For centuries, the western coastline of Mainland, Orkney held a secret. It had been enveloped first by layers of sand, and then covered by grass. The secret slept contentedly for a long time, resting a comfortable distance away from the rolling tides of the North Atlantic Ocean. There, it became the heart of an irregularly shaped green mound that locals referred to as “Skerrabrae1.” Thousands of years passed and, as they did, sea levels began to rise. The waters of the Bay of Skaill crept ever closer. It’s possible that the secret was discovered earlier, and then forgotten once more. But tradition holds that it was during an exceptionally stormy winter night on November 19/20, 1850 that the truth was finally exposed. It happened during one of the worst storms to hit Britain in decades, which killed more than 200 people throughout the British Isles2. Back in Orkney, an unusually high tide and a fierce wind united to ravage the coastline for two days. At the Bay of Skaill, the frothing waves stripped away the top layers of grass and sand from the landmark knoll of Skerrabrae. Within the mound, the outlines of several ancient stone houses were finally revealed to the modern world—the exceptionally preserved vestiges of a community, now known as Skara Brae, that had been concealed and long forgotten by time3.
Skara Brae is an extraordinary site due to its age, the excellent state of its preservation, and the enduring mystery behind its existence. The village is incredibly rare and important, older than all but a handful of surviving man-made structures found throughout the world including Stonehenge (3,000-2,000 BCE) and the Great Pyramid of Giza (circa 2,650 BCE). It is the best-preserved Neolithic (4,000-2,500 BCE) village in northern Europe, offering the most complete and intimate look at domestic stone age life that can be found anywhere; the items in the homes eerily appear as if the inhabitants have only just left them. The conformity in the shape, size, and layout of its residences further contributes to the village’s intrigue, as it suggests that the community members were all equal in status, rather than stratified according to a conventional tribal hierarchy.
Skara Brae’s population, which is theorized to have numbered around 70-100 people at any given time, also marks it as atypical. In this time period, the majority of early British farming communities consisted largely of individual farmsteads. It is estimated that there were only 250,000 people living in all of Britain around 2500 BCE when Skara Brae was abandoned for a final time—a village of 100 people would have made up 0.04% of this total! Further, the Orkney Islands seem to have had a few settlements of this size, with an overall population around 10,000 (4% of the UK total)4. This is an impressive and unusual concentration of people for this era, and suggests that Orkney was not an isolated outpost adrift in the North Atlantic Ocean. Rather, it appears to have been one of the most important places in Neolithic Britain—and possibly even one of the major power centres of Europe. Contemporary eyes could easily see Skara Brae as a remote grouping of modest farmers. But given this context, it’s possible that the village was actually a prominent centre with significant political and cultural influence.
Archaeological research has provided historians with some clues about Skara Brae’s inhabitants, but answers to the biggest questions continue to prove elusive. Who were these people? Why were they living together? Were they merely farmers, or were they members of a religious elite? Did they contribute to the building of nearby ceremonial ritual sites such as the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness? Could this have been a community made up of artists and/or tradespeople? Why did they ultimately leave the village around 2600-2500 CE? Was there a sudden and urgent impetus, such as a storm or infectious disease? Or was their departure due to a more gradual shifting set of circumstances? Consider these questions as you read this post, and see if you can come up with a theory or two of your own!
It is estimated that the area that came to be known as Skara Brae was first settled between 3360-3100 BCE5; unfortunately, there are very few surviving traces of this initial occupation. The original settlement was then abandoned, and two or more centuries passed before it was settled once more around 2900 BCE. Skara Brae was then consistently occupied for the next 300-400 years. Although the village is now dangerously perched on the shoreline of the Bay of Skaill, it was located a safe distance away from the ocean throughout the period of its inhabitation; it wasn’t until much later that rising sea levels brought the North Atlantic to the community’s doorstep. At some point between 2900-2600 BCE, all but two houses of that first permanent village (Houses 9 and 10) were covered over when a second permanent village was constructed. Some of these older residences still exist embedded in layers of sand and domestic waste below the newer community.
Skara Brae’s present appearance dates to the end of its occupation in 2600-2500 BCE. It consists of the two residences from the first permanent village (Houses 9 & 10), as well as seven residences (Houses 1-7) and a workshop (known as Structure 8) from the second. The full extent of the village, in either of its permanent incarnations, is not fully known. The surviving area covered by both villages is mostly the same, with the early village being slightly smaller. Excavations of other villages in Orkney suggest that Skara Brae may have consisted of 10-12 houses, but this is mere conjecture as a complete village of this type has not yet been excavated. It is possible that the village was originally much larger: in 1924, a storm washed away most of House 3; other unknown parts of the community could have been eroded in a similar manner prior to its mid-19th century discovery.
Let’s begin our discussion about the surviving residences of Skara Brae with a look at the materials that were used to build them, as they play a critical role in the longevity of these structures. Orkney’s environment makes it difficult for trees to grow, largely due to its wind. A few trees manage to do so in sheltered areas, but they tend to be small. As mentioned in my previous post about the history of Orkney, early Neolithic settlers soon ran out of trees and could no longer rely on timber as a primary building material for their residences and monuments. Happily for these early inhabitants, and later archaeologists, Orkney had another natural resource in abundant supply: sandstone. This sandstone served as an ideal building material due to its natural tendency to fracture into slabs, allowing for the easy construction of walls, floors, and even furniture. The use of sandstone in the development of Skara Brae is a large part of what makes the village so special, as its domestic items have a permanency that organic material (such as wood) does not allow for.
The builders of Skara Brae also made use of another readily available resource: the domestic waste of its inhabitants, known as midden. Midden is made up of items including food scraps, animal bone, plants, shells, stones, human excrement, and ash from hearths. Over time, piles of midden decompose until they acquire a texture very similar to garden soil. When mixed with clay and sand, midden becomes a very useful building material. Midden can also be an archaeologist’s best friend, as it contains a wealth of information about the people who disposed of it centuries (even millenia!) earlier.
