Skara Brae is probably the single most famous Neolithic settlement uncovered in the world. It gives us the most complete picture of everyday life in that period of time, and has quite a few surprises: Indoor running water? Dressers and beds? Yep. They had storage rooms, and even toys for the kids. There are some objects that they can’t figure out, but that just makes it all the more tantalizing.
Originally much farther from the shoreline, over the centuries erosion has eaten away at the land; Skara Brae will itself eventually succumb to the pounding Atlantic waves.
I was there in 1989 for the first time, and again in 2002; the first time I was there, I was with a group of friends, and we were given a private tour by a friend’s uncle who worked there. It was an amazing way to see this prehistoric site, tourist-free and (back then) largely untainted by tourism. In 2002 it was a different matter altogether: A tourist shop had sprung up, and we had to time our viewing between bus-loads of day-tourists from “doon sooth” (down south = Scotland). Also on that second visit, the Atlantic winds were so strong that we were literally leaning into the wind at a 45° angle; if it had had a sudden lull, we would have been flung into the sunken dwellings; it was an adventure.
If you get a chance to go, do so; take at least a fortnight on Mainland Orkney. It’s known as the Archaeologist’s treasure trove, and for good reason – just about any stone you turn over has some kind of historical significance, and there are many sites to take in: Maeshowe, Ness of Brodgar and the Ring of Brodgar, and chambered cairns to name a few, and even more modern sites such as Churchill Barrier, and sunken World War 2 vessels (some portions are visible in low tide).
The stretch of water between Scotland and Orkney, the Pentland Firth, is known as “The Sailor’s Nightmare”; there are several currents that flow and mix into this bottleneck, not only making for treacherous sailing, but it can also make even the hardiest sailor lose his lunch. Word to the wise: When heading out of Thurso with the ferry to the Mainland (the largest island in the Orkney group), a) don’t eat yet (it usually leaves around lunch time, and believe me, you won’t keep it long…), and b) as soon as you get on the ferry, head to the dining room and get a window-side table; this is because they will not only fill up fast, but once you’re out of the relatively calm / wind-sheltered bay into the open strait, you’ll be glad for a ring-side view from a wind-sheltered, spray-sheltered spot; keeping your eye on the horizon helps the brain deal with the swells, and keeps seasickness at bay…