History Files


Prehistoric Britain

Skara Brae - Orkney's Neolithic Village

by Charles Tait, 2 June 2006

Skara Brae (HY232188), by the shore of the Bay of Skaill on Orkney, is virtually unique. This remarkably well preserved village is one of very few archaeological sites at which it is actually possible to imagine the lifestyle of the inhabitants.

First revealed after a severe storm in 1850, this prehistoric community was occupied for about six hundred years. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the site was occupied before 3100 BC to a date around 2600 BC.

Orkney life

The group of six houses and a workshop is connected by a covered close, and all of the buildings except for the workshop were buried to the tops of the walls by midden. This clay-like mixture of refuse consists of ashes, shells, bones, sand, and other domestic detritus and has been a major factor in protecting the site from erosion. It seems the occupants had built the midden around their houses intentionally as an integral part of the construction.

It appears to have been stored and used deliberately rather than piled round existing houses. Damp-proof courses had also been invented over 5,000 years ago. The foundations of the houses have a layer of blue clay in the bottom course which would have worked as well as polythene does today. At the time, 3000 BC, the Bay of Skaill may have been much smaller, with more sand dunes and perhaps a freshwater loch behind the dunes. The village would have been behind this lagoon amid pasture, much like that which exists today.

Abandonment was very likely caused by encroaching sand, perhaps because of a great storm which set the sand dunes in motion and overwhelmed the village in a short time, as at the sands of Forvie more recently. However, it continued in use for some time after this, as there were several occupation layers in the sand which filled the houses.

The houses vary in size from over six metres square to barely four metres square, with a maximum surviving wall height of 2.4m. The designs are quite similar (was there a local builder at work in Orkney in 3000 BC?), with beds, dressers, tanks in the floor, cupboards in the walls, and cells off the main room. The cells in some cases have drains, possibly for toilet purposes, and are very similar to the cells in chambered cairns.

Each house has a central fireplace and a doorway exiting to the main passage. These doorways were small, about 1.1m high by 0.6m wide and there was provision to fasten the door from the inside.

Today's remains

What remains today is like an animal skeleton. There would have been driftwood from North America available for furnishings and materials such as animal sheep skins, leather, and eider down, as well as caisies, cubbies, and the original Orkney chairs. There is no evidence of fabrics being used and no remains of anything to do with weaving. No spindles or whorls were found, so it is very unlikely that they could spin wool either.

The roofs could have been supported by couples made of driftwood or whalebones and been covered with skins or turf. There was probably a central hole as in a blackhouse to let out the smoke and let in some light.

House 7 has holes in the top courses of stones which look like they are for the fitting of joists. As whales were much more abundant, strandings would have been more frequent 5,000 years ago. One blue whale ashore in the Bay of Skaill would have provided enough rafters for a village much bigger than this, while the skin would have made an excellent roof covering.

One building, Hut 8, was apparently the workshop as it has no beds and is differently arranged. Many fragments of chert, [1] which had been heated, were found on the floor. In the absence of flint this stone was used to make cutting and scraping tools.

The people made pottery, in sizes up to sixty centimetres in diameter. This was often decorated with geometric patterns and is classed as 'Grooved Ware'. Bone was much used for tools and jewellery, but wood was also used. Red ochre was found in small stone containers, suggesting that decoration was also used.

The soil conditions were not favourable for the preservation of wood and therefore very little has survived. However, there would have been plenty of driftwood from North America and it is very likely that wood was used for many purposes. The villagers must have had reasonably good boats to be able to go fishing as they did. No doubt these craft had wooden frames with leather covering, while fishing lines could have been made from animal gut or sinews.

No evidence has been found of anything which could not have come from Orkney, suggesting a self-sufficient life-style. This does not exclude contacts with other groups, or even with mainland Scotland, which can be seen from Sandwick. Boats good enough to fish off to the west of Orkney are certainly adequate to cross the Pentland Firth.

[1] Chert is a fine-grained sedimentary rock that may contain small fossils. It varies greatly in colour from white to black, but is most often found in greys and browns. Jasper is basically chert which owes its red colour to iron inclusions.


Images and text copyright Charles Tait. Reproduced with permission.