The first permanent village at Skara Brae featured houses that were round in shape, free standing, and clustered closely together with connecting footpaths. Their interiors were divided into two or three sections with a central hearth and furnishings such as beds and cupboards. When most of the community was later rebuilt, many of the residences from the first village were buried beneath layers of sand and midden; the new structures were then built overtop of them. The shape of the houses in the second permanent village differed slightly from those of the first: instead of round, they were designed to be square with rounded corners. Another level of midden was then used to encase these later residences, so that they were rendered mostly underground. This provided the new homes with more insulation from the wind and rain. Like the residences of the first village, those in the second were nestled close to each other. Narrow passageways were built to connect them due to the community’s new semi-subterranean nature.
One fascinating aspect of Skara Brae is that all of the surviving houses are of comparable size, were built in a consistent manner, and follow the same basic layout. No home was significantly larger or better equipped, as tends to be the case when a community is stratified based on power and status. Was there a social component of life at Skara Brae that stressed conformity and/or equality? Or were there other elements of the village, now lost to time, that distinguished its members in other ways? It’s possible that the case for an equitable society is overstated based on the similarities of its surviving stone features. Consider this as we take a closer look at how the residences were constructed and organized.
The walls of the surviving residences at Skara Brae were designed to be very wide, often measuring more than 2 meters (6 feet) thick and 3 meters high (10 feet). These walls had an inside and an outside face that were both made of dry stone, meaning that mortar was not used to bind the individual rocks together. A layer of midden was tightly packed in the middle of these stone faces, and clay was used to line the bottom of the wall and seal its outer face. This dual use of clay and midden kept the house wind- and water-proof. In order to retain as much heat as possible, the residences did not have any windows and the doorway was very small—no more than 1 meter (3.28 feet) high and 0.5 meters (1.64 feet) wide. As the Neolithic residents of Skara Brae were only about an inch or two shorter than average modern-day humans, this meant that they would have had to crouch very low to get in and out!
Interestingly, these doorways had a feature that allowed residents to close them off and lock them from the inside. About halfway through the long doorway, there was a slab of stone that projected a few centimeters upwards from the floor (a person would have to watch their step to make sure they didn’t trip over it!). Overhead, a second slab of stone also extended a few cms downward from the top of the doorway. Tall panels of stone or wood could then be set against these protrusions. A bar (made of stone, wood, or bone) would then be used on the inside of this panel to hold it in place, with the ends of the bar being inserted into holes that were set in the walls on both sides of the doorway. It seems like these doors were used more in the interest of privacy than the protection of property, serving as a simple but effective way to close the homes off from the wider community. This was likely necessary due to how close the residences were situated to each other, and how busy the passageways might have been that connected all of them.
It is not known what the roofs of the village residences looked like, nor what exactly they were made of, as they were built using impermanent organic material rather than stone—as a result, they are the only part of the structures that have not survived. Recent studies have proposed that these roofs were made of thatched eel grass and featured a high, sloping design. The presence of a few whalebone ribs have led to a suggestion that they were used as rafters, but not enough of these have been discovered to indicate that this was a widespread feature. Notably, the roofs did not contain chimneys, likely because such a feature would have increased the likelihood of having a roof catch on fire, as well as compromising its ability to be water-tight. Of course, having no chimney and no windows presents its own set of problems—the most significant being that there would be no way for the smoke to escape! As a result, the interior of the house would have been very smoky. Occupants likely conducted a lot of their activities outside, weather permitting, and otherwise kept low to the ground when they had to be inside in order to access clean air. The absence of windows and a chimney also meant that the fire was the only source of light and heat inside the residence, and so it would have to be lit all the time. This, of course, would lead to smoke being ever-present. This seems as good a reason as any for these houses to have a high roof, as is currently theorized.
The interiors of the surviving houses at Skara Brae were all organized in a similar manner. Each house consisted of a single large room that covered an approximate area of 30 square meters (322 square feet). This single room was furnished with a central hearth, a dresser located opposite the entrance, and box beds situated on the left and right sides of the room. There were no wooden chairs, so people would have sat on stones or directly on the floor. The thick walls also contained recesses that may have served as storage areas or small places of worship. House 1, shown in the first photo below, features one of the village’s best preserved interior layouts.
The surviving houses from the early village, Houses 9 and 10, differed slightly in the placement of their beds: these beds were built into the walls, whereas the beds in the houses of the later village (seen in the photos above) were instead part of the main room.
Fire was an essential part of daily life in Skara Brae. It provided the only source of light and heat in the residence, and was also used to cook meals. The hearth was located in the centre of the home, and was likely kept permanently alight. Fuel for the fire probably consisted of seaweed, animal dung, turf, and bones from whales and seals (they were full of oil, which would have been easy to burn). Wood was a scarce commodity, and it would have been too precious to set alight. The lack of windows and a chimney meant that the house would have been dark and smoky. No lamps have been definitively identified from the items recovered at Skara Brae, although it is possible that the village inhabitants were able to burn oil placed in small thumb pots and hollowed out stones. The level of trapped smoke, although unpleasant, would have been useful for preserving fish and meat hung from the rafters of the house. Eventually, smoke would have also helped to cure the roofing materials, making the residence even more water-tight.
The main furnishings found in the residences of Skara Brae look like stone versions of wooden furniture, due to the necessary local substitution of sandstone slabs for timber planks. Nowhere is this more apparent than in one of the dominant features of each house: the large stone dresser located opposite the doorway. This item would certainly have been made of wood if it had been available, but local builders managed to create a perfectly serviceable stone alternative. The dresser is composed of two long, thin slabs of stone supported by angular stone uprights. Its purpose is not conclusively known, although there are a few theories. It’s possible that they may have served the same function as modern dressers and cabinets, which are often used to showcase valuable items. The positioning of these early dressers in a place of prominence seems to support this idea—they would have been one of the first things a visitor noticed as they emerged from the narrow doorway. In addition to display, the dresser may have also been employed as a shrine or altar, as a means of storage, or as a combination of all three.
