Video | Scotland

Top of the World: The Neolithic Ruins of Skara Brae

Welcome to Skara Brae—a stone village in Scotland’s Orkney archipelago and one of the most important Neolithic ruins in Europe. Learn more about how it was rediscovered by accident in the late 1800s and is now the biggest attraction for adventurers in the Orkneys.

Video Transcript

You've probably heard that Scotland has a rich architectural history, represented by castles, crofts, and distilleries. But what about structures of the Stone Age? Welcome to the Neolithic ruins of Skara Brae!

Skara Brae is a stone-built, ancient village in the Orkney archipelago, a collection of seventy islands off the northern tip of mainland Scotland. Here you'll find rolling fields, rugged coastlines, and pristine sandy beaches.

Only about twenty of these islands are inhabited today, with a total population of about 21,000. The vast majority of Orcadians live on the largest island, known simply as Mainland. Although the islands are known for their exceptional dairy and meat production, the Skara Brae complex is by far the biggest attraction in the islands.

Incredibly, Europe's finest intact Neolithic settlement was only rediscovered in the late 1800s—by accident! It was the winter of 1850. An aggressive storm was pounding Orkneys' rugged shore. Although storms are commonplace in the Orkneys, this one was different.

It was so violent and aggressive, it actually washed away swaths of grass and sand from a large mound on the western portion of Mainland. The mound, then known as Skerrabra, revealed an outline of several Stone Age buildings.

This piqued the interest of a local laird. William Watt, of Skaill, began excavating the site. He was no archaeologist, but eighteen years later, in 1868, he had unearthed four ancient houses. In order to protect the buildings from other storms, a seawall was constructed in 1925. During this process, even more buildings were discovered and unearthed.

In between 1928 and 1930, the debris that had buried Skara Brae for thousands of years was finally cleared away. The buildings were so immaculately preserved that archaeologists declared it one of the most important Neolithic sites in western and northern Europe.

Each stone-built house is about the size of a small apartment. They have fitted stone furniture—even dressers! They were constructed to protect the residents from the harsh winter winds. There are even covered passageways linking the buildings.

Even today, the houses are in great condition, as if their occupants had just left. Archaeologists believe people lived in and around Skara Brae as long as 5,000 years ago, during the Neolithic period of the Stone Age. That's long before Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids were built.

The area was filled with lush green grass, perfect for farming. The hunters, fishermen, and farmers all made their own tools out of stone. Archaeologists believe it was a relatively peaceful and quiet life for the people of Skara Brae. But at some point, after 600 years of living on the island, the residents of Skara Brae left around 2500 BCE.

Some researchers have speculated that a massive sandstorm forced them to leave quickly. Others think that residents gradually left Skara Brae to move to larger settlements. Archaeologists believe Skara Brae was covered in sand for over 4,000 years. They think that the sand actually helped preserve the already sturdy stone buildings.

Ironically, the stormy weather that first helped to bury, then to reveal, Skara Brae may soon pose a greater threat. With rising sea levels and more extreme conditions in the offing, Skara Brae may be vulnerable to the actions the sea.

For now, tourists enjoy unique access to the Neolithic era, as they roam the ruins of the remarkable Stone Age village of Skara Brae.