Around the Ness – Skara Brae

Nowhere, except in Egypt or at Pompeii, is a prehistoric settlement to be found, the streets, huts and even domestic furniture of which are in such perfect preservation”

Professor V. Gordon Childe. Letter to The Orcadian newspaper. (1928)
House One. Skara Brae. (Jim Richardson)

House One. Skara Brae. (Jim Richardson)

By Sigurd Towrie

Hailed the best-preserved Neolithic village in northern Europe, Skara Brae stands on the southern shore of the Bay of Skaill, in Orkney’s West Mainland – around 5½ miles, as the crow flies, to the north-west of the Ness of Brodgar complex

In the midst of an archaeology rich landscape, thousands of visitors flock annually to the site to view the consolidated remains of ten 5,000-year-old buildings.

Cocooned by sand for millennia, Skara Brae’s buildings, and their contents, are incredibly well-preserved. Not only are the walls still standing, and passageways roofed with their original stone slabs, but the interior fittings of each house give an unparalleled glimpse of life in Neolithic Orkney.

Discovery and excavation

'The Weem of Scara Brae’ (sic) — an undated photograph of the site but given the vegetative growth visible, it must have been taken some time after William Watt’s efforts to clear the site. (Picture courtesy of Orkney Library Photographic Archive).

‘The Weem of Scara Brae’ (sic) — an undated photograph of the site but given the vegetative growth visible, it must have been taken some time after William Watt’s efforts to clear the site.
(Picture courtesy of Orkney Library Photographic Archive).

Around 1850 [1], a violent storm, together with an exceptionally high tide, undermined part of the dunes at “Skerrabrae” [2] to reveal [3] an artefact-filled “kitchen midden”[4]. Investigation by William Watt, resident of the nearby Skaill House, suggested “the existence of extensive buildings” [4]. Watt wasted no time before digging into these and, by February 1851, it was clear there was “a small ruinous chamber” within an “immense accumulation of ashes, several feet in thickness, plentifully mixed with shells and the horns and bones of deer and other animals” [5].

By 1868, four structures and had been revealed and a “vast hoard of primitive relics” gathered [6]. Although Watt’s work was carried out “with loving care and almost with his own hands” [7] it was excavation only in terms of the dictionary definition. Were it not for the Orcadian antiquarian George Petrie’s plans and records of the site, documentation would be non-existent [8].

After Watt, the initial flurry of activity around Skara Brae waned and the site left to the elements for at least 45 years. It was revisited in 1913, when William Balfour Stewart’s “unmethodical excavations” [9] seem to have simply cleared out previously investigated areas.

Vere Gordon Childe (bottom left) pictured during his excavations at Skara Brae. (Picture courtesy of Orkney Library Photographic Archive)

Vere Gordon Childe (bottom left) pictured during his excavations at Skara Brae. The two women are now thought to have been students of Childe’s and part of a visiting group that included Margaret Simpson, Margaret Mitchell, Mary Kennedy and Dame Margaret Cole. (Picture courtesy of Orkney Library Photographic Archive)

Skara Brae was then left until 1925, when another storm damaged some of the structures. A sea wall was constructed and it was decided that the building remains should also be consolidated. A side benefit of this was an excavation, which ran from 1927 until 1930 and led by Professor Vere Gordon Childe.

Childe set to work “clearing out” the buildings [10] and “was reasonably successful” [11], in uncovering “an agglomeration of stone huts connected by covered passages and all partially buried in a huge midden heap” [12].

Childe’s interpretation of the site saw him create an inaccurate, but tenacious, vision of Neolithic life that remains in some quarters today. Perhaps the most persistent element being the sudden and “hasty desertion” of the settlement in the face of an apocalyptic calamity.

Childe originally thought Skara Brae represented an Iron Age settlement (early centuries AD) based on correlation be believed to exist between the carved stone balls found and Pictish symbol stones [13]. Some years later, when it became clear that the pottery was much earlier [14], Skara Brae was pushed back two millennia, firmly into the Neolithic.

Radiocarbon dating in the early 1970s confirmed that the settlement dated from the late Neolithic, suggesting the site was inhabited between 3200BC and 2200BC.

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.)

Each house shares the same basic design – a large square room, with a central hearth, a “bed” on either side and a shelved “dresser” on the wall opposite the doorway.

Visit the site today and you will see structures from two stages of the settlement’s history. All but two of these are from the later phase of activity.

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

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

Skara Brae followed the pattern since noted at other Orcadian Neolithic settlements – houses were built, inhabited, abandoned and rebuilt, frequently on the same site. 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). These early houses were circular with the “beds” set into the walls at either side of the hearth. Excavation evidence suggests they were also freestanding and clad in turf jackets – as encountered at the Barnhouse Settlement.

The later houses followed the same basic design, but on a larger scale. The house shape 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.

Today, visitors often think, not helped by over a century of accounts suggesting the same, that Skara Brae was an underground village, linked by a series of short, roofed tunnels. This is not the case. The houses were not sunk into the ground but built on it and, over their lifetimes, became encased in domestic refuse, sand and other materials [15].

Interior of House One, Skara Brae. (Sigurd Towrie)

Interior of House One, Skara Brae. (Sigurd Towrie)

Each house was accessed through a low doorway, 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 executed drainage system serving the structures – including what may be internal toilets – Childe firmly believed the occupants lived in squalor, tolerating “a nauseating amount of filth on the hut floors” [10]. Behind his repeated references to the foetid living conditions was his incorrect belief that the settlement was abandoned, and 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.

