The Central Hearth Orkney

“The winter gathered us into one room as it gathered the cattle into the stable and the byre; the sky came closer; the lamps were lit at three or four in the afternoon, and then the great evening lay before us like a world: an evening filled with talk, stories, games music and lamplight.”
Edwin Muir


Central hearths did not die out in the Neolithic period but continued to be used in Orkney for centuries. Until the late 1800s, all crofts in Orkney had a central hearth.

Winter in Orkney is long and dark. As such it has always been the time when folk gathered around the fire to talk, tell stories and make music. It is not unlikely that the same thing happened over 4,000 years ago in Skara Brae.

At the centre of every house in Skara Brae is a large, square hearth, made up of stone kerbs.

For the significance of the hearth to the Neolithic inhabitants of Orkney, we need look no further than our own houses. Even today, the fireplace serves more than one purpose – it is a source of heat and light and often the centrepiece of a room.

The importance of fire cannot be over-exaggerated. It not only provided warmth and illuminated the houses but also cooked food and even disposed of combustible rubbish.

Because of this, the hearth, and the fire within, was the centre of domestic and social life.


Until recent times, fire was also valued for the protection it offered from evil spirits. The fires in an Orkney croft were never allowed to go out. If this did happen it was regarded as a very bad omen for the household.

The crucial importance of fire for the maintenance of life could have led to the hearth’s position, and the furniture around it, acquiring some symbolic significance. This may account for the hearth-like structure found at the centre of the Standing Stones of Stenness.

In a society where there was little, or no, boundary between religion and everyday life, the fire in every hearth was, quite literally, the life of the settlement. Its survival depended on it.

Turning away from whatever symbolic significance the hearth had, its central position can also be viewed in a purely functional light.

Placed in the centre of the house, the smoke was allowed to escape from the central smoke-hole – if any existed – and also maximised the number of people able to get around the warmth of the fire.

Source: The Central Hearth

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