Skara Brae: 2014 (going back to 1972)


It seems like a very long time since I wrote an ‘ordinary’ tea towel blog, about somewhere I had visited myself and that brings back some good memories.  Tea towels of all sorts can conjure up memories of people and events; sometimes it is good to have a tea towel of the actual place you have been.

Skara Brae is a magical place on Mainland Orkney.  I bought this tea towel when I visited in 2014 but that was not the first time I had visited.  And what a change!  Skara Brae is now one of four elements of the UNESCO World Heritage site called The Heart of Neolithic Orkney.  The Statement of Significance says “The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney, and Skara Brae, proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places”.  It was designated in 1999 to include Ring of Brodgar, Standing Stones of Stenness and Broch of Maeshowe, as well as Skara Brae.  That’s one change since my first visit.

Skara Brae is a stone-built, Neolithic settlement on the shores of the Bay of Skaill.  Raised above the sand, it overlooks the water, the tides coming in and out, the waves and the surrounding cliffs.  Skara Brae consists of 8 clustered houses which were occupied between 3180 BC and 2500 BC, over 5000 years ago.  It is older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt.  It is Europe’s most complete Neolithic Village.  There are so many reasons why this is such an amazing place, beyond it’s age.  But it’s age is pretty spectacular.  Today, as you walk towards the actual village, there are stone plaques laid out with events from world history, in proportional spacing to give a sense of perspective. The path starts with 1969 (First Man on the Moon), passing 1961 (First Man in Space – Yuri Gagarin) and 1876 (Telephone Invented), the Fall of Rome in 476, Great Wall of China in 220 BC, Stonehenge 2100 BC up to Skara Brae in 3100 BC.  These, and more, significant dates are on this tea towel together with a sketch of the most famous interiors of one of the houses.

The story of the actual discovery of Skara Brae is fascinating, and unexpected.  No one knew about Skara Brae until the winter of 1850, when a severe storm swept across Scotland causing widespread damage and over 200 deaths.  When the storm cleared, local villagers found the outline of a village consisting of a number of small houses without roofs.  Excavation of the village was started but abandoned in 1868 and remained undisturbed until 1913 when the site was plundered by a group who stripped the site of many artefacts over one weekend.  In 1924, another storm swept away part of one of the houses; it was decided the University of Edinburgh should start a full and serious investigation.  This began in 1927.  What they discovered was that each house had a large square room with a stone hearth for heating and cooking.  The key thing is that all the houses are sunk into the ground, giving protection against Orkney’s harsh climate.  There was a sophisticated drainage system and a primitive toilet in each house.  The excavation showed that villagers were primarily pastoralists, raising sheep and cattle.  It was originally thought that the villagers did not grow crops until, in 1972, seed grains were found in one of the middens, which suggested that barley was grown.  Excavation also revealed the type of pottery, furniture and heating materials that were used.

One of the big issues is that no one knows why the site was abandoned but they have discovered red ochre which suggested that there might have been body painting and pieces of hematite, with highly polished surfaces, would suggest tools for finishing leather. There are indications that this was quite an advanced society.

On my first visit in 1972 it was a site on the coast surrounded by fields, no Visitor Centre, no staff, no charges, no pathway, no rules and regulations, no closing and opening times.  You could walk all over the site with just an information board to help you understand what you were looking at.  You could climb all over the walls and down inside the houses; you could crawl through the gaps between the houses.  There was no protection of the site.  You could stand in one of the houses and look out over the bay and imagine what it was like 5000 years ago.  When I was there, there was blue skies, warm sun, no winds or storms.  Skara Brae was a truly magical place.  42 years on, Skara Brae is still magical and timeless but you have to follow the marked paths, you cannot stand on the walls, cannot remove any pieces of the landscape.  Let’s face it, why would you want to?  You just want to to look and imagine.  Today there is a small Visitors Centre (where you can buy a tea towel, which I couldn’t do in 1972), unobtrusive, fitting in with the environment and as you go out towards the village you walk past the timeline.

Skara Brae is an amazing piece of history and as I use this tea towel I will remember the visits I paid to Skara Brae and that magical experience.  It is the sort of place I will always want to come back to.

Click below to return to the Virtual Tea Towel Museum


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