Scotland is home to some of the finest prehistoric sites in Europe. Many of the best-preserved of these are located in the Highlands and Islands, perhaps due to their relatively sparse modern populations and consequent lack of disturbance. The most famous of Scotland’s ancient sites is Orkney’s Skara Brae – Europe’s most complete Neolithic village. This remarkable stone-built settlement was constructed over 5000 years ago. It flourished centuries before the ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramid of Giza and was inhabited a millennia before Stonehenge was erected. But what makes Skara Brae especially important is the wealth of domestic details left behind by its inhabitants, giving an evocative and unparalleled sense of the day-to-day lives of these ancient peoples.
Skara Brae lies on the Bay of Skaill, on mainland Orkney. It is 19 miles north west of Kirkwall on the B9056 and 7 miles north of Stromness on the A967.
Radiocarbon dating indicates that the occupation of Skara Brae began about 3180 BC. The Neolithic people who built the village were farmers, hunters and fishermen. No weapons have been found on the site, suggesting they lead a peaceful existence. For reasons still unknown, the village was abandoned around 2500 BC, and in time the site was swallowed by wind-blown sand. Skara Brae was rediscovered in 1850, when a great storm battered Orkney, stripping the grass from a large mound known as Skerrabra, revealing the outlines of several stone buildings. Subsequent archaeological investigation uncovered a cluster of stone-built houses, linked by low, covered passageways.
In the visitor centre, audio-visual displays, interactive exhibits and an array of artifacts discovered on the site – pottery, hand tools, jewelry and gaming pieces – tell the history of the Stone Age village and its inhabitants. Outside the centre is a replica of house #7, that you can enter and explore hands-on. From here you follow a footpath leading to the site itself, the path marked by a series of inscribed stones of major world events, forming a timeline taking you back to 3100 BC.
The village itself is spectacularly set above the beautiful white curve of the Bay of Skaill and comprises ten half-buried stone houses, all built of close-fitting, cut stone to the same basic design. The houses all consist of a single large room and feature a number of remarkable stone-built furnishings, including beds, closets, dressers, seats and storage boxes. Each house has a central stone hearth and a few have small waterproof boxes set into the floor, possibly for storing live fish-bait. A sophisticated sewer system connected the houses, with a primitive toilet in each dwelling, and the houses are linked together by a network of covered passageways. Looking inside these dwellings, it’s not hard to imagine the life of these Neolithic people. Skara Brae is one of the world’s great archaeological treasures, affording visitors a remarkable glimpse inside the prehistoric world.