At Knap of Howar on the Orkney island of Papa Westray a Neolithic farmstead has been wonderfully well preserved, and is claimed to be the oldest stone house in northern Europe, with radiocarbon dating showing that it was occupied from 3500 BC to 3100 BC, earlier than the very similar houses in the settlement at Skara Brae.
The farmstead consists of two adjacent rounded rectangular thick walled buildings with very low doorways facing to sea, the larger and older linked by a low passageway to the other which has been interpreted as a workshop or a second house. They were constructed on an earlier midden, and surrounded by midden material which has protected them. There are no windows, and presumably they were lit by a hole in the roof to let out smoke. They stand close to the shore, but when built lay inland. The shore shows how the local stone splits into thin slabs, giving a ready source of construction material.
The walls still stand to an eaves height of 1.6m, and the stone furniture is intact giving a vivid impression of life in the house. Fireplaces, partition screens, beds and storage shelves are almost intact, and post holes were found indicating the roof structure. At the time of visiting it was possible to enter the buildings and readily imagine the life of the original occupants.
Evidence from the middens shows that the inhabitants were keeping cattle, sheep and pigs, farming barley and wheat and gathering shellfish as well as fishing for species which have to be line caught using boats.
Finds of finely made and decorated Unstan ware pottery link the inhabitants to chambered cairn tombs nearby and to sites far afield including Balbrindie and Eilean Domhnuill
Also see: Prehistoric Scotland - Farmers and monument builders
- Scotland Before History - Stuart Piggott, Edinburgh University Press 1982, ISBN -07524-1400-3
- Scotland's Hidden History - Ian Armit, Tempus (in association with Historic Scotland) 1998, ISBN 0-7486-6067-4
- The Other Orkney Book - Gordon Thomson, Northabout Publishing 1980, ISBN 0-907200-00-1