Orkney Island's Skara Brae, Scotland
by Elizabeth Willoughby
If, when thinking of Scotland, 'Braveheart' is the first thing that comes to mind, you're not alone. However, long before the 13th century, when William Wallace was splitting English skulls and fighting for Scotland's freedom, there were other tribes occupying Scotland's islands, not quite as violent.
The 1850 discovery of the prehistoric settlement, Skara Brae, was an incredible find on Orkney. Now excavated, today's visitors can see actual homes as they existed until around 2600 BC. Not caves. Not primitive. Houses – with stone furniture. Flagstone dressers, box beds and a central hearth are set to the same floor plan in several of the preserved homes, which exist intact (minus the roofs) below ground level, and are connected by the original passageways.
The unveiling of Skara Brae was a stroke of luck. A fierce storm blew away some of the sand that was covering the site, partially exposing two houses along the Bay of Skaill coastline. In total there are nine houses and one additional structure, perhaps a workshop, that were eventually uncovered.
Archaeological evidence provides some clues as to what life was like here, but with no written records, there is plenty of conjecture. What is known is that at the time, Neolithic Orkney was an important power center in Europe, with contacts beyond its shores; the Skara Brae community raised cattle, sheep and pigs, hunted and fished, but did not grow crops; and their homes were warm, dark and maybe a bit smoky.
That they did not have individual farmsteads is curious. Perhaps Skara Brae was a religious community. Or, based on the quantity of raw materials and beads that were excavated, perhaps this was a community of craft workers.
It is also not known why the village was abandoned. Unlike the brutal period of Wallace’s mission to rid Scotland of King Edward ‘the Longshanks’, there is no evidence of an attack on Skara Brae. The houses, after all, are undamaged. Maybe it was another storm, a disease, or a gradual decline caused by youth leaving.
A largely treeless, breezy, pastoral island, Orkney has other Neolithic discoveries as well. There’s the Ring of Brodgar, one of a few stone circles that exists on the island and one of the largest. There’s Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, on the outside a grassy hump of a hill among grazing black cows, inside it’s a chambered tomb dating to 3000 BC. And there’s the Brough of Birsay island, accessed by a foot causeway that stretches out from the Point of Buckquoy at low tide. Here visitors find a few remains of Pict settlements from the 6th and 7th centuries, as well as Viking ruins of houses and a church.
They are all worth visiting, but none are as exciting as Skara Brae, where visitors peer into real life households, 5,000 years old, and imagine the lifestyle that existed back then.
This article was originally published in September 2015 here on Examiner.com.
© Elizabeth Willoughby 2015
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