Another example of creative material substitution is in the use of stone for the frames of the box beds. Although only the stone skeletons of the box beds remain, they would have once been filled with organic materials such as ferns, moss, and animal skins to make them comfortable. The front corners of the beds featured upright columns that may have been used to support canopies, which would have then been tied back to the wall. Curtains made of animal skins may have hung from these canopies, similar to a modern four-poster bed, offering its occupants privacy and protection from the cold and smoke. It’s possible one bed may have been shared by the parents while the children used the other; or, alternatively, the father and mother slept in separate beds with the children. Interestingly, similarly shaped box beds6 made of wood were used in Orkney until as recently as 100 years ago!
One of the more curious items found in the residences are a number of stone boxes set into the floor. They consist of four thin stone slabs joined together to form a square; any gaps between them were sealed with clay in order to make them water-tight. They did not appear to have lids. The purpose of these boxes is not definitively known, although there are a couple of theories. The discovery of large numbers of limpet shells in the residences may provide a clue. Limpets, a type of aquatic snail, can be consumed by humans but are usually only done so when there is a threat of starvation. Other food sources were plentiful at Skara Brae, so these limpets likely served another purpose. One possibility is that limpets make excellent fish bait when they are soaked in water for 24-48 hours. Perhaps the village inhabitants used these stone boxes as water-tight pits to keep a ready supply of fresh bait at hand.
The residences of Skara Brae also featured an area, usually a corner between the end of a bed and the doorway, that was sectioned off from the rest of the room by an upright stone slab. This was probably used as a place for secure storage, possibly for large pots that were too heavy to move around. Pottery fragments recovered at Skara Brae have indicated that some of these containers had a rim diameter as large as 60 cms (23.6 inches)! You can see an example of such an area in the photo below: an upright slab can be seen to the right of the bed on the far wall.
The thick walls of the residences allowed for the creation of small recesses within them, known as cells. Archaeological evidence points to the use of these cells as places for secure storage, and possibly for indoor plumbing! A cell in the west wall of House 1 yielded a remarkable discovery of 3,250 bone beads as well as other bone jewelry and tools. Several houses have cells that could only be accessed by crawling under the dresser: the complexity of entering this space would have made it a good place to hide things or, alternatively, served as a quiet space separate from the rest of the home to privately exercise spiritual practices.
Interestingly, a cell in House 7 was found to connect with a drainage system that ran underneath all of the houses in the village. If the drain in this cell was used as an indoor toilet, which seems likely, that would make it the earliest known example in Britain! Many of the other houses in the village have similar drains that connect with the larger system. If they were also used as toilets, then that means Skara Brae has one of the earliest known sewer systems found anywhere in the world! More than 4,000 years would pass before the major cities of Britain began to install more sanitary forms of wastewater infrastructure in the late 1850s-1860s, and it wasn’t until 1919 that all new housing developments in the suburbs of London were required to include an indoor toilet. The fiercely cold winter winds of Orkney, combined with the subterranean nature of Skara Brae, may have motivated the development of the village’s indoor plumbing system several millennia earlier than anyone else. Although primitive in design, using this indoor toilet would definitely have been preferable to leaving one’s home and quickly finding a way through a series of dark passages in the middle of a cold winter’s night.
As previously mentioned, the semi-subterranean nature of the residences of Skara Brae necessitated the use of underground passages to connect them. They were built towards the end of occupation of the second permanent village. Interestingly, these covered passages are unique to Skara Brae and have not been found at any of the other comparable settlements in Orkney. The main passage begins in the southwest and runs through the centre of the village through to the northeast corner; it was originally roofed throughout its entire span.
We are now going to embark on a visual tour of Skara Brae and its surviving structures. For obvious reasons, visitors to the site are not permitted to go inside the homes—they are allowed to instead walk around the village on marked pathways. Preservation of this ancient and fragile site is of utmost concern.
Although visitors are unable to access the actual residences of the village, there are opportunities available for them to broaden their experience of the site. The exhibition at the Visitor Centre provides a good historical and archaeological overview of the village, and the Rangers’ Hut offers a virtual tour inside its structures. There is also a replica house that people are welcome to go into, which is where we’ll begin our tour. The replica house is based on the best-preserved residence in the village: House 7. Since all the houses in the village feature a similar layout, a glimpse inside the replica offers a good representation of how most of them would have previously appeared (with the exception of Houses 9 and 10, which differ slightly as they date back to the first permanent village).
Although there are a few theories, the structure of the village roofs and the materials used in their construction remains unknown. The roof of the replica house is based off of one of these carefully researched ideas, but modern materials have been used to build it.
We’ll now move our tour to the actual village. As previously mentioned, the houses in Skara Brae are comparable in size. However, House 1 is a little bit bigger than the rest. It is also one of the best preserved, although part of its north wall was washed away prior to the construction of a protective sea wall in 1925-1926. Of the surviving residences, it is the one located closest to the ocean. In the photo below, you can see how the waters of the Bay of Skaill stretch right up to the sea wall.
House 2 is one of the smaller houses in the village, with a layout that is identical to House 1. In the photo below, you can also see two cells that were built into the north wall of the residence. The larger one on the left would have been situated behind the dresser, which is missing. There is a smaller cell on the right..
A few excavated sections of the main underground passage can be seen behind House 2.
There is not a lot to see of House 3, as it was almost entirely washed out to sea during a storm in December 1924. The loss of this house served as the impetus to build the sea wall in 1925-1926 and to have the site formally excavated and catalogued by a professional archaeologist, V. Gordon Childe, from 1928-1930 (more on Childe and the excavation later in this post).
House 4 is the easternmost house in the village. Its shape is a little more narrow and long than the other residences, but it features an identical layout to Houses 1 and 2.
Most of the wall containing the doorway of House 4 no longer stands, but one of the remaining stones shows the hole where a bar would have been inserted to close the doorway off from the rest of the village.
House 5 is located at the centre of the village. Its walls do not stand as high as those found in other houses, so it is a good place to see some of the cells that were built into them.
