TOURISTS exploring Britain's ancient spiritual heritage are better off visiting Scotland's stone circles than "noisy, overcrowded" Stonehenge, according to research by the National Geographic Traveller.
In a survey of the world's best-known heritage sites, the magazine described the famous Megalithic attraction in the south-west of England as a "mess", lacking "charm and magic".
Instead, the magazine recommends the unspoilt stone circles in the north of Scotland which, despite growing visitor numbers, remain unspoiled by noise and intrusion.
The researchers' verdict on Stonehenge said: "What a mess! Compelling... over-loved... certainly the current experience lacks magic. Crowd control is a good thing, but over-regulation has made the visitor's experience rather disappointing; charm is gone.
"Good interpretation and so impressive... but you can get a similar impact from lots of other stone circles, especially up north in Scotland, without all the noise and intrusion."
Last night, Scottish tourism bosses seized on the comments, claiming that the protected Neolithic monuments of Orkney, maintained an "awe-inspiring" feel which other world heritage sites had long lost.
The islands' 5,500-year-old prehistoric heartland, which was granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1999, includes some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in Europe.
These include the Ring of Brodgar - a massive ceremonial enclosure and stone circles, and the nearby Standing Stones of Stenness, Barnhouse Village and the tomb of Maeshowe.
Carly Simpson, the marketing executive of VisitOrkney, said: "Although the site is visited by thousands of people each year, the stone circles still maintain a magical, untouched charm, which, sadly, some other World Heritage Sites have lost due to high visitor numbers."
Researchers at the National Geographic Traveller surveyed 94 World Heritage Sites, as varied as the Jurassic Coast of Dorset, the Pyramids of Giza and the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador.
The city of Bath rated 78 points, putting it seventh in the overall list.
Stonehenge scored only 56 points out of 100, better than the lowest mark - 39 for Kathmandu Valley - but well short of Norway's West Fjords on 87 points.
A spokeswoman for English Heritage said yesterday : "The site has lost some of its magic, but the fact that it is the only UK World Heritage Site to have been nominated as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World is testimony to its universal and enduring appeal."
A spokeswoman for Historic Scotland said: "We are delighted the survey of World Heritage Sites recognises the importance of Scotland's stone circles."
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney and its stone circles is one of four World Heritage Sites in Scotland - the others are the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh, New Lanark and the island of St Kilda, all recognised for cultural and natural significance.
UNSPOILT REFLECTION OF ANCIENT TIMES
ORKNEY'S stone circles are Britain's best-preserved ritual centre, reflecting the workings of a prehistoric civilisation unspoilt by urban and industrial development.
The site includes a series of related monuments which fall into two complexes some 6km apart.
The Ring of Brodgar comprises a massive ceremonial enclosure and stone circles, dating from between 2500 and 2000BC. Around it are at least 13 prehistoric burial mounds and a stone setting.
Close by are the Standing Stones of Stenness, Barnhouse Village and the tomb of Maeshowe - one of the finest architectural achievements of prehistory.