A highlight of my recent holiday was a visit to some of the Neolithic sites on Mainland Orkney.
The last time I was here, I was a student taking part in a survey, counting guillemots crowding the cliffs. (Tip: count the birds in groups of five, because it’s impossible to do it one by one by one…)
Back then I didn’t know there was an extraordinary stone-age village excavated just a few miles away. Skara Brae is a 5,000-year old settlement, a cluster of stone houses built partly underground. Tolkien surely must have visited the site when he was dreaming up The Hobbit‘s Shire.
Eight Skara Brae dwellings and a ‘workshop’ are preserved almost complete, and we can look down into them through their missing roofs. The builders had a house-pattern they stuck to – a central fireplace, beds to either side, and a ‘dresser’ of shelves, set opposite the door to impress visitors.
There would have been blankets and screens made from animal fur and skins, but we have to imagine those from the cold stone ‘skeletons’ of the rooms.
These are true stone-age households. Everything was made from stone, bone, driftwood or pottery. The people here made stone tools and etched patterns into their walls and pots. They carved bone beads and mysterious stone objects that we can only guess the purpose of. They also built stone circles.
Just over the brow of a hill across the water is a place where stone was quarried for the nearby Ring of Brodgar, a huge circle originally of 60 standing stones.
It isn’t hard to imagine people from the little community of Skara Brae excavating and transporting their own stones to contribute to the monumental gathering on the island.
Our excellent tour guide told us a folk tale: the stones were giants dancing in a circle, and the rising sun turned them to stone. There’s probably a Viking aspect to this story – invading Vikings brought their own myths of trolls turning to stone in sunlight, and they would have woven them into existing, already-ancient, local stories.
Perhaps the first story, the one the circle builders told their children around the hearths of Skara Brae, was also about people becoming stone. What better way to immortalise your most revered ancestor than as a stone giant, standing for eternity, shoulder to shoulder with other heroic figures.