Less than 10 miles north of Stromness lies one of Orkney’s, if not the world’s, most beguiling and wondrous monuments: Skara Brae. Skara Brae is the linchpin in the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, and it is Europe’s most complete neolithic village. Every time I visit Orkney, I make the easy drive to the west coast of Orkney’s west mainlaind, past the Loch of Skaill, to the wind-whipped site of this incredibly well-preserved monument. Given Orkney’s often chaotic and intense weather conditions, how is it possible this village has survived for five millennia? *SPOILER* Despite the playful ‘Pompeii’ moniker, it was not a volcano, but we’ll get to that shortly.
The Skara Brae visitor center has a swanky exhibit inside replete with artifacts from the village and tons of archaeological data and theories that you will want to examine, to escape the cold if for nothing else. There’s also a little cafe and a gift shop loaded with the full spate of Scottish kitsch to sate your wanting. After the exhibit, I head outside and inspect the recreated neolithic house, which is absolutely amazing. The circular drystone structure has low doors, hallways, and a central room you can explore at your leisure. The ceiling is crafted from skins stretched over driftwood supports and then buried under a thick layer of sod (see the picture above).
After exploring the reconstructed house, I walk down a long path toward the sea that has been cleverly spaced with important historical events to give visitors a sense of Skara Brae’s immense age. Placards for the birth of Christ, the Great Wall of China, and the Great Pyramid at Giza flash past me. Finally, ten minute’s walk later, I arrive to the placard for Skara Brae.
Skara Brae is over 5,000 years old, with people first occupying the site around 3100 BC. This makes Skara Brae older than your grandma and just about anything else you can think of, from Stonehenge to the Great Pyramids. Archaeologists believe the site was occupied for close to 600 years before the climate grew colder and wetter and forced the people to move elsewhere. Based on the weather I was enduring (40F and gale-force winds), I believed it. It was this Orcadian wind that uncovered Skara Brae from millennia of sleep in 1850. A storm ripped across the isles, killing 200 people, and tearing off the turf that hid these ancient structures. It wasn’t until 1924, after another damaging storm, that the site was given the attention and protection of the scholarly world.
Skara Brae is a collection of eight drystone buildings covered in turf and organized around a central “street.” The houses appear to be built into the ground, but the extent to which they appear that way is probably a function of what buried them. What remains of the dwellings is largely stone, from the structures’ walls to the carved stone dressers, beds, and tanks, but there have also been bone, pottery, and stone jewelry finds. Based on evidence, it appears the inhabitants of Skara Brae were livestock farmers who reared cattle, pigs, sheep, and deer and also fished the seas for cod, haddock, and all manner of shellfish.
So what was responsible for burying and preserving Skara Brae? Only theories exist. Some say a massive storm swept over Orkney and buried the village in a deluge of sand and sea. A more likely explanation, and the one that is generally accepted, is that Skara Brae was gradually buried under sand by the natural progression of time. Not as romantic, perhaps, but still fascinating. How many other buildings were destroyed by the sea? How many more are yet to be uncovered? Remains are known to exist in the immediate vicinity and others can be seen eroding from the cliff edge to the south. It seems Orkney still has many secrets left to tell.
Skara Brae, from the visitor center to the reconstructed neolithic house to the unimaginably old ruins themselves, does an excellent job of recreating the atmosphere of a lost era. There is a palpable feeling of timelessness in the air as you drift among the dwellings, looking in on the homes and things of people who would have been ancient to the pharaohs. Unfortunately, what protected Skara Brae for 40 centuries is also what’s missing today and allows visitors to marvel at the site – the sand and sod covering. Skara Brae is in danger of eroding away, and the tread of tourists isn’t helping the site’s integrity either.
If you’re in Orkney, do not miss Skara Brae, but be mindful of the site and consider donating to its continued preservation.