Skara Brae – the houses

Plan of Skara Brae with the position of Clarke's two excavation trenches in 1972-1973 marked. (Clarke, D.V. (1976) The Neolithic Village of Skara Brae, Orkney: 1972–1973 Excavations. An interim report. HMSO: Edinburgh.)
Plan of Skara Brae with the position of Clarke’s two excavation trenches in 1972-1973 marked.
(Clarke, D.V. 1976. The Neolithic Village of Skara Brae, Orkney: 1972–1973 Excavations. An interim report. HMSO: Edinburgh.)

By Sigurd Towrie

Today the visitor to Skara Brae will see structures from two phases of the settlement’s history. Most date from the final period of occupation (c2500BC), with only two (Houses Nine and Ten) from the earliest excavated phase (c2900BC).

Skara Brae followed the pattern since noted at other Orcadian Neolithic settlements – houses were built, inhabited, abandoned and rebuilt, usually on the same site. Test pits dug by Childe in the early 20th century encountered structural remains beneath the visible buildings, along with deposits in some areas two-metres deep.

Because of this, the early structures lie beneath the later constructions so can only be seen on the periphery of the excavated settlement (Houses Nine and Ten).

Interior of House One, Skara Brae. (Sigurd Towrie)
Interior of House One. The ‘dresser’ is visible to the left, directly opposite the entrance, and one of the two ‘box beds’ at the top of the picture. (📷Sigurd Towrie)

All the buildings, however, share the same basic design – a square room with a central hearth, a rectangular “box” on either side and a shelved “dresser” on the wall opposite the entrance.

Dresser in House One from the entrance. (Sigurd Towrie)
Dresser in House One from the entrance. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

To Childe, these boxes represented beds – an interpretation that has stuck despite there being no real evidence that was their role. This is something we will look at elsewhere.

The early houses were circular with the “beds” set into the walls at either side of the hearth. Excavation evidence suggested they were also freestanding, perhaps clad in turf jackets – as proposed for the Barnhouse Settlement.

The later houses followed the same basic design, but on a larger scale. The shape also changed slightly, becoming more rectangular with rounded internal corners.

Also, the “beds” were no longer built into the wall but protruded into the main living area, giving the structures the same cruciform layout we see in other late Neolithic architecture.

House One, looking west. (Sigurd Towrie)
House One, looking west. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Each house was accessed through a low entrance, which had a stone slab “door” that could be closed and secured by a bar that fitted into holes in the door jambs.

Despite the well-planned and constructed drainage system serving the structures – including what is suggested may be internal toilets – Childe firmly believed the villagers lived in squalor, tolerating “a nauseating amount of filth on the hut floors”. [10]

He wrote:

“[T]he observations made during its excavation accordingly afford a graphic and reliable picture of a ‘stone age’ interior. The first impression produced was one of indescribable filth and disorder. Scraps of bone and shells were lying scattered promiscuously all over the floor, sometimes masked by broken slates laid down like stepping stones over the morass. Even the beds were no cleaner; the complete skull of a calf lay in the left-hand bed and the green matter usually associated with drains was observed on its floor.” [9]

Behind Childe’s repeated references to fetid living conditions was his incorrect belief that the settlement was abandoned when the occupants fled in the face of a catastrophe. To Childe, the condition of the buildings in 1928-30 was exactly as they had been left following his proposed Neolithic exodus.

Today, visitors often think, not helped by over a century of accounts suggesting the same, that Skara Brae was an underground village made up of subterranean structures linked by a series of short, roofed tunnels.

This vision of the Neolithic settlement has become as persistent as Childe’s apocalyptic abandonment and is still regularly trotted out in popular articles relating to the site.

It first reared its head mere months after Skara Brae’s discovery, in Daniel Wilson’s brief 1851 account of the site and artefacts:

“One of the most interesting recent discoveries … was made by Mr G. Petrie, during his exploration of a subterranean dwelling, or weem, at Skara, in the Bay of Scales (sic), Sandwich (sic).” [23]

But while standing around the remains of the structures today, looking down into their interiors, may give the impression they were subterranean, that is not the case.

