House #4 at Skara Brae looking at the bed (directly past the square hearth) the young couple shared. To the left of the enclosed bed space is the opening to the passageway between homes I saw the husband run into.
Photo by Lynne Sutherland Olson
Murder is not what I expected to see when standing in front of one of the Neothic homes retrieved from the turf of the Skara Brae farming villiage on Orkney Island. Let alone a murder that took place roughly 3,200 years ago.
September 2017 I had the opprotunity to visit a number of Neolithic sites on Orkney Island, located off the coast of Scotland and in England on a tour based around the two decades of research done by Cosmologist Laird Scranton. My remote viewing skills kicked into overdrive the entire trip. Skara Brae was our first stop.
Standing in front of house #4 I saw two male inhabitants of Skara Brae fighting to the death on the impossibly green turf closest to the Bay of Skaill. One man was on top of the other and killed him with a sharpened rock dagger that repeatedly slashed at his opponents abdomen and lower ribs. There was a lot of blood involved before the victor killed his target.
The murder absolutely stunned the inhabitants of the tiny village. I could see some of the village watching the fatal attack take place, hear the calls of alarm and feel the shockwaves reverberate through the tight knit community. I saw three village women huddled togehter crying and urgently discussing the murder. The argument, like so many through history seemed to have been in part about a woman. The victor didn’t have long to enjoy his accomplishment because he was excecuted the next day.
Execution took the form of three or four men, including the murderer going far out into the Bay of Skaill in a tiny, shell shaped boat without oars. The little skiff looked a great deal like half a walnut shell made with scraped hides stretched over a wooden frame with a pronounced midline seam in the basic hull. They went far enough out that the condemed man would not be able to swim back to shore on his own. He was summarily dumped into the water to drown. His executioners knew the tides well enough to allow their little boat to return them safely to the village, which 3,200 years ago was probably about a quarter to a half mile further inland than Skara Brae is today.
The Bay of Skaill as seen from Skara Brae September 2017.
Photo by Lynne Sutherland Olson
While the murder was the most shocking thing I saw at Skara Brae I picked up on a lot more details of daily life, mostly around house #4, which is the largest recovered dwelling out of the six restored dwellings open to the public.
I found myself looking into the woman’s bed in the middle of an ancient Neolithic night. It was well into the early morning hours but still pitch black outside. (Scholarship suggests women slept in one bed on the right side of a common hearth and men in annother on the left side of the hearth in the one room house.) She wasn’t alone. I saw a young couple talking softly and playing with their baby who looked to be between six and eight months old. The husband was holding up this child at arms length while both parents giggled and cooed to make the baby laugh. It was a warm and private moment.
Abruptly the scene shifted to broad daylight. The young wife and baby were not visible but I saw the same husband and father rising from the bed he had shared with them before and scuttling down a passageway from his home to other homes in the settlement. The passage was low and covered as he was running bent in half. His running crouch didn’t seem to impede the speed of his movements in the least and he was quickly out of sight. I didn’t see which house he was heading for. About an hour later our tour guide Clare Burgher with Scottish Tourist Guides confirmed that yes, there were passageways built between the homes of Skara Brae. (If you ever make it to Kirkwall on Orkney Island, ask for Clare, she was an amazing tour guide and exceptionally knowledgable.) The wind on Orkney is constant and exceptionally strong, so covered passageways between family homes would have been a necessity especially during storms.
I think the young family I saw in house #4 were the start of the next generation of leaders at Skara Brae. Not a lot is known about the social structure of the people there in the Neolithic era, but I got the impression he was the son of a chief, laird or leader of some description. It was a small village but leadership was key and in this case felt inherited. This helped explain why such a young couple starting out with their first child had the nicest house in the village. When I asked about how other families in the villiage handled new couples I was shown many of the one room homes occupants would dig alcoves into the walls to create semi-private space for newly formed married couples. Marriage may not have been as formal an arragmement then as it is now, but human biology being what it is, pairing off was inevitable as were children.
At that point I took a broader look at the land around Skara Brae and asked to be shown how it looked at the time of the murder and the young family I had just seen centuries before the mannor of Skaill House was built in any form. First thing I noticed was a permimeter fence, made in the same manner as the stacked stone walls you see all over Orkney and the Scottish mainland even today. The Neolithic inhabitants built and maintained the wall but interestingly did not staff it unless they saw strangers in the area whose intentions they didn’t yet know. When strangers showed up the perimeter wall was manned around the clock until the villiagers knew what they wanted and were about. There was a deep sense of wariness about unknown outsiders within the community.
Typical stacked stone wall at Skara Brae. These walls were all over Orkney Island defining modern fields and property lines.
Photo by Lynne Sutherland Olson
Within the perimeter wall I was shown grains and vegetables under cultivation. All gardens and grain fields were rectanguar in shape with defined borders. Smaller family garden plots were interspersed with larger community grain fields. I had the impression that each family maintained their respective gardens and all families maintained the grain fields.
Although I was not able to shed any light onto why Skara Brae was so abruptly abandoned, it was a fascinating look into it’s heyday.
Lynne Sutherland Olson
(c) 2017 Lynne Sutherland Olson
All rights reserved.