Orkney is unlike any place I’ve ever visited before. It’s a wild, somewhat desolate island, with jaw-dropping views of windswept cliffs and rolling hills dotted in ancient stone circles. It’s a peaceful place that feels like it’s at the edge of the world, and where, if you’re lucky, you might catch sight of a giant or a fairy or some other type of mythical creature. While I didn’t see any of those, what I did get to see, on a recent trip there, was Skara Brae, the best preserved Stone Age village in Europe. Over 5,000 years old!
I was on Orkney as part of Moniack Mhor’s International Writers Residency, which brings together both Scottish and international writers to live together and work on our own projects, while also sharing our work with each other and throughout the highlands. Moniack Mhor is Scotland’s National Writing Centre (if you’re from the UK, you might have heard of it because they frequently run excellent creative writing courses). I was very privileged to be selected as part of this international group, and super excited to travel up to Orkney to perform some of my poetry and see this unique part of Scotland where I’d never been before.
Our visit to Skara Brae was brief, but it was extremely memorable. The village is unique because it was discovered after a big storm in 1850 and, because it had been buried for so long and not exposed to the elements, it’s really well preserved. You can go up and see the little houses where the families at Skara Brae lived 5,000 years ago and they even have a replica of a Stone Age house you can go inside!
What I thought was really interesting about the houses was that they were sort of half-Hobbit houses, build into the ground itself, and then other parts of the homes were exposed. There were fire pits where presumably people sat as a family or a community. And furniture made out of local stones! Archeologists think that about 50-100 people lived here and that it was inhabited for several centuries.
Another nice detail, on the walk up to the village itself (which is right on the edge of the water), was these stones that the museum has placed, which give you a sense of how far back in time we’re going. They have different dates like ‘First Man on the Moon: 1969 AD’ and ‘Stonehenge: 2100 BC’ and back, and back, until you hit Skara Brae. Really puts it into perspective for you!
I’d really recommend a visit if you go to Orkney. Two unrelated tips as well (if you find yourself planning a trip to Orkney) are: 1) you really need to rent a car to be able to make the most of your experience. It’s not a place that is easily accessible by bus once you’re on the island, from what I learned, and a car gives you freedom to actually travel around and see the wonderful sites like this one! 2) If you’re taking the ferry over, which most people do, then take some motion sickness pills along with you. I rarely get motion sick, and have only had a problem with feeling really nauseous from travel one or two other times in my life. But this ride over to Orkney was ROCKY. And notoriously rocky, apparently. High winds, choppy waters, the whole enchilada (which is something that you probably shouldn’t eat before the boat over to Orkney).
I hope you enjoyed this virtual visit to Orkney and a dive back in much, much older historical waters than we’re used to on this blog. I’d love to see some more ancient settlements like this. It’s hard to even imagine these people’s lives. They are so far from us and yet, geologically, still so close to us in the timescale of Earth’s life (humans haven’t been around for that long). And there’s no better place to think about these mind-boggling things than a wild, meditative place like Orkney. Thanks for joining me.
Madeira Mondays is a series of blog posts exploring history and historical fiction. Subscribe to the blog for a new post on the first Monday of each month. Thanks for reading!