Childe recognised that the earliest building were not sunk into the ground but that the settlement began as “an agglomeration of free-standing huts which became embedded by successive steps in heaped up refuse – and that only partially.” [9]

As time went on, and buildings were demolished and replaced on the same spot, the later structures became encased in domestic refuse, sand and other materials. [15]

3d model of House Seven’s interior.

Roofing material

Rubble within the buildings saw Childe propose that they had corbelled, beehive-like, roofs.

He conceded, however, that his excavation team had not found enough to cover the entire span of the structures.

“The excavation of Chamber No. 2 has added little evidence of the construction of the upper walls, and the method of roofing is still a matter of conjecture.
“The chambers may have been covered with a domed roof of small stones, as in beehive structures, or by some method of lintelling with large slabs… If by the former, one would have expected to find a great mass of fallen stones among the debris excavated, but no such mass was found in any of the chambers recently exposed, nor were many slabs found which would have been necessary for the other method.” [10]
Skara Brae. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)
Skara Brae. (📷 Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

Because nothing survived of the structures’ roofs, it has long been assumed they were made of a perishable, organic material – perhaps timber, or whalebone, beams supporting a roof of turf, skins, thatched seaweed or straw. Seaweed, weighed down with straw ropes attached to stones, remained a roofing material in Orkney well into recent history.

The discovery of stone roofing “tiles” at the Ness of Brodgar, however, forces us to re-examine this tenacious assumption. Particularly when we re-read the early accounts of Skara Brae’s excavation.

Could its houses have been stone roofed too?

Collapsed roofing slabs in one of Structure Eight's side recesses. (ORCA)
Collapsed roofing slabs in one of Structure Eight’s side recesses. (📷 ORCA)

In July 1861, James Farrer wrote a letter to The Orcadian newspaper in which he stated that all the chambers and passages “were filled with sand and stones fallen from the roof…”

While this is far from definite evidence of roofing tiles, in 1931 Childe described conditions in House Seven at Skara Brae:

“Scraps of bone and shells were lying scattered promiscuously all over the floor, sometimes masked by broken slates laid down like stepping stones over the morass”. [9]

Had Childe unwittingly stumbled across roofing tiles? Tiles that he then had his labourers clear out with the rest of the “rubbish”?

It is interesting to note his repeated references to fragile paving at Skara Brae that broke under the excavators’ feet – hardly the best material to cover a floor. [13]

Some years later, during his excavations at the Rinyo Neolithic settlement, in Rousay, Childe encountered another irregular “pavement” of thin slabs on the floor of some of the buildings. Back on site in 1946, he noted that few of the slabs were laid flat, with “quite a number” leaning up against wall and furniture features. [14]

His conclusion was that “it is not unlikely that the alleged pavement is nothing more nor less than the collapsed roof of that dwelling.” [10]

At this point it should be stressed that when the roof tiles were first encountered in the Ness of Brodgar’s Structure Eight they were originally thought to represent paving. But the quantity, size, fragility and distribution soon made it clear that we actually had fallen roofing material!

Part three: The date and extent of the settlement

See also


  • [9] Childe, V. G. (1931). Skara Brae: a Pictish village in Orkney. Kegan Paul: London.
  • [10] Childe, V. G., Paterson, J. and Bryce, T. (1929). Provisional Report on the Excavations at Skara Brae, and on Finds from the 1927 and 1928 Campaigns. With a Report on Bones. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 63, pp. 225–280).
  • [13] Childe, V. G. (1930) Operations at Skara Brae during 1929. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 64, pp. 158–191).
  • [14] Childe, V.G. and Grant, W. (1938). A Stone-Age settlement at the Braes of Rinyo, Rousay, Orkney (First Report). In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 73, pp. 6–31).
  • [15] Shepherd, A.N. (2016). Skara Brae life studies: overlaying the embedded images. In Hunter, F. and Sheridan, A. (eds) Ancient lives: object, people and place in early Scotland. Essays for David V. Clarke on his 70th birthday. Sidestone Press: Leiden.
  • [23] Wilson, D. (1851) The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland (First edition).

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