Naomi Koppel  /  AP file
Visitors look at the 5,000 year-old remains of Skara Brae village in the Scottish Orkney Islands, July 19, 2005, which was revealed by a huge storm in 1850.
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updated 5/3/2006 2:19:42 PM ET 2006-05-03T18:19:42

A famous signpost at the Scottish village of John O'Groats marks it as the farthest tip of mainland Britain - 1,400 kilometers (874 miles) from Lands End in Cornwall, the country's most southerly settlement.

But getting here is only 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, yet the northeast 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 4 meters (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.

Slideshow: A European tour 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 leaving 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 - there are more than 70 islands in the Orkney group, but only 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 of 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 Orkney's Mainland to the southernmost island, South Ronaldsay, and for some older residents marked the first time that they had left their island.

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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 meters (yards) apart on each side of the causeway.

The huge civil engineering project was carried out by thousands of Italian prisoners of war. And 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.

Chiocchetti was also 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.

Nowadays, Orkney is a sophisticated place, supported by money from oil companies, loved by artists and adventurers, filled with craft shops and coffee houses - though the flier in one cafe inviting people to come in for a coffee "to escape the bustle of Kirkwall," may be something of an exaggeration.

Kirkwall is the capital and biggest town on the Orkney island group, famed for the red-and-yellow-sandstone St. Magnus Cathedral. The population of this bustling metropolis: 7,500.

For those seeking a more active vacation, Orkney boasts two golf courses and many opportunities for fishing, diving in the wrecks of Scapa Flow and watching wildlife including seals, dolphins and puffins.

Whisky lovers will make a stop at Scotland's most northerly distillery, Highland Park, where visitors can follow the process of making the famous spirit and taste the finished product - without having to wait the normal 12 years.

If you go:

ORKNEY: For tourism information, go to http://www.visitorkney.com or http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/areaorkn/index.html

GETTING THERE: British Airways runs daily flights from Aberdeen, on the Scottish mainland, to Kirkwall, capital of the Orkney island group. You can also take ferries from the mainland. A car ferry runs from Scrabster, near Thurso, while day trippers and tour parties can take the shorter passenger ferry route from John O'Groats, http://www.jogferry.co.uk.

Ferries also run from the main Orkney island to the outer islands - schedule at http://www.orkneyferries.co.uk - but most are best reached by plane. Loganair - http://www.loganair.co.uk - runs most of the flights, including the world's shortest scheduled flight, an 80-second hop from the island of Papa Westray to neighboring Westray.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Kirkwall and Stromness both have a number of hotels, which can be booked through Orkney tourism. Bed-and-breakfast accommodation is widely available. There are camping and caravan sites at Kirkwall and Stromness.

Day trippers staying on the Scottish mainland will find thinner pickings, with Thurso or Wick the only nearby towns with a reasonable number of hotels. Camping is available at John O'Groats. An abridged version of the day trip also is offered by coach from Inverness, which has more extensive accommodation.

HIGHLAND PARK DISTILLERY: http://www.highlandpark.co.uk.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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