Skara-Brae

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Knap of Howar, Orkney Islands, Scotland

The Knap of Howar on the island of Papa Westray is a Neolithic farmstead which may be the oldest preserved stone house in northern Europe. Radiocarbon dating shows that it was occupied from 3700 BC to 2800 BC, earlier than the similar houses in the settlement at Skara Brae on the Orkney Mainland.The farmstead consists of two adjacent rounded rectangular thick-walled buildings with very low doorways facing the sea. The larger and older structure is linked by a low passageway to the other building, which has been interpreted as a workshop or a second house. Though they now stand close to the shore, they would have originally lain inland. The stone furniture is intact giving a vivid impression of life in the house. Items found in middens (refuse heaps) show that the inhabitants were keeping cattle, sheep and pigs, cultivating barley and wheat and gathering shellfish as well as fishing for species which have to be line caught using boats. Finds of finely-made and decorated Unstan ware pottery link the inhabitants to chambered cairn tombs nearby and to sites far afield including Balbridie and Eilean Domhnuill. The name Howar is believed to be derived from Old Norse word haugr meaning mounds or barrows.

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The Neolithic settlement Skara Brae, Scotland, dubbed the “Scottish Pompeii” due to its excellent preservation. This site was occupied approximately 3180 BCE–2500 BCE.

8 stone dwellings are what remain of Skara Brae today, each of these are linked together by low, covered passages. Considering the age of these structures, their preservation is astonishing, the walls still stand, and the alleyways are each roofed with their original slab of stone.

The preserved interior fittings of Skara Brae offer a rare insight and glimpse into the daily of Neolithic Orkney. Each house is similar in their basic design, each have a large square room, beds on either side, a shelved dresser on the wall opposite the doorway, and a central fireplace.

It was declared part of a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, and was described as proclaiming the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places.”

Photos courtesy & taken by Michel Guilly.

Skara Brae, Scotland

Photograph by KEENPRESS, National Geographic

Visitors peer into the past in the Orkney Islands, where in 1850 a strong storm uncovered the remains of the Skara Brae settlement. Later excavations revealed a complex of stone houses linked by passageways that dates to between 3200 and 2500 B.C. It’s considered the best preserved Neolithic village ever found in northern Europe and is a World Heritage site.

Skara Brae is an outcrop of land in Orkney, Scotland. The people that lived here did so before Stonehenge was even built. or before the Pyramids were a twinkle in anyone’s eye, and was built around 3150 BCE.

In 1850, a massive storm hit Orkney, causing 200 deaths. The storm stripped landscapes, tore trees out by their roots, demolished buildings, and made a grassy knoll fly off an irregular peninsula. Beneath that knoll lay Skara Brae, a settlement of seven neolithic houses. As you can see, they were very near perfectly preserved.

Although a local landowner started having a dig around, only four of the seven houses were uncovered, and the site remained undisturbed until 1913. Unfortunately, archaeology at this point in time was done as a hobby, and carelessly, with little to no regulations. As a result, the site was plundered of a vast amount of fantastically important historical artefacts over the course of a single weekend by an excavation party; there’s no telling what was lost.

More than 50 people lived in Skara Brae five thousand years ago. They made pottery and built their houses into pre-existing household waste which acted as an early form of insulation against the harsh Scottish climate. They had furniture made out of stone and had doors to their houses.  They raised sheep and cows and made clay pots. An ancient Hebridean custom until recent times was that the male of the house had a larger bed, something reflected in the stone beds still viewable in Skara Brae.

Recent excavations have uncovered proof of one of the earliest forms of flea.

The settlement also had a fairly sophisticated drainage system.

Despite the level of care and sophistication present, Skara Brae was abandoned after 600 years of habitation. Although archaeologists disagree as to whether this was a quick event or not, the artefacts that were left behind indicate it could have been a sudden departure.

Over time, sand blew in to the hearths they’d cooked in and over the beds the inhabitants had slept in, filled up the dressers and the drains, grass grew on top of the sand, and Skara Brae slept undisturbed until hurricane winds revealed its existence some five thousand years later.

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Bachwen Burial Chamber, North Wales, 21.1.17. A single chamber which sits atop a promontory facing out to sea.The capstone is marked with numerous examples of cup shaped art. 

Skara Brae, 5000 year old village. That’s older than the pyramids. And everything I saw that day was around the same age - give or take a few lifetimes, of course. It seems from what I saw that the people living here had quite a sophisticated lifestyle - beds, dresser tables, privacy…

The erosion at the Bay of Skiall is threatening the site, though.

Shil Me Fein
  • Shil Me Fein
  • Triona ni Dhomhnaill
  • Triona
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Fans of the legendary folk groups Skara Brae, The Bothy Band and Relativity should recognize the name of Triona ni Dhomhnaill, whose distinctive and beautiful voice is heard here singing “Shíl mé Féin” on her first solo album, “Triona.” This album was first released on Gael Linn Records in 1975, but we found a copy of the 1984 re-issue on Green Linnet Records from Connecticut.  Triona can also be heard playing the harpsichord on this song.

The song tells the story of a man who moves from Donegal to Antrim and remembers his birthplace and old friends on his deathbed.

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Orkney, my heart is with you. Seriously, if you ever have a chance to visit this place please take it. The skies are huge, there’s a neolithic dwelling at the bottom of everyone’s garden, and you can check out a stone-age burial chamber ransacked by Vikings who sheltered from a snow storm and amused themselves by graffitiing the walls.

Also, bottom right hand is the Italian Chapel - a wonderful chapel built from an old nissen hut by Italian POWs brought to Orkney to work on causeways to block the passage of U-boats through the islands. A prisoner named Domenico Chiocchetti painted the interior, even staying behind after the end of the war to finish the ornate interior.

One of the best preserved houses at the neolithic settlement at Skara Brae which lies near the dramatic white beach of the Bay of Skaill. It is one of the best preserved groups of prehistoric houses in Western Europe.  It consists of eight clustered houses, and was occupied from roughly 3180 BCE–2500 BCE.


 In the winter of 1850, a severe storm hit Scotland causing widespread damage and over 200 deaths. In the Bay of Skaill, the storm stripped the earth from a large irregular knoll, known as “Skerrabra”. When the storm cleared, local villagers found the outline of a village, consisting of a number of small houses without roofs. These remains present a remarkable picture of life around 5,000 years ago.