House 6 is the smallest house in the village. Along with House 10, it is the poorest preserved of all the residences. It does not have any distinctive features remaining.
A few excavation photographs from 1930 provide a closer look at House 6, but there still isn’t a lot of it to see.
House 7 is one of the most interesting structures found in Skara Brae. Alas, the actual residence is currently closed to visitors for the sake of its own preservation, but it was used as a model for the replica house. House 7 was the only structure from the second permanent village that had not been investigated prior to the official excavation and archaeological work of 1927-1930. As a result, it was exceptionally well-preserved. Its walls stood over 3 meters (10 feet) high and it retained features that the other residences, which had already been open to the elements for around 75-80 years, had possibly lost.
House 7 yielded some unique finds that marked it as different from the other residences in the village. Most notably, and mysteriously, the skeletons of two women were found buried under one of the beds and partially beneath a wall. The positioning of these bodies indicates that they would have been placed there before the house was built, although it is unclear why. (Content warning: a skeleton is shown two pictures below this paragraph).
Another interesting distinction of House 7 is that its doorway could only be secured from the outside, rather than from the inside like the other residences in the village. Was this set up in this manner so that someone could be locked away from the rest of the community? If so, why was this necessary?
A less sinister difference about House 7 is that it contains some of the best-preserved stone carvings found at Skara Brae, particularly on the stone slabs of its bed frames—Structure 8 also has some great examples. This is largely due to the fact that the other residences have had a longer period of exposure to the elements, and so much of this fragile decoration has eroded over time. I’m going to talk about the carvings in greater detail towards the end of this post, so stay tuned!
Guardianship of Skara Brae was transferred to His Majesty’s Commissioners of Works (a precursor to Historic Scotland) in 1924. After the excavation and archaeological investigation of the site was complete in 1930, the Office of Works decided they wanted to display House 7 to the public while simultaneously protecting it. In order to do so, a concrete collar was put on top of the walls of the house to support a glass roof with sliding panels. The panels were opened during visitor hours and closed at night. Despite these best of intentions, the roof did more harm than good. The weight of the concrete and glass compressed the walls, and the glass altered the interior temperature of House 7 in the same manner as a greenhouse—heating it by day and cooling it by night. The weight of the new roof as well as this drastic variance in the residence’s heat and humidity led to the cracking and breaking of the stones in the walls of House 7. To prevent further deterioration, the glass roof was removed in 2007 and replaced with turf. The doorway to the structure was also sealed. Thankfully, close monitoring of the house has since shown that its temperature and humidity have stabilized.
The lesson to be learned from House 7 is how fragile the structures of Skara Brae can be, and how cautiously they need to be treated. At nearly 5,000 years of age, they are an irreplaceable piece of human history. If we want to give future generations the opportunity to enjoy them, we have to be careful stewards of their continued preservation.
Structure 8 is markedly different from the rest of the houses found at Skara Brae. Its pear-shaped interior contains no beds, no dresser, and no stone boxes. It has a central hearth and several recesses that could have been used as work areas. All of this suggests that Structure 8 was more industrial in function than domestic. Structure 8 was also never encased in midden in order to make it semi-subterranean, like the rest of the later village; instead, it remained free-standing for the duration of its occupation.
When V. Gordon Childe excavated Structure 8 in 1929, he discovered hundreds of fragments of dark chert on its floors. Chert is a locally available sedimentary rock that, in the absence of flint, is used to make small tools. Chert is a harder material to work with than flint, but can be made easier to use after it is preheated. This is done by covering segments of chert with pieces of heated igneous rock. Further evidence that Structure 8 was used as a workshop for heating chert and using it to make stone tools can be found in the presence of a narrow-opening in the north-facing wall. This gap would have been too small to use as an entrance, but it could have been used to channel the strong wind off the ocean into a flue to heat up a fire. The discovery of several lumps of heated igneous rock on either side of this opening help support this theory.
Interestingly, Structure 8 stands alone in Scotland as an example of a large workshop dedicated to making stone tools. Workshops of a similar size and specialized purpose have not yet been found anywhere else in Scotland. What conditions led to its singular existence at Skara Brae? Or was the making of stone tools only part of its function? Other items may have also been made in this workshop, such as the polished bone jewelry pieces that have been discovered throughout the village.
There is a paved area outside of Structure 8 that is sometimes referred to as “the marketplace,” although it is not clear why it has acquired that name. Could it have been an outdoor communal space?
Houses 9 and 10, as previously mentioned, differ slightly from the other residences of Skara Brae as they date back to the first permanent village. These earlier houses feature an overall shape that is more rounded than square, and their interiors were sectioned into two or three different areas. Their beds were also built as recesses in the walls, rather than as part of the main room.
House 9 is in a better state of preservation than House 10.
Skara Brae was abandoned permanently around 2600-2500 BCE. It’s not known why, although there are a few theories that range from the onset of a sudden and drastic event (such as a fierce storm or community-annihilating illness) to a more gradual shifting of circumstances. Today, researchers tend to prefer the latter explanation, pointing to several possibilities such as political and cultural changes in Orcadian society; an increasingly colder and wetter climate; as well as a transition towards living on individual farmsteads. Whatever the reason, drifting sand gradually covered the village. It would be more than 4,000 years before the storm of November 19/20, 1850 eroded the mound concealing it, and exposed two of the houses (likely what we now know as Houses 1 and 3) to modern eyes.
