In the winter of 1850, a storm with an exceptionally high tide battered the west coast of Orkney.
The force of wind and sea tore away the turf covering a mound at the Bay of Skaill, Sandwick, uncovering stone-built structures.
The local laird, William Watt, was a keen antiquarian. He undertook excavations, revealing four houses. They originally thought they'd found houses dating to the Iron Age, maybe around 500BC – 500AD.
This would prove to be very far from the truth.
What's on this page?
Digging at Skara Brae - my story
An imagined visit to Neolithic Skara Brae
Archaeology at Skara Brae - an Orcadian's perspective
The site was originally known in Orkney as a mound called 'Skerrabra.' This has been corrupted over the years to 'Skara Brae'. The meaning of the 'Skara/Skerra' part of the name is unknown. 'Brae' describes a hill.
The Sandwick folklorist, George Marwick, mentions the mound being used as a ‘meed’ by local fishermen. A meed is a prominent landmark that fishermen visually lined up with another landmark to find their way to good fishing grounds.
In Marwick's story the boatman has to keep ‘Skawhowe on Row’, meaning to line up the mound with the Row headland. In another version of the story Marwick refers to the first place as ‘Skerrow Brae’, so it seems that he is referring to Skara Brae.
Calling the mound 'howe' would make perfect sense, as 'haug' (pronounced howg) is Old Norse for a mound.
This discovery in 1850 was not, it seems, the first sighting of structures near this site.
In his book, ‘Observations made in a Tour of the islands of Orkney and Shetland in the year 1769’ James Robertson records that there were ‘...square catacombs at the Downs of Skaill’ in which a skeleton had been found holding a sword in one hand and a Danish axe in the other.
Similar to the sandy Links of Noltland in Westray, it may be that the Vikings buried their dead near Neolithic settlements by complete chance. Many Viking graves are found either on or near ancient burial sites or mounds, or near the shore.
By 1868 Watt had uncovered the remains of four houses and found many artefacts.
As Skara Brae had been covered in sand, the preservation of bone was unusually high.
The soil in Orkney is acidic, so bone found on Neolithic sites on farmland can have the consistency of soft cheese, if it survives at all.
Watt took these finds to display in his nearby home, Skaill House.
Many were later donated to Stromness Museum, where some can still be seen on display, including everybody's favorite - the Skara Brae Buddo.
Many more Skara Brae artefacts can be seen in the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall, kindly loaned by Stromness Museum.
The Skara Brae site was again damaged by a storm in December 1925, which damaged structures and washed away part of the midden mound that surrounds the village.
A stone wall was built around the site to protect it.
From 1928-30 the site was excavated by the eminent Professor V. Gordon Childe, revealing the village as we see it today.
Identifying the age of the village was problematic. Before the days of carbon dating, determining the age of artefacts depended entirely on identifying them.
The date of the Grooved Ware pottery found at the site hadn’t been established at that time.
As carved stone balls had been found in areas where there were also Pictish symbol stones, it was assumed that the mysterious balls were Pictish, dating from the 6th – 9th centuries AD.
See how Christopher makes these stone balls here.
When Childe wrote up the site he called his book ‘Skara Brae: a Pictish Village in Orkney’.
Even though this was the perceived thinking of the time, Prof. Childe always thought that the site was Neolithic. He would be proved right.
The site was then consolidated and taken in care by the ‘Ministry of Works’. Part of House 1 was rebuilt.
This is the most complete house that you can now see.
I was told many years ago that there had been strips of lead placed within the wall to show where the modern building work started, but that these strips had fallen out over the years.
A window was left in House 1, looking out to sea, at the request of the laird of Skaill. His daughter liked to play in the house, and she wanted a window.
Originally this wall would have been built into the midden covering the site, and so would have been underground.
Skara Brae is still owned by the laird at Skaill House, hence the combined ticket with Skaill House.
To give him his proper title, he is the Laird of Breckness.
Further excavations by National Museums Scotland took place from 1972-3, targeting the midden areas between the structures.
This exploration produced material (charcoal, bones) suitable for getting radiocarbon dates, showing once and for all that Skara Brae was, indeed, Neolithic.
