Friday, 27 January 2012

Hearth and Home

(This article was published in SPIN, the Scottish Pagan Federation magazine.)

Spring makes me think of home.  As the weather lightens, all manner of tasks around the house become doable once more.  If I am feeling brave I may even consider embarking on some decorating.

Throughout winter, one tends to “batten down the hatches”, hoping the house won’t leak or, worse, blow away, but come spring it is time to venture out, repair any damage and get anything done before winter kicks in again in a few month’s time.

As the bantams become broody, hiding their eggs from us instead of dutifully laying them where we can rob them, and I see all the other wild creatures turn to thoughts of nesting and courtship, I realise that thoughts of hearth and home at this time of year are, in many ways, archetypal.

Even though we also have central heating, our hearth – in the form of a wood-burning stove – is a very central part of our house.  During the winter it can heat the entire house and provides a comforting, cosy warmth that is so much more tangible than radiators.  And keeping the stove stocked is an all-year-round preoccupation as I scrounge scrap wood from local builders, stashing it away and keeping it dry like the precious hoard it truly is.  Even when the sun is at its zenith, our thoughts focus on keeping warm through the winter.

The hearth seems to have been central , both literally and metaphorically, to homes in Orkney for time beyond memory.  The hearth is the symbolic axis of the home in so many cultures and it is no surprise that in these windswept, warmth-forsaken islands, legends and myths surrounding the tending of the hearth’s fire overnight abound.

Orkney is probably most famous for its unique (in the UK) preservation of Neolithic domestic architecture, alongside its ritual monuments.  Whereas elsewhere in Britain we only have tantalising hints of Neolithic domestic sites in the form of wooden stake- and post-holes, in Orkney a fortuitous coincidence led to the unique preservation of domestic architecture:– a lack of trees (and hence a dearth of wood for construction) combined with the compensation of the local sandstone geology being easily splitable into flagstones.  In prehistory, Orkney folk built in stone rather than wood, and the stone survived.

The most famous site is probably the World Heritage Site of Skara Brae (HY 231 187), managed by Historic Scotland.  Discovered in 1850 when a great storm swept off the covering sand dunes, Skara Brae has been excavated several times and dates to about 3100 BCE with two main phases of construction over about 600 years.

Skara Brae consists of at least 10 houses, all joined together by a winding covered passageway.  Each of the houses are roughly circular in layout and are one-roomed, uniform structures.  Each house / room is entered by a single door and has a square, central hearth marked with stone slabs.  Opposite the door, beyond the central hearth, is what is usually interpreted as a stone dresser but it may also have functioned as an altar.  On both the other sides, to left and right of the door, are what has been interpreted as beds, again built of slabs of stone and rather reminiscent of the later neuk beds (described later).

What is particularly charming about these houses is that they contain personal minutiae from which it is easy to imaging the details of Neolithic life and hence attempt a link with those who once lived here – saddle querns, sunken stone clay-lined boxes for shellfish, cells and cubby-holes built into the walls near the beds, and underground drains which are commonly interpreted as ensuite facilities but this is debatable.  One of the most intriguing theories I have encountered is that this was drainage for brewing beer (refer:

The visitor centre houses an excellent museum and one of the huts has been reconstructed enabling the snugness of the originally roofed structures to be experience.  Unfortunately, imagination at this site is constrained by the sheer number of tourists and hence understandably, Historic Scotland’s need to restrict access into the actual houses to protect the site from visitor erosion.  For this main reason, the spiritual pilgrim is advised to visit some of the other known settlement sites in Orkney, not only is there no entrance charge to some of the other key sites, but it is not unusual to have them all to oneself for the duration of any visit.

The earliest known Neolithic house sites known in Orkney (to date!) are at the Knap O’Howar (HY 483 518) on the island of Papa Westray (known as Papay to the locals).  Dating to about 3700 BCE these structures were in use for about 900 years and pre-date Skara Brae.  This site comprises two adjoining buildings which are usually interpreted as a composite farmstead.  These houses are long with rounded ends and are entered from outside at the centre of the north-west ends.  Both structures are aligned north-west – south-east.

The larger structure is usually interpreted as the dwelling house and the smaller as a workshop.  Both structures were sub-divided into “rooms” by stone slabs acting as partitions.  Again, a central hearth and various fittings, including quern stones, are on display. 

Papay has a fairly small population and is one of the more difficult outer islands to access for the visitor from Mainland (the inter-island flight from Kirkwall is recommended, particularly if the shortest scheduled flight from Westray to Papay is included – it takes about 2 minutes and you can claim a certificate!), for these reasons, it is quite easy to get Knap O’Howar to oneself.  Access is totally unrestricted and the site lies on the western coast of the island right by the seashore where seals and sea birds can be seen.  Papay is a small island and it is not too far to walk from the airport or the harbour to this site (or any site!).  It is easy to enjoy a couple of undisturbed hours in this place which today still feels like a home – a safe, comforting, familiar home, loved and protected and careful of its occupants for almost a millennium of use.  This site is exquisite and so very special, far easier to connect to than Skara Brae.

