The Neolithic village of Skara Brae was revealed during the winter of 1850 when a particularly ferocious storm battered Orkney. The combination of wind and extremely high tides stripped the grass from the top of a mound then known as Skerrabra. This revealed the outline of a number of stone buildings that, until 1868, the local laird William Watt of Skaill, excavated uncovering the remains of four ancient houses. After this further work was abandoned and the site remained undisturbed until 1925 when a further storm damaged the remains. Further excavations occurred between 1925 and 1930 revealing the site much as it is today.
Originally, the village was thought to date from around 500BC, during the Iron Age but radiocarbon dating during the early 1970s confirmed that it was a late Neolithic settlement that was inhabited for about 600 years between 3200BC to 2200BC. The site survives as ten dwellings linked together by a series of low, covered passages. Each house has the same basic design: a large square room with a central fireplace, a bed on either side and a shelved dresser on the wall opposite the doorway. They were not sunk into the ground but built into mounds of pre-existing rubbish that provided some stability to the dwellings but more importantly acted as a layer of insulation to counter the severities of Orkney’s climate. Roof material has not survived largely because it was probably organic and perishable material: a roof perhaps of turf, skins, thatched straw or thatched seaweed (until recently a roofing material in Orkney). Access to the houses is gained through a small doorway which would have been blocked by a slab of stone and possibly barred as well. This shows that security was important to the dwellers, but that privacy for the family unit was also very important. The layout of Skara Brae, whilst being very much geared towards a community settlement, makes this type of privacy possible.
The site probably did not extend beyond the eight dwellings excavated and this suggests a population of between 50 and 80 villagers at any one time. The standardised nature of the dwellings led Gordon Childe, the site’s excavator, to suggest that it was a communal settlement where one family or individual held power over the others though this may reflect his own communist leanings. In reality, in Neolithic society, communal leadership would have been the result of learned experience that would have benefited others in the community and would not necessarily have been passed on to any children. A more plausible explanation of the structure of the settlement is that it followed tried and tested design following a plan that may have been used for generations and that was known to both work and be relatively simple to construct.
By Neolithic standards, life at Skara Brae was probably quite comfortable despite the climate. The villagers, known as the Grooved Ware people, were settled farmers who subsisted on cattle and sheep and drew barley and wheat in the surrounding fields. Fish, largely shore caught, and shellfish also formed an important part of people’s diet and red deer and boar were hunted for meat and skins. It is also highly likely that, like subsequent islanders, the villagers collected seabird eggs as well as harvesting the birds themselves. Animal bones also provided the raw material for tools such as needles, shovels, pins, knives and picks with cutting edges provided by flints found on the shore or imported from other communities or chert, a local flint substitute. There is no evidence of textiles being used for clothing and it seems probable that animal skins were generally used.
In 1928, Professor Childe suggested that Skara Brae was the Pompeii of the North abandoned overnight in the face of a cataclysmic storm that caused its inhabitants to flee and never return. Though an appealing and popular hypothesis, it is highly improbable. More likely was the continued struggle against the elements that made working the land increasingly difficult leading to a gradual drift to more productive land elsewhere. There were also important changes in the nature of Neolithic society away from enclosed village communities to larger, geographically spread territories controlled by power tribal or spiritual leaders.