Douglas Blane finds Stone-Age home life uncovered in Orkney
We are half a mile from the visitor centre to the village at the edge of the sea, but 5,000 years in time. As the children make their way down the path towards the beach, engraved stones chronicle their journey through time: First Man on the Moon AD 1969, Empire of the Incas AD 1490, Fall of Rome AD 476, Stonehenge 2000 BC, Great Pyramid at Giza 2500 BC. And finally, at the end of the path, Skara Brae 3100 BC.
Since the visitor centre opened in April last year almost 60,000 people have come here to explore the best preserved Stone-Age village in northern Europe, and to learn about the people who built it "You wonder about them," says Jenny Skene, a primary 5 pupil at Dounby Primary School, "and how they lived. It would be nice if they could come to our world now and go round this place with us and tell us about themselves. Or if we could go back in time and talk to them."
Instead, on a bright sharp morning in mid-December the pupils are being shown round the site by Historic Scotland's Shelagh Grieve. "We don't know a lot about the children of the village," she says. "But I imagine they would have done very little playing. During the day they'd have had to work, perhaps gathering seaweed to burn on the fires. Wood was scarce on Orkney then as it is now."
But life for adults and children at Skara Brae was not unduly harsh. The underground houses were quite comfortable. The climate was a few degrees warmer than today, allowing cattle and sheep to be grazed on the meadows. Lochs and sea were stocked with fish. Wild deer and boar roamed the land, and there was fertile soil for growing wheat and barley. "The fact that the people were only a few inches shorter than us shows they had a good diet," says Ms Grieve. "And there is no sign of any warlike tendencies. They seem have to been a peaceable folk, and they must have been very communicative and sociable to be able to live together in such a small area. There would have been an oral tradition with lots of storytelling and skills handed down from generation to generation."
Eight interconnected houses, built just under the ground, have been found at Skara Brae. The village was occupied for around 600 years and then abandoned. No one knows why.
Each single-roomed house is built to the same plan and contains similar items of stone furniture - a large dresser opposite the door to the underground corridor, a central hearth, cupboards, stone seats and two beds, one against either wall.
Visitors are not allowed inside the houses although the children can wander round the site, peer into the rooms from above, and study interpretative panels.
Once back at the visitor centre, however, they are able to explore a replica house, authentic even to its smells of sand, salt fish and seaweed. They are surprised by its spaciousness.
"But it must have got awful smoky when the fire was lit," says Lorraine Nicolson.
A short film tells of the discovery of Skara Brae in 1850, after a great storm had blown away the top layer of the sand which had buried and preserved the houses. A number of stone artefacts are displayed under glass, and the children can use interactive computer screens to investigate how to build the houses, make pottery and carry out archaeology at the site, as well as study the changing geography of the Bay of Skaill and aspects of everyday life for the Neolithic villagers.
"This new visitor centre makes a big difference," says teacher Lawrence Bews. "The children used to get chilled to the bone sometimes, standing at Skara Brae with a piece of paper blowing half-way across the beach as they were trying to fill it in.
"As a teacher your first impression of all this is it's so visual and aural, which makes it far more real to the children. And they find the hands-on activities fascinating. In Orkney kids see ancient monuments every day - some even have standing-stones in their fields - but when you prepare them, they see them with new eyes."
Many historic monuments impress us with their magnificence. But Skara Brae is different, just a few stone houses built by ordinary people who worked and loved and told each other stories in a long-dead language. They have left no written records but they speak to us from the distant past through the things they made.
"You feel a bit sort of sad," says pupil Joannah Fergusson. "But mostly you try to imagine how they would have lived. You're curious about them and you wonder where they went. I could spend ages here."
Skara Brae, Sandwick, Orkney KW16 3LR. School groups free. Book first, tel: 01856 841815. Otherwise, adults pound;4, children pound;1.20