The houses at Skara Brae share a similarity in plan to MaesHowe and the MaesHowe type chambered tombs.  Similarly, it is possible to make a comparison in layout between the Knap O’Howar and stalled cairns (the other type of chambered tomb in Orkney), such as MidHowe.  Perhaps the dead also needed houses, albeit ones without central hearths?  If so, then the hearth becomes a symbol of heat, light, and life, central to Neolithic funerary customs and beliefs.

Hearths are also found in non-domestic setting in the neolithic, suggesting that they had a special, ritual significance, as well as a practical function.

Another settlement site lies at Barnhouse (HY 307 127) on Mainland, which is signposted and walkable from the Stones of Stenness.  This site was only discovered and excavated in the late twentieth century.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t in a particularly good state of preservation because it was under a field that had been ploughed, and a controversial decision was made to reconstruct the structures in accordance with what was found during excavation, so the stones which currently stand to only a few courses of stonework are only modern reconstructions, albeit in the place of the originals and at least giving an idea of the design and layout of this site.  Many more houses – at least 13 – were excavated than are currently reconstructed and on display.

Barnhouse dates from about 3200 BCE and is interesting because some of the structures are odd – even by Neolithic standards – being non-uniform in plan, suggesting that they may not have been purely domestic in structure.  One of the structures has a similar layout to the Skara Brae houses but is split into two main rooms – each with its own hearth.  Archaeologists have speculated that this may represent a division of space into perhaps male / female, old / young, uninitiated / initiated.

Another of the structures is much larger than the others and is surrounded by a substantial outer wall and has a complicated entrance architecture and internal passageway.  To enter this structure, one would have needed to have circumvented the inner perimeter and to have then crossed a hearth set into the entire width of the inner entrance.  Was this an enforced firewalk or an initiatory barrier to pass over?  Did it ritually purify anyone entering this structure?  It certainly isn’t practical, but then so much of prehistory isn’t.

Barnhouse is located so near to the Stones of Stenness, and dates to the same period, that archaeologists have suggested that the two sites are interrelated in some way, speculation being that Barnhouse was where the magician / priests of Stenness resided.  If this was the case, then it becomes more understandable that these domestic structures also have an element of ritual usage incorporated into them – although it may also be the case that, in the Neolithic, life was not so compartmentalised and that the segregation of function into sacred and profane was less pronounced than it is for us.
In recent years, archaeological excavation has focused on the Ness of Brodgar, (HY 303 128) on Mainland, which is the thin isthmus of land which nearly connects the Ring of Brodgar to the Stones of Stenness.  Today there is a bridge so that the B9055 road runs right along, but it is conjecture as to what there was in the past and certainly the water levels might have been lower so there was a natural causeway.  Nevertheless, to travel from the Ring of Brodgar to the Stones of Stenness, Neolithic folk must have passed across the Ness, or else took the inordinately long way around.

On the Ness of Brodgar lies another interesting settlement site with more highly unusual ritualistic elements present.  The earliest phases of construction date from about 2700 BCE and continue intermittently up to 2300 BCE, with perhaps some reuse of structures continuing until 2100 BCE.  Parallels have been drawn with the Barnhouse site with suggestions that this was where the magician / priests of Brodgar resided.

One interesting feature of this site is it’s demarcation in the landscape, as a substantial and well-constructed wall was built across the ithsmus to the north-west of the site (the “Great Wall of Brodgar”) effectively cutting these structures off from the Ring of Brodgar, and another wall was built to the south-east of the site (the “Lesser Wall of Brodgar”), cutting the structures off from the Stones of Stenness.  Geophysics results indicate that the area between the “Great Wall of Brodgar” and the Ring of Brodgar is “clean” suggesting little or no activity, as if the area was kept “pure” in some way.  Certainly these two substantial boundaries in the landscape, effectively enclosing the Ness site, suggest that something different went on one side of the wall to the other.

The largest of the structures (Structure Ten) at the Ness of Brodgar has been dubbed “the cathedral” because of its size and similar layout to MaesHowe.  At its centre is a cruciform structure, complete with a Skara Brae style dresser – at the Ness site, dubbed an altar – all enclosed by thick stone walls with a paved “forecourt” area around the eastern end and a standing stone incorporated into this annex.  This excavation has produced some finds unique to the British Neolithic in the form of painted art.  Scratched and incised art is known rarely from other sites but this is the only site at which rocks daubed with pigment have been recovered.  It is easy to think of the past as being black-and-white (especially when you are my age and remember black-and-white TV dominating your childhood!) but these finds inform us that the Neolithic folk were as colourful as us.

