Visit the Orkney Islands and step back in time to when Neolithic people roamed these wild Islands of Scotland.
Where are the Orkney Islands
Only a short distance north from the coast of Scotland, The Orkney Islands are visible from the mainland on a clear day (yes those are possible in Scotland). Despite their close proximity to Scotland, these islands have a distinct taste of the exotic. Maybe it’s the fact that until 1472 they were part of the Norwegian kingdom or maybe it’s that archaeologists believe many more ancient sites lay undiscovered, waiting to tell the tale of life 5000 years ago.
Skara Brae is located on the largest island of the Orkneys, Mainland. The village is around 30km north west from the capital, Kirkwall on the Bay of Skaill.
A site known locally as Skerrabra hid a secret, forgotten until a severe storm hit the area in 1850. Destructive winds and extreme tides removed layers of earth from a great mound. In its wake, some of the buildings you can see today on the site now known as Skara Brae were revealed.
Skara Brae is one of the best known Orkney Islands neolithic sites and is also one of the best-preserved sites from this era in Western Europe. As you walk amongst a world that hardly looks much different from an episode of the Flintstones, Skara Brae brings to life a human past that can be sometimes hard to grasp.
There are 8 houses joined together like a rabbit warren. These low and covered passageways between the houses would have offered protection against the harsh weather of the area. As you walk along the modern pathways, site officials warn you to hold on to the children so they’re not blown off the walkway. It’s easy to see how vital this design was to living in these conditions.
Most of the houses have a similar layout. A huge stone dresser is the focal point of the square room as you enter. To either side is a bed box made from slabs of stone ( some of these even have undeciphered carvings). There are even stone doors and a primitive toilet with a drainage system.
The replica house allows you to travel back in time as you duck inside the low doorway. Although basic, surprisingly, it looks familiar and comfortable to us 5000 years later.
Visiting Scotland? Click here to see why you need to visit the stunning Isle of Skye.
Imagining Life 5000 years ago
Staring at a stone dresser which wouldn’t look too out of place in a fancy modern home it is easy to picture someone placing their loved possessions on display. It’s harder to imagine the vastness of time however and that someone probably did just this, 500 years before the Great Pyramids began to be built.
At the visitor’s centre, you can see dice, pottery and jewellery which have been found on the site over the years. Objects that can probably be found in your own home right now.
A point I particularly loved was that this village was in an open area (much further back from the sea than now) and no weapons have been found on the site. It seems that the people that had time to create such beautiful objects of leisure or not have to worry about self-defence led a pretty peaceful life.
One of our favourite things at Skara Brae were the perfectly carved stone balls that were found at the site. You can spot some in the visitor’s centre before heading out to see the houses. No-one knows what these were for but it is fun to guess what they could have meant to the people who spent long hours creating them. Seeing the intricate and near-perfect designs, it can be hard to picture how these were made in a time when the only tools available were made of stone or animal bone.
Inside the homes are mysteries too, like the small storage places created from stone. Maybe these were to store freshly caught fish or even to hold bait? We loved using our imaginations to come up with how these could have been part of life so long ago.
Perhaps the biggest mystery is why, after 600 years of people making Skara Brae their home, they left?
Lots to see in the Orkney Islands
There is so much to see in the Orkney Islands. Some of our favourite sites were the 5000-year-old ancient tomb of Maeshowe ( that comes with its own famous Viking graffiti) and the standing stones, The Ring of Brodgar. More to come on these fascinating places within the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site on Travel With Meraki soon.
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