-October) presents milder temperatures and beautiful fall foliage but carries a risk of unpredictable weather.
  • Winter (November-April) has the shortest days and coldest weather, and rough seas can make the island inaccessible.

Things to Do

Here are some activities to complement your visit to the Knap of Howar:

  • Explore the Knap of Howar: Immerse yourself in the star attraction – the two preserved Neolithic houses. Take a tour and learn about the lives of the people who lived there over 5,000 years ago.
  • Embrace the Outdoors: Papa Westray’s small size makes it ideal for exploring on foot or by bike. Scenic trails offer stunning coastal and island views.
  • Become a Birdwatcher: With over 200 species recorded, Papa Westray is a haven for birdlife. Look out for puffins, guillemots, and arctic terns.
  • Delve into Local History: Visit the Holland Farm Museum and learn about Papa Westray’s rich culture and history. Exhibits showcase farming, fishing, and everyday island life housed in a traditional farmhouse.
  • Unwind on the Beach: Papa Westray boasts beautiful beaches that are perfect for relaxing and soaking up the sun.
  • Gaze at the Stars: Due to its remote location, Papa Westray offers some of the darkest skies in the UK, making it a prime spot for stargazing.

Places to Stay

Papa Westray offers a limited selection of accommodations, each providing a unique charm to complement your historical adventure. Here are a few options to consider, catering to different budgets and preferences:

Papa Westray Hostel and Shop

This community-run hostel is a social and affordable option. It boasts lovely views overlooking the Holm of Papay and the isles of Eday and Sanday, private rooms with en-suite facilities, a self-catering kitchen, and a relaxing lounge area. Ideal for budget-conscious travellers and those seeking a social atmosphere.

Beltane Guest House

This guest house offers a comfortable and friendly atmosphere. It’s located near the hostel and provides a similar experience to the hostel, with a focus on comfortable stays and local hospitality.

Self-catering Cottages

Several self-catering cottages are scattered around the island. Renting a cottage allows for a more private and independent stay, ideal for families or groups who prefer to cook their own meals and enjoy a more homey feel. Look for cottages with amenities that suit your needs, such as sea views, fireplaces, or proximity to specific attractions.


Papa Westray Hostel offers camping bothies for the truly adventurous – a happy medium between a tent and a cabin. They provide basic amenities like beds, heat, light, and charging points, but guests use the hostel’s shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. This is a great option for those who enjoy the outdoors and camaraderie but prefer a more sheltered experience than traditional tent camping.

Visiting Tips to Papa Westray and the Knap of Howar

The Knap of Howar: Stone Age Wonder

Here are some essential tips to ensure a smooth and enriching visit to Papa Westray and the captivating Knap of Howar:

Planning and Preparation

  • Limited Accommodations: Papa Westray has a limited number of places to stay. Book your accommodation well in advance, especially during peak season (summer months).
  • Ferry and Flights: Research ferry and flight options from mainland Orkney to Papa Westray. Consider booking in advance, particularly if you’re travelling with a vehicle or during busy periods. Check schedules for potential connections between ferries and flights if you combine both modes of transport.
  • Essentials: Pack for changeable weather conditions. Bring rain gear, sturdy walking shoes or boots for exploring the island, and warm layers even in summer. Don’t forget sunscreen and a hat for sunny days.
  • Cash and Supplies: Papa Westray has limited shopping options. Bring enough cash and any essential supplies you might need especially groceries and toiletries.

Exploring Papa Westray

  • Transportation: The island is small enough to explore on foot or by bike. Consider renting a bike if you prefer to cover more ground. Taxis are very limited, so walking or cycling is the most practical way to get around.
  • Embrace the Outdoors: Papa Westray is a haven for nature lovers. Pack your binoculars for birdwatching, and don’t miss the chance to explore the scenic coastal trails.
  • Local Currency: While most places accept credit cards, it’s wise to have some cash on hand for smaller purchases or any unexpected situations.

Visiting Knap of Howar

  • Opening Times: Check the opening times of Knap of Howar before your visit, especially during shoulder seasons or winter months.
  • Guided Tours: Consider taking a guided tour of Knap of Howar. This will provide valuable insights into the site’s history and significance.
  • Respect the Site: Knap of Howar is a precious archaeological site. Be respectful and follow any guidelines posted regarding touching or climbing on structures.

General Tips

  • Embrace the Slow Pace: Papa Westray offers a unique opportunity to disconnect and unwind. Embrace the slower pace of island life and enjoy the tranquillity.
  • Local Delights: Sample the local cuisine. Look out for fresh seafood dishes and traditional Orkney specialities.
  • Sustainable Travel: Be mindful of your impact on the island. Reduce waste, respect the environment, and support local businesses where possible.


The Knap of Howar on Papa Westray is a fascinating ancient site offering valuable insights into Northern European Neolithic life. As the oldest preserved stone house in the region, it provides a glimpse into the daily lives of its inhabitants and their agricultural practices.

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