The stone village of Skara Brae lay hidden for millennia on the windswept shores of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney Archipelago in Scotland. It was re-discovered by locals in 1850, when a heavy storm ripped across the island. It stripped sand and earth from the hills to reveal the remains of the extraordinary settlement of Skara Brae.
Originally thought to be an Iron Age settlement (circa 500 BC), archaeologists soon discovered that it was in fact far, far older.
How old is Skara Brae?
Skara Brae dates back to Neolithic times, over 5,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dating suggests that people were living in Skara Brae for around 650 years between 3180 B.C.E and 2,500 B.C.E, making it older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza.
What did Skara Brae look like?
In its heyday the village of Skara Brae would have been difficult to spot from afar, as it was built into a mound of discarded bits of animal bone and rubbish, called a ‘midden’. The midden provided camouflage and insulation for the stone structures built underneath.
The village itself consisted of around 10 stone structures, each quite similar in size [around 117 square metres (387 square feet)] and layout. Each has central stone fireplaces, a small dresser for important objects, and stone beds, which would have been covered with straw or heather mattresses and blankets of deer or sheep skin.
Who lived in Skara Brae?
The Neolithic humans that lived in Skara Brae were similar to us in many ways. They were Homo sapiens, farmers, hunters and fishermen.
The Agricultural Revolution
The inhabitants of Skara Brae were living through a revolution in the New Stone Age. They were settling down in permanent villages for the first time, replacing their nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle with a more sedentary life.
This was made possible by the development of farming. Clearing and cultivating land and growing their own food allowed humans to stay in one place, growing more than they needed for the first time in history. Agriculture allowed humans to manage their environment and thrive like never before.
Many consider this transition to be one of the most important changes in all of human history, paving the way for the complex civilisations and huge human populations we see today.
What did they eat?
Archaeologists have found tools, bones and the remains of crops, which offer a glimpse into daily life on some of the first farms in Britain.
The locals of Skara Brae farmed animals like sheep, cattle and pigs, and grew black oats and bere barley. They hunted animals such as red deer and boar for their meat and skins, and ate wild berries.
They also sourced food from the ocean, like fish and shellfish, which archaeologists believe they caught using traps, rather than hooks. Seal meat and possibly even the occasional beached whale, were also on the menu. Archaeologists have even found evidence that the locals of Skara Brae ate sea-bird eggs, and possibly also the birds themselves.
How did they live?
The dwellings in Skara Brae were all of similar size and layout, leading archaeologists to believe that the 50 to 100 people living in Skara Brae were part of an egalitarian community, where all were considered equals.
Living in permanent settlements allowed the people of Skara Brae more leisure time than the nomadic communities before them. Archaeologists have found jewellery, needles, buttons, ornaments, clay pottery and dice in amongst utilitarian bone tools, suggesting they had ample time to sit back and enjoy the finer things in life!
They had no written language, and their religious beliefs were animist. They believed that all things in the natural world, from rocks to forests and mountains, had a soul, and were animated by a spiritual force.
Interestingly, archaeologists have found no evidence of weapons, and believe the people who lived here were largely peaceful.
Scotland and its many islands date back not just centuries, but millennia. No matter what the weather threw at those ancient humans, they persevered, setting up fascinating civilisations all across the nation and its neighbouring islands.
On our Wild Scotland tour, you’ll find yourself exploring the ancient ruins of Skara Brae on Orkney, which have been immaculately preserved through time.