The story of Skara Brae, by the books

This Mimir’s Well is written by Fleur Ward, who recently gained an MLitt degree in Orkney and Shetland Studies with the Centre for Nordic Studies, UHI. For her dissertation project, Fleur wrote about the presentation of Skara Brae in its guide books, from 1933 to today.

Since its discovery in 1850 Skara Brae has been a ‘must see’ archaeological attraction drawing in thousands of local, national and international visitors each year whose interest and experience of the monument has been enhanced through reading the site specific Guidebook.  Six Skara Brae Guidebooks cover the period from 1933 to 2012 and were written by the two supervising archaeological excavators of the site; Vere Gordon Childe and David Clarke.  Each Guidebook was with a specific target audience in mind stemming from the language used and choice of visual aids.  The publications communicate ‘historical facts’, convey basic information and tie together all aspects of the monument so that it can be understood as a completely functional settlement site.  Each Guidebook has added to knowledge of the site’s historical development, and document the changing interpretations, visitor management practices and conservation techniques.  In addition, the Guidebooks act as a keepsake and souvenir of a visit which can be read and referred too at a later date.   

Over the last 83 years, the presentation of Skara Brae in its Guidebooks has focused on the settlement’s story being retold through using Vere Gordon Childe’s interpretations to form a basis on which new archaeological evidence has been placed.  This has been coupled with a shift from marketing the site to an educated audience to generating a wide mass appeal for the site as demonstrated through the First Guidebook being of simplistic design and heavily reliant on text which uses technical and unfamiliar language whereas the broad appeal of the most recent publications is apparent in the number of images, illustrations and maps used to convey information.


The First Official Guidebook was published in 1933 after the site excavations of the late 1920s.  Its aim was to simplify a visit to the site through a description of its discovery and excavation.  Skara Brae’s inhabitants were acknowledged as farmers who kept animals and used the marine environment.  The community was presented as self-sufficient and insular even though archaeological evidence contradicted these assumptions as shown through the excavation of materials not present on mainland Orkney including Haematite from Hoy.


This Guidebook contained several reoccurring themes which formed the main discussion points in subsequent publications.  One focus was the possible occupation date of the settlement as the initial excavations had taken place in a time before radio carbon dating existed and no other excavated archaeological site could be compared.  Based solely on the analysis of the excavated artefacts and pottery Skara Brae was thought to have been occupied before 900AD.  Another theme was the question of why the occupation of the settlement ended?  An imagined story was concocted concerning a broken necklace that had been recovered from the floor of House 7 and the excavated remains of gnawed bones found in some of the House’s beds.  From this evidence it was imagined that the village had been overwhelmed by a sudden catastrophe which had set the sand dunes in motion, filling the Houses with sand and forcing Skara Brae’s inhabitants to abandon the settlement.


The Second Guidebook (published in 1950) strengthened these interpretations as the main body of text remained unchanged.  This static representation of the site meant that its portrayal was becoming formalised and rigid in the popular imagination.  Despite this there were two points of difference to the First Guidebook; the first being the use of eight different images to aid the descriptive text, and the second being the inclusion of general information inside the front cover to aid finding and visiting the site which highlighted that it was developing into a tourist destination.


In 1972 and 1973 new archaeological excavations were conducted onsite which resulted in positive radio carbon dates and the gaining of useful insights into life at the settlement.  However, the Third Guidebook (published in 1977) included the same text as its predecessors and omitted the new results.  It is unknown as to why the new information was not included as a report about the archaeological excavations had been published and was available to the public, thus the information contained in the Guidebook was outdated and only added emphasis to Childe’s original interpretations of the site.      


Textual additions highlighting the results and new interpretations from the archaeological excavations were incorporated into the text of the Fourth Guidebook (published in 1983).    The 1970s excavations highlighted that the remains of the initial settlement were fragmentary as the results suggested two periods of occupation.  Furthermore, for the first time visitors were presented with a precise occupation chronology as radio carbon determinations had been ascertained - Skara Brae had been occupied between 3100BC and 2500BC.  The confirmation of these dates led to the statement ‘the Best in Northern Europe’ being coined which stemmed from the site’s state of presentation and age.  In addition, the story concerning the end of the occupation was being actively dispelled as evidence for a natural disaster had not been found in the archaeological record.


Accompanying its inscription onto the World Heritage List in 1999 as part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, the interpretation available to visitors at Skara Brae was overhauled.  As well as a new Guidebook, a Visitor Centre encompassing a film and exhibition, Replica House and entry into Skaill House were encapsulated into the visitor experience aiding understandings of the archaeological remains.  This appealed to a better informed and conservation minded audience.  It was the intention that these new additions played a supporting role to the village as they were designed to help tell the story of the site.   These new interpretative devices respected the historical fabric and setting of the monument as they offered offsite interpretation aimed at containing and reducing the expected rise in visitor numbers and pressures at the site.  Also, they were intended to reduce the dwelling time of visitors at the monument itself to ensure sustainable tourism measures could be practiced. 


To help the Fifth Guidebook (published in 2000) to remain relevant to the visitor experience and continue to generate revenue for Historic Scotland a Guided Tour section was included.  The text of this Guidebook had been completely rewritten and targeted a general audience as it focused on making comparisons between modern and Neolithic life to help visitors envisage life in prehistoric times.  A strong example of this was the site’s statement of significance which firmly placed it in the popular imagination alongside the Pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge.  The Guidebook successfully built up a complete picture of life in the village through discussing House features together with excavated objects.  The villagers themselves were presented as farmers and fishermen who engaged in leisure activities, and communicated with other groups to exchange items, arrange marriage partners and build communal monuments.   


This Guidebook presented a new theory to the end of life at Skara Brae as it argued that a change in society had occurred during the period of monumental building.  The leaders of the society were thought to have control over several communities which may have caused a breakdown in old societal structures leading to a questioning of the need to live in tightly knit communities.  Settlements may have slowly been abandoned with families dispersing across the landscape.  This interpretation firmly placed Skara Brae as one of a number of settlements across Orkney which underwent significant social change during the Late Neolithic period. 


The most recent Guidebook (published in 2012) caters to a general audience as the reader frequently encounters simplistic language and references to popular culture.  Alongside the Maeshowe Guidebook, a standardised presentation of the site attempts to highlight the similarities between the Orcadian Neolithic archaeological sites.  The text builds on earlier Guidebook conclusions that Orkney was a possible centre of power in Europe during the Neolithic period.  A new addition to this Guidebook was an explanation of the ongoing conservation issues including a discussion of coastal erosion and the plight of House 7. 


As the site’s interpretation has developed to incorporate a multifaceted visitor experience the question of whether there is a need for a site specific Guidebook needs to be considered as all the information presented therein is contained in physical manifestations during the visitor experience.  The Skara Brae Guidebook remains an essential element in the presentation of the monument as it gives a comprehensive image of Orcadian Neolithic life and the way that humans have lived in the past.  In addition, it remains a valuable souvenir and reference of a visit to the archaeological settlement.  Furthermore, the Skara Brae Guidebook will continue to be produced and rewritten into the future as it will provide new interpretations of the site as archaeological excavations continue to be carried out across Orkney, Scotland and Britain.

Originally published in The Orcadian, 12 January 2017, pages 8-9.

Download PDF here