Most people have heard of Skara Brae, and most will have seen it in image and in imagination long before visiting. As a result we approached it with some trepidation. A visit to Stonehenge many years ago produced the reaction: "is that all?" Magnificent it may have been, but the reality was nowhere near as magnificent as the expectations against which we were comparing it.
But there's no need to worry. The reality of Skara Brae exceeds expectations in many different ways. The site itself is larger and more impressive than can easily be captured in anything other than an aerial photograph. And the domestic details are deeply touching: you get an incredible sense of seeing into the day-to-day lives of the nameless people who lived here 5,000 years ago.
And that is perhaps the most striking thing of all. After touring Skara Brae you have no difficulty realising that its inhabitants were people in many ways very similar to ourselves. Yes, they might have lived in a stone village half buried in a large pile of midden. But when you view the stone beds and dressers, the standardisation of the furnishings across the houses, the boxes in which they prepared their bait, you realise that if only we could know their names we could easily identify with these people and the lives they led.
The visit starts at the beautifully designed and built visitor centre, which is also home to a café and a well stocked shop. The cafe can get busy at times: an alternative can be found at Orkney Brewery, just a couple of miles to the north east.
From the visitor centre you move outside to be greeted by a surprise, a life-size recreation of one of the houses at Skara Brae in complete and "lived in" condition, all the way down to a fire in the hearth. It is worth curbing your impatience to see the real thing and spending a little time exploring this recreated house. It differs from those in the village primarily by being free-standing, and in having the one thing the others all lack: a roof. (Continues below images...)
The onward footpath leads out along part of Skaill Bay and is marked by a series of inscribed stones providing a timeline taking you all the way back to 3100BC, the date at which the village is thought to have been founded. And then you enter the village itself.
We first visited in 2002, and again in 2004. That was before large-scale tourism and quite so many cruise ships had reached Orkney. At that time visitors could get down into the ancient walkways that ran between the structures at Skara Brae, as well as view from the higher level paths that have been created in more modern times.
On our most recent visit in 2018 the need to protect the site from increasing numbers of visitors mean that viewing was only possible from the (singificantly improved) network of high level paths. We expected to dislike the loss of the previous intimacy with the buildings, but in practice found the viewing arrangements worked very well, allowing an appreciation of the structures without modern visitors intruding into the picture.
Skara Brae was built in at least two stages, and what you see today is mostly from the second stage of occupation. The residents built the village by forming a large pile of domestic rubbish, or midden. They then dug down into the pile of midden to create spaces for the ten buildings and the passageways linking them, which they lined with stone.
If this creates a pretty unpleasant image, it's worth bearing in mind that domestic refuse in 3100BC would be fairly similar to garden compost today. We have no problem accepting that, after a suitable period, compost is a neutral material suitable for use on our gardens. It seems little different to suggest that in a largely sandy environment, midden would have been an ideally stable material in which to place a village, as well as a windproof one for such an exposed location.
The biggest surprise at Skara Brae is not the houses themselves, it is the way they are furnished. Each comes with a near identical set of fixtures and fittings. These include a large central hearth with a stone box bed on each side, with the bed on the right being larger than the bed on the left in each case. The box beds would have been packed with heather.
Each house is dominated by a stone-built dresser of standard size and design, and in some there is a stone seat in front of the dresser. The houses also contain a number of other storage areas, including shelves and recesses in the walls, and waterproof stone fish-bait boxes built into the floor.
One of the buildings, at the Historic Environment Scotland office end of the site, is a little different, being free standing and without the same standard layout. It is thought to have been some sort of village workshop, separated from the rest of the settlement by a small open area.
For many years, Skara Brae was believed to have been abandoned because a great storm covered it with sand in much the way another great storm in 1850 led to its discovery. The truth is probably less dramatic: that it was simply abandoned over a period of time as people's lives changed.
After Skara Brae was abandoned it slowly filled with wind-blown sand and was then covered by it, ensuring its preservation in its current state. In 1850 the laird of nearby Skaill House, William Watt, realised the significance of what the storm had exposed, and work has been under way ever since both to protect the site and to explore it.
In 3100BC Skara Brae would have been some way inland. Today it lies right on the edge of Skaill Bay, protected from the sea only by the defences put there for that purpose. Skara Brae is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland, and since December 1999 it has formed part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.
Some changes we encountered on our 2018 visit when compared with 2004 and 2002 were not welcome. Significant erosion had taken place on the shoreline to the east of the site, meaning that Skara Brae itself protrudes further into the sea than it had previously. Meanwhile, we understand that the sea defences along the seaward side of the site are being undermined in places by the action of the waves. As a result there is a real danger that parts of the site may eventually be lost to the sea. That would be a real tragedy.