Skara Brae, Orkney

In the winter of 1850, a severe windstorm hit Britain, causing widespread damage and over 200 deaths. On the west coast of Orkney, at the Bay of Skaill, the waves and wind stripped the earth from a large irregular knoll, known in Scottish as a ‘howe’, revealing an intact village, albeit without roofs.

Skara Brae excavation
Excavating Skara Brae photo © Copyright Orkney Photographic Archive

The howe was left for undisturbed for 75 more years – though in 1913 the site was plundered by a party with shovels who took away an unknown quantity of artifacts. In 1924, another storm swept away part of the one of the houses and it was decided that the site should be made secure and more seriously investigated by University of Edinburgh professor Vere Gordon Childe.

Skara Brae house with fireplace, dresser and beds
Skara Brae house with fireplace, dresser and beds photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Childe unearthed ten clustered houses – Europe’s most complete Neolithic village – which was occupied for six hundred years, from roughly 3180BC to 2500BC. Skara Brae is older than the pyramids and has been granted World Heritage status. It is one of the must-see attractions of Orkney, with a superb visitor’s centre and cafe. Defences have been built to protect the village from the sea!

Skara Brae from the air
Skara Brae from the air photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Many clues have been left about the lives of the occupants of Skara Brae. The houses had many stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes. In the centre of the room was a fireplace, where dried seaweed was burnt to provide warmth. The houses had low doors and there is evidence that there was a male and female side to each house. Skara Brae was further away from the sea than it is today, and it’s inhabitants were farmers who raised cattle and sheep and cultivated barley. Fishbones and shells found in Skara Brae’s middens indicate that the dwellers supplemented their diet with seafood.

Skara Brae and the Bay of Skaill in Orkney
Skara Brae and the Bay of Skaill in Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait

They were makers and users of grooved ware, a distinctive style of pottery. Other artifacts excavated included knives, beads and other decorative items, shovels and other tools, and pins up to 10 inches long, made of different materials including animal, fish, bird, and whale bone, whale and walrus ivory, and killer whale teeth.

Skara Brae Neolithic artefact
Skara Brae Neolithic artefact photo © Copyright Charles Tait

The eighth house appears to be a workshed used to make simple tools. The presence of heat-damaged volcanic rocks, a flue and fragments of stone, bone and antler support this interpretation.

The people of Skara Brae even had a sophisticated drainage system which included a primitive form of toilet in each dwelling!

Skara Brae passageway
Skara Brae passageway photo © Copyright Charles Tait

There have been many theories as to why the people of Skara Brae left, and the evidence of prized possessions and half-eaten food left behind have lead to the popular interpretation that the village was abandoned during a massive storm that threatened to bury it in sand. In truth, Skara Brae’s burial was gradual and it had already been abandoned — but for what reason, no one can tell.

Header image: A house in Skara Brae, a Neolithic village in Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait