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. 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. It’s a fantastic place to visit, set on the edge of a beautiful bay, in the heart of a Neolithic landscape preserved like no other.
There’s an excellent visitor centre that sets everything in context, and if you want to bring yourself slightly closer to the present day before you leave, you could pop into the House of Skaill (summer entry only, included with the admission ticket to Skara Brae) which dates to a spring-chickenly 1620s in comparison to the Neolithic village that is just 200m away from its lawns.