Unfortunately - after almost 50 years - the results of this excavation have never been published, so we don’t know what the findings were.
Research carried out in the landscape around Skara Brae shows that originally the site stood some distance from the sea.
The two cliffs on either side of the bay were originally joined together, forming a barrier to the sea. There was a fresh water loch behind the cliffs.
At some point the sea breached the cliffs, eroding them away and allowing the fresh water of the loch flow into the Atlantic Ocean.
Sand dunes covered with grass filled the shallow basin left by the dried-up loch. It was at that point that the first village of Skara Brae was built.
There are two villages on the site, which were in use for some 600 years, from 3100BC–2500BC.
The earlier village was built using some midden material between the walls, but the houses were more free-standing than the later village that we see today.
During the occupation of this first village more midden material was deliberately built up.
A midden is a rubbish dump. On Orkney farms the midden was where the dung was piled to be used for manure in the spring.
The midden contained ashes from the fire, broken pieces of pottery and food waste, like bones and shells.
This waste composted over the years, leaving the villagers with large quantities for their later building project.
The earlier houses are similar to the later ones, with only two exceptions: the stone beds were built into the thickness of the walls rather than jutting out into the room, and there were no small cells built off the main room.
As you enter the village through the modern gateway you will see in front of you the remains of two of these early houses, situated at a lower level than the later houses.
The rest of the earlier structures are still buried underneath the later houses.
At some point in the history of Skara Brae the first village was dismantled, and the site was partially leveled for the building of a new village.
Why would they do this? Your guess is as good as mine.
The new houses were carefully constructed, with midden material used to fill the gaps between the walls.
It has been suggested that this made the houses more windproof and provided insulation. Others suggest that the midden material could have played a ritualistic role in the construction.
It is as if the midden material, created over a long period of time, is making the statement that this is our place, our land ... and to prove it, see how much midden material we have accumulated during that time.
Whatever their reasons for using the midden material, it seems that this second village was never meant to be above ground, but sunk into it.
First the houses were built, using midden material between the outer and inner skin of masonry, then the whole thing was covered with more midden material.
From the outside, the village would have appeared as a low mound with roofs poking out of it.
It seems that the villagers had little fear of attack, as the roofs could easily have been set on fire and those inside attacked from a higher vantage point.
The various houses are laid out to roughly the same design. The internal fittings are the same, just the position of a side chamber varies.
In each house, a square hearth lies in the centre of the room, with stone blocks for seats.
Opposite the doorway is a dresser, which is thought to have been used to display the family’s most prized possessions. Dressers were once considered to be altars, but this theory later fell out of favour.
The magnificent ‘Structure 10’ at the Ness of Brodgar, nicknamed the ‘Neolithic Cathedral’ and the last building to be built on that site, has no less than four dressers – one on each wall.
There are no domestic furnishings in Structure 10, which does suggest a ritualistic use for the dresser rather than a place to show off granny’s tea set!
The houses at Skara Brae are linked by a passageway, also subterranean. The passage connects the houses, so the inhabitants could move from house to house without having to go outside.
Outside this passage is a paved area, nick-named ‘the market place’, although this name is not based on anything known.
The passage is about a meter high (just over 3 feet), roofed with stone slabs and covered in midden material. The low height makes it more draught proof and could also be a protection from attack, although nothing on the site suggests that this was likely to happen.
There is a door on the outside of the passage which can only be closed from the inside. This could be designed to keep out the winter winds rather than attackers.
A second passage branches off to serve the enigmatic structure known as House 7.
More passageways may have existed when the village was in use, depending on what has been lost to coastal erosion.
House 7 is the finest example of the houses. Unfortunately, it's now hidden from view.
Carved stones found inside the house were thought to require special protection.
The glass roof installed in 1930 to allow visitors to see inside ended up causing huge fluctuations in temperature that damaged the interior.
The glass in House 7 was replaced with a light-weight structure and covered with turf. It's a shame that the best house in Skara Brae is now hidden away from view.
House 7 is an unusual structure. Apart from having carvings on the stone slabs of the bed, it is the only house whose door can only be secured from the outside and not the inside.
What went on in there? Was it a ritual house? Did it play some important role in the life of the villagers?
We will never know.
