Before construction of the pyramids began on the plains of Giza, before the first monolith was raised at Stonehenge, a small community of people were living in an interconnected series of stone walled buildings on a spit of land overlooking the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago. This in itself does not sound like much of significance. People were living in all sorts of places in all kinds of ways in 3,200BC. But how many of their homes can you visit today, more than five thousand years later? Five thousand years. It is a period of time that is hard to comprehend and you can be forgiven for not quite appreciating the significance of what lies before you in this remote field on the northern fringes of Britain. This is not reconstruction, this is not a film set, this is real and it is very, very old.
It is thanks to the skill of its builders, arranging stones without mortar, thanks to the decision to cover the walls with soil and debris to insulate against the cold Scottish winters, thanks to the wild weather of this place that blew millennia of sand from the beach to hide Skara Brae, that it has survived to be the most intact Neolithic settlement in Western Europe, a UNESCO world heritage site. Storms helped protect the village and a storm also uncovered it in 1850. The local laird took charge of an excavation, but it was an amateur effort and fairly quickly abandoned. It was not until the 1920s, after the site was raided and artefacts removed, and another storm caused damage, that proper preservation work began.
Although access to the inside of the buildings is restricted to protect the archaeology, the pathways that have been constructed around the site provide clear views inside. The layout of the houses is uniform, with two stone beds either side of a central hearth and stone shelves built in to the walls for storage. Community living was still a new concept when Skara Brae was founded and although it is estimated that a maximum of 50 people lived here at any one time, this would have been a veritable city at a time when it was usual for small family units to spend much of the year in isolation. For those wanting to experience what it was like within the dwellings when the roofs were intact a reconstructed home can be found just outside the visitors’ centre.
Not far from Skara Brae is the Broch of Gurness. The Broch is a mere infant compared to its Neolithic neighbour, dating from 200 – 100 BC and perhaps as a result of this you are free to walk amongst the remains of the tower and the village that encircles it. Broch are a peculiarly Scottish form of architecture and are found predominantly in the north and west (to read about another Broch, this time on the Isle of Lewis, click here). The example at Gurness once stood 8 metres high and measures 20 metres in diameter. It was clearly intended as a place of safety for the villagers and forms part of a defence system that includes three sets of ditches and ramparts.
The story of the Broch’s discovery is a romantic one. In 1929 a local poet and antiquarian, Robert Rendall, was sitting on the mound that once covered it, sketching. The leg of his stool sank deep in to a hole and, upon investigation and the removal of some stones, Rendall uncovered steps leading in to the ground, remnants of the staircase which would once have connected the tower’s floors.
Completing this trilogy of ancient sites is Maeshowe, the finest chambered tomb in north west Europe, inside which photography is sadly, though understandably, prohibited.
Like Skara Brae, Maeshowe dates from the Neolithic, having been built some time around 2,800BC. It is a chambered tomb, accessed via a long, low tunnel which opens up in to a cavernous central space with three smaller chambers cut in to the walls. Entrance to the tomb is by guided tour only, run by Historic Scotland from Tormiston Mill, Stenness which operates as a visitors’ centre and museum. Places on the tours are limited so do book in advance to avoid disappointment. We had to wait two days for the next space.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of crawling along the entrance passage, bowed in supplication to the deceased, before entering the unexpected space of the subterranean chamber. That the structure has survived for more than 5,000 years is staggering. Great efforts were obviously undertaken in its construction, and not just to ensure its stability. Maeshowe has intentionally been built to align with the midwinter sun which, as it sets for a few days each year, shines directly through the entrance passage, illuminating the rear wall of the main chamber. Maeshowe is also in alignment with the standing stones of Stenness which sit in a neighbouring field. If you stand in the centre of the stone circle, the burial mound appears directly between two angled ‘dolmen’ stones, as if framed by a window.
Modern excavation of the mound began in 1861 but this was not the first time the tomb had been entered. The walls of the chamber are covered with graffiti, runic Viking graffiti. Some refer, flatteringly and otherwise, to women they have known, some to the treasure they had been seeking in the tomb, others simply mark their name. The discovery of the carvings confirmed accounts in the Orkneyinga Saga, which narrate how various Norse groups entered a chambered tomb, known to them as Orkahaugr, an interesting example of physical evidence validating a literary source.
For more of the Viking presence on the island, read the previous post in the series here. Stay tuned for one more ancient Orcadian treasure.