THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

Skara Brae

"And think in Orkney
Of the old friendship of stone and man,
How they honoured and served each other.

From "The Friend" in "Travellers" by George Mackay Brown (2001).

Five hundred years before the construction of the pyramids in Egypt, Neothlithic farmers on the bleak Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland began the construction of the stone village that has become one of the most wondrous archeological sites in the modern world. We now call the village Skara Brae (location 59deg. 2' 55.4" N, 3deg. 20' 29.9" W). Construction began about 3200BC and it was occupied for about 1000 years before it appears to have been hurriedly abandoned, perhaps because of a storm though deteriorating climate may have also been a factor. The houses as well as the furnishings and tools therein have lasted some 5000 years because they were quickly covered over by sand and earth and because they were made largely from stone rather than wood. It is truly eirie to walk through this fossilized village, imagining the daily life of those Neolithic residents.

Like other works of man lost in the mists of time - like Machu Picchu or Xian's terrcotta warriors - Skara Brae was discovered accidentally. In 1850 a violent storm and the raging Atlantic stripped the sand and earth from the top of a mound just inland from the Bay of Skaill on the bleak western coast of the Orkney mainland. This revealed the outline of a miniture stone village replete with walled houses and passages between them. Though the discovery was neglected for a long time and even plundered, it eventually received the attention it deserved and the subsequent excavations unveiled a remarkable Neolithic culture. Today it is one of the most remarkable Neolithic monuments in the western world.

Neolithic village of Skara Brae

   
House #1 House #4?

   

The people who inhabited Skara Brae were Neolithic farmers. They grew wheat and barley and kept cattle and sheep. The weather in their time seems to have been more friendly than present day but a worsening climate may have contributed to their abandonment of the village that was covered over by sand and earth about 2200BC. But the culture clearly flourished for many centuries and there is every chance that shards of their DNA came down through the millenia into my own blood.


In September of 2006, I travelled to Ireland to fulfil a commitment that, many months earlier, I had made to the school in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland, where I had received all of my early education and to which I owed a great debt for the start they gave me in life. The head master of the Rainey Endowed School, Magherafelt, had invited me to attend their annual prize-giving and graduation ceremony, to address the assembled school, parents and teachers and to present various prizes for academics and extra-curricular activities. It was a pleasure for me to do so for I felt there was much I wanted to communicate to the girls and boys who were just starting the adventure of life. After the formalities and following the usual agenda, all of the participants and friends gathered in the adjoining dining hall for refreshments and conversation. There I had the pleasure of renewing many old friendships and greeting many new acquaintances. The room was crowded and I found myself in the middle turning from one greeting to another, almost always recognizing the faces but seriously deficient in matching names to those faces. Then, suddenly, I heard a special voice behind me and turned to find myself face to face with an old flame from many decades ago; we clasped hands, holding them close to our chests. We looked in each others eyes and remembered a very special feeling from long ago. Then someone else turned me around again and when I looked back she was gone. But I was struck by the abiding memory of that special feeling from long ago; while everything else from that evening would soon fade inconsequentially away, that meeting and that feeling would be with me for the rest of my life.

The next day, Sep.17, 2006, I flew to Scotland and, with stops in Edinburgh and Inverness, travelled in a small British Airways plane to the Orkney Islands, where I arrived at Kirkwall Airport in the pouring rain. There I rented a car and headed west through the rain for the marshy and desolate heaths of the western Orkneys. In modern times, it is hard to imagine why Neolithic farmers so valued this land. They invested great energy to build ever-enduring stone monuments upon it. I found a bed and breakfast room for the night and bedded down hoping for enough dry weather in which to enjoy my visit to this remarkable and unique remnant of the remote past. Thankfully the rain had gone by morning and, after easily finding my way to the edge of the Bay of Skaill, I was able to take my time enjoying both the exhibits and the ancient monument of Skara Brae. Though I enjoyed trying to work out the purpose of each of the pieces of stone furniture, my mind kept drifting back and forth from the ancient stones to the events of the preceding few days. These stone houses had lasted 5000 years and, no doubt, would last long into the future. Their story, their memory would never fade. I thought about my own memories from long ago and from the preceding day; those, too, would last forever, for me and maybe for her. They had the same rock hardness of lasting truth. Like those stones out on the edge of the Orkneys, the memories would sit quietly on the edge of my being without effecting the rest of my life. I would occasionally remember them and always with pleasure; but they would always be intensely private, always as secure and silent as the stones of Skara Brae. As I drove away the words of the renowned Orkney poet, George Mackay Brown, kept returning to me: "And think in Orkney of the old friendship of stone and man, how they honoured and served each other."

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Last updated 9/3/13.
Christopher E. Brennen