There was one unusual and grisly find in that house. The skeletons of two women were buried under the right-hand side bed and partially under the house wall.
The women must have been buried before the house was built.
Were they dead already, or sacrificed? There is no evidence for human sacrifice in Neolithic Orkney, but that's not to say that it couldn’t have happened.
A series of drains run underneath the village. These all emanate from the small cell found in every house and join together to create a large drain.
During the Skara Brae excavations the drains in the cells were identified as indoor toilets – something that most later Orcadians would not have until the 20th century.
On a cold, stormy winter’s night it might be quite attractive to have a toilet of sorts in the house rather than having to go outside.
It could be flushed with sea water to conserve the drinking water, though maybe flushing only happened on an infrequent basis.
Smaller cells may have been used to house valuables. One such space had been built behind the dresser.
To use it, they had to crawl through the dresser itself.
This secret hole could easily have been hidden from anyone with dishonest tendencies.
One tiny cell was found to contain a huge number of bone beads - kept safe and sound from thieves for millennia.
When Prof. Childe excavated Skara Brae he had the idea that the village had suffered a dramatic natural event, being covered with wind-blown sand like a prehistoric Pompei.
He interpreted a scatter of bone beads as a woman running from the catastrophe, catching her necklace and tearing it from her throat in her desperation to escape her fate.
A fanciful idea, but nothing more than that.
Times were changing. For whatever reason, people started to abandon their villages.
Single farmsteads were the order of the day in the Bronze Age, but at what time this transition began is unclear. It seems the once desirable residence at Skara Brae was now obsolete, old fashioned. People died and no one wanted to take over the house.
The site did start to fill with wind-blown sand, but this happened over a long period of time.
The initial covering of sand was no more than a meter deep. If people had fled from that, why didn’t they come back and clear it out? Why not go back for that treasured necklace that lay scattered on the floor?
It was a long, slow end.
Eventually, Skara Brae - whatever they called the village in their own language - disappeared from memory, until a storm in 1850 reminded us.
In the winter of 1992-3, storms once more uncovered Neolithic activity at the Bay of Skaill. Animal bone and Skaill knives were revealed close to Skara Brae.
Skaill knives are simple flakes of stone, struck from a beach cobble and used as a knife. These were named after the Bay of Skaill at Skara Brae, since so many were found there.
My old friend, Dr Colin Richards, asked me if I’d help out with a small dig in August 1993 to try to shed some light on this site.
I happily jumped at the chance of digging at Skara Brae, especially with a dear friend.
The weather was beautiful as we began our mini-dig. The area we were digging was lower than the village, located on the original old land surface.
We found a confused mass of animal bones and Skaill knives. The bones were later found to come from red deer.
It seems that this area was some sort of butchery site associated with the village.
Skaill knives have been used in experimental archaeology to butcher animal carcasses. They were found to be crude, but quite effective.
Further excavations the following year would reveal many more red deer bones, plus a few from cattle and sheep. More Skaill knives were found, too.
A whale’s mandible (jawbone) was also found at this site, with Skaill knives scattered around it.
Although some of the red deer bones were articulated, showing that a complete part of the body was left to rot, there was very little evidence of cut marks. It has been argued that the soft, sandstone Skaill knives might not have left a mark on the bone during butchery.
The best guess is that this was a site used for butchering animals away from the village. Buy why are there so many red deer bones?
Were domestic and wild animals kept apart when being butchered? Was there a taboo on this?
As I dug through the sandy soil, I found a fine red deer tibia (lower leg bone). Around it lay scattered Skaill knives. I lovingly cleaned it up, ready to be photographed and planned.
Our activities had been noted by many of the visitors to the beach that day, so we had to field questions from interested passers-by. Two elderly local couples came to see what we were doing.
We explained what had been found and how we hoped that the excavation would be extended the following year, which it was.
The one old lad was staring at the place where I'd been digging. “There’s a bone,” he declared and smacked my red deer tibia with his walking stick, breaking it in half and sending a piece of it across the site.
I bit my tongue and politely said that yes, I had noticed it.
