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Skara Brae is a name that should be evocative to anyone who went to school in Scotland. I don't know how well it is known outside archaeological circles in the rest of the world. I remember being fascinated learning about the people and their life there, and wondering what happened to them. Skara Brae is a place I have wanted to visit for years, and finally I have.
Skara Brae is an incredibly well preserved Neolithic village on the Western shore of the Orkney Mainland. It is estimated that it was built 5000 years ago. After its inhabitants left it became buried in the sand on the windswept coast, and remained hidden until a storm in 1850 lifted the turf off and exposed the remains of the dwellings hidden below.
The site is looked after by Historic Scotland. There is a small visitor centre where you can watch a short introductory film and see some artefacts found in the village. Entry to Skara Brae is £6.70 for adults, £5.40 for concessions and £4.00 for children. This price includes entry to Skaill House, a 17th century house which is next to Skara Brae. Winter prices are different and only include Skara Brae.
The first part of the Skara Brae experience after the film and display is a replica house outside the vistor centre. It is a reconstruction of House 7, the best preserved of all the buildings. It includes the furniture and objects found on site, and also some items placed based on knowledge or assumption - food and furs. It's really interesting to walk around and get a feel for this place. It is fully wheelchair accessible, although my mum didn't seem to like being wheeled along a low corridor whose ceiling was at her head height while she was sitting...
After the replica house it was time to walk down to the real thing. The path is flat gravel, and easy to walk on, but it is a way to the village. Along the path are markers showing that you are walking back in history, such as the first man on the moon and the second world war, and further back the fall of Rome and the building of the hanging gardens of Babylon.
The village of Skara Brae itself is small, and unmistakable to see if you have read about it prior to visiting. Visitors must keep to the perimeter path which circles the village; this was not the case when my dad first visited in the 1970s and was able to walk through the paths inside the village.
From the perimeter path you are looking down into the buildings. The village was built in a mound of midden, which was more or less rubbish. It consisted of household waste and acted as insulation against the harsh winds. This gives the village a sunken appearance. It is surrouned by grass, and on top of all the interior walls is a strip of grass. It gives the village a very organic feel, and there is something very pleasing about the flowing look this turf gives the village.
Some of the dwellings are better preserved than others. There were two stages of Skara Brae, and of the earlier one we can only see two buildings (although it is known that there are more underneath the later buildings) where little remains bar the exterior walls.
The best preserved building, House 7, of which there is now that replica, is covered. Once upon a time it had a glass roof to allow visitors to see, but this was changing the atmosphere and damaging things, so it was removed and a natural wood roof covered with turf was built. This was unexpected and a bit disappointing as I hadn't known about it, but preservation is more important than another house for visitors to see, and there are plenty others to see.
One of the most recognisable images of Skara Brae is the "dresser" of House 7. A model can be seen in the replica house. However in House 1 there an identical dresser. When you look down into this house, you are looking directly at the dresser with the sea in the background. Although I was there on a beautiful day, you can get a sense of the importance of warmth and shelter this close to the Atlantic Ocean.
The path around the village is almost all wheelchair friendly. My mum chose to walk the small section which was not. For those for which this is not an option, I believe it would be possible to go halfway round having come in the entrance gate, then return and go through the exit gate to do the other half to the point where the wheelchair could not pass.
Skara Brae is quite an amazing place. The time that has passed since it was built and inhabited is mind boggling, yet it is still laid out in front of us so completely that we can almost picture the people who called it home going about their daily business. I've known of it for so long, and now can't quite believe I have been there! It is even more fascinating and beautiful in person.
Having seen the village, we carried on to Skaill House, but that is another story. After all the wandering about in windy fresh air, we visited the cafe in the visitor centre. The food was reasonable and surprisingly good value - £10.50 for two coffees, soft drink, sandwich, two cakes and a plate of biscuits and cheese. Not bad by today's prices.
The shop in the visitor centre is small but has some interesting books and the usual mix of classy and slightly tacky souvenirs (more of the classy than tacky though). There is another shop in Skaill House with a bigger range.
I suspect I will say this about a lot of places in Orkney...but you can't visit Orkney without visiting Skara Brae. I'll say that about other places, but really, Skara Brae has to be top of every list.
Have you ever wanted to travel back in time? Perhaps even further back than when the pyramids were built, just to try to catch a glimpse of how our distant ancestors may have lived? At Skara Brae, this is just about possible.
Skara Brae is an ancient prehistoric settlement that was discovered on Orkney when a storm unearthed it in 1850. It consists of a number of houses that were inhabited for a total of around 600 years starting around 3000 BC. These houses were built into an existing midden (i.e. a tip) which served as a kind of insulation for the houses - a necessity out on cold and windswept Orkney! There are 8 houses there and archaeologist think that around 50-100 people lived at Skara Brae at any one time.
When you get to Skara Brae, you buy your ticket and then walk through the gift shop. Around to the right of the gift shop is a small museum that is easy to miss but you shouldn't, as it gives you the story of what is known about Skara Brae. And not very much is known - for example, we don't even know what language the inhabitants spoke. But when you step outside and walk around the remaining structures, you do get a feeling for the way they might have lived.
Once you exit the museum/gift shop, the first place you come to is a mock-up of one of the houses that has been built recently to show you the way the houses might have been furnished. Unlike the authentic Skara Brae houses, this one has a roof on it currently and is filled with things like sheep skins and models of the food people might have fished from the sea.
