Bernie Bell: Skaill Bay, Sandwick

I had been discussing all these Tales of Skaill with friend Howie (Firth), who told me that….

“The place name Skaill is associated with old sites from the Norse period – usually associated with the hall of a possible Norse chieftain –  and looking at the bay itself, it is such an ideal place for anyone to have their home, with good land round about and good access to the sea.”

I’ve long had that idea in regard to Skara Brae and surrounding area.  It’s now recognized that the sea was probably a bit farther away, and that it has ‘broken through’ since the Neolithic, but still, what a place to live.

Skara Brae

Skara Brae (F Grahame)

The sea not too far away for fishing, and shellfish and kelp stems for burning, and drift wood for building, and even useful bones washed up and a good supply of nice, easily spliced stone, and, once the sea had ‘broken through’, a sheltered bay to fish in, rather than the open sea.

Also, inland waters for freshwater fish, and fresh water, and good land for growing things.  There have been people in the area since at least the Neolithic – Andrew Appleby’s book ‘Skara’ creates a vivid picture of how life there might have been, then – so, where are the living places of the in-between people?

There are some Norse remains already discovered. There was a Viking hoard found, in the 19th Century – the Skaill Hoard, found near Sandwick Church.  I’m not so sure about actual remains of dwelling places – I think there have been more recent excavations near Skaill Bay, this is a vague idea which is lurking at the back of my mind, and I’m not entirely sure about it!  I must admit, I don’t pay a lot of attention to the Viking sites  – I don’t like the Vikings! I  don’t like their attitude and approach to life and their  fellow beings.  So, I’m afraid I don’t pay as much attention as I should, to Viking sites.

I think there is evidence of Norse settlement in the area, and, as Howie suggests,  maybe some of that settlement was in the area of what is now Skaill House.  It makes sense – the prime site in the area, over a long stretch of time.
And to finish off my Tales of Skaill…..

There was an old man at Skaill Bay
Who dug in the sand by the brae
Where he found some old stones
And some rotten old bones
Now the tourists all flock there today!

No dis-respect to Mr. Childes or Mr. Watt!

Bernie Bell is a regular contributor to The Orkney News check out some of her other stories and walks.

Editor’s Comment: A grave was found when they were working at the car park at St Peter’s Kirk, Bay of Skaill.  It contained a man over 6 ft tall. There was a child also in the grave. This was dated to the Norse times. 

7 replies »

    • They know that there are structures in the field next to Skara Brae and there is the broch up by the house too next to the loch

  1. Here is an extract from the Swandro Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust Newsletter No. 3 – January 2018. (
    Another piece in the puzzle – unfortunately, no longer to be seen – just some artefacts as evidence.
    NB A similar bead has been found during the recent excavations on Rousay.

    “It’s during the Bronze Age that jet and jet-like substances were widely used in necklace construction. Britain’s only significant source of jet is Whitby in Yorkshire, but in Scotland jet-like substances were used, such as cannel coal and oil shale, which are indistinguishable from jet without scientific analysis. In Orkney a jet-like belt ring and a V-bored button, now identified as albertite, came from a hoard likely to date to c.2200 – 1800 BC deposited outside Isbister chambered cairn. Analysis of a single necklace plate (from a necklace like the one shown above) found during peat cutting in Tankerness has confirmed that it is made of jet.

    The finest Orkney example of a jet-like Bronze Age disc bead necklace (of which Scotland has around 30 examples, mostly dating to between 2200 – 1700 BC) came from 18th century excavations in the Links of Skaill (near Skara Brae) by the noted naturalist Joseph Banks, Orkney’s Rev. George Low and Robert Graham, the Laird of Skaill. There was an extensive Bronze Age barrow cemetery here, which was subsequently destroyed without record during agricultural improvements.

    One of the excavated cist burials from the Links contained both unburnt and burnt human bone, and amongst the cremated bone were around 200 jet-like disc beads, the only surviving illustration of which comes from George Low, and it appears to be a typical Bronze Age disc bead”

  2. Ooops! I missed this bit – so, it looks like there is nothing left , but an illustration. Still, we know the Bronze Age barrow cemetery was there, and we know something of what was found there.

    “Low also, in a spirit of scientific enquiry, set some of the beads on fire:

    ‘I have seen several of the beads, they are black, and seem to be made of a sort of cannel coal, they burn well, emitting a strong white flame, and a white cinder remains.’

    Unfortunately identification by burning is inconclusive, not to mention destructive, and the rest of the beads have been lost, although I do cherish the hope that the current Laird of Skaill might one day find them in a box in the back of a cupboard!”

    It happened with ‘Buddo’, it could happen with the beads!

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