The report of this excavation - 'Containment, closure and red deer: a Late Neolithic butchery site at Skaill Bay, Mainland, Orkney' - was published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
Imagine, if you will, that you have traveled back 5,000 years and are visiting someone who lives in Skara Brae....
The modern houses, farms and electricity poles have been swept away.
What you see now is a wide-open landscape. Patches of trees of various sizes are growing away from human habitation.
It's a misconception to think that Orkney lacked trees in the Neolithic, but they had been greatly reduced by the want of timber, and many were cleared to make way for farmland.
Standing on the high ground above the site, where Skaill House would later be built, you see grassland filling the bay; a complex of sand dunes held together by vegetation.
This tough grass could have been very useful for weaving small baskets or to bind larger straw baskets together. Studying the nests of songbirds may have given people the idea of making such things long before this time.
Away in the distance you see the sea.
The sea level is lower now, as so much water is still trapped within the ice sheets that have been retreating for thousands of years.
A fine, long sandy beach stretches from cliff to cliff.
You see boats made of skins that have been stretched over a wooden frame and waterproofed with fat. They sit on the dunes, ready for the perilous journey to the fishing grounds. The best fishing grounds lie beyond the horizon, out of sight of land, where the big fish live.
It is said that cod 3 meters long can be caught there. These hefty cod are good eating and worth risking the dangers of a sea voyage.
Today a whale has been stranded on the shore, providing a bonanza of food for the villagers. An excited crowd gathers around it.
The whale will provide meat, and the oil from its blubber may become fuel for lamps. Its bones will be used to make tools, and its ribs will be used for house rafters when the roof is re-thatched. The smaller bones, full of oil, will burn well in the fire.
A ceremony is taking place. The elder ones give thanks to the animal for offering itself to them.
Crops of barley and wheat are growing in nearby fields. Children are sent to watch over them, to prevent the sheep and goats from getting into the grain.
This grain will be needed for winter bread, maybe even for making beer.
The cattle are grazing further away and again, they are attended by young herds.
These cows appear huge to your eyes, as they are descended from the ancient aurochs that once lived in primordial forests.
These enormous beasts stood almost 2 meters tall (around 6 feet) at the shoulder. They were brown in colour with a light stripe down their spines and a lethal set of long horns. The bulls ranged in colour from brown to black, with a light-coloured muzzle.
You know that wild boar is also farmed. Your mouth waters at the memory. You'd been given some of the delicious meat on your last visit.
Red deer run free over the hills, too. These the people hunt for meat and hides. Their antlers - both naturally shed and cut from a fresh kill - are used for making tools.
As you walk down to the village you see it as a low mound, covered with vegetation. The artificial nature of this mound is given away by the roofs poking out of it.
The roofs of the houses are irregular in shape but roughly round. They are thatched with dried grass and held in place by ropes of twisted heather.
In later times, you know, people would call these ropes ‘simmans’. The name they bear at this time is strange to your ears.
Smoke finds its way out through the thatch, acting as a natural disinfectant.
Residue from the smoke builds up, repulsing insects who would eat their way in to make a home for themselves.
You see a building situated alone to the left of the village. This house is not enclosed within the mound but stands as an outcast beyond the homes of the people.
A look in the door shows that the room is empty, but you see evidence of work having recently taken place there.
Pieces of flint and chert are scattered over the floor. You can see that the flint knappers have been busy making the knives, arrowheads and scrapers they need for processing skins.
The flakes have been struck from the small but precious lump of flint. Flint is sometimes washed ashore from the deposits at sea, left by the glaciers that once covered the islands.
It seems that this house is lacking in other domestic furniture, though it has a hearth with a fire glowing in it. There are no beds, no dresser, no boxes set into the floor.
It is a workshop.
This setting apart of the workshop protects the people, especially the children, from cutting their feet on these razor-sharp slithers of stone. Such injuries could lead to infection and even death.
Turning your back on this building you can see a paved area, with the passageway beyond that.
You first have to gain entrance to the village through a doorway, which today is open. The door, you assume, is to prevent the cold winds of winter causing draughts in the houses.
Once in, you are faced with a confusing, dark, tunnel-like passage. It is low - only about a meter high. This design cuts down on draughts, too.
