Packed with historic sites of all ages from prehistoric remains to World War II wrecks in Scapa Flow, there’s more than enough history on mainland Orkney and the outer islands to hold your interest for weeks.
It’s the prehistoric remains for which Orkney is most remarkable, particularly those of the Neolithic period (around 4000–2000BC). This was when agriculture first became established in Britain, and people began to start living in permanent settlements based around farms. This was a change from the mobile lifestyle of the Mesolithic period (10,000–4000BC), when they moved following the seasonal round of hunting and gathering.
The Mesolithic people have left little evidence of their passing in these islands. Their settlements weren’t built to last, so the ephemeral remains of their homes can only be traced by careful archaeological excavation. With the onset of the Neolithic and the move from hunting to agriculture as the way of life, however, our ancestors began to make more of a dent on the landscape: their settlements, their monuments, and sometimes even their trackways and field systems survive.
It’s generally easier to see the remains of death, burial and ritual of our Neolithic forebears than it is to see their settlements. These were the people who built long barrows, such as the well-preserved example at West Kennet in Wiltshire, as tombs for their ancestors. They are also responsible for henges and stone circles, Stonehenge being the most obvious example, and even more enigmatic ritual monuments like the massive man-made mound of Silbury Hill, again in Wiltshire.
Large earthwork and stone monuments like these are easy to spot in the landscape, but it’s harder to find evidence of the places where the Neolithic people who built them lived. And that’s where Orkney comes into its own – here you can see both settlements and monuments in one place; that’s why much of the mainland island has been designated a World Heritage Site. Our voyage of discovery takes in the heart of Neolithic Orkney: Maeshowe is one of the finest examples of a prehistoric burial mound in Britain, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar are impressive examples of the ritual monuments of the time, whilst the villages of Skara Brae and Barnhouse are amongst the best-preserved Neolithic settlement sites in Britain. With this astonishing combination of archaeological sites, the area is one of the only places in the country where you can get a real feel for the way of life of Britain’s first farmers.
Orkney archaeologist Julie Gibson knows more than most about the islands’ heritage. She sums up what you can see; “If you go to Barnhouse, you are actually in a village lived in by the people who put up the Stones of Stenness next door.”
The reason you can still see Barnhouse and Skara Brae boils down to the availability of natural resources. High winds have been battering the islands for thousands of years, so trees have struggled to survive. On mainland Britain, excavations have shown that Neolithic settlements were of wood, which has since rotted away. The Orcadians lacked timber but did have a ready supply of a more permanent material: stone. Their villages survive because they are constructed of sandstone slabs, which lie ready-quarried by the sea all around the coast.
“Because they built in stone, so it leaves everything in 3D,” explains Julie. “In the rest of the country you’re dealing with wooden structures in prehistory, so archaeologists are left with negative evidence and have to play the game of join-the-dots. Here you’ve got positive evidence so the past is that much clearer.”
There aren’t many places in the world that can boast a practically intact 5,000-year-old village. Skara Brae was occupied from around 3100BC to 2500BC, and after that it was hidden under a sand dune until a wild storm revealed it in the winter of 1850. The village is unlike any you’ll see today. It’s a semi-subterranean place, built inside a huge mound of decomposed vegetable matter, dung, animal bones, stone and shell. The midden was built on the site first and then roundhouses and connecting passageways were dug into the massive compost heap. The homes were therefore cocooned from the excesses of Atlantic weather by a layer of insulating matter.
Ten houses are visible at Skara Brae (though they were not all built and occupied at the same time). They are single-room affairs revetted with dry stone walling and each one would have had a roof supported either by timber, if it was available, or whalebone. The roofs are gone now so you look down into the houses from above, and what you see inside is amazing. All the furniture was of stone, so beds, cupboards, dressers, stone boxes, hearths and doors all survive.
The interior of a Neolithic house at Skara Brae, Orkney. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
Each house has about 36 square metres of floor space, more than half the average floor space of a modern two-bed house (61.5 square metres), so an estate agent would probably describe them as spacious studio apartments. Their low doorways and the winding passages prevented the wind rushing in, and with a fire in the central hearth, you can imagine a picture of cosy domesticity you wouldn’t normally associate with prehistory. As all the houses are similar in size and fittings without anything that looks like a chief’s dwelling, Skara Brae is generally thought to have been an egalitarian society where all members were roughly equal in status.
