SKARA BRAE A TOWN LOST IN TIME
We’re taught that civilisation began in the east, but before the great Pyramids were built in Egypt, and before China’s Golden Age, people in Scotland were building towns with covered walkways, living in insulated homes that blended with the landscape and building houses that would last five thousand years!
Once a thriving village, now Skara Brae is “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney” and a World Heritage Site. But between those times no one knew it existed! In 1850 a monumental storm battered the island of Sandwick. Howling winds and mountainous waves stripped the turf and topsoil from a hill known as Skerrabra.
When the land owner inspected the damage afterwards he found not a hill but the remains of a town! Excavations were carried but, but interest gradually faded. After another huge storm threatened to destroy all that had been uncovered it was decided that a protective sea-wall should be built.
In the process of building the wall even more houses were uncovered.
The folk of Skara Brae would have lived lives familiar to any Lord Of The Rings fan, but where Hobbits used wood in their dome shaped homes, the Skara Brae folk used finely worked stone slabs slotted together without cement or mortar. A central fireplace provided all the heat, light and cooking energy, stone beds were built into the walls, and the centre piece of each home was a stone “dresser”. This faced the door, displaying goods of status, so the visitor would instantly know the social position of the family.
While they are most definitely underground dwellings these days (visitors can stand on the roof and look down) Skara Brae was originally built above land. The stone homes were covered with insulating “midden”. Household rubbish, leftover building materials and whatever else accumulated was built up around the walls. Eventually soil and grass would be added to the mix, and there you have it, like Bilbo Baggins’s Bag-end, a house under a hill.
Skara Brae’s close-knit nature is demonstrated by the fact that houses had no doors; instead they were all connected by an alleyway, covered over for protection against Orkney’s weather, with a gate at each end. A visitor following the alley from one end to the other would have his way lit by home fires and would be able to see into every home in the village. Gradually Skara Brae became a victim of its own success.
Its people did more than survive – they thrived. They young folk move out, developed other ways of living, taking advantage of the land and the sea, and Skara Brae was gradually left to the mercy of the encroaching sands These people lived self-contained lives, in natural habitats and their minimal “carbon footprint” would have consisted only of their cooking fires.
Perhaps, at a time, when societies worldwide are looking to become much “greener” we should not look at the folk of Skara Brae as being primitive. Those Stone Age Orcadians could teach the modern world a thing or two about sustainable living!