Climate change

Reflections from 5,000 Years Ago


The sun is high and across the bay are the sandstone cliffs being battered by sea. You can just see the occasional wave coming through a great stone arch carved out of the coast on the southern edge of the bay.


Walk along the bay and you are at a remarkable set of grassy mounds and stone workings. This was home 5,000 years ago for Neolithic people at Skara Brae, a village exposed by the sea winds in 1850. The remains are remarkably intact. It almost looks like Hobbiton, with small door ways and turf roofs – Tolkein was a professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford, maybe his interest in ancient history brought him here?

At the visitor centre there is a complete replica.

As you walk in, the first thing you see is a large stone dresser on the other side of the hearth. Either side of the dresser are small troughs for storing water and food. All around the room are compartments for curling up and sleeping.

People lived in this community for 600 years – from 3100 BC to 2500 BC. The sea was further away and the community had access to a fresh water loch, before getting to the beach. They were farmers of livestock, fishermen and cultivators of food in the fertile soil fed by warm Gulf Stream air. They made clay pots, and fashioned their tools from stone and bone. There was some local wood and other driftwood from the Atlantic.

In many ways they appear to have had a successful existence. There would have been reasonable supplies of food and energy. There was trade and enough interaction with others to avoid genetic in-breeding.

But then it stopped. There appears to be few clues as to why.

These Stone Age people would have witnessed gradual climate change. The erosion of the sea, eventually taking away their local water supply. The depletion of their natural wood resources and with it a main source of energy.

The threat of technological change was inevitable. Jim Crace’s great novel The Gift of Stones tells the story of Stone Age craftsmen being made irrelevant by Bronze Age invaders. Seemingly technological change opening new ways of doing things and making the world smaller.

So why did the community at Skara Brae close? I suspect that their way of life became unsustainable despite their resourcefulness. After 600 years of stability, they would have had to change.

As we all do from time to time.