IT lay hidden for centuries before extreme weather suddenly unearthed it. But could the mysterious community of Skara Brae on Orkney be lost once more?

Situated off the northern tip of Scotland and on a latitude that is only 50 miles south of Greenland, Orkney is cursed with what the Scottish antiquarian Hugh Marwick deemed "one of the vilest" climates "under heaven".

As one online tourist guide to the islands notes, "Travel to and from Orkney remains, to this day, at the mercy of the weather".

Before the arrival of modern satellite technology, fog could – and frequently would – ground visiting air and sea craft for days. And a lingering and unsurmountable impediment to travel, and the most common disruptor of the islands' ferry services, continues to be the storms that sweep in from the Atlantic and across the North Sea on the more inclement months of the year.

Months filled with days when the sun deigns to be visible for a brief few hours at best and leave the islands in near complete darkness are not uncommon.

Even on the mildest of summer days in June, when by contrast there is almost continual daylight, Orkney is rarely free from Force 3 or 4 gusts. Few visitors, having taken the two-hour ferry ride from Scrabster on the mainland, would not agree with Magnus Spence, who in The Climate of Orkney (1908) concluded that: "No other region in Great Britain can compare with it for the violence and frequency of its winds".

Since Orkney is largely treeless too, there's not much by way of natural shelter to avoid the winds. Bracing is perhaps the politest word to use.

It was, indeed, a severe wind that is supposed to have revealed the ruins of a prehistoric settlement on Mainland, the largest of Orkney's islands. For centuries the village had lain completely buried under a sandy mound known as Skara Brae (or Skerrabra to the Orcadians) on the shore of the Bay of Skaill. But its long slumber came to end one stormy night in February 1850.

That evening, gales and the raging waves of the Atlantic swept along the western shoreline, causing the sandbank to collapse, ripping turf off the upper knoll and generally leaving gaping holes where there was once solid ground.

READ MORE: Vanishing places – Scottish locations that have disappeared

In this instant, part of the island's Stone Age past abruptly broke into a Victorian steam-driven present, as sections of Neolithic dwellings were left poking out into the air.

Or so the story goes. Contemporary meteorological reports seem to imply that there was nothing especially untoward about the weather for the dates in question. But then random heavy winds and crashing waves are what pass for normal on Orkney. Others argue that the ancient site was known long before 1850 and point to accounts of prehistoric discoveries on the island from at least 1769.

Still, whatever the truth of the story, the local landowner, William Graham Watt, the 7th Laird of Skaill, initiated a series of excavations of the site in the 1860s. These included one led by South Durham MP James Farrer, dismissed in one history of Skara Brae as "a notorious but sadly unmethodical antiquary", and another by the rather more meticulous George Petrie, an Orcadian antiquarian who was to present a detailed paper of his findings to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1867.

What they unearthed, though, was a cluster of four circular drystone wall dwellings dating from between 3200 and 2000BC and kitted out with astonishing, and remarkably well preserved, interior furnishings – beds, chairs, shelves and a hearth – and a plethora of tools, pottery, beads and pendants, all fashioned, like the buildings themselves, entirely in stone.

After all the initial excitement generated by Skara Brae, whose "dateless secrets" were even celebrated in verse, interest in the ruins seems to have waned after Petrie's time. No formal excavations would be carried out again until the 1920s. What spurred this renewed archaeological interest in Skara Brae was seemingly yet another bout of violent weather.

Fearing that the ruins could be lost to the waves and the winds, a sea wall was erected to protect the site in 1925 and the Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe was appointed to conduct fresh surveys, coming across a further four dwellings in the process, taking the village's total to eight.

Childe was fascinated by what made the inhabitants of Skara Brae abandon it at some time around 2000BC. Not only had these people seemingly walked away from their fine stone homes, they appeared to have left a good portion of their most valued possessions behind as well. The presence of the latter, he suggested, was "evidence of a hasty flight". Others, in due course, would suggest that one feasible explanation for just such a flight could have been another earlier meteorological disaster. A storm, perhaps every bit as fierce as the one that later brought the village to light, laying waste to the island.

READ MORE: Vanishing places – Scottish locations that have disappeared

While such a theory has symmetry on its side, it receives short shrift from modern-day archaeologists. Far from making a rapid exit, it is now believed that the islanders probably left gradually, and over many years. This move was most likely sanctioned by the evolving nature of their tribal society and shifts in the landscape due to coastal erosion.

Skara Brae itself originally stood some way inland before scouring tides claimed the ground before it. The weather, nevertheless, poses an ever-present danger to Skara Brae. Rising sea levels and increasingly violent storms connected to climate change could now wipe it away just as swiftly as the winds that unearthed it all those years ago.

Atlas of Vanishing Places: The Lost Worlds as They Were and as They are Today by Travis Elborough, is published by White Lion Publishing, priced £22