The roofs

Skara Brae. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

Skara Brae. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

Because nothing survived of the structures’ roofs, we must assume that they were made of a perishable, organic material. Perhaps whalebone, or driftwood, beams supported a roof of turf, skins, thatched seaweed or straw. Seaweed, weighed down with straw ropes attached to stones, remained a roofing material in Orkney into recent history.

Until the discovery of stone roofing “tiles” at the Ness of Brodgar, it was assumed all Neolithic constructions had organic roofs. In light of this, re-reading the early excavation reports offers an intriguing possibility – were Skara Brae’s houses stone roofed too?

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 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? Unfortunately, we will never know.

The date and extent of Skara Brae

“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)

In 2017, a re-evaluation of Orcadian radiocarbon dates suggested that occupation at Skara Brae began around 2900BC but was abandoned a short time later and re-occupied between 2800-2700BC. The site was 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? 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 see now is probably a fraction of the original. 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]”.

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 the evidence now suggests that the village we see today was but 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].  Archaeological evidence 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 has identified a scatter of flint, bone and a stone tool identified as Neolithic [17]. Supporting the physical evidence, geophysical surveys strongly suggest the excavated village is but one part of a much larger settlement [17].

A series of magnetic anomalies to the south and west of Skara Brae hint at a settlement that could be as much as five times the size of the known remains. Whether occupation extended to the north (i.e. seaward) and, if so, how far, is now impossible to tell. 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] makes a lost northern section very possible, if not probable.

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

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

Abandonment

The idea that Skara Brae was abandoned overnight in the face of a cataclysm that caused the inhabitants to flee is entirely incorrect. Unfortunately, it is still often presented as 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. Instead, Skara Brae’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 much 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)

The name

The second element of the name Skara Brae is the Scots word brae, meaning slope, but which is often found in Orkney referring to mounds. The first element, however, has long been pondered and remains unclear. But as we have seen, Skara Brae is a relatively recent invention. The older version, Skerrabrae, suggests the first element may relate to the Old Norse sker, meaning reef, which is found today in the word skerry. It is perhaps no coincidence that a large, rocky skerry lies at the southern end of the Bay of Skaill, a little to the west of Skara Brae.

This possibility is strengthened when we look at the name given by Orcadian George Marwick in the late 1800s. Recounting a folktale centred on the Bay of Skaill, Marwick explains that “Skerow Brae” was used as a navigation aid by those at sea [21]. In this form, the presence of -ow suffix could represent the Old Norse haugr, meaning mound and which is often found in placenames as -howe, -how or -ow.

If we follow the sker avenue, Skerow is simply descriptive, meaning skerry mound.

In a retelling of the same folktale, Marwick give the navigational mound a different name – Skawhowe.

Skaw is generally thought to derive from the Old Norse skagi, meaning headland or promontory, so we have promontory mound. The problem with this is that Skara Brae does not sit on a headland. While Marwick may be referring to a second, different navigation point, this seems unlikely as the instructions given for lining up the two points are the same. Instead, I wonder whether there was an error when Marwick’s handwritten article was transcribed for publication in The Orkney Herald in December 1891.

See also

Notes

  • [1] Every late 20th century account places the storm that revealed Skara Brae in 1850, but the earlier sources are less clear. Hugh Marwick placed it “in the year 1850, or immediately before…” (1929) while George Petrie was equally unclear: “About fifteen or sixteen years ago…” (1867). Depending on when Petrie wrote his paper, this places the storm between 1849 and 1851. What is without doubt is that by February 1851, Lieutenant Thomas had documented that there were archaeological remains on site.
  • [2] Skara Brae is a modern corruption of Skerrabrae or Skerrabra – the names by which the site was known until at least the 1950s. Writing in 1928, the Orcadian scholar Hugh Marwick explained: “An elderly Sandwick man, who has lived in the neighbourhood all his days, informs me that he had always hear it referred to as ‘Styerrabrae’, i.e. Skerrabrae, with the local palatalising of ‘sk’ before a front vowel.”
  • [3] The idea that Skara Brae was unknown until it was uncovered by the storm of 1850 is “a complete fiction”, according to Orcadian historian Dr Ernest Marwick. In an article in The Orcadian newspaper in 1967, Marwick said: “In his Observations made in a Tour of the islands of Orkney and Shetland in the year 1769, James Robertson wrote of the square catacombs in the Downs of Skail, and said that in one a skeleton was found with a sword in one hand and a Danish axe in the other.”
  • [4] Marwick, H. (1929) Skerrabrae. In Proceedings of the Orkney Antiquarian Society, Volume VII (1928-1929), pp 17-26. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [5] Thomas, F. W. L. (1851) XIII — Account of some of the Celtic Antiquities of Orkney, including the Stones of Stenness, Tumuli, Picts-houses, &c., with Plans, by FWL Thomas, RN, Corr. Mem. SA Scot., Lieutenant Commanding HM Surveying Vessel Woodlark. Archaeologia, 34(1), pp.88–136.
  • [6] Petrie, G. (1867). Notice of Ruins of Ancient Dwellings at Skara, Bay of Skaill, in the Parish of Sandwick, Orkney, recently excavated. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 7, pp. 201–219).
  • [7] Old Lore Miscellany (1909).
  • [8] It was solely due to Petrie’s plan that Gordon Childe, who excavated Skara Brae in the late 1920s, realised that House One had been “restored” by Watt.
  • [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).
  • [11] Ritchie, A. (1995) Prehistoric Orkney. Batsford Ltd: London.
  • [12] Childe, V. G. (1931). Skara Brae: a ‘Stone Age’ village in Orkney. Antiquity, 5(17), pp.47–59.
  • [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.
  • [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.
  • [21] Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.

You may also like...