The City and the Stars (2) – Skara Brae’s Ancient Houses

Skara Brae’s modern story began in 1850 when a violent sea-storm tore off the layers of grass, sand and soil that had covered what appeared to be two ancient and completely intact Neolithic houses. For 4,000 years, they had been lost to history, having been mysteriously abandoned.

(1000 words, a ten-minute read)

The local landowner at the time was William Watt, who lived at Skaill Hall, which is located next to Skara Brae and can be visited in its own right. Watt explored the two exposed houses and collected many objects. Like several other local explorers, Watt left few records of his work. In the 1860s, George Petrie, an able Orcadian historian and antiquarian, made frequent visits to the site and discovered there were other buried houses. He made copious notes and left them to public posterity. By the end of 1867, this dedicated man had cleared and documented the contents of Houses 1,3,4 and 6. – See key below.

(Above: Professor Gordon Childe)

This foundational work paved the way for the detailed excavations carried out by Gordon Childe, the first Professor of Archeology at the University of Edinburgh. It was due to Professor Childe’s work that Skara Brae became one of the foremost Neolithic sites in the world.

(Above: a modern schematic of the eight houses plus a ‘workshop’) at Scara Brae)
(Above: a modern drawing (Jim Proudfoot) showing how the settlement of Skara Brea is likely to have looked 5000 years ago)

The far side of Skara Brae is adjacent to the present beach of Skaill Bay. The sea level has risen and gradually encroached. When the village was occupied the bay was fertile farmland. The new outer wall is massively reinforced to protect the site well into the future. Skara Brae has been classified as a World Heritage Site and is cared for by Historic Scotland.

The whole site is around 100 metres across. It’s compact, and most of the houses are connected by internal paths and what appears to be stone plumbing! You can simply ‘feel’ the quality of the dwellings, as though something of their ancient spirit survives…

The long path from the visitor centre brings you to Houses 10, 9 and 7. The path narrows but continues around the site. It has been constructed at a higher level allowing visitors to look down and into the ancient dwellings. You can’t actually go into the houses, but you can get very close.

(Above: House 7, showing the central hearth, the alcoves for the beds and the ‘dresser’ on which the family’s precious objects would have been stored… or was there another purpose? More on this, later)

The entire village of Skara Brae was set into a midden, which had been transported from another site as a prerequisite to building the house structures. The midden was essentially a rubbish tip for organic waste – food, shells, carcasses of animals. As it decomposed it gave off heat and warmed the houses. It might have been smelly but it was warm! Humour aside, it showed the sophistication of both planning and living in this ancient settlement.

(Above: House 9, adjacent to House 7)

All the surviving houses at Skara Brae are remarkably similar to each other. The main building material was stone, which was locally available. For all the houses, the outer and inner faces of the walls are dry stone, meaning without mortar. The spaces between the walls were packed with additional midden material, as detailed above. The resulting wall was over two metres thick. The midden core of the buildings not only provided heat, it kept the houses waterproof as well.

(Above: House 1, the nearest to the present sea wall)

Historically, it had been thought that the roofs – possibly constructed of whalebone and cloth – were kept low because of the winds. But recent evidence suggests they were conical, high, and lined with eel grass which absorbed smoke, allowing a much more pleasant interior space.

(Above: House 5, close to the centre of the village)

Detailed excavation has revealed that each house had at least one ‘storage cell’. The larger dwellings had a large storage cell that linked with a central drain with running water. This points to the provision of toilets at Skara Brae, their earliest known use in Britain.

(Above: a central covered corridor linked most of the houses from the inside. Stone slabs formed the doors, and could be locked into position from the inside)

(Above: Structure 8, or the Workshop)

‘House 8’ was the only building in the settlement which was not actually a house. Whilst there was a central hearth, it lacked beds and a dresser. Known as Structure 8, it appears to have been a workshop for making stone tools and perhaps pottery, bone tools and wooden implements. The walls were thicker than the other houses because they were not dug into the midden for support and heat.

(Above: Another photo of Structure 8, a more detailed view of its segmented interior)

To my mind, the ‘dressers’ are the most curious aspects of the houses in the settlement. The guide book admits they may have been individual shrines, something I hadn’t read prior to this visit. Being close to them, again, there came the strong conviction that the dressers were holy places within the houses. Moreover, given the opulent nature of the settlement, I strongly felt there was a good chance that Skara Brae did not house ordinary farming people.

(Above: the symbolic and all-important ‘dresser’)

I consider it possible that the whole of Skara Brae was a ‘school’ for a priesthood whose central authority was a few miles away at the Ness of Brodgar – next to the famous Ring of Brodgar. I will go into more detail in the next post. The picture of Orkney thrown up by the continued sophistication of the finds at the Ness of Brodgar has changed, dramatically, and there is world-wide interest in its potential to update the history of this part of the world.

The more you learn about Orkney, the more it is evident that, in Neolithic times, it was the centre of a pivotal civilisation. It is likely that these people were the forerunner of the Picts, driven south by some unknown force or, possibly, warring armies from pre-Viking Scandinavia.

The group, quiet with the depth of the experience, moved back to the cars. We had important things to consider, and the Ring of Brodgar was only a few miles away and our next stop…

To be continued.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, This is Part Two

The Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, which offers a distance-learning program to deepen the personality and align it with the soul.

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