Skara Brae is a stone-built Neolithic settlement, located on the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago of Scotland. Consisting of eight clustered houses, it was occupied from roughly 3180 BC to about 2500 BC. Europe's most complete Neolithic village, Skara Brae gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status as one of four sites making up "The Heart of Neolithic Orkney."a Older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, it has been called the "Scottish Pompeii" because of its excellent preservation.
In the winter of 1850, a severe storm hit Scotland, causing widespread damage and over 200 deaths. In the Bay of Skaill, the storm stripped the earth from a large irregular knoll known as "Skerrabra". When the storm cleared, local villagers found the outline of a village, consisting of a number of small houses without roofs. William Watt of Skaill, the local laird, began an amateur excavation of the site, but after four houses were uncovered, the work was abandoned in 1868. The site remained undisturbed until 1913, when during a single weekend the site was plundered by a party with shovels who took away an unknown quantity of artefacts. In 1924, another storm swept away part of one of the houses and it was determined the site should be made secure and more seriously investigated. The job was given to University of Edinburgh's Professor Vere Gordon Childe who travelled to Skara Brae for the first time in mid-1927.
Skara Brae's people were makers and users of grooved ware, a distinctive style of pottery that appeared in northern Scotland not long before the establishment of the village. The houses used earth sheltering, being sunk into the ground. They were sunk into mounds of pre-existing prehistoric domestic waste known as middens. The midden provided the houses with a stability and also acted as insulation against Orkney's harsh winter climate. On average, each house measures 40 square metres (430 square feet) in size with a large square room containing a stone hearth used for heating and cooking. Given the number of homes, it seems likely that no more than fifty people lived in Skara Brae at any given time.
It is by no means clear what material the inhabitants burned in their hearths. Gordon Childe was sure that the fuel was peat, but a detailed analysis of vegetation patterns and trends suggests that climatic conditions conducive to the development of thick beds of peat did not develop in this part of Orkney until after Skara Brae was abandoned. Other possible fuels include driftwood and animal dung. There is evidence that dried seaweed may have been used significantly. At some sites in Orkney, investigators have found a glassy, slag-like material called "Kelp" or "Cramp" that may be residual burnt seaweed. The dwellings contain a number of stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes. Each dwelling was entered through a low doorway that had a stone slab door that could be closed "by a bar that slid in bar-holes cut in the stone door jambs". A sophisticated drainage system was incorporated into the village's design. It included a primitive form of toilet in each dwelling.
Seven of the houses have similar furniture, with the beds and dresser in the same places in each house. The dresser stands against the wall opposite the door, and was the first thing seen by anyone entering the dwelling. Each of these houses had the larger bed on the right side of the doorway and the smaller on the left. Lloyd Laing noted that this pattern accorded with Hebridean custom up to the early 20th century suggesting that the husband's bed was the larger and the wife's was the smaller. The discovery of beads and paint-pots in some of the smaller beds may support this interpretation. Additional support may come from the recognition that stone boxes lie to the left of most doorways, forcing the person entering the house to turn to the right-hand, 'male', side of the dwelling. At the front of each bed lie the stumps of stone pillars that may have supported a canopy of fur; another link with recent Hebridean style.
One house, called House 8, has no storage boxes or dresser. It has been divided into something resembling small cubicles. When this house was excavated, fragments of stone, bone and antler were found. It is possible that this building was used as a house to make simple tools such as bone needles or flint axes. The presence of heat-damaged volcanic rocks and what appears to be a flue, support this interpretation. House 8 is distinctive in other ways as well. It is a stand-alone structure not surrounded by midden, instead it is above ground and has walls over 2 metres (6.6 feet) thick. It has a "porch" protecting the entrance. The site provided the earliest known record of the human flea Pulex irritans in Europe.
The Grooved Ware People who built Skara Brae were primarily pastoralists who raised cattle and sheep. Childe originally believed that the inhabitants did not practice agriculture, but excavations in 1972 unearthed seed grains from a midden suggesting that barley was cultivated. Fish bones and shells are common in the middens indicating that dwellers ate seafood. Limpet shells are common and may have been fish-bait that was kept in stone boxes in the homes. The boxes were formed from thin slabs with joints carefully sealed with clay to render them waterproof. This pastoral lifestyle is in sharp contrast to some of the more exotic interpretations of the culture of the Skara Brae people. Euan MacKie suggested that Skara Brae might be the home of a privileged theocratic class of wise men who engaged in astronomical and magical ceremonies at nearby Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness. Graham and Anna Ritchie cast doubt on this interpretation noting that there is no archaeological evidence for this claim, although a Neolithic "low road" that goes from Skara Brae passes near both these sites and ends at the chambered tomb of Maeshowe. Low roads connect Neolithic ceremonial sites throughout Britain.
