Highlights of Scotland | Skara Brae

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Scotland History: A house at Skara Brae, Orkney

Discovering Skara Brae

Skara Brae is one of the most visited monuments of Orkney and Shetland, also known as the Northern Isles of Scotland.

The Neolithic village of Skara Brae was discovered in the winter of 1850. Wild storms ripped the grass and earth from a high dune then known as “Skerrabra” beside the Bay of Skaill, and exposed the ruins of ancient stone buildings. The discovery proved to be the best-preserved Neolithic sites in northern Europe.

The local laird, William Watt of Skaill embarked on an excavation of the site but the work was abandoned in 1868, after unearthing the remains of four ancient houses. The settlement remained mostly undisturbed until 1925, when another storm damaged some of the previously excavated structures. Then it was decided that the archaeological site is to be secured by the seawall and properly investigated. The job was given to Australian archaeologist and philologist Professor V. Gordon Childe, who worked on the site from 1927 – 1930 while he was employed as the Abercromby Professor of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. Initially it was thought that Skara Brae was an Iron Age settlement from around 500BC, but Radiocarbon dating in the early 1970s confirmed that the settlement was inhabited for around 600 years, from roughly 3180 BC to about 2500 BC.

What did the archaeologists find at Skara Brae?

The archaeological findings in Skara Brae were eight dwellings, linked together by a series of low, covered passages. Given the number of structures excavated, scientists believe no more than fifty people lived in Skara Brae at any given time. A replica house allows visitors to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the buildings and the Neolithic lifestyle.

The inhabitants of Skara Brae were Grooved Ware People who are named after a distinctive style of pottery found in northern Scotland. The houses built by them were sunk into the ground to provide protection from the harsh weather. Each house consists of a large square room measuring around 40 m2, with a stone hearth for heating and cooking. Archaeologists also found pieces of furniture and equipment, such as cupboards, beds and dressers, seats, and stone boxes for storage in each of the houses except for one. The eighth house has been divided into small cubicles, and the fragments of stone, bone and antler excavated from there suggests that the house have been used to make tools such as bone needles or flint axes.

A house at Skara Brae, Orkney
A house at Skara Brae

Thus, it is not surprising that several artifacts were found in the area. The most famous ones are carved stone balls, similar to the ones found across Northern Scotland and the Boyne Valley in Ireland. Another common tool found all across Orkney and Shetland are the so called Skaill knives. Other notable items include needles, beads, small bowls and ivory pins made of animal bones and teeth. At this point it still remains unclear why the inhabitants abandoned Skara Brae. It seems most likely that due to climate change, the weather became much colder and wetter, creating unfavourable living conditions over time. However, according to a popular theory a major storm made them flee in haste, leaving many of their possessions behind. Archaeologists are certain that supporting structures were lost to coastal erosion before it was decided to protect the area with a seawall. Most likely Skara Brae used to be farther from the sea coast and it is likely that the village was built next to a fresh water lagoon protected by dunes. Archaeologists are aware of nearby adjacent remains still covered by fields, and other ancient monuments of uncertain date are eroding out of the cliff edge a bit south of the settlement.

Skara Brae was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 along withother Neolithic sites such as Maeshowe, the stone circles of Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness, and other nearby sites, forming “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney”.

If you’re interested learning more about Skara Brae and the Neolithic history of Scotland, check out our articles on the topic or join one of Odyssey Traveller’s tours visiting the site!

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