Donated Skara Brae excavation documents bound for Orkney archives

John Houston.

A collection of documents relating to the excavation of Skara Brae in the late 1920s is bound for the Orkney Library and Archives.

They belonged to John Houston, an architect for the Ministry of Works, who was part of the team that excavated and consolidated the Neolithic settlement between 1927 and 1930.

John was born on March 30, 1892, at Ayton Castle, in the Scottish Borders, where his father worked as a butler. He was the eldest son and the second of six children.

After serving in the First World War, he began his career as an architect and, in 1922, joined the Ministry of Works in Edinburgh – a role that saw him rescue and conserve elements from a wide range of historic buildings.

A few years later he was dispatched north to Orkney to assist in the Ministry’s work at Skara Brae, which was overseen by the archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe.

In the 1929 Skara Brae excavation report, published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, we learn:

“Mr J. Houston of the Office of Works once more took charge of the surveying — a very complicated matter — and rendered invaluable assistance in other directions. The Society owes to him the admirable plans and sections that illustrate this and the previous paper.”

During his time in Orkney, John also visited the Midhowe broch excavation in Rousay, accompanied by Childe.

An accomplished artist, John went on to found, and instruct, a group that specialised in restoring and preserving historical paintwork. His unrivalled technical knowledge of painted woodwork, plaster, and stone decay, saw him called upon to advise at historic buildings across Scotland.

According to one newspaper report, he ranged “far and wide throughout Scotland, costing, planning and directing the restoration and preservation of really worthy old ceilings, paneling, woodcarving, timbering, plasterwork and so on…”

The interior of a Skara Brae, drawn by John Houston.
The interior of a Skara Brae, drawn by John Houston.

His work portfolio included, among many others, the restoration of frescoes at the Chapel Royal, Stirling; the discovery and cleaning of paintings within Kinneil House, Bo’Ness, and rediscovery of decorative panels at Holyroodhouse.

John was married to Agnes McNicol and they had two children, Norma and Robert.

He passed away in 1953, The Scotsman noting in his obituary that: “The interiors of many beautiful old buildings in Scotland remain as a lasting monument to his care and skill.”

John Houston’s collection of photographs, drawings and sketches are to be donated to the Orkney Library and Archives after his family contacted Ness of Brodgar site director Nick Card.

Some of John’s early photographs of Skara Brae are pictured, by kind permission of his family.

You may also like...