Skara Brae, Orkney - An Insight into the Past

Driving along the north-east coast of Mainland Orkney the sea is never far away.  Even on summer days the sky is grey and the sea reflects the cold grey clouds.  This area was the heart of the Neolithic world over 4500 years ago. People lived here on this remote part of the planet before the Egyptians were building pyramids and many of the buildings were abandoned before Stonehenge was thought about.  

Bay of Skaill a sweeping beach

Even the name of the bay where Skara Brae sits sounds ancient.   Who can't image the past with a name like the Bay of Skaill.  The bay has a sandy beach which graduates gently onto the surrounding land.  The bay is believed to have been formed in an ancient tsunami event.  In 1858 a Viking treasure trove was found close to St Peter's Kirk, hidden nearly 1000 years before, possibly as a pagan ritual offering.


Skara Brae

Leaving the present day we walked along the bay through the grasses towards the discovered village.  Stones marked time passing with historical moments - man on the moon,  the two world wars, English Civil War and the building of Stonehenge.  The reality of how old Skara Brae really is comes into perspective when you pass Stonehenge and the Pyramids being built at Giza and there is still 1000years to go before reaching Skara Brae village.  It really is hard to believe how long ago Skara Brae was in use.  

With the gulls circling and the wind blowing as it always does on Orkney we arrived at the entrance.  The village was hidden within the sand dunes, no wonder it was lost for so many years. If it had not been for a large storm in 1850 which blew some of the sand away, it may have still been hidden today.  

There is also a strong possibility that Skara Brae was much larger than what we see today.  Some buildings were known to have been washed away in a storm in 1924.   Given the period of time since it's building in about 3100BC, who knows how many have been lost over time, but what remains is so perfectly preserved it is hard to believe its age.  

It is suggested however that there were 10-12 homes in the village. Walking around it was possible to see the homes and cells. The exposed position of the site made it possible to imagine the harsh life that the inhabitants survived and gave a moment to be thankful for our own creature comforts of the modern-day.

Despite the warmer climate and reduced breeze, it would have remained a harsh place to live. From the walk around it was possible to see the central hearth in each home with the stone dresser and bed boxes, all preserved for over 4000 years beneath the sands which engulfed the village.


Thoughts about Living at Skara Brae

Walking across the fields towards Skaill House, where the land-owner William Watt had lived in 1850, the remote site was the source of heated discussion - lots of how's and why's, if only there were more answers I could give them.  The biggest question was 'who would want to live here?'.  I think I was asking myself that question as well, given the long cold and windy winters and the cool and overcast days that fill some of the summer months.  

Orkney was however a warmer and busier place in the Neolithic period.   People from this village were aware of the nearby religious centres at Brogdar and Stenness and the slightly earlier burial chamber at Maeshowe. Orkney was known to be an important area in the Neolithic period, despite its remote location.  

The structure of these buildings is seen mirrored in the Stonehenge area.  This suggests that the designs used here in Orkney migrated southwards over time.  It is quite exciting to think that this remote part of Scotland was leading the world in thinking and design.


Skaill House

Skaill House, when we arrived, was typical of a Victorian house with a grand staircase, opulent furnishings and everything a land-owner is the 1850's required to represent their wealth and status.  From ornate bedspreads and a library full of books to guns and shooting trophies, this land owner had it all.


More Information about Skara Brae and Skaill House

Skara Brae is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is known as Heart of Neolithic Orkney.  This site includes Maeshowe, the Stones at Stenness and the Ring of Brogdar.

To help little one's explore Skara Brae from home there is a brilliant BBC activity website

Finally, this excellent You Tube video explains all about the site, really interesting if you want to see more.

Visiting Skara Brae and Skaill House

Visiting Skara Brae is an easy half day out.  There is a great visitors centre with cafe and small interactive museum.  You can visit a reconstructed home before walking through the sand dunes to the original village and Skaill House.  

Skara Brae is open all year round although hours are reduced in the winter.  Skaill House is only open in the summer months as it apparently costs too much to heat!!  

Skara Brae can get busy at times especially when cruise ships are visiting Kirkwall.  It is worth checking ships schedules before heading to Skara Brae in the summer months.