You pass low doors on either side of you. Are they marked in some way to identify the family inside? It is too dark to see if symbols representing the families are painted on the doors, but you know the way.
You crawl on until you come to the house of your friends.
You call out to let them know you are there.
The door has no hinges – the whole thing has to be removed to allow access. There are no nails in the Neolithic, either. The hide has been stitched onto the door's frame with long strips of rawhide.
People say that the door might have been a flat slab of thin stone or wood, but a light wooden frame covered with animal hide would have been lighter and more practical.
A door sill in the floor, made from a flat piece of stone spanning the doorway, is echoed by another flat stone sill at the top of the door.
The door fits against these two long pieces of stone and is secured in position by a wooden bar that slides into a hole on either side of the door.
The bar is drawn back and you get your first glimpse inside the house.
Directly opposite the door stands the dresser, made of upright slabs of stone with flat slabs forming a shelf and the top.
The dresser displays the family's most treasured items, things that show their status and importance within the community.
Highly decorated Grooved Ware pots stand on the dresser, and the enigmatic and elaborately carved stone object that you've noticed before.
What could it be used for? Is it a symbol of authority? Maybe the stone ball is for some religious use?
You see a rectangular, box-like construction set into the floor to the left of the door. In the stone box stand four large Grooved Ware pots. To you, they look more like dustbins than pots, covered with round disks of stone neatly trimmed to fit them.
What's inside, you wonder?
Is it the grain that your friends will use for making their unleavened bread, so like bannocks of later times? Barley and wheat grow here. Are they saving some of the grain to sow next year’s crop?
You enter, and are directed to sit on the right side of the room.
You notice that the bed jutting into the room on this side is larger than that on the other side.
It has been thought that the right-hand side with its larger beds was the male side of the room, while the left-hand side, with smaller beds, was the women’s side. This is based on ethnographical comparisons and might not be the case.
While ritual played a part in Neolithic life on a scale that we would find difficult to comprehend, it may just be that the larger bed was for the parents of the house and the smaller bed was for the children.
We must remember that the people of the Neolithic would be totally different from us. They had their own way of looking at the world. Their customs and rituals would seem strange - even frightening - to our modern eyes.
Upright slabs of stone form the base of the bed, but over it stands a wood-framed canopy. This canopy, covered with animal skins, makes it look like an ancient four-poster bed.
Like everything in the house, the canopy serves a purpose, keeping the rain that finds its way through the thatch from dripping on the sleepers below.
A layer of heather and dried grass acts as a mattress. This is covered with skins. They use other skins as blankets.
All the fat has been carefully scraped off the inside, and the skins have been cured in the sun on a stretcher frame, so there is no unpleasant smell.
Stone alcoves have been built into the wall by the side of the bed. Many useful things are stored here.
You wonder if the woman's bead necklace, made of carved and polished animal bones and teeth, is taken off at night to prevent the rawhide thong from getting worn and snapping.
You can see a small Grooved Ware pot of water in the alcove - maybe to quench a thirst during the night.
The only light in the dim room is from the fire that burns in a stone-lined, square hearth in the centre of the room.
You've seen the family burn a variety of fuel – dried animal dung, dried seaweed, oil-rich whale bone.
Very little charcoal has been found in Skara Brae, so it seems that wood was too valuable to burn.
Dried grass and heather could be used to light the fire, should it ever go out.
You wonder if your friends believe that letting the fire die will bring bad luck, as you know will be so in later times.
In Orkney, the good fortune of the house depends on the fire.
Above the fire, meat and fish are hanging in the smoke that will dry it out and preserve it for winter supplies.
You look at the wooden beams that form the frame of the roof. They may have come from from larger Orkney trees, but they might just as well be driftwood from North America.
You know the huge forests there would see some trees brought down to the coast in rivers, where they would drift on to Orkney, carried on the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. These logs could be split with wedges driven in by hammer stones.
The thatch of grass and heather may have been reinforced and waterproofed by skins, held in place by heather ropes.
Twisted heather was found in the midden material during excavations.
In the corner of the room, near the quern stone where the grain is ground to flour for bread, stand two or three stone tanks. The seams have been carefully sealed with clay to make it water tight.
In them, shellfish, crabs and lobsters can be kept alive until it is time to eat them. Keeping food fresh is a real problem.
