Visitors from around the world come to see Skara Brae, the 5,000-year-old village on Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago off Scotland’s west coast. The settlement was discovered in the mid-1800s when fierce winds blew away the sand covering it. Photo by Jerry Ondash
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Day trip to Skara Brae

I heard the interiors of these ancient village homes described as Neolithic Ikea, and looking into one of these stone houses wedged into the hillside, I can see it.

There are tables, shelves and beds, a la Fred Flintstone, that could be precursors of the utilitarian, assembly-required, space-efficient Swedish furniture that we all know. But this abode is more than 5,000 years old.

We arrived at the settlement by following a path lined with engraved stones, each marking off a millennium and putting into perspective just how old these dwellings are. Five thousand years … That would be 600 years before the Pyramids of Giza were built and 3,000 years before the birth of Christ. 

A typical Skara Brae house had shelves that were used to store household items or perhaps prized objects. Beds were built on either side, the fireplace was in the middle, and small tanks in the floor were used to store and prepare fish bait. Photo by Jerry Ondash

These are the well preserved ruins of Skara Brae, which sit on a rise above a crescent, white-sand beach on Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago off Scotland’s west coast. Visiting the ancient settlement had not been on the original itinerary of our mid-June expedition cruise through the Sottish Isles with Adventure Canada. At an earlier stop, however, one of the 170 passengers on the Ocean Endeavor expressed disappointment about this to expedition leader Matthew Swan. Amazingly, within 48 hours, Swan, whose father co-founded Adventure Canada, arranged transportation for her and another 100 passengers who also wanted to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We knew little about Skara Brae before this discussion, but after talking with more knowledgeable passengers (no internet access in the North Atlantic), we hopped on the unscheduled bandwagon and were glad we did.

Skara Brae sits closer to the beach than it did when first discovered in 1850. That year, a ferocious storm hit Mainland — not that unusual, but this time, the combination of high wind and water changed the landscape. When the storm cleared, the laird (landowner) discovered that the sands had shifted to partially reveal the stone houses and began excavating.

Archeologists believe the settlement, which probably never numbered more than 50 people, was inhabited for 600 years sometime between 3200 B.C. to 2200 B.C. It’s not known why the residents of the eight clustered houses on the Bay of Skaill left Skara Brae, but some scientists believe that coastal erosion and the resulting encroachment of salt water made the area less habitable. 

The other factor may have been changes that occurred in the structure of Neolithic society. It could have evolved from an egalitarian model in which everyone pitched in, to one that supported tribal leaders or some form of elite class.

But once deserted, Skara Brae was covered by shifting sand for the next 4,000 years. This protected it from destruction and gave us the wonderfully preserved community. 

As we traverse the walkways that encompass and crisscross Skara Brae, we try to fathom life 5,000 years ago and how these Neolithic peoples survived daily life. Scientists believe they hunted and fished, fashioned tools from animal bones, and wore animal skins to keep from freezing through the Isle’s long, dark winters and ever-present winds. 

Later, we walk a few hundred yards on the same acreage and are propelled from 3000 B.C. to 1620 A.D., the year Skaill House was built. The mansion and its property have been in the same Orkney family for a dozen generations. It was the seventh laird (landowner), William Graham Watt, who, in 1850, began excavating what would become known as Skara Brae.

And unlike the ruins of the ancient settlement, little is left to the imagination in Skaill House. On display in this grand manor are family heirlooms and museum-quality artifacts, including Captain James Cook’s rose-patterned dinner service. The British explorer (1728-1779) is credited with, among other achievements, creating the first accurate map of the Pacific Ocean.    

Historic Environment Scotland, an organization commissioned with protecting historic properties, describes Skaill House as “the most complete 17th century country mansion in Orkney.” Visit https://skaillhouse.co.uk.

Adventure Canada is a family-owned, Toronto-based company that specializes in expedition cruises in the 198-passenger Ocean Endeavour, a converted Russian ferry. Visit www.adventurecanada.com.

For more photos and commentary, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.

 

Top: Visitors from around the world come to see Skara Brae, the 5,000-year-old village on Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago off Scotland’s west coast. The settlement was discovered in the mid-1800s when fierce winds blew away the sand covering it. Photo by Jerry Ondash

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