I’m not sure who first discovered the village of Skara Brae. It may have been someone living or working at nearby Skaill House, or someone else entirely. The records I’ve found don’t indicate a specific person, although I’m sure that such a find made for an exciting experience! Whatever the case, the local owner of Skaill House7, William Watt, the 7th Laird of Breckness, was doubtless intrigued by the discovery. He is often credited as being the force behind an initial amateur excavation of the site. However, a local tour guide with keen investigative instincts makes a convincing case that it was one of the landowner’s sons, also named William (nicknamed “Black Willie” for his dark hair and complexion), who is more likely to have done so. Black Willie was a self-taught geologist who is described by locals as having a strong passion for digging up fossils. He would have been 48 years old the year that Skara Brae was discovered, whereas his father would have been 73. In either case, one of the William Watts undertook an exploration of these first two houses and collected various objects that were found within; these items have since found their way to various museums in Stromness, Kirkwall, and Edinburgh. In 1861, antiquarian James Farrer—who is known for his opening of Maeshowe in July of that same year—made a partial examination of the mound and dug up some of its chambers and passages. Farrer didn’t seem all that impressed with the site, commenting: “I do not think that anything is likely to result from further excavations at Skaill.” Although Skara Brae failed to sustain his attention, the village certainly wasn’t lacking for a champion—Watt continued his exploration of the mound with more than enough zeal to make up for Farer’s disinterest.
Unfortunately, neither Watt or Farer left detailed accounts of the early work they carried out at Skara Brae. Luckily, an Orcadian antiquarian named George Petrie helped to fill this gap in April 1867 when he presented a paper to the Society of Scottish Antiquaries. Petrie made frequent visits to Skara Brae and worked alongside Watt to catalogue and excavate the site. Petrie listed many of Watt’s findings, carefully wrote down the measurements of the residences and passages, and made illustrations of all three. He also recounted the discussions he had with Watt about previous explorations of the mound. For instance, Watt mentioned to Petrie that within the mound there had been a kitchen midden that measured 15-16 feet (4.5-5 meters) high and consisted “chiefly of ashes thickly studded with bones, shells, pieces of horns of the ox and deer and fragments of charred wood.” Petrie also took note of the many items that Watt had collected at the site. In a paper presented in 1868, William Traill of Woodwick provided an update of Watt’s progress, mentioning that Watt had cleared four houses (Houses 1, 3, 4 and 5) by the end of 1867 and was hoping to find a fifth8.
In spite of Watt’s stated ambition to discover a fifth house in the village, it appears that excavation work at Skara Brae stalled around 1868. The site was left relatively undisturbed until August 1913 when a tenant of Skaill House, W.G. Balfour, invited British geologist and archaeologist William Boyd Dawkins to join him in a dig at Skara Brae. The men appear to have explored part of House 2, but their account of the work is not considered wholly reliable. In 1924, the trustees of W.G.T. Watt, the 9th Laird of Breckness (grandson of the 7th Laird), placed Skara Brae into the guardianship of His Majesty’s Commissioners of Works. A few months later, in December 1924, another major storm struck the west coast of Orkney. This time, the waves of the North Atlantic washed away most of House 3. This loss served as a drastic wake-up call, demonstrating how vulnerable the village was to coastal erosion. In response, a protective sea wall was constructed between 1925-1926; this wall has been extended and strengthened several times since then.
In 1927 a Kirkwall contractor, J. Firth, and a team of workmen began to clear out the debris from the residences of Skara Brae under the supervision of architect J. Wilson Patterson. In 1928 an Australian archaeologist named V. Gordon Childe was brought to the site to investigate and excavate. Childe, who specialized in the study of European prehistory, spent most of his life living in the United Kingdom. He had become the first Abercromby Professor of Prehistory Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh in 1927. Although Childe was a distinguished academic, his prominent posting had earned him the dislike and envy of many Scottish archaeologists due to his lack of expertise in Scottish prehistory. He was also eccentric in his manner and dress, and his socialist sympathies tended to put him further at odds with the conservative Scottish archaeological establishment. Still, there was no denying that Childe was brilliant9. He had only been working at the University of Edinburgh for a year when he was sent to Skara Brae. Although Childe loathed field work, and believed that he conducted it poorly, his university posting meant that he was required to undertake archaeological excavations. He was far more at ease with the research aspect of his job and, unlike many of his contemporaries, put a lot of effort into recording and publishing his findings.
Childe and his fellow Scottish archaeologists were unaware at the time that Skara Brae was a site unlike any other that had been previously discovered in Scotland. It would remain so for years until a similar Neolithic settlement on the Isle of Rousay10 was unearthed in the winter of 1937-1938. Unfortunately, the priority for the work at Skara Brae was placed not on academic discovery but rather on clearing the site and making it accessible to visitors—an attitude that would make modern archaeologists and historians cringe! Childe was never allowed to treat Skara Brae as a normal archaeological site, and he was only allowed to dig in certain areas. Still, he rescued what information he was able to given the restrictions placed upon him. Childe was also noted for getting along particularly well with the locals and, unusually for the time, he acknowledged the help of every digger11 in his reports. Childe may have started his excavation of Skara Brae having little familiarity with the details of Scottish prehistory, but the site would have certainly acted much like a crash course.
Childe concluded his excavation of Skara Brae in 1930, but controversy over his findings continued for years afterwards. The biggest disagreement concerned the dating of the village. Although radiocarbon dating has since established Skara Brae’s period of occupation as beginning around 3360-3100 BCE (with the permanent villages being settled between 2900 BCE and lasting until 2600-2500 BCE), it was initially believed to be much younger. A lot of Childe’s contemporaries, including J. Graham Callander, the Director of the National Museum of Antiquities, were convinced that Skara Brae had been a Pictish community that was inhabited sometime between 500-1000 CE. Childe seemed reluctant to accept this claim, even as he published his findings in 1931 under the title “Skara Brae: A Pictish Village in Orkney.” Unlike his peers, Childe took a more flexible approach to interpretation and was always open to new ideas. This would have served him well in today’s academic climate, but not so in the first half of the 20th century. Childe would have probably been intrigued by the findings that came from later archaeological work at Skara Brae in 1972-1973, when the radiocarbon dating was performed. Sadly, he died beforehand in 1957 at the age of 65.