Radiocarbon results obtained from samples collected during these excavations indicate that occupation of Skara Brae began about 3180 BC with occupation continuing for about six hundred years. Around 2500 BC, after the climate changed, becoming much colder and wetter, the settlement may have been abandoned by its inhabitants. There are many theories as to why the people of Skara Brae left; particularly popular interpretations involve a major storm. Evan Hadingham combined evidence from found objects with the storm scenario to imagine a dramatic end to the settlement: "As was the case at Pompeii, the inhabitants seem to have been taken by surprise and fled in haste, for many of their prized possessions, such as necklaces made from animal teeth and bone, or pins of walrus ivory, were left behind..." Anna Ritchie strongly disagrees with catastrophic interpretations of the village's abandonment: "A popular myth would have the village abandoned during a massive storm that threatened to bury it in sand instantly, but the truth is that its burial was gradual and that it had already been abandoned – for what reason, no one can tell." The site was farther from the sea than it is today, and it is possible that Skara Brae was built adjacent to a freshwater lagoon protected by dunes. Although the visible buildings give an impression of an organic whole, it is certain that an unknown quantity of additional structures had already been lost to sea erosion before the site's rediscovery and subsequent protection by a seawall. Uncovered remains are known to exist immediately adjacent to the ancient monument in areas presently covered by fields, and others, of uncertain date, can be seen eroding out of the cliff edge a little to the south of the enclosed area.
A number of enigmatic carved stone balls have been found at the site and some are on display in the museum. Similar objects have been found throughout northern Scotland. The spiral ornamentation on some of these "balls" has been stylistically linked to objects found in the Boyne Valley in Ireland. Similar symbols have been found carved into stone lintels and bed posts. These symbols, sometimes referred to as "runic writings", have been subjected to controversial translations. For example, Castleden suggested that "colons" found punctuating vertical and diagonal symbols may represent separations between words. Lumps of red ochre found here and at other Neolithic sites have been interpreted as evidence that body painting may have been practised. Nodules of haematite with highly polished surfaces have been found as well; the shiny surfaces suggest that the nodules were used to finish leather.
Other artefacts excavated on site made of animal, fish, bird, and whalebone, whale and walrus ivory, and killer whale teeth included awls, needles, knives, beads, adzes, shovels, small bowls and, most remarkably, ivory pins up to 25 centimetres (9.8 inches) long. These pins are very similar to examples found in passage graves in the Boyne Valley, another piece of evidence suggesting a linkage between the two cultures. So-called Skaill knives were commonly used tools in Skara Brae; these consist of large flakes knocked off sandstone cobbles. Skaill knives have been found throughout Orkney and Shetland. The 1972 excavations reached layers that had remained waterlogged and had preserved items that otherwise would have been destroyed. These include a twisted skein of heather, one of a very few known examples of Neolithic rope, and a wooden handle. No weapons have been found and the village was not in a readily defended location, both of which suggest a peaceful life.
The car park next to the visitor centre has accessible bays and is comprised of level tarmac. The site is 500m from the visitor centre, through a latch gate and along a crushed stone path, which is mainly resin bound. The Visitor centre entry is via a ramp and inside is all level. A large exhibition includes an introductory film and computer-based interactive experiences, showing how to make a pot and build a roof. There is an induction loop in the visitor centre/shop. A replica of one of the houses is 5m from the visitor centre. Its entrance is low and narrow (115cm x 70cm). From there it is 400m through a latch gate to the original houses. These can be seen from the stone and grass paths. Access to some areas is via steps (with handrails). Some interpretation boards are outside the houses. Manual and motorised wheelchairs are available for visitor use on a first-come, first-served basis. An adapted toilet is in the visitor centre. Skaill House also has an accessible toilet. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Skaill House was originally a simple mansion house, built by Bishop George Graham in the 1620’s. This has been added to by successive Laird’s over the centuries culminating in extensive internal alterations, and the addition of the north tower and wing which gives the house its characteristic profile and admirably finished look which you see today. Last occupied in 1991, after 6 years of careful restoration work the house was opened to the public in 1997 and is very much presented as the family home it was in the 1950s. The name Skaill derives from the Old Norse word for "hall". The names of all the surrounding farms are also derived from that language, and it is presumed that the lands have been permanently settled for over a thousand years.