The air is thick with smoke. The low doorway keeps the heat in the room, and smoke provides heat.
A large block of stone sits on the floor between the dresser and the fire. Sheep skins are spread on top as a cushion.
The head of the household smiles a welcome to you. The others gather around the fire, settling on sheep skins for comfort.
It seems that a story is being told. A hushed silence hovers over the listeners. Sadly, you have not the skill to understand the language.
You notice a doorway into a small chamber in the corner of the room where you sit with your friends. The little room is very dark and has an unpleasant smell.
You don’t investigate.
Baskets are sitting around the room, some with wild birds’ eggs which the children have found, some with seeds and roots that the woman have gathered and dug up.
All food for the family. Hunting and gathering plays an important role in this farming society.
You're offered some of the fresh cod that has been caught today. You eat it gratefully.
One of the children comes in with a cut in her leg. You watch as her mother lovingly applies something like cotton wool on the wound.
You are not surprised to see more of these things stored in the basket hanging above. You know that dried puffball fungi becomes a fibrous material inside when it gets old, and though it looks something like a course cotton wool, it has healing properties. The puffball fibers stop bleeding and are antiseptic, cleaning the wound.
The room is warm and inviting, but it is time for you to go. You smile and nod at the man who sits at the head of the fire, and at the woman beside him. They smile and nod back.
A gift of a leg of lamb, smoked over the fire, is given to you as you get up to leave. It seems that hospitality is important to these people.
You hope the custom will continue with their descendants.
The scene above is an imagined visit, but it's based on archaeological finds from Skara Brae.
The clay-sealed tanks that I mentioned in the story have inspired many theories over the years. As there were lots of limpet shells found in them when they were excavated, it was assumed that the tanks were for softening limpets before using them as bait for fish hooks.
To me, this seems highly unlikely.
It was known among Orcadians that when a limpet was used as bait and needed to be softened, the ‘sucker’ part was cleaned with the thumb nail, forcing the guts away, and then chewed until soft.
It might sound unpleasant, but that is what people did. People in Neolithic times would probably have done something similar, rather than waste valuable space in the house.
Something similar happened in Shetland. Fishermen cut hollow cup-mark depressions into the rock where limpets would be mashed up with a stone to create a sort of soup. This was then ‘sprooted’ (spat) into the sea by the fisherman when he wanted to attract small inshore fish.
And I excavated a stone tank at the excavation of Crossiecrown, just outside of Kirkwall. The only thing I found in it was a small amount of cremated bone.
Skara Brae is part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. This treasured part of Orkney's history is looked after by Historic Environment Scotland.
Go here to purchase tickets, which also gain you entrance into Skaill House from April - October. Or you can buy your ticket when you arrive.
Skaill House is closed from Nov 1st to March 31st.
Skara Brae Opening times:
1 Apr to 30 Sept ~
Daily, 9.30am to 5.30pm
Last entry 4.45pm
1 Oct to 31 Mar ~
Daily, 10am to 4pm
Last entry 3.15pm
When you arrive, you'll find an attractive visitors' centre, where you can purchase tickets.
Inside the Skara Brae Visitor Centre, you'll find a cafe with a delicious assortment of edibles, an exhibition with a film to set the mood, a beautiful gift shop and ... toilets!
When you're ready, you can wander off to the recreated village house. Spend a few minutes imagining life in this very place 5,000 years ago.
Then a trail takes you to the village by the sea.
As you walk along, you'll notice stone markers imprinted with dates from well-known time periods dotting the path.
These help you to realize just how far, far back in time you're traveling when you visit Skara Brae.
You can also visit the stately Skaill House with your ticket, if you're lucky enough to be there in-season.
You might even want to book a stay there. But be warned - Skaill House is said to be haunted!
Enjoy your visit to the ancestors!
* You can find the old Orkney photos used on this page - and many more - at the Orkney Library & Archive.
Mermaid image (Rhonda's pages) and storyteller image (Tom's pages), and all other illustrations except where noted are here by the courtesy of our dear friend - Stromness author, artist and historian, Bryce Wilson MBE, who owns all copyrights. Thanks, Bryce!