Voice 21 - Martin Flett - Ancient

/ Martin Flett / Arts & Culture

The environments you encounter as a child have an enormous impact on you. When growing up, our colleague Martin Flett spent a lot of time in Orkney, and one of the things that his family used to do was go and visit Neolithic settlements, such as burial chambers, tombs, cairns and brochs.

A personal favourite amongst these was the Tomb of the Eagles where, due to the smallness of the entrance, you have to slide in on a skateboard, and once inside you discover these amazing burial chambers, in which they found 70 sea eagle talons, which gave the tomb its name. Like many archaeological sites in Orkney, this tomb was discovered by accident when a farmer’s plough disappeared into the ground and through the capping stone, leading him to explore the chamber by candlelight, most likely the first person to do so for at least a thousand years.

Architecture is a continuum that stretches back from the first primitive huts right through to the present day, and which connects us to our ancestors, forebears and the next and successive generations. We can learn a great deal from the architecture of the past, both in more recent times where an architect was involved but also before then, from vernacular and indigenous architecture. It is easy to forget that the role of the architect as we know it is an incredibly recent phenomenon, and that people have been building in ad-hoc fashions for many multiples of the time that architecture as an art form has existed.

One of the things that is so compelling about vernacular architecture is the way in which the structures work with nature, being shaped by sun patterns, wind directions, altitude and temperature. There is something really compelling about buildings formed by natural and practical concerns, giving rise to beautiful and legible structures.

Another powerful aspect of vernacular architecture is its connection to place, being constructed almost entirely from locally sourced materials. This gives rise to regional variations in vernacular architecture – for example the stone Neolithic architecture of Orkney, which is with us still today not because Neolithic Orcadians were the only people capable of building such complex structures, but because of the scarcity of timber on Orkney leading to the almost wholesale use of stone as a building material.

This is a tradition which carries on to the present day with the remarkable stone roofs that you see on Orkney, mainly on outbuildings now. Orcadian stone is generally very hard and good for paving and walling, but does not split very well into regular sized roof tiles, and vernacular architecture is full of curiosities such as this, particular solutions for particular places, that would be nonsensical in other settings.

One of the things that is so compelling about these ancient structures, both on Orkney and further afield is that they are strongly emblematic of a shared, communal culture of building, of shared ownership and of belonging to their time, place, and to the entire community.

This is of course analogous to present day trends towards communal creative action, and communal life more generally, which we see today in the growth of co-working projects such as Second Home, and co-housing projects such as Copper Lane. In this context, it is clear that there is still much to take today from more ancient architecture.

Brough of Birsay