Travel: Exploring the Ancient Mysteries of Skara Brae, Scotland

If cavemen still have a capital, it must be the Orkneys – the island chain off the northern coast of Scotland. Marked by multiple ancient stone circles with a mysterious purpose that still defies historians and scientists, the islands are also home to the best preserved Neolithic village in the world – Skara Brae.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the remains of Skara Brae and Neolithic Orkney are more than 5,000 years old and were once the home of Stone Age humans. It sits on the western coast of Mainland, the largest of the Orkneys. Older than The Great Pyramid of Giza or Stonehenge, the village sat buried for millennia until a severe storm blew enough sand away to reveal the remains in 1850.

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Since then, the village has been explored, looted, forgotten and finally protected and significantly studied by the University of Edinburgh in Scotland as of the mid-20th Century. Now, the site is a major destination for the beautiful, quiet Orkneys. Though visitors to Scotland cannot enter the village, they can examine the site from walkways above it and image how the 50 or so men, women and children who lived here survived.

The archeologists who unearthed the site took great care to preserve what they found, while also attempting to present its layout as close to how the homes were originally built by the herdsman and fishing folk who lived at Skara Brae. Significantly smaller in stature than modern humans, they made stone furniture, hearths, dressers, bedrooms and mantels to store and present their prizes.


Though historians learned a great deal from the village, no one knows exactly why the site was abandoned. Archeologists did detect that whatever drove the villagers away was unexpected, quick and final. Whether it was weather, an attack by sea or invasion from rival tribes, those who built Skara Brae left suddenly. The villagers never returned and the site was slowly buried under sand and the famous violent weather of Scotland.

You can travel to Skara Brae and shuffle back 50 centuries in the gallery below.

All photos by John Scott Lewinski