Isle of Albion
Photographed: Monday 29th April 2013
Site rating:

Skara Brae is the remains of a Neolithic settlement located on the west coast of Mainland Orkney. It is the largest example of a Neolithic stone-built community in Europe, and forms part of the "Heart of Neolithic Orkney" World Heritage site.

Skara Brae lay hidden for thousands of years, until it was uncovered during a storm in 1850AD. William Watt of Skaill, the local laird, began an amateur excavation of the site, which ended in 1868AD. Four of the buried homes were discovered during this period.

In 1924AD, the existing excavations were damaged by another storm. Subsequently, a sea wall was built to protect the ruins. During this work, more buildings were uncovered, and further excavations between 1928-1930AD revealed the full extent of the site - eight dwellings in total, linked together by a series of covered passages.

Radiocarbon dating of specimen samples from Skara Brae suggests that the site was occupied between 3180-2500BC. It is unclear why the site was abandoned, but the most popular theory is that colder and wetter weather brought on by climate change made the site less hospitable. Originally, the site was set further back from the sea, so there is the possibility that more buildings once lay buried, but may subsequently have been lost to erosion. This makes it difficult to know whether Skara Brae should be interpreted as a complete, self-contained site, or whether it was part of a larger community with other buildings possibly serving different functions.

Each of the houses of Skara Brae follows the same basic layout - a large, square room, featuring a central fireplace with a bed to either side, and a shelved dresser on the wall directly opposite the entrance. This entrance was fitted with a stone slab that could be slid into place to seal the doorway. Interestingly, the corner of each dwelling contains a small chamber that may possibly have served as a primitive toilet, linked to drainage systems beneath the buildings.

Overall, this uniformity and functionality is quite striking, offering obvious parallels to modern housing. The familiar domesticity of the houses at Skara Brae really helps to bring the site to life, making it very easy to connect with a sense of common humanity stretching back into pre-history. The location on the storm-swept (literally, on the day I visited) coast of Orkney makes for a wonderfully evocative setting - another of those Scottish sites that feel as though they exist on the edge of time.

Skara Brae is a truly unique site - you will find nothing like it throughout the rest of the the British Isles. Its position on the edge of Orkney makes it difficult to get to, but all the more rewarding when you finally arrive. Undoubtedly one of the finest heritage sites that I've been lucky enough to visit.