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.

The City and the Stars (1) – Skara Brae

With the Pictish Trail weekend a long car journey and a boat ride behind us, we had awakened in Stromness to the early morning of an overcast Orkney day – The excavated and intact Neolithic village of Skara Brae was a few short miles away…

(1300 words, a ten-minute read)

We had not expected to be here at all. Visiting Orkney for the second part of our Pictish Trail journey had seemed impossible because of Covid restrictions. But there were signs that things were relaxing and even re-opening. Our potential companions for the extended weekend had urged us to keep trying, so we’d put ourselves on every visitor ‘notification list’ possible.

In the end, we couldn’t call it with any certainty, and simply contacted everyone who was interested and asked if they’d be prepared to risk it… Everyone said yes; that it was worth it just to go to Orkney, regardless of what was open or not… In the largest sense, there was an act of faith, here…

Our ferry tickets and accommodations in Stromness were booked. There was no going back; we’d just have to make do with what we could achieve on each day. Stromness and Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, were worth at least a day each, and we only had three. Then we got a message saying the Neolithic village of Skara Brae had opened for a limited number of bookings which were to be strictly time-controlled. Within minutes, Bernie had responded and we had our visit: 10.00 am on the morning after our arrival. Getting off the ferry, with our hotel just at the end of the quay, one of our party was so excited, she was literally hopping from foot to foot…

We had only a few days to give our group a taste of this wonderful archipelago, situated just a few miles off the coast of north-east Scotland. It’s a world of its own – especially in terms of its ancient history. We’d been here once before and couldn’t wait to share it. In addition, since I was here last, work done on the Neolithic civilisation on Orkney was being revolutionised by the new findings at the Ness of Brodgar. I had my own views on some of it…

Now, we were at Skara Brae, just a few miles from Brodgar, on the Orkney Mainland. There was a queue to get into the visitor centre of this 5000 year old ‘village’. We’ll come on to why I’ve put that in quotes, later…

We were awaiting our timed entry to access the walkway to the actual village when I read the graphic above. It puts everything into perspective. I’ve reproduced it below:

You have come to a village which started life around 3100 years BC. Before Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, and the Pyramids of Egypt were built. This is the oldest village in Europe where you can still see the houses with their original stone furniture intact.

For reasons I’ll go into later in these posts, I’m not sure it was an ordinary village. I think it was something far more exciting.

Then the hour turned and we were socially-spaced and walking through the descriptive graphics, towards the sophisticated reconstruction of one of the eight houses beyond. The visitor is not allowed to descend into the real dwellings, but a landscaped walkway around the entire village has been constructed to allow close visibility – from above, in most cases.

To compensate for this, the reconstructed house at the entrance of the site is an exact reproduction that you can enter to immerse yourself in Neolithic life. I had been fascinated by it on our visit in 2018 and couldn’t wait to see its effect on our companions.

But, sadly, it wasn’t open…too small an enclosed environment to accommodate the restrictions on social distancing. However, I do have photos from our first trip, so here’s a visual journey through what would normally be available.

(Above: The replica house at Scara Brae is modelled on House 7 (see map) and gives the essential feeling of height not apparent from looking down at the real houses from the walkway. House 7 was excavated by Professor Gordon Childe in 1928 (below). When he found it, it had no roof. He dug down through the sand to find the layers where people had lived)

(Above: Gordon Child, the principle archaeologist who excavated Skara Brae in the years 1928 to 1931)

(Above: The real House 7 is shown on the site map: bottom row, middle. We would be visiting that next)

(Above: the reconstructed ‘sail-cloth’ and timber roof)

(Above: the central hearth contained ashes and red clay)

(Above: there are two box beds, The fireside slab of one of the beds had carvings on it, worn away in the middle, as if by people climbing in and out of the pen. A decorated pot was also found in the bed. Above the beds are cupboards set into the wall. Intriguingly, skeletons of two women were discovered buried partly under the house wall behind one of the beds…)

(Above: the ‘dresser’ – my italics – The top shelf of the dresser was found to be bare, but on its lower shelf were pieces of pottery and burnt bones. There was a storage cell in the room, but it may have been linked to drains found under some of the other storage cells in the village. The astonishing possibility that they may have served as indoor toilets cannot be ruled out)

Near to the ‘model house’ is an information board that sets the scene for the actual village, which lies a few hundred metres away, on the edge of the sea. Here are two useful excerpts.

(Above: a more detailed scale map of Scara Brae)

‘5000 years ago the villagers who decided to settle at Skara Brae did so for good reasons.

This was a land of plenty, with rich fertile soil for grazing cattle. The temperature then was a few degrees warmer than it is now, making it easier to grow crops. In the uncultivated land wild deer and boar roamed.

Birch Hazel and willow trees formed sparse scrubland. Wild berries and herbs grew. The lochs and sea were stocked with fish. Driftwood from the virgin forests of America was regularly cast up on the beach.

The cliffs supported colonies of sea birds important for their meat and eggs. Seaweed provided a plentiful supply of fuel. The abundant stones, clay and pebbles were useful building materials.

Today the landscape differs in one important respect: 5000 years ago the sea was much further away from the village. Land once covered the area which now forms the adjacent Bay of Skaill. This area of land held a loch or lochans which gave the people a vital supply of freshwater. Over hundreds of years the cliffs were gradually eaten away by the sea and sand dunes formed. This process of erosion was already beginning in the early life of the village…’

(Above: the elevated walkway snakes around the Skara Brae village, allowing a thorough visual exploration without actually entering the 5000 year old dwellings)

The reproduced House 7 and the information boards had served us well. Everyone had taken what little time the visitor centre would allow to study what was coming. Now we had a few hundred metres to walk to get to the real Skara Brae. As we walked, there was a palpable but delighted feeling of disbelief that this was actually happening…

To be continued next Tuesday.

To be continued…

This is Part One of the City and the Stars – a continuing mystical trip through north-east Scotland and Orkney on the trail of the Picts.

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.