There is a lot about the lives of the inhabitants of Skara Brae that remains unknown. However, archaeological evidence has provided us with some clues about how the residents used the land, what they ate, and what materials they used for domestic activities. Pollen analysis suggests that the local environment was similar to what it is at present, largely pastoral with no trees. There is some excavation evidence of various types of native trees and shrubs, so it is possible that some areas of mixed woodland may have still existed elsewhere on the island. It appears that the earliest residents of Skara Brae did grow barley during their period of occupation around 3360-3100 BCE. However, there is no indication that the later settlers of the first and second permanent villages continued to do the same. These residents remained well-fed mainly due to the cattle, sheep, and pigs that they cared for. Their diet was also supplemented by foraging, hunting, and fishing. Birds appear to have been especially important, both as a food source and through the collection and use of their feathers: eggshells from 22 different species and bones from 46 species of bird have been recovered in the village. Antler from red deer was also commonly used by the residents. Shellfish were regularly collected, and both sea fish and fresh water fish were occasionally caught. Wild plants were likely to have been very important as well for both dietary and medicinal purposes, but little evidence of them survives in the archaeological record beyond hazelnuts; crab apples; the rootstalks of yellow flag iris (used as a herbal emetic remedy); and the outer skins of puffball fungi (which help to staunch bleeding and promote blood-clotting).
In addition to archaeological research, the surviving items and traces left by the inhabitants of Skara Brae also provide insight into their lives. One of their more intriguing remnants is in the carved decoration found on their pots, tools, furniture, and walls. The carvings, which I briefly discussed earlier during our tour of House 7, consist of finely incised geometric lines that were made by a sharp-pointed tool, likely one made of flint. A few of them contain pecked decoration. Many of them were lightly scratched onto their stone surfaces, which makes them particularly fragile to conserve; this also explains why they’re hard to find in some areas of the village that have been longer exposed to the weather—House 7 and Structure 8 contain some of the site’s best examples, as they weren’t completely excavated until 1930. The patterns vary in their degree of organization, with the more structured arrangements incorporating diamond and triangle figures as key elements. Interestingly, diamond and triangle shapes occur naturally on slabs of flagstone—was this something the village artists admired and chose to imitate? It has been suggested that some of these carvings are landscape designs meant to represent the view to the Isle of Hoy and/or mainland Scotland. The decorations may also have been painted; various pots made of shell, bone, and stone have been found at Skara Brae containing vestiges of colouring material such as red ochre.
One of the most prominent personal items discovered on the site have been large quantities of jewellery consisting mainly of pins, beads, and pendants made of wood and polished bone. Surviving bone artefacts from the Neolithic period are very rare, making these items from Skara Brae all the more exceptional; they were likely preserved by the alkaline sand that covered the village. The bone was mostly sourced from cattle or sheep (particularly the roots of their teeth) and deer antler, but there have been some instances where walrus tusks and whalebone were used for larger pieces. Some of the pins are the right size to have been used for fastening clothing, although others would have been too big for this purpose. It is not known whether the beads were sewn into clothing and strung as necklaces and bracelets, but they do come in a variety of shapes and sizes that allow for multiple purposes. The pendants, like some of the bigger pins, may have only been used or worn on special occasions.
A few objects resembling gaming pieces have also been discovered at Skara Brae. In particular, there are two dice-like objects12 made of bone that have features marked on two of their individual six sides: one face on each of them bears five and two dots, respectively; two other faces have deeply embedded grooves; and their other individual three sides are plain. They may have once been part of a larger set. It is important to note that although these objects do look very similar to modern items that are used for gambling and recreation, it is possible that the residents of Skara Brae used them for other purposes, such as divination.
Earlier in this discussion I mentioned that there was a strong possibility that Structure 8 was used as a workshop to make tools. Finding material for the crafting of these implements would have been tricky for the local stonesmith. Flint would have been preferred but, unfortunately, it is only present on Orkney as beach pebbles. Chert was a serviceable substitute, but it also could only be sourced in the local area in the form of small lumps. As a result, tools made of flint and chert were limited in size. Their fragments could also be dangerously sharp to work with.
Some larger tools were made from the more readily available sandstone following a simple process: one piece of sandstone was thrown against another to produce an oval-shaped flake with a sharp edge and a thick back that could be safely and comfortably held in one’s hand. This simple, all-purpose cutting tool is known as a “Skaill knife” and would have been particularly useful in butchering animals. If a project required finer detail work, tools of bone and wood were used.
Many of the domestic artefacts that survive at Skara Brae are made of lasting materials such as stone, bone, and shell. Unfortunately, household objects made of organic items such as plants and animal skin have long since decomposed. As a result, it can be hard to determine certain aspects of village life that may have relied on use of these impermanent materials, such as the clothes that the residents would have worn. The only surviving indication lies in the surviving tools that were used to make these items of dress. Interestingly, none of the instruments needed to work with textiles have been found. This absence, combined with the knowledge that the sheep of this era produced little wool, makes it unlikely that the inhabitants of Skara Brae wore clothes made of fabric. Their main material resource would have been the hides of the cattle they bred. Calf skin, in particular, is ideally suited for clothing as it is soft, supple, and durable. Support for this comes with evidence that large numbers of calves were slaughtered, and in the recovery of several awls. These fine bone tools would have been used to punch holes in animal skin, allowing them to then be stitched together.
The most enigmatic of all of Skara Brae’s artefacts are a number of oddly carved stone objects that vary according to the complexity of their design. Many of these items are made of hard volcanic rock that has been hammered, ground, and polished into complex but balanced patterns. Such a project would have required considerable skill and determination, as well as many hours of labour. A few of the more fascinating examples discovered in the village are spherical in shape, some of which contain surfaces that are embellished by multiple circular or pyramidical nodules. These carved stone spheres are comparable in size to tennis balls or oranges, with a consistent diameter around 70 mms (2.75 inches) that would have fit comfortably in one’s hand. Many theories abound concerning the purpose of these carved stone objects. Some of the more elaborate examples may have operated as symbols of authority, or been associated with religious ritual. Others may have been deployed as weapons or served as tools. Several could have had no practical function at all, and were instead admired for their artistry. It is likely that there was a variety of ways in which these stone objects were used, some of which have been lost to time. Similar stone objects13 have been found in Orkney and elsewhere in Scotland, particularly in Aberdeenshire (the northeast part of the mainland).
