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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Scotland’s Ancient Sites: Skara Brae and Maeshowe

The Ring of Brodgar, built on the Orkney Islands in Scotland, is older than Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids.
The Ring of Brodgar, built on the Orkney Islands in Scotland, is older than Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids.

Modern Scotland has an amazing amount to offer to the rest of the contemporary world. A surprisingly long list of inventions originated in Scotland (click here to read about Scottish inventors). Saint Andrews University in Fife, Scotland has been ranked as the number one university in the UK by the Sunday Times Good University Guide 2022, and for the thirteenth time in fifteen years, the renowned institution has been listed at #1 by the NSS (National Student Survey). In addition, it is ranked as 91st in the world as an academic institution and 61st in the world in the area of arts and humanities. Scotland’s cities also have a great deal to offer, especially in the arts. Since 2008, Glasgow has been a UNESCO City of Music. Along with an eclectic contemporary music scene, it has a national opera as well as several symphony orchestras. Of course, traditional Scottish music abounds too. Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, has much to boast about too, including its Edinburgh Zoo, home to the only giant pandas in Britain. In 2017, Edinburgh was marked 2nd in the world for quality of life.

Much more could be said about contemporary Scotland but one of the best things is that co-existing with all this modernity is an incredible history that stretches back centuries before the birth of Christ. This week’s post looks at two of Scotland’s most ancient and mysterious sites: Skara Brae and Maeshowe.

Skara Brae

The Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae looks out onto the Bay of Skiall, Orkney, Scotland.
The Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae looks out onto the Bay of Skiall, Orkney, Scotland.

Near the Bay of Skiall in Orkney, Scotland are the remains of the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Europe. Over 5,000 years old, Skara Brae was built before Stonehenge or the pyramids. Inhabited between circa 3100 and 2500 BC, the site consists of ten stone structures believed to have been part of a larger agricultural village. The round structures are single room houses with stone floors. The houses all have the same design and room layout. At the center of each is a hearth used not only for cooking but as a way to heat the home. Wood was scarce in the area and all the houses have furniture, including shelving, dressers, and box beds, made from stone. The village has a drainage system and the houses have indoor toilets! The structures lack roofs. Scholars believe thatching or turf probably was used to cover the houses.

An abundance of artifacts has been collected from the site. These include tools, crop remains, bones, and pottery. The pottery is decorated with grooves and is similar to pottery found at the Maeshowe site, also on Orkney. This has led archaeologists to refer to the former inhabitants of Skara Brae as the Groove Ware People.

Looking down into a 5000-year-old family home.
Looking down into a 5000-year-old family home.

Based on the remains found at the site, scholars believe the Groove Ware People grew wheat and barley and raised pigs, sheep, and cattle. In addition, they hunted and fished for a living. They also enjoyed life and appreciated beauty. This is evidenced not only by the pottery but the discovery of jewelry with precious stones, ornaments, and gaming dice. It seems they had a thriving community and a good life. So, what happened to them?

While some theories have been put forth about the disappearance of the Groove Ware People, at present scholars don’t know what became of them. Some scholars have suggested a cataclysmic event, such as a massive storm, forced them to flee for their lives, abandoning the village. Others argue the Groove Ware People left gradually, migrating across Scotland and the British Isles.

Skara Brae has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is carefully preserved. Visitors to the site can walk a path and look down into the ancient houses. A replica house has been set up, too, so that visitors can get a more up-close experience of life in the Neolithic home.

The Ring of Brodgar and Mashowe

The entrance to the Mashowe Chambered Cairn, considered one of the best passage tombs in Europe.
The entrance to the Mashowe Chambered Cairn, considered one of the best passage tombs in Europe.

The Ring of Brogdar, also located in Orkney, is made up of 36 stones but scholars estimate it originally had 60. The main ring is thought to have been constructed between 2600 and 2400 BC, but the site has never been excavated, so the date is uncertain. The site may have been built as a moon observatory. A large ditch encircles the stones and 13 burial mounds have been found on the site. Also on site is the 5,000-year-old Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, which is aligned with the setting sun of midwinter and is acclaimed as one of the finest chambered cairns in Europe.

The cairn is 23 feet high and has a passageway that is 47 ½ feet in length. Just about three weeks before and after Winter Solstice (December 21st this year), light from the setting sun moves along this passageway and lights up the tomb’s back wall. Perhaps it is a symbolic reminder of the Celtic belief in rebirth, especially Winter Solstice is the darkest day of the year but, from that point on, the sun’s light will increase each day as the year moves towards the Spring Equinox.

Guided tours of the passage tomb are available.

Of course, Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar are just two of the many wonders Scotland has to offer. I’ll write about more in the future. Meanwhile, please check out my post Tour the Land of the Unicorn: Scotlandto read about the folklore associated with various Scottish places.

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Slan go foil!

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