In the winter of 1850 an extremely violent storm hit the west coast of mainland Orkney. As well as the havoc that it caused the island inhabitants, the storm stripped the grass from the high dunes at the Bay of Skaill, and exposed an immense midden mound1 and the remains of sand-filled ancient dwellings within the mound.
The laird of Skaill, William Watt, began to explore and excavate the site and soon realised that the houses that he unearthed2 were Stone Age. He found many artefacts to support this assertion.
Sporadic excavations from then until 1973 revealed what we now know as Skara Brae: the remains of a village that was inhabited before the Egyptian pyramids were built. Thanks to the inundation of the sand and the protection that it afforded the site for millennia, Skara Brae is the most well-preserved Neolithic3 settlement in Northern Europe.
Where is Skara Brae?
It lies right against the beach at the Bay of Skaill, west Mainland, OS Ref NY 2321884 on the B9056. It is owned and run by Historic Scotland who charge visitors to visit the site and who conduct guided tours.
For the mid-20th Century visitor Skara Brae was a place of adventure, particularly for children. A place for scampering around, over and through. It was a place of surprising familiarity, yet a complete mystery. It was a place for play-acting and imagining the lives of other children from 5000 years before. The finds and flimsy information leaflets were housed in a small stone shack. The warden would show you around the site if you asked her; happy to break the tedium of looking after a rarely-visited archaeological site and eager to answer questions from the occasional inquisitive, even well-informed, visitor.
Today, Skara Brae is fenced in and buttressed against too many feet and the ravages of coastal erosion. A guided tour is the only way that you will see the village and it is strictly managed, timed and directed by Historic Scotland staff, so that the ancient stone walls don't crack and crumble any more than they have done already
No longer can eager and excited children enter the houses through the low passages and entrance doors. You now peer down into each house in turn from the modern walkway above. The visitor centre contains replicas of the finds5, as well as Skara Brae souvenir pens, rubbers6 and a cafe. It also houses an imaginative and informative interactive interpretive display and an outstanding full-sized reconstruction of one of the houses.
What Do We Know About Skara Brae?
The village was inhabited between 3100BC and 2500BC and was modified throughout this 600-year period. There are six houses visible today, but it is likely that the village was larger than this when inhabited and that the other houses have been lost to sand inundation. The six square or rectangular houses are linked by two narrow irregular passages. It is an inward-looking complex, with one isolated building on the west, which is thought to have been a workshop for tools and kitchen equipment.
What is extraordinary about the main group of houses is that they were built into a midden, thus making it almost subterranean. It would have provided good protection from the wet and windy Orkney weather. No weapons have been found, so it is considered unlikely that midden-building was for defensive purposes.
What Do You See When You Visit Skara Brae?
The floor area of each house in Skara Brae is about 36m2, or 387ft2, so the houses were quite spacious7. The roofs are gone now, but were probably made from whalebone or timbers, filled in with turfs. Furniture in the houses was mostly made from stone; certainly all that remains is stone-built. This is partly because Orkney, then as now, was almost treeless and partly because the local flagstone is abundant and easy to split and work. Driftwood would have been available and would have been used make items that stone is not suited to, such as boats and roofing timbers.
Stone box-beds would have been padded with bracken and heather, topped with animal skins. Most of the beds have cupboards set into the wall above them; presumably for personal effects. Each house contains a stone dresser, opposite the entrance door. They look for all the world just like a crude version of today's kitchen dressers and may have been used as simple storage areas, or for displaying prized belongings.
In the centre of each house is a stone-girt hearth. The fuel was probably a mixture of animal dung, dried seawead, heather, bracken and peat. The design of the village minimised heat loss and a comfortable temperature would have been easily maintained. There is no evidence of any form of lighting, so although warm, the houses would have been dark, lit only by the fires.
The houses have substantial cupboards or alcoves built recessed into the walls. Some of them have a drain running directly underneath and it is possible that they were indoor toilets. If so, they are the earliest example of internal drainage. There are two low and narrow passages that remain. They were constructed to link the houses within the village, with an opening to the outdoors at either end.
How Did the Inhabitants of Skara Brae Live?
The village would have been largely self-sufficient. At the start of occupation in about 3100 BC, settlements were based on the extended family and those at Skara Brae at least seem to have lived peacefully. They are likely to have been self-governing and to have traded for goods and food with other villages in Orkney and further afield.
The villagers kept cattle and pigs, as well as either sheep or goats. They also grew crops: chiefly bere8 and some wheat. No fishing tackle has been found at Skara Brae, but a lot of fishbones have been identified; mostly cod and skaith. Perhaps they traded for fish? Pots have also been found, made from stone, bone and shell, although none from clay. Beads, pins and pendants have survived as well.
Why Was Skara Brae Abandoned?
It is possible that Skara Brae was abandoned in a rush, Pompeii-like, following a violent storm which inundated the village houses with sand. However, there is little evidence to back up this idea. Although artefacts were found scattered in some houses, there were not enough to suggest a hastly departure. It is believed that the village was some distance from the sea9 at the time of occupation, with a small freshwater loch lying between Skara Brae and the Bay of Skaill. Five thousand years of westerly gales and erosion have changed the local landscape considerably. It is unlikely that sand would have suddenly inundated a site so far inland.
Towards the end of the occupation of the village, Orcadians were constructing large and elaborate monuments such as the Ring of Brodgar and Maes Howe. Building projects like these suggest a well-ordered society with strong leaders exerting influence over a large number of people. This is at odds with the form of self-governance of villages such as Skara Brae in the earlier occupation period. Something happened in Orkney to alter the government of the communities and whilst we do not know whether it was a peaceful or an enforced change, it may well have resulted in the gradual abandonment of Skara Brae.
The contemporary view is that Skara Brae was abandoned as Orkney society changed and that sand gradually filled the derelict ruins as the roofs collapsed and the midden fell through into the houses, eventually burying the whole place.
Is It Worth Visiting Skara Brae?
The magic and the mystery of a visit to Skara Brae in the 1950s and 1960s are gone. On the one hand it is no longer a place of freedom and exploration and the village is now so full of protective roofing, walkways, fences and buttresses that it can difficult to discern 3000BC from 2000AD. On the other hand, there is a new respect for the places that our ancestors left behind and a greater recognition that we have a thirst for knowledge and understanding of how the people of the 21st Century have come to pass.
If you can't find the magic and mystery amongst the crowds of tourists and coach parties, take a stroll in glorious solitude along the long crescent of sandy beach below Skara Brae. Soak in the atmosphere and imagine living in a stone village, dependent upon the land and the sea. It's not a great leap.
Under the convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, Skara Brae forms part of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.