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The demise of Skara Brae

"The abandonment of Skara Brae, like its discovery, has been attributed to a great storm, overwhelming the inhabitants with sand, so rapidly, that one fleeing woman was said to have left the beads of her necklace scattered in her wake."

A common misconception, and one that continues to be promoted today, is that Skara Brae was abandoned overnight in the face of an apocalyptic disaster - an cataclysm that caused the inhabitants to flee.

This dramatic idea was originally proposed by Professor V. Gordon Childe, the archaeologist who excavated the village in 1928, and like a Northern Pompeii, it immediately caught the public's imagination.

However, in the light of modern techniques and thinking, Childe's theory has, more or less, been discounted.

Instead, it is now thought that the fall of Skara Brae was brought about by two factors — coastal erosion and a change to Neolithic society.

From before Skara Brae, right up to the present day, the area around Skaill has always suffered from sand-blow events. We know that the inhabitants of Skara Brae put up with this sand-blow. But over time, it became harder. A combination of sand, encroaching sea and salt-water spray made working the land difficult and may have put an end to cereal production altogether.

If the land was not workable, there was no point in remaining — so it seems likely that a gradual drift to more productive land ensued.

Meanwhile, Neolithic society was also undergoing a change — a change that brought about different ideas and a completely different set of values and way of life.

Skara Brae: Picture by Sigurd TowrieFrom the construction of the henge monuments at Brodgar and Stenness and the construction of Maeshowe, we can perhaps see the emergence of an elite ruling body, who had the power to control the labour of a number of people.

With this development, the need for all-enclosed village communities disappeared — where once families depended on their tight-knit, little village communities they now were part of a larger, more widespread community, controlled by powerful tribal or spiritual leaders.

Over time, families dispersed across the landscape, settling once again in single individual dwellings. As more and more of these younger people drifted from the villages they were not replaced.

So Skara Brae's demise was certainly not overnight.

It seems more likely that those who remained within the ancient village of Skara Brae gradually grew older and died.

With their passing, their home and the home of the ancestors for over six centuries finally fell silent — silent save for the sound of the encroaching sand.

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