However, the Norse were not the first settlers of the area. The southern wing of the house stands on a pre- Norse burial ground. The remains of a broch and another Iron Age building can still be seen on the shoreline of the Bay, and several Bronze Age burial mounds have been found closer to Skaill House. Just a short distance from the house lies the world famous Neolithic village of Skara Brae, older than the great pyramids in Europe. Records suggest that in more recent times there was a modest farmstead on the site which was part of the estate of Earl Robert Stewart during the late sixteenth century. After the trial of his notorious son, Patrick Stewart in 1614, the Earldom was broken up and the estate passed to the bishopric, and so came under the control of Bishop Graham in 1615.
Bishop Graham was a genial man and was married to the niece of the Admirable Crichton and had a large family of 9 children. He was generous to the poor and accused of being too lenient to witches and lax on adultery and incest. These charges led to him being forced to resign his position in 1638 though he was able to retain his property. His family were able to retain the benefits of his interest in architecture: besides his official residence in the gracious Earl’s palace in Kirkwall, he had enlarged the properties Graemeshall, Breckness and Skaill. From his bishopric property and holdings of small farms in Sandwick and Stromness, he built an extensive estate in the name of his youngest son, John. Bishop Graham died in 1643, aged 78, and his son, John, became the 1st Laird of Skaill House (Breckness Estate). The estate has since been passed down through 12 generations of the same family, each Laird with their own interesting story and part to play in the history of the House.
The 7th Laird was William Graham Watt who served as Laird for 56 years. William Watt discovered Skara Brae after a storm in 1850 and excavated 4 houses in the Neolithic village. He was said to be a generous landlord and entertained liberally. Notably his guests included Lady Jane Franklin, wife of Sir John Franklin who had sailed from Stromness in 1845 on his fatal voyage to discover the North West Passage. Colonel Henry William Scarth, the 11th Laird, was the last Laird to live in the house. Colonel Scarth lived at Skaill House with his family, and served with the Scots Guards in the First World War, supporting the White Russians. He was latterly Convenor of the Orkney County Council and Lord Lieutenant. After the death of Colonel Scarth’s second wife, the estate passed to the present owner, Major Malcolm Macrae, the 12th Laird of Breckness. Major Macrae served with the Queens Own Highlanders before returning to Orkney to run the family farm. He inherited the house in 1991 and after 6 years of work the house was restored and opened to the public in June 1997.
Access to Skaill House is via the Skara Brae visitor centre. The visitor centre has a ramp entry and is contained on one level. Skaill House is linked to the Skara Brae site by footpaths which can be used by visitors using wheelchairs. There are two wheelchairs available at the visitor centre. The ground floor of the building is fully accessible and includes the hallway, three display rooms, a shop and disabled toilet. More mobile visitors can gain access to the upper floor with the help of staff, who are happy to oblige. Parking for the house can be found at the Skara Brae Vistor centre. They do not have electric car charging points, however there are several in the local area. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Skaill House / Skara Brae, Sandwick, Orkney KW16 3LR
Transport: Inverness (National Rail) then bus (X99) then ferry then bus (X1 then 85). Bus Routes : 8S and 441 stop nearby.
Opening Times Skara Brae: 1st April to 30th September, Daily, 09:30 to 17:30; 1st October to 31st March, Daily 10:00 to 16:00
Opening Times Skaill House: 1st April to 30th September, Daily, 09:30 to 17:30; 1st October to 31st March, Daily 10:00 to 16:00
Tickets Skara Brae: Adults £6.10; Concessions £4.90; Children (5 - 15) £3.70
Tickets Skaill House: Call for winter admission prices.
Tickets Joint Ticket: April to October Only. Adults £7.10; Concessions £5.70; Children (5 - 15) £4.30
Tel. Skara Brae: 01856 841 815
Tel. Skaill House: 01856 841 501