Life wasn’t idyllic for the people of Skara Brae, however, as Julie explains. “If you look at the skeletal material, you became very aware of the humanity of the people you’re dealing with. Terrible arthritis, heads grooved by carrying baskets round their heads. These were people only marginally shorter than us, people who are clearly us – only a long time ago – whose thought processes you have to reach through analogy – that’s what makes it difficult to understand them.”
We may not know what they thought but we do have a fair idea of what they did during the day. Archaeologists have concluded the villagers were fishermen and farmers who grew barley and wheat, kept cattle, sheep and pigs, and supplemented their diet with seafood and sea-birds. The 20 or so families that lived in the village seem to have had peaceful relations with their neighbours around the islands as Skara Brae wasn’t built for defence and no weaponry has been found. Several similar villages have been discovered in the Orkneys, including the nearby one at Barnhouse.
Instead of fighting one another, the villagers appear to have devoted their spare time to building tombs and monuments. And they must have had a fair bit of time to spare; it’s estimated that it would have taken 150,000 hours to build the two stone circles of Stenness and Brodgar. The Stones of Stenness are thought to have been in existence by 3000BC, so it was contemporary with the occupation of Skara Brae (3100–2500BC). Brodgar is thought to be a little later, probably dating to the middle of the third millennium BC. The huge circular tomb of Maeshowe is also thought to be roughly contemporary – built some time after 3000BC and possibly used for centuries thereafter.
The two stone circles sit on narrow promontories of land looking out over the lochs of Harray and Stenness. Brodgar is the bigger, but both occupy dramatically scenic locations. The sheer scale of Brodgar can’t fail to impress and bring home the amount of work that went into it.
Maeshowe is an entirely different sort of monument. You can see its mound from the Stones of Stenness, and though it’s not much to look at on the outside, when you get inside you know you’re in a very special place.
You have to shuffle through a low narrow slab-lined passage to get inside. Consider as you do that your shoulders are rubbing on the same stones that the Neolithic builders touched 5,000 years ago. Once inside, you’re standing in one of the best examples of a chambered tomb in Britain.
These sorts of tombs are numerous in the Orkneys and archaeologists conjecture, from what’s been found in the others, that each of the side cells at Maeshowe would have held the bones of many members of the local population. In similar monuments, the bones of many people have been discovered, jumbled together in a pattern not comprehensible to modern eyes.
We don’t know for sure what was in Maeshowe because the tomb was raided by Vikings 1,000 years ago (you can see their runic graffiti on the walls) and the place contained only a single skull fragment when excavated in the 19th century. Nevertheless, it’s a uniquely atmospheric place to visit and a supreme example of the Neolithic stonemason’s skill.
Given that all these mighty monuments were built at around the same time as Skara Brae was occupied, and lie only a few miles from the settlement, it’s an obvious conclusion to make that the villagers were involved in the construction and use of the stones and tomb. To add weight to the argument, a specific type of pottery, grooved ware, has been found in excavations at all these places.
As you wander round the stones at Stenness and Brodgar, or crouch down at the entrance of Maeshowe, there’s one question that springs to mind: ‘Why did the villagers of Skara Brae go to all the trouble of constructing these places?’ We’ll never know for certain. Without written records, all we can do is theorise. It is likely some ritual was carried out inside the circles, perhaps based on astronomical calculations, or on some sort of religion, but that’s as much as we can say without delving into mere conjecture.
Archaeologists suggest that monuments like Maeshowe were required in the Neolithic period, because people needed, in a way they’d never felt before, to associate themselves with the land they had started to farm so others couldn’t take it away. One way to create a sense of ownership was to develop an ancestor cult, burying their forefathers’ bones near the land they considered theirs and performing ceremonies to strengthen their age-old claim to their territory.
One thing is certain; it took a massive community effort to build these structures. It was certainly more than a job that just the small population of Skara Brae could have managed, and this has led to another theory; that the building of Maeshowe suggests a move from self-governing villages to a regional authority which organised people throughout the Orkneys to build the tomb.
The social bonds of close-knit settlements like Skara Brae would have broken down as people began to associate more with the regional power than the old independent village structure, perhaps leaving the village to live in smaller farmsteads. It’s a reasonable explanation for why Skara Brae was abandoned; another more prosaic possibility is that the place was overwhelmed by a huge sandstorm.
Either way, the magnificent remains are there to see today. If you want to get a first-hand impression of the way of life, and death, of the first farmers in the British Isles, Orkney is the closest place you’ll get to experiencing it.