The remains of neolithic buildings at Skara Brae in Orkney

Orkney Shores – Skara Brae

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In 1850 a storm removed the turf and sand from a big mound on the shore of the Bay of Skaill in Mainland Orkney and revealed the remains of stone houses. The buildings date from the late Neolithic and the settlement was inhabited for around 600 years between 3200BC and 2200BC. Eight dwellings survive and they are linked by low, covered passages. The site is very significant and has been described as one of the most important Neolithic sites in Western Europe, and designated as part of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The well-preserved remains at Skara Brae are situated in the dunes at the top of Skaill Bay. Their position was originally some distance from the beach but coastal processes have now placed them in a vulnerable position right on the eroding edge of the land. A protecting wall has been built to prevent further destruction from the sea. To the immediate north of the archaeological site the shoreline has continued to be cut back to a noticeable degree in contrast to the protected area of the Neolithic settlement (see image 6). The site is built upon and embedded in unconsolidated sediments, including midden refuse with seashells.

The buildings sit on top of what might be termed more recent geological deposits, not on top of the solid local Devonian flagstones that can be seen outcropping on the beach below. This beach has a complex history reflecting sea-level rise and the landward advance of dune systems (Vega Leinert et al., 2000). Ponds formed in glacial sediments dumped by melting ice sheets on top of bedrock around 6550 years ago. We know from pollen in core samples that trees like beech, hazel, and willow were dominant in woodland with undergrowth around the ponds, and Phragmites reeds indicate a freshwater marsh environment. The ponds filled up with organic sediments derived from decaying plants and including pollen. A peat bog was formed. Eventually the whole area became smothered by windblown sand from a dune ridge system migrating towards the land from the west from about 6120 yr BP. A subsequent sea-level rise drowned the area. Parts of these peat beds can now be seen in the intertidal zone beneath the boulders and cobbles but above the bedrock of Devonian flagstones. It is possible to see large pieces of preserved wood and other plant remains in the peat. The peat bed continues landwards beneath the pebble bank at the top of shore, and beneath the stabilised sand dunes in which the settlement was buried. The difficulties of living in an area constantly affected by wind-blown sand was no doubt a contributory factor in the ultimate abandonment of the settlement.


14 Replies to “Orkney Shores – Skara Brae”

  1. What an incredible place. Interesting that it was uncovered by a freak storm. I was reading how a beach in co. Mayo Ireland had “vanished” and then years later “reappeared” after a massive storm.

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  2. Thank you, Emma. A few years back when we had some really big storms, all the sand in Mewslade Bay was washed away and the rock beneath the beach was revealed. Eventually, all the sand was brought back by subsequent tides but it was a spectacular and shocking sight when it happened.

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  3. That’s very interesting. It must have looked like a naked bay!! I’ve read somewhere that there used to be a sandy beach on Hunts Bay too – people blame dredging for that but maybe its the results of storms too.

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  4. I think the main culprit of major sand removal events is stormy weather but dredging no doubt has an effect too. There is some interesting research (V.J. May) also on the way that sand naturally migrates gradually around the whole area from one beach to another. This means that in some places sand is taken from shores and dunes, contributing to a depletion, while in other places the sand accretes and forms thicker beach layers and sand banks. I have often observed the effects of this by proxy when old boots and shoes that I have photographed on one beach, later turn up on another. And at Whiteford over the last decade or so the dunes nearest to the lighthouse have been cut back while a sand bank continues to rise between the tide levels near to the Broughton Bay end of the shore.

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  5. It is interesting how the sand moves. I read that Broughton bay was once deep enough that ships could moor there but the sand clogged it up so that’s a process that has been going on for centuries. I was also once told that Swansea Bay wasn’t much of a bay a thousand years ago when Oystermouth Castle was built and that the shoreline was in line with Mumbles head, but I’ve seen that written anywhere. A sailor friend also told me that the Tidal Lagoon would have changed the action of the tides and probably led to the bay silting up all over again!

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  6. it would be interesting to look out some old maps of the Swansea area. I am sure that the bay has worn back a lot over time but I would be surprised if it was as far out as Mumbles just a thousand years ago. Rhossili was in a similar situation a considerably longer time ago when the platform (solifluction terrace) on which the Old Rectory now sits, and where the village of Rhossili once stood, stretched out as far as the headland and presumably Worms Head. I think that would have been after the last ice age.

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  7. Thanks, Jo and Mark. Have a lovely time at Skara Brae. I was in Orkney in June this year. So much to see and explore. Have you seen the other posts in the series Orkney Shores that I am gradually writing about the places I visited – they might be useful too?


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