One particularly fun artefact from Skara Brae is a figurine that has been nicknamed the “Skara Brae Buddo”—buddo is a term in the Orcadian dialect that means friend or person. The Buddo measures 9.5 cms (3.74 inches) high by 7.5 cms (2.95 inches) wide and is carved from a piece of whalebone, thought to be a vertebra. A pair of eyes and a mouth have been cut into its face, as well as a navel in its body. Another hole runs through the head of the figure from ear to ear, which may have been used to hang it up. A pair of holes at the base of the figure could have been used to attach a separate set of legs. It is one of the oldest artistic representations of a human figure ever found in Britain, and one of only eight Neolithic human figurines discovered in the U.K. (three14 were found elsewhere in Orkney on the Isle of Westray, the rest were located in southern England). The Buddo was unearthed in the 1860s on the floor within one of the stone bed frames of House 3, likely by William (Black Willie) Watt, along with several other small objects. However, the whereabouts of the Buddo were unknown for almost 150 years. Modern scholars only knew of its existence because of a sketch that George Petrie had made of it in one of his 19th century notebooks. The Buddo was rediscovered in April 2016 by researcher Dr. David Clarke in the collections of Stromness Museum; it’s thought the figure had been packed away among artefacts from Skaill House in the 1930s. It’s not known what purpose the Skara Brae Buddo may have had: ritualistic, decorative, etc. I like to imagine the Buddo as a prehistoric teddy bear, but this is largely fanciful; I’m sure that if the children of Skara Brae had once required the comfort of such an item, it would have been made of a material far cuddlier than whale bone!
As previously mentioned, Orkney seems to have been one of the most important power centres in Neolithic Britain—and possibly all of Europe. Skara Brae also likely had significant political and cultural impact. Evidence for Orkney’s broader networks and influence can be seen in the type of pottery that was discovered within its communities, including Skara Brae. The type of pottery commonly used at Skara Brae is known today as Grooved Ware due to its characteristic grooved decoration. These pots were made from local clay and were designed with a flat bottom and straight sides that slope slightly outwards. Potters used sharpened wood or bone, and sometimes even their fingernails, to make spiral and zig-zag patterns in the clay. Grooved Ware pottery seems to have first developed in Orkney sometime between 3000-2001 BCE before spreading throughout the rest of Britain and Ireland. Interestingly, this southward spread of Grooved Ware pottery seems to have accompanied the use of timber and stone circles, as well as ditched enclosures known as henges, in other areas along this Neolithic Orcadian network. Orkney seems to have had particularly close links with people in western Scotland, the Boyne Valley in Ireland, and southern England.
Nearly 170 years have passed since the discovery of Skara Brae. In that time, much has been learned about this community; however, a lot more remains unknown. It will be exciting to see what other mysteries have yet to be unravelled here. Perhaps current excavation work at the nearby Ness of Brodgar will help answer some of the questions that still persist. For now, we remain much like that unnamed 19th century Orcadian who came upon a drastically altered beach the morning after a savage winter storm. We are standing on the precipice, glimpsing the outline of something that had secretly existed just beyond the realms of our knowledge all along. The rest of Skara Brae’s story remains there, teasingly close, waiting for our research and our imaginations to catch up.
Thank you for reading!
1 Locals referred to the grassy mound as “Skerrabrae” even though it was spelled “Styerrabrae,” due to their tendency to pronounce a “sk” before a front vowel. The meaning of Skerra/Skara is unknown; brae is a Scottish place name for hill.
2 The losses in the storm of November 19/20, 1850 include: 5 ships that were destroyed at the reef of Goodwin Sands, located off the coast of Kent, with the loss of everyone on board; 11 men killed in a lifeboat while going to the aid of a distressed ship along the coast of Worthing in Sussex, after they were overwhelmed by a large wave; and 96 people drowned when a ship bound for America, the Edmond, ran aground near Kilkee in western Ireland—there were a handful of lucky survivors.
3 It’s no wonder that Skara Brae often draws comparisons to the Italian city of Pompeii, which had been unearthed 102 years earlier in 1748.
4 As of 2020, Orkney has an estimated 22,000 inhabitants, which is about 0.03% of the estimated UK population of 67.8 million people.
5 The Knap of Howar, located on the Isle of Westray, is a single farmstead that was occupied sometime between 3,700-2,800 BCE; it is possibly the oldest preserved stone house in Northern Europe, and predates Skara Brae. It was discovered in 1929 by landowner William Traill.
6 A curious person asked me, as I was writing this post, what the difference was between a regular bed and a box bed. Since I’m one to never let the opportunity to write a footnote go to waste, this aside is lovingly dedicated to the person behind that inquiry. A box bed (also known as a closed bed) is a piece of furniture in which the mattress is enclosed within a box-like space by curtains or wooden panels; occasionally, such a bed may even have been built into a wall. The bed is then accessed through a swinging or sliding door or, as may be the case with Skara Brae, a curtain. Box beds were a way to provide its occupant(s) with a little bit of privacy in a time when families slept in a single room. They also helped keep a person warm as they slept, which would have been appreciated in spaces that were only heated by a wooden fire. I imagine these beds were especially useful in farm houses where livestock were kept inside during the winter! (Life really was quite different prior to the advent of electricity and modern heating systems). Box beds were found throughout Europe in various forms up until the mid-20th century. It is fascinating to see a stone precursor to this type of bed in Skara Brae, and to think about how this style of bed was still in use some 4,850 years later! (2900 BCE→1950CE). Of course, wood was used in place of stone in these later Orcadian beds thanks to its increased import availability.