In 2010, a central hearth was discovered in Structure Ten, underneath the hearth was a stone block with cup marks and underneath that were deposits of animal bone, including an inverted skull of a cow.  This hearth was noted to be very similar to the hearths found at the centre of the houses at Skara Brae.  Half of the hearth stones were missing from Structure Ten, possibly having been deliberately removed and transferred elsewhere.  There may be a parallel with Barnhouse where a hearth from one structure was moved to the centre of the Standing Stones of Stenness.

It isn’t possible to go into these structures unless you volunteer as an excavator (and volunteers are welcome) but the site is fairly accessible for an on-going excavation site with daily guided tours during the 6-8 week excavation period every July and August.

The hearth continues in importance through the centuries and indeed the millennia in Orkney.

In South Ronaldsay, and included in your ticket price for entrance to the museum and Tomb of the Eagles, is Liddle Burnt Mound (ND 464 841).  This sites dates from about 900 BCE and was excavated by the farmer who owned the land and who, until recently, gave visitors a guided tour.  This site was under a 2 metre high mound of burnt stones.  At this site, when the stones were cleared, a Bronze Age stone-built house was revealed, with a hearth and a trough lined with stone.  A small stream runs just to the outside of the house, just down slope, so the inhabitants had a ready source of water.

Such mounds are fairly common around Orkney and elsewhere (in Ireland they are known as fulachta fiadh) and they consist of thousands of discarded stones which show evidence of having been heated.  The usual interpretation is that these stones were heated and then moved into water in order to boil large quantities of water.  The quantities of stone and burnt mounds suggests that a lot of water was been heated in the Bronze Age.  Academic careers have been built and lost on exactly why so much water was being boiled but theories include cooking meat – although this makes little sense as even as a vegetarian I recognised that roasted meat is superior in flavour to boiled – saunas / sweat lodges, or beer brewing (again, refer:  If either of the latter than this would not have been a purely domestic site but potentially also a ritualistic one as both pastimes are infamously capable of producing altered states of consciousness.

This is another delightful site at which the spiritual tourist is not rushed in their visit but can tarry and imagine life three thousand years ago.

In West Mainland, in the parish of Birsay, Kirkbuster Farm (HY 282 254) is worth a visit because of its large central kitchen with a central fireplace.  The fireplace is backed by a large upright stone slab and the smoke escapes through a hole in the roof.  Orkney Islands Council manage the site so there is no entrance fee and the staff are amazingly enthusiastic and knowledgeable; they still burn peat upon the hearth so the richness of the smoke and the gentle but constant heat from the fire is extremely evocative of days past.  There is also a neuk-bed, constructed of stone slabs set into the stone wall of the kitchen, and it is impossible not to draw parallels with the beds at Skara Brae.  There seems no hurry at Kirkbuster Farm; the building dates from at least the early eighteenth century, and whilst you bide a while at the fireside, quite likely whilst listening to the rain pour down outside, it is easy to glimpse ghosts in the coiling smoke skeins.

I have stated before that it is easy to become a sun-worshipper in Orkney because the presence, or not, of the sun can make such a difference to our days.  When we don’t have the sun, we make our own in the form of a hearth and the hearth becomes a focus for our lives and our homes.  In the winter, once we fire-up our wood-burning stove, we become one-roomers, we huddle down around our source of heat and light which is so welcoming and comforting and we dream of winter foods like warming soups and milky puddings.  Although we do not hibernate, it is as if we do, safe from the weather outside, cocooning hopes of summer like seeds within our hearts.


  1. Hi Magpie-Thank you so much for the most complete & inclusive article I've yet to read on Neolithic structures in the UK. This latest discovery on the Ness of Brodgar is fascinating, as the door opens wider to further understanding such an elusive part of our history amid such a majestically stark landscape.

    I too live out in the middle of everywhere, in the Southwest US, surrounded by deserts to the south & mountains to the north, but lacking much of what surrounds you-water! Here, many hikes will yield stone structures from Native Americans dating back a mere 1000 years.

    It is quite captivating though as these structures sit quietly, prodding us to ask questions of discovery about our silenced ancestors as well as of ourselves. I look forward to future articles. Be well & stay warm-Jim

    1. Hi Jim
      Thank you so much for reading my article and for commenting; I am glad you enjoyed it. Please find me on FaceBook for regular updates on when I add new articles to this Blog (just added one on MaesHowe) - the idea is to offer an alternative tourist guide including the main sites and some of those "off the beaten track". When I was studing at Southampton University, I had a study-buddy from Canada, he told me lots of amazing info about Native American sites including those fascinating medicine wheels - that "New World Archaeology" is just as interesting.
      Many Blessings
      Helen / Magpie