When you exit this mock-up you walk around to the houses of Skara Brae themselves. You cannot go inside - this is to prevent damages to the houses but also probably to prevent you from falling as they are recessed into a quite steep hill. However you do get an excellent view into the houses from the observation area above.
It is absolutely awe-inspiring to try to imagine back so long ago to the intense struggles for survival these people must have gone through. And yet the houses themselves do look as though they could have been quite cosy and warm, although to imagine 100 people crammed into them is almost unthinkable by modern standards.
While at Skara Brae you might as well also wander over to Skaill House. This is the house belonging to the Laird of the estate where Skara Brae was found. Much less interesting in my opinion, this mansion house does give you the opportunity to see how the other half live (these lairds were very rich!), but it is a fairly modern house and after Skara Brae itself it was a disappointment to me.
You can visit Skara Brae either as part of a guided tour of Orkney or simply on your own. I went on my own and preferred this as I was able to get their early and beat the crowds. Skara Brae does get a lot of tour buses visiting but if you go in the morning you should be ok.
Here are the opening times copied from the About Britain Web site:
Skara Brae and Skaill House:
1st April to 30th September:
Daily 9.30am to 5.30pm.
Skara Brae only Skaill House Closed:
1st October to 31st March 2010:
Daily 9.30am to 4.30pm.
Last ticket sold 45 minutes before closing.
Closed 25th & 26th December and 1st & 2nd January.
Admission for an adult in summer is £6.70 and for a child £3.35. In winter the prices are £5.70 and £2.85.
Skara Brae is one of the most famous neolithic sites in Scotland, if not the United Kingdom, and dates from around 3000BC which is also one of the earliest sites that we have. The site has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Sight.
Skara Brae was uncovered when a storm on Orkney ripped grass and turf off a bit of the hill (brae) along the beach of the main island in 1850. Gradually it was excavated and a number of houses revealed, and a sea wall built to try and protect the site from erosion and storm damage as it is in danger of collapsing entirely onto the beach and sea. What was discovered was a village dating from 3200BC-2500BC and one of the best preserved examples of life from that time. There are 8 houses complete with stone furniture which were build partially submerged underground to protect them from the elements and accessed through a number of passages.
On entering the site you are shown through to a short film on the site which details its finding and what is known about it as well as educated guesses on the rest. There is a room with further information on the society and life of the people who lived there with some interative games on the excavation and reconstruction of items from the site, which are fun for kids and big kids. From there you can walk outside to a reconstruction of one of the houses complete with roof-I was disappointed to find that they had made the passage ways bigger for us large 21st century people with only a marker to indicate the real height. I felt it would be more atmospheric and genuine if they kept to the original plan even if it did mean you have to crouch or crawl for part of it. Otherwise this is a good way of getting an idea of what the house could have actually felt like and with the roof on top feels more like a home than the ruins ever can.
From there you follow a path which has markers proportionally placed with major events in history leading back to the time Skara brae was in use. This is an excellent idea as it gives a real feeling of just how long ago this was made when the building of the Great Wall of China is only half way along and the Great Pyramids are a good bit before the site too. All that we usually study as history comes in the first few metres of the path that extends for hundreds of metres 'back in time'.
The site itself initially struck me as being very small as there are only about 8 small houses. It is believed that there were far more but they have already gone off the hill and been lost to the sea. After accepting that it wasn't a huge site I was impressed by how well preserved everything is-the walls of the houses are in as good a condition as many of the traditional stone buildings still inhabited today. It is also thrilling to see that the set-up is so similar to how we set-up a house today-if I wasn't assured that this is how they were found I would have assumed that it was a reconstruction with a modern person putting their modern interpretation on an ancient site. But there are quite clear hearths, beds and storage areas as well as what look like shelves and dressers, indicating that they decorated the houses. There are set paths that circle around the site so that you can see down into the houses with brief explanations of the items inside.
The one downside for me is the lack of information in the site. In part this isn't really the fault of Historic Scotland who run it but more due to the nature of history in this period is a lot of guess work. Most of the information given is something along the line of 'Educated guesses suggest people would have done X, but really we don't know, your guess is as good as ours'. This goes against my nature of wating to know how everything works but may appeal to those who like the mystery of it all. I do feel that out on the site itself there could have been more information when you could directly relate some of the theories given in the visitor centre to what you can see in front of you.
Entrance to Skara Brae also gets entrance to Skaill house included which is the house of the man who owned the land where Skara Brae is and found the site after the storm. As I didn't have a lot of time and had heard it is simply a 19th century house with little else to recommend it I skipped it.
The visitor centre has a small cafe that serves food (sandwiches, baked potatos) and an overpriced gift shop that does have some kitsch tartan and highland cow souvenirs but also has some nice pieces of pottery, glass and earthenware.
Admission Summer: £6.50 adults, £5.20 concession and £3.35
Winter:Adult £5.70, Concession £4.70 Child £2.85
Address: Skaill Bay, 31km north of Kirkwall on the B9056, postcode KW16 3LR
1 April - 30 September, Mon-sun, 9.30 am to 5.30 pm
1 October - 31 March, Mon- Sun, 9.30 am to 4.30 pm
Run by Historic Scotland