7 Skaill House was originally built in 1620 by Bishop George Graham, who served as the Bishop of Orkney from 1615-1638. The word skaill is derived from the Old Norse word for hall. Most of the nearby farmsteads have similar Norse names, which suggests that the area has been continuously farmed for at least 1,000 years—Vikings arrived in Orkney sometime between the late 8th and early 9th centuries (775 CE – 825 CE). Of course, the nearby existence of Skara Brae indicates that settlement of this area stretches even further into the Neolithic era. In addition to Skara Brae, the southern wing of the house stands on a pre-Norse burial ground (775 CE or earlier); the remains of a Broch and another Iron Age building (800 BCE – 43 CE) can be found on the shoreline of the Bay of Skaill; and several Bronze Age (2500 BCE – 800 BCE) burials are situated close to the house. During the late 16th century, research suggests that the grounds of Skaill House were formerly the site of a manor house owned by Earl Robert Stewart. After Robert and his son Patick were hanged for treason in 1615, the Earldom was broken up and the Skaill estate passed into the hands of the bishopric, which led to Bishop George Graham’s possession of it. Graham was forced to resign in 1638, but he retained his Skaill property. When he died in 1643 his son, John, became the 1st Laird of Breckness. The estate has since been passed down through 12 generations of the same family over a period of 400 years. The 11th Laird was the last one to live in the house. When the 12th Laird inherited the house in 1991, he had the house restored and opened to the public in 1997; the house reflects its appearance in the 1950s. Skaill House is part of a joint admittance ticket with Skara Brae, and it is located a short 200 meter (656 foot) walk away from the village.
8 William Watt, the 7th Laird of Breckness, died in 1866 while the excavation was ongoing. This lends further support to the idea that it was his son, Black Willie, who led the excavation until 1868.
9 Childe wrote 26 books during his career and could read in at least a dozen languages. His posting at the university made him the first academic archaeologist in Scotland. He was the first exponent of Marxist archaeology in the western world. He was also the first person to fully recognize and conceptualize the Neolithic Revolution, a term he coined in his 1936 book “Man Makes Himself.” The Neolithic Revolution (also known as the First Agricultural Revolution) is the wide-scale transition of many human cultures during the Neolithic period from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement, which made an increasingly larger population possible and led to all the other cultural developments that underpin human civilization. Childe thought of the Neolithic Revolution as the first of several agricultural revolutions in Middle Eastern history. He described it as a revolution in order to emphasize its importance, and to highlight the degree of change it brought to the communities in which these new agricultural practices were adopted and refined. He also introduced the idea of the Urban Revolution, the process by which small, kin-based, preliterate agricultural villages (very much like Skara Brae!) were transformed into large, socially complex, urban societies. Childe would have been fascinated to know that his suspicions about Skara Brae’s earlier origins were correct. Childe always wore a wide-brimmed black hat; a black Mackintosh raincoat, which he often draped over his shoulders like a cape; and a tie, which was usually red to symbolize his socialist beliefs. Although many of his theories have since been discredited, Childe remains widely respected among archaeologists today.
10 The next site comparable to Skara Brae, the Neolithic village of Rinyo on the Isle of Rousay (located 3 kms/1.9 miles north of Mainland), was later discovered in the winter of 1937-1938 by James Yorston Jr. The site was excavated by Childe and Trumland Estate owner Walter G. Grant in 1938 and 1946 (WWII intervened). 7 houses architecturally similar to those at Skara Brae were found containing central hearths, stone beds and dressers, as well as evidence of drainage. Unfortunately, the Rinyo settlement was filled in after the excavation work and there is little to see of it onsite today. I don’t think radiocarbon dating has yet been performed to determine the occupation period.
11 During my research, I came across an article on the BBC website that sought to reassert the contribution of several women who assisted Childe with the excavation work at Skara Brae. The article examines a series of photos taken at Skara Brae in 1929. Four women are shown in the photos and, for many years, they have been misidentified as being either tourists or visitors to the site. However, a closer (Twitter-led) examination of the photos has recently revealed that these women were actually archaeologists, believed to be: Margaret Simpson, Margaret Mitchell, Mary Kennedy, and Dame Margaret Cole.
12 There is a great website where you can look at 3-D images of many artefacts discovered at Skara Brae, including the dice-like objects, the carved stone balls, and the Skara Brae Buddo..
13 By 2015, 425 carved stone balls had been discovered and recorded. Of these, 5 were discovered at Skara Brae; 15 from elsewhere in Orkney; and 169 were from Aberdeenshire. These spherical objects were light and easy to transport, so a few of them have been found elsewhere in Scotland such as on islands in the Inner (Iona, Skye) and Outer (Harris, Uist, Lewis) Hebrides, as well as on the Isle of Arran. Examples of stone balls found outside of Scotland include Ballymena in northeast Ireland, and several northern towns in England (Durham, Cumbria, Lowick). There also appears to be a link with the Knowth Megalithic Tomb, located in Ireland’s Boyne River Valley: beads made as miniature versions of these carved stone balls were discovered inside; further, several of the Scottish spheres are decorated in a style very similar to the Irish passage tombs. While the majority of these carved stone balls are around 70 mm (2.75 inches) in diameter, a few larger ones have been found that range from 90-114 mm (3.5-4.5 inches). The raised circular or pyramidical nodules on their surfaces can number from as few as 3 to as many as 160! There are 3 categories of decoration: those with spirals; those with concentric circles; and those with patterns of straight incised lines and hatching. More than one design is often used on the same ball. For more information about these carved stone objects, check out this website.
14 The other three Orkney Neolithic figures were discovered on the Isle of Westray at the Links of Noltland, which contains the remains of a Neolithic village and later Bronze Age (2500 – 800 BCE) residences. The first of these three figures was discovered in 2009. It is carved from sandstone, measures 4 cms (1.6 inches) in height, and is representative of a human body with a round head and a long, wide torso. The figure has been engraved with two dots intended to represent eyes, as well as markings indicative of heavy eyebrows, a nose, and clothing. Although it is not certain that the figure is meant to be feminine, it has been dubbed “the Westray Wife” as well as “the Orkney Venus.” Archaeologists believe it is slightly older than the Skara Brae Buddo, making it the earliest found depiction of a human face in Britain. A second figure similar in size (3.4 cms/1.3 inches tall) and shape, although made of clay and missing its head, was found in the summer of 2010. A third was unearthed in 2012. Collectively, these three figures are referred to as “the Westray Wives.”