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Publication Account

Date 1996

Event ID 1016338

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


The west coast of Orkney is mostly very rugged, with high cliffs and pounding Atlantic waves prohibiting coastal settlement, and the only shelter to be found is in the three bays of Birsay, Marwick and Skaill. But the size and shape of these bays has been altered by erosion over the centuries, and the settlement of Skara Brae, when it was founded some 5000 years ago, was certain ly not on the shore as it is now but set well back from the sea. Environmental evidence even suggests that a freshwater loch, like the Loch of Skaill behind Skaill House, may have separated the site from the sea and its immediate sandy shore. The name Skara Brae was originally coined to describe the huge sand-dune that covered the site until storm damage in 1850 revealed the presence of stone structures and midden deposits, and, although erosion has destroyed the northern margin of the settlement, it seems likely that the impression given by the visible surviving remains is essentially accurate: this was, architecturally and socially, a tightly knit housing complex for a small community of perhaps fifty people.

Radiocarbon dating suggests that Skara Brae was inhabited for around 600 years, during which time there was rebuilding and modification of the houses and intercon necting passages, and inevitably most of the structures visible today represent the final layout of the village. Its focus consists of six square or rectangular houses linked by narrow irregular passages, very much an inwardlooking complex, with a single isolated building of somewhat different design on the west side of the village. The evidence of burnt stones and chips of chert found in this building (no. 8) suggests that it was not an ordinary house but a workshop, probably where chert tools were manufactured (chert was used as a substitute for flint, which in Orkney occurs only as relatively small nodules washed up on the shore). The main group of domestic houses has two remarkable characteristics: embedded in midden, it is virtually subterranean, and the internal design of its housing units has a standard uniformity. Both aspects were deliberate and, assuming that there was no prehistoric equivalent of a modern building contractor at work here, they must indicate a very strong sense of corporate identity amongst the families of this community.

Each house consists of a single room with thick drystone walls surviving in some places as high as 3m. There is a marked contrast between the cramped conditions of the passageways and the equally low and narrow doorways and the spacious and comfortable house-interiors, again a contrast that must have been deliberate and which mirrors the design of contemporary tombs with their low tunnel-like passages and soaring chambers. It is as if the idealogy of their builders demanded that getting there should be humiliatingly difficult but living there, whether in life or death, should be glorious. Small cells were built into the walls, mostly for storage but some furnished with drains as lavatories. A large square earth with stone kerbs occupies the centre of each house, and the use of stone slabs to build furniture has left us with an unusually precise picture of how the rest of the room was arranged (best seen in nos 1 and 7): slabbuilt beds flanked either side of the hearth, and a stone dresser was built against the wall opposite the door. Wall cupboards and stone boxes sunk into the floor provide extra storage space. To these bare essentials the visitor's eye should add heather and furs to the beds, skin canopies spanning the bed-posts, decorative pottery jars to the dresser, flame to the hearth, dried meats and fish hanging from the rafters...

Traces of earlier houses suggest a greater variety of plan and perhaps less sophisticated interior design: no. 9 is the most complete, and it has a central hearth and bed-alcoves built into the thickness of the walls. Without demolishing the later houses, it is impossible to reconstruct the appearance of the original village, but the basic economy and material culture of the community seems to have changed little over the centuries, suggesting that the overall form of the settlement probably also remained the same. A self-sufficient life-style was based on animal husbandry, fishing and cereal cultivation, with thriving local manufacture of stone and bone tools and of thick pottery jars known as Grooved Ware, often decorated in relief with spirals, bosesand linear motifs. There is a small site museum (where an excellent official guidebook is sold) and other finds from the excavations are in Stromness Museum and Tankerness House Museum, although the bulk of the material is in NMS.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Orkney’, (1996).

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