Skara Brae – the abandonment

“[W]hat was this catastrophe? Its effect was to leave the huts exposed to the infiltration of sand, but otherwise the fixtures of the interior were undisturbed. There is no trace of hostile violence. The huts had not been pillaged nor the valuables hidden in them carried off …

“It is, therefore, more reasonable to think of a natural agency, namely a hurricane from the north west, perhaps coinciding with a high tide … At the same time the sand dunes might be set in motion, and people, so poorly equipped as our villagers, could only find refuge from this foe on the higher ground.”
V. Gordon Childe. Skara Brae: a Pictish Village in Orkney (1931)
The interior of House Seven c1929.  (📷 John Houston)
The interior of House Seven c1929. (📷 John Houston)

Cataclysm or just abandoned?

By Sigurd Towrie

The tenacious notion that Skara Brae was abandoned overnight in the face of a cataclysm is entirely incorrect.

Unfortunately, like many myths surrounding the settlement, it is still often presented as indisputable fact.

As we have seen, this suitably dramatic end was proposed by the archaeologist Gordon Childe after his excavations in the late 1920s. Like a northern Pompeii, it immediately caught the public’s imagination but is complete fiction.

Childe seems to have based his apocalyptic theory on the contents of a single structure, House Seven, which was the only building not to have been cleared out by the earlier excavators.

The fact the occupants had left without their worldly goods was surely evidence of a rushed evacuation:

“… finally the inhabitants, deserting their dwellings in precipitate haste, have left them exactly as they were during their occupation with implements, ornaments and vessels all in place…” [9]

A few years later he wrote:

“[Skara Brae] was eventually overwhelmed by a sudden catastrophe. The inhabitants of the huts were forced to flee from their homes, abandoning in the store rooms and on the floor many treasured possessions, fashioned with great labour and ingenuity. One woman in her haste to squeeze through the narrow door of her home (hut 7) broke her necklace and left a stream of beads behind as she scampered up the passage.” [22]

The most popular explanation for Childe’s catastrophic has become a storm that led to an apocalyptic episode of sand blow.

But the people of Skara Brae were not forced to flee in the face of disaster. Instead the settlement’s decline was probably much more complex and gradual.

Although radiocarbon dating suggests an end around 2500BC, we must remember that this relates only to the excavated portion of the settlement. Because that section was probably just one part of a larger settlement can we really say Skara Brae was abandoned?

It may be that life went on at Skara Brae – but was focused in another area. Activity certainly continued around the Bay of Skaill throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages and beyond.

That said, evidence from across Orkney does point to a change in society around 2500BC [16] and with this it has been suggested that nucleated settlements, such as Skara Brae, went out of use. [16]

This, however, was certainly not an overnight phenomenon and may have occurred over a prolonged period of time.

Skara Brae. (Sigurd Towrie)
Skara Brae. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Part five – the name


  • [9] Childe, V. G. (1931). Skara Brae: a Pictish village in Orkney. Kegan Paul: London.
  • [16] Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richards, C. and Whittle, A. (2017) Islands of History: The Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney. Antiquity, 91(359), pp. 1171–1188.
  • [22] Childe, V. G. (1933) Scottish megalithic tombs and their affinities. Glasgow Archaeological Society.

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