A large storm battered the coast of Orkney Island off Scotland in the winter of 1850. This is not unusual as the winds there are so strong that trees cannot grow. What was different about this storm was that the high tides and winds stripped grass and sand from mound known as “Skerrabra” revealing the outline of a number of stone buildings. The outlines of the buildings fascinated one of the landowners, William Watt, and he hired Orcadian Antiquarian, George Petrie, to excavate. Petrie worked at the site and presented his progress at the April 1867 meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. This is the official story of the discovery of Skara Brae. However, Dr. Ernest Marwick, an Orcadian writer and historian, calls this “complete fiction”. He sites the journal of James Robertson, who claims in 1769 he toured Orkney and found a skeleton “with a sword in one hand and a Danish axe in the other”. He claims it was long known there was an ancient site at the mound.
Whatever the discovery story, what was found is the one of the best preserved groups of prehistoric houses in Western Europe. The settlement is from the late Neolithic, and inhabited between 3200 and 2000 BCE. There are eight surviving homes. Because there were no wood for trees, the buildings are constructed of flagstones layered into the earth for support. All the furnishings, including the bed and chairs, were constructed from stone. This does not sound exactly comfortable, but these were covered over by heather and other grasses to soften them. Other furniture includes a “dresser” and small tanks set into the floor. It is theorized these were for preparing fish bait. In the homes were found tools, pottery and gaming dice to pass the time on stormy nights. There were also beautifully carved stone objects and elaborate jewelry, such as necklaces, beads, pendants and pins.
All the homes share a similar design- a large square room, with a central fireplace, a bed on either side and a shelved dresser on the wall opposite the doorway. The buildings are all round as it is theorized this was a sacred shape to the culture. There is no evidence of what the roofs were made of. It is theorized that they would have been turf. There were no windows, so the buildings would have been dark and smokey. There were covered passages linking the buildings, so the inhabitants could visit their neighbors sheltered from the wind and rain. At the end of the village is a large building with no beds but it does have a large special hearth. It is thought this was some kind of workshop. No weapons have been found in the village except neolithic knives, which would have doubled as utilitarian tools. Originally, the village would have been several miles inland, but erosion but it on the sea shore now. It is thought because of its out of the way location, the village was extremely peaceful and did not need to be defended.
No one knows why the village was abandoned. It is thought there may have been a weather shift that kept the villagers from being able to fish as before. Or that the encroaching sand dunes took grazing land from their flocks. Another theory surmises that since the village is in such perfect condition, a sudden storm drove the inhabitants from their homes before they could gather their possessions. Whatever the reason, the people left and Skara Brae was left to the sand dunes for centuries.
There was sporadic excavations after Petrie abandoned his work after 1868, but nothing formal. Around 1913, thieves visited the site and made off with untold amounts of artifacts. It is not known what was taken or if they were involved with an excavation going on by W. Balfour Stewart, however, an important piece of this site was lost. Because of this and other incidence, in 1924 the site was placed under the guardianship of Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Work by the trustees of the Watt estate. A large sea wall was constructed to protect the site from erosion in 1925. The site is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Sources available on request