Skara Brae – the date and extent of the settlement

“Among those numerous remains of primitive dwellings of the early inhabitants of the Orkneys, which have been more or. less examined, a great mass of ruins on the shore of the bay of Skaill, in the parish of Sandwick, occupies a prominent place, and deserves particular notice.”
George Petrie. Notice of Ruins of Ancient Dwellings at Skara, Bay of Skaill,
in the Parish of Sandwick, Orkney
. (1867)

By Sigurd Towrie

In 2017, a re-evaluation of radiocarbon results pointed to a date of around 3300BC for the earliest occupation at Skara. Although most of the larger buildings we can view today date from around 2900BC, it seems the site was abandoned a short time after their construction. Re-occupation occurred between 2800-2700BC, with Skara Brae finally abandoned around 2500BC. [16]

Passageway. (Sigurd Towrie)
Passageway. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

These results seem to indicate a clear hiatus at Skara Brae but does this actually represent abandonment? Or are we seeing something else – buildings or areas perhaps going out of use?

This highlights a problem with Skara Brae’s interpretation – the assumption that the consolidated remains represent the entirety of the settlement.

As we will see, what visitors to the Neolithic village experience today is probably a fraction of the original.

Skara Brae has been said to have been a cluster of no more than ten to twelve houses, inhabited by a population of around 70. [18]

But as Brend et al. stressed in 2020, “the extent of a Neolithic settlement in Orkney is seldom, if ever, the same as the area excavated.” [17]

It is now more likely that village we see today was just one part of a more extensive settlement. 

As recently as 2009, David Clarke – who excavated Skara Brae in the 1970s – all but dismissed this possibility. Conceding that any archaeological remains seaward of the village were long gone, he stressed that “archaeologists are fairly confident that landward, little, if anything remains to be discovered”. [19]

The evidence, however, suggests this is not the case.

Not only do we have early activity on the outskirts of the consolidated village but a large eroding mound, 100 metres to the west, revealed at least two, if not three, major structural phases, separated by large deposits of windblown sand.

South of Skara Brae, fieldwalking identified a scatter of flint, bone and a stone tool identified as Neolithic. [17]

And supporting this physical evidence, geophysical surveys strongly suggest the excavated village is a tiny part of a much larger settlement. A series of magnetic anomalies to the south and west hint that Skara Brae could have been as much as five times the size of the visible remains. [17]

Whether occupation extended to the north (i.e. seaward) and, if so, how far, is now impossible to tell. But a lost northern section is very possible, if not probable, given the fact that during the lifetime of Skara Brae the area occupied by the current bay was a mix of dry land, freshwater lochans and marsh, with encroaching sand and machair [20].

Skara Brae and the Bay of Skaill. (Sigurd Towrie)
Skara Brae and the Bay of Skaill. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Part four: cataclysm or just abandoned?


  • [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.
  • [17] Brend, A., Card, N., Downes, J., Edmonds, M. and Moore, J. (2020) Landscapes Revealed: Geophysical Survey in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Area 2002-2011. Oxbow Books, Oxford.
  • [18] Clarke, D. V. (2012) Skara Brae: Official Souvenir Guide. Historic Scotland: Edinburgh.
  • [19] Clarke, D. and Maguire, P. (2009) Skara Brae: Northern Europe’s Best Preserved Neolithic Village: The Official Souvenir Guide. Historic Scotland: Edinburgh.
  • [20] Leinert, A.C.D.L.V., Keen, D.H., Jones, R.L., Wells, J.M. and Smith, D.E. (2000) Mid‐Holocene environmental changes in the Bay of Skaill, Mainland Orkney, Scotland: an integrated geomorphological, sedimentological and stratigraphical study. Journal of Quaternary Science: Quaternary Research Association, 15(5), pp.509–528.

You may also like...