We do like to be beside the sea side

Scara BraeSo here I am. A neolithic photographer birdwatcher farmer sat in my house watching the sea. OK, I can only watch the sea because my roof has blown off. And the walls have fallen down. And the sea is about a mile closer than it was 5,000 years ago. But there we have it.

Prehistoric sea-watching is much the same as it has been ever since. Lots of sea and bugger all on it. Where we are staying, round at Birsay, it is a different kettle of sea-life. Great and Arctic skuas respectively lumbering and flashing hither and thither. Guillemots and Black Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins whirling to and from their cliff ledges. Yes, Puffins on cliff ledges – they obviously do things differently in Orkney.

But back to my neolithic sea view. This was, of course, at Skara Brae. This was the prehistoric settlement discovered in the mid 19th century when a storm ripped away its grass and sand covering to expose a small settlement of half a dozen or so interconnected dwellings and a workshop or pottery. Apparently this housed 50 people although how we know that is beyond me. Actually another account says it housed 100 people so we don’t know. As I thought.

The ‘houses’ are remarkably well preserved. At least what’s left of them is (if that makes any sense). The lower walls show the outline. Stone boxes that would have been stuffed with soft bedding material and covered in animal skins together with tables where prized possessions could be displayed show a good degree of civilisation. And like modern houses, when you just see the foundations they look terribly tiny and cramped. But when you enter the fully built version, as we didi in a replica construction, you wonder at the space available. As soon as something moves from being a 2D plan to a 3D construction the Tardis effect appears to take over.

That which has been preserved for 5,000 years is now in danger of being lost – just through the chance of having been found. Being exposed to elements threatens, as does the tramp of thousands of visitors. Conservation now takes priority. The sand which supports the structures is regularly replenished with sand washed free of damaging salts. Visitors are kept at a respectful distance. Reproduction roofs are being installed over one or two structures to recreate the microclimate that would have existed in the stone age houses. Although frankly I didn’t see much evidence of trying to recreate the smog from boiling lobsters over open fires.

And despite the picture, then as now, there was plenty of life in that sea to be caught and boiled.