Skara Brae: The Scottish Pompeii
Updated: Jan 10, 2020
"On the far curving shore of the bay lies Skara Brae, hazy through the sea-haar."
-- George Mackay Brown
It's another episode featuring one of my favorite recurring themes -- Ruin Lust.
This time, the focus of my unrelenting ruin lust is a 5,000 year old gift from the past -- the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae. It's located in Scotland's far flung Orkney Islands, beside the windswept Bay of Skaill, and is a must see site for history buffs. Along with other Neolithic Orkney ruins, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
Skara Brae is nicknamed the "Scottish Pompeii. "Like Pompeii, it was buried and preserved by a natural disaster. In 2012, it was voted a "must see" attraction in the United Kingdom.
Discovery of Skara Brae
Skara Brae was discovered by accident. At least that's the traditional story. The discovery tale has been disputed by some historians, who argue that it had long been known as an ancient site.
The romantic backstory goes like this. In 1850, a violent storm ravaged the Bay of Skaill in the Orkney Isles. It unveiled a hidden and "mummified" Neolithic community, which had been buried under the sand dunes and earth.
The owner of the site was William Graham Watt, the 7th Laird of Skaill. He contacted a local antiquarian, George Petrie, who knew the site was significant.
Excavation began immediately and four houses were unearthed. But excavation was abandoned in 1868. It's unclear why. Experts suspect that, thereafter, Skara Brae was looted and pillaged by people looking for treasure.
In 1925, another gale force storm damaged the ruins, destroying a stone house. In 1927, excavation began again. This time it was led by archeologist V. Gordon Childe. First, a seawall was built to preserve the ruins. During its construction, more ancient buildings were discovered.
For a time, experts believed Skara Brae was a Pictish village from the Iron Age, in 500 BC. But in the 1970s, David Clarke conducted further excavations and gathered more data. Using the new technique of radiocarbon dating, he confirmed that the settlement was much more ancient, dating from the Neolithic Period.
Skara Brae is the best preserved Neolithic village in northern Europe. It offers a unique window into the lives of the farmers who lived there between 3,200 and 2,500 BC. It's older than Stonehenge or the Egyptian Pyramids. This is the real Stone Age, folks.
Skara Brae Dwellings
What makes Skara Brae important is the excellent state of preservation of the semi-subterranean village.
It's an unusual looking archeological site because the structures are half above ground and half below ground. This was done intentionally to provide a buffer against the wind and cold. The inhabitants hunkered down like moles.
There's even furniture inside the village houses. Nowhere else in northern Europe can you see such rich evidence of how our remote ancestors actually lived.
Skara Brae consists of a cluster of 10 houses built of flagstones stacked and layered within earthen dams, without mortar. Probably no more than fifty people lived in Skara Brae at any given time.
The houses were all similar in nature, suggesting an egalitarian society. Each house had a door, which could be locked with a wooden or whalebone bar for privacy. Each house consisted of a single room with a central fireplace, a bed on each side, and a dresser in the middle. The houses had a floor space of roughly 40 square meters.
The dwellings contain a number of stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, beds, dressers, seats, and storage boxes.
Skara Brae is thought to be one of the earliest settlements to have a rudimentary toilet and sewer system. Each hut released had a central drainage system that carried waste to the ocean. The stone drains were thought to be 14 to 24 inches high and lined with tree bark to make them watertight.
There's a replica house onsite, where visitors can explore an interior. The visitor center provides touch-screen presentations and displays artifacts discovered during excavations of the 1970s.
House Number Seven
There's one house that is distinct from the others, house number seven. It's built on natural sand, not on top of other remains. It is detached from the other houses and has a dedicated side passageway. It also can only be bolted from the outside, an intriguing detail.
Archeologists also found the bodies of two females, interred in stone-built graves. They were discovered beneath the right hand bed and wall. They were buried before construction, another clue.
Archeologists have speculated about whether the house had a special purpose. Some postulate that it could have been used for rituals -- birth, death, coming of age. Others suggest, given the outside bolt, that it was the could've been the community jail.
It cannot be viewed by the public. Previously, it had a glass roof, but that was removed in 2006 because of possible damage from its weight. It was replaced with a grass roof.
Artifacts at Skara Brae
A number of enigmatic carved stones have also been found at the site. Some of then have fine spirals or other intricate designs. Scholars debate the purpose of these artifacts. Some think they were decorations. Others think they were used for religious rites. You can see them in the visitor center.
No clothing has ever been found at the site. But tools were found. They were made of bone and likely used to skin animals to create warm clothing and bedding for the harsh Scotland climate.
No weapons were ever found. Skara Brae pre-dates the use of metal. And Skara Brae is not located in a defensive setting. That suggests it was a peaceful society.
Carved jewelry has been found as well -- necklaces, beads, pendants, and pins. The jewelry was made out of stone, ivory, and teeth from animals. It's speculated that the jewelry may have been laid out of the stone dressers in the houses.
Skara Brae Inhabitants
Skara Brae’s inhabitants are thought to have been makers and users of “grooved ware." It's a distinctive pottery style developed in northern Scotland. The pottery has flat bottoms and straight sides, decorated with grooves.
The discovery of pottery at the site led to the inhabits being designated "Groove Ware People." They led a pastoral existence. They weren't just hunters and gatherers. They farmed the land (barley, wheat), hunted and fished for food, and raised cattle and sheep. They ate seabirds, eggs, berries, and herbs.
Abandonment of Skara Brae
There's evidence that suggests the site was uninhabited by 2500 BC. Valuables and other possessions were left behind. Why was Skara Brae abandoned? That too is unclear.
Some experts think there was an apocalyptic event. Possibly a huge storm that flooded the village with sand. That would explain the abandoned valuables.
Others think that the society was slowly breaking up. The inhabitants moved from communal living to individual farm units over the course of 20-30 years. Potentially, they were driven away by the encroaching sand and harsh conditions, which may have seeped into their village or made farming difficult. The fact that no human remains were discovered in the houses supports this theory.
Threatened By Climate Change
There is concern that Skara Brae may be threatened by climate change. It's been called "extremely vulnerable."
Skara Brae is precariously close to the sea now, erosion that's happened over time. The site's at risk from increased sea levels, increased rain, and increased storminess. Stone walls might help protect it, but they're too expensive.
If you're in northern Scotland, be sure to pay a visit to Skara Brae. It's one of the best sites for Neolithic ruins in Europe.
You'll be blown away by the sands of time.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting Skara Brae:
Address: Sandwick, Stromness KW16 3LR, UK
Hours: April 1 to Sept 30, 9:30 am to 5:30 pm. Otherwise, 10:00 am to 4:00 pm
Adult: £9.00 Concession: £7.20 Child aged 5-15: £5.40 Child under 5: free
Pro tip: Joint ticket with Skaill House available Apr to Sept. Sometimes the site unexpectedly closes for weather. You can check here for closure updates.
Getting there: Skara Brae is 30 minutes from Kirkwall by car. Your best bet is to take a taxi if you don't have a rental car. Or pre-arrange a tour from Kirkwall. Or you can catch a bus, timetable here, that takes about an hour.
If you'd like to visit this must see UNESCO site in Scotland, pin it for later.