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)

Part 1: Discovery and excavation

By Sigurd Towrie

Sandwick parish map.

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

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

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.

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, “who resided at Skaill”, 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.

'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.
(📷 Orkney Library Photographic Archive).

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.

Rough plan of Skerrabrae. 1928. (Hugh Marwick, Skerrabrae. 1929)
Rough plan of Skerrabrae. 1928. (Hugh Marwick, Skerrabrae. 1929)

Skara Brae was then left until 1925, when another storm damaged some of the exposed structures.

A sea wall was raised 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, 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 Childe’s most persistent creation is the sudden and “hasty desertion” of the settlement in the face of an apocalyptic calamity.

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. (📷 Orkney Library Photographic Archive)

Childe originally thought Skara Brae represented an Iron Age settlement (early centuries AD) based on correlation be believed existed between the carved stone balls found and the Pictish symbol stones encountered across Scotland. [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 was Neolithic, suggesting the excavated section we see today was inhabited between 3200BC and 2200BC.

Part two – the houses

See also


  • [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 wrote: “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.” Marwick was wrong. Robertson’s account did not relate to Skara Brae but the Bronze Age cists enountered on the slopes of Sandfiold, to the east of the Bay of Skaill.
  • [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.
  • [22] Childe, V. G. (1933) Scottish megalithic tombs and their affinities, Trans. Glasgow Archaeological Society.

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