Bet you’ve never heard of Skara Brae. Don’t pretend. You haven’t, have you? I hadn’t heard of it either, until I found it in this book with a really dumb title.
I mean, come on. 1001 historic sites you must see? Before you die? Like The Smolny Institute? (p. 669) Or The Bank of England? (p. 290) Or Old Melbourne Jail? (p. 926) And if you don’t manage to get to them all by deadline, then what?
But after a day of windy rain and robo-calls and waiting in doctors’ offices for probably unnecessary checkups and/or “procedures” (the bane of an older person’s existence — if the older person has health insurance, that is), and after the cleaning ladies have canceled at the last minute and you discover the car has about a quarter of a cup of gas left on which you may just possibly manage to coast into the nearest gas station on a wheel and a prayer — after all that, stress builds to a point where Skara Brae, the one thousand and first site in the book with the dumb title, begins to seem like heaven on earth.
This is what 1001 Historic Sites says about it (after telling you it’s in Orkney, Scotland):
Five-thousand-year-old homes with evidence of orderliness and comfort
This Stone Age village was buried beneath sand dunes for centuries until a huge storm blew the sand away, around 1850. What was revealed gives a vivid impression of ordinary life more than 5,000 years ago. Despite their great antiquity the houses are remarkably uniform, so much so that they have been likened to a ‘group of prehistoric council houses’ ….
Built of stone, the houses would have been roofed with turf or thatch. Their wooden doors opened off an underground maze of narrow passages …. Each house, however, had one spacious main room, measuring about 20 square feet (6 sq. m.). The fitted stone furniture inside included two box beds, possibly one for the man and the other for the woman and their children. The family would have slept on heather or bracken, under blankets of animal skin, and the stone floor would have been made more comfortable with strewn furs and skins.
The Skara Brae families had ornaments and used cosmetics, and each house had the same regulation two-shelf stone dresser, apparently placed to display precious objects to visitors. Stone shelves and cupboards were built into the walls. In the middle of the room was a hearth for burning peat. There are small cells that seem to have been lavatories, with drains, and one of the huts was apparently a workshop….The people of the village kept cows, sheep, and pigs, grew cereal crops in their fields, went hunting, and gathered shellfish. The occasional stranded whale would have been a blessing. At about 2,500 B.C.E. sand dunes began to encroach on Skara Brae and the settlement was abandoned.
Orderliness, comfort, ornaments, cosmetics, toilets. Fragrant heather mattresses, leather blankets, fur rugs, heat. Steaks, lamb chops, bacon, oatmeal, oysters. A workshop for weaving things from sheep’s wool or practicing a prehistoric reed instrument. What more could you want, after you’d grown your crops, hunted, gathered your shellfish and displayed precious objects to visitors? There was probably also plenty of sex. I don’t know why the editor of 1001 Historic Sites thinks the man slept in one bed, the woman with the children in the other. I would have put the man and woman together in one of the two beds, and all the children in the other, where they could giggle and play games in the dark under their leather blankets while their parents disported themselves, quietly, across the spacious main room.
The occasional stranded whale I would pass on. It would also be nice to have a few books to put on those fitted stone shelves. But I won’t carp. Even without the books, Skara Brae sounds like a welcome change from electronic devices pinging, telephones ringing and the washing-machine breaking down just when there’s no more clean underwear. (I bet they didn’t even wear underwear in Orkney five thousand years ago, clean or otherwise.)
All right, so maybe Skara Brae isn’t for permanent relocation. But a nice vacation?
And then those sand dunes came along 4.500 years ago and ruined everything! Why do these things always happen to me?