Skara Brae is a stone-built Neolithic settlement which consists of eight clustered houses, and was occupied from roughly 3180 BCE–2500 BCE. Europe"s most complete Neolithic village, Skara Brae gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status. As older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, it has been called the 'Scottish Pompeii' because of its excellent preservation.
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. William Watt of Skaill, the local laird, began an amateur excavation of the site, but after four houses were uncovered, the work was abandoned in 1868. The site remained undisturbed until 1913, when during a single weekend the site was plundered by a party with shovels who took away an unknown quantity of artifacts. In 1924, another storm swept away part of one of the houses and it was determined the site should be made secure and more seriously investigated.
Skara Brae"s people were makers and users of grooved ware, a distinctive style of pottery that appeared in northern Scotland not long before the establishment of the village. The houses used earth sheltering, being sunk into the ground. In fact, they were sunk into mounds of pre-existing prehistoric domestic waste known as middens. The midden provided the houses with a small degree of stability and also acted as insulation against Orkney"s harsh winter climate. On average, the houses measure 40 square metres in size with a large square room containing a stone hearth used for heating and cooking. Given the number of homes, it seems likely that no more than fifty people lived in Skara Brae at any given time.
The dwellings contain a number of stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes. Each dwelling was entered through a low doorway that had a stone slab door. A sophisticated drainage system was incorporated into the village"s design. It included a primitive form of toilet in each dwelling.
Seven of the houses have similar furniture, with the beds and dresser in the same places in each house. The dresser stands against the wall opposite the door, and was the first thing seen by anyone entering the dwelling. Each of these houses had the larger bed on the right side of the doorway and the smaller on the left.
One house, called House 8, has no storage boxes or dresser. It has been divided into something resembling small cubicles. When this house was excavated, fragments of stone, bone and antler were found. It is possible that this building was used as a house to make simple tools such as bone needles or flint axes. The presence of heat-damaged volcanic rocks and what appears to be a flue, support this interpretation. House 8 is distinctive in other ways as well. It is a stand-alone structure not surrounded by midden, instead it is above ground and has walls over 2 metres thick. It has a 'porch' protecting the entrance.
The site provided the earliest known record of the human flea Pulex irritans in Europe.
Originally, Childe believed that the settlement dated from around 500 BCE. This interpretation was coming under increasing challenge by the time new excavations in 1972–73 settled the question. Radiocarbon results obtained from samples collected during these excavations indicate that occupation of Skara Brae began about 3180 BCE with occupation continuing for about six hundred years. Around 2500 BCE, after the climate changed, becoming much colder and wetter, the settlement may have been abandoned by its inhabitants. There are many theories as to why the people of Skara Brae left; particularly popular interpretations involve a major storm.References:
Dating from the 15th century, Kisimul is the only significant surviving medieval castle in the Outer Hebrides. It was the residence of the chief of the Macneils of Barra, who claimed descent from the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages. Tradition tells of the Macneils settling in Barra in the 11th century, but it was only in 1427 that Gilleonan Macneil comes on record as the first lord. He probably built the castle that dominates the rocky islet, and in its shadow a crew house for his personal galley and crew. The sea coursed through Macneil veins, and a descendant, Ruari ‘the Turbulent’, was arrested for piracy of an English ship during King James VI’s reign in the later 16th century.
Heavy debts eventually forced the Macneil chiefs to sell Barra in 1838. However, a descendant, Robert Lister Macneil, the 45th Chief, repurchased the estate in 1937, and set about restoring his ancestral seat. It passed into Historic Scotland’s care in 2000.
The castle dates essentially from the 15th century. It takes the form of a three-storey tower house. This formed the residence of the clan chief. An associated curtain wall fringed the small rock on which the castle stood, and enclosed a small courtyard in which there are ancillary buildings. These comprised a feasting hall, a chapel, a tanist’s house and a watchman’s house. Most were restored in the 20th century, the tanist’s house serving as the family home of the Macneils. A well near the postern gate is fed with fresh water from an underground seam. Outside the curtain wall, beside the original landing-place, are the foundations of the crew house, where the sailors manning their chief’s galley had their quarters.