Skara Brae, Orkney – An Insight into the Past

skara brae with sea behind

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Skara Brae is a Neolithic Village inhabited around 3100BC but for some unknown reason it was abandoned and forgotten. In 1850 a winter storm exposed the village, hidden in the sand dunes. Excavation has been ongoing since it was discovered and the whole area is now a UNESCO world heritage site. The village can be explored as well as the nearby Bay of Skaill.

Key Points

  • Skara Brae is located on the west coast of Orkney mainland
  • It is an exposed location especially in the winter months when storms blow in (but these arrive year round!)
  • The homes can be visited from within the visitors centre
  • Bay of Skaill is a beautiful beach for walks along the golden sand and wave watching in big seas

READ MORE: Quick Guide to Neolithic Orkney

Skara Brae

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.  

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.

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 1000-years to go before reaching Skara Brae village.  It really is hard to believe how long ago Skara Brae was in use.  

date stone for stonehenge
skara brae date stone
skara brae entrance sign

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.

skara brae reconstructed hut
skara brae inside hut
skara brae with sea behind
skaill house from inside skara brae

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.

Bay of Skaill

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.

main house at Skaill

furnishing detail at skaill

Bay of Skaill and Hole o’Row

The Bay of Skaill runs alongside Skara Brae. It is a wide sandy beach with rocks at the north end. When the tide is out the sand is exposed and is perfect for walking. In winter months the storms blow in bringing huge waves that roll across the bay. At the southern end of the bay on the headland there is an arch way in the sea cliffs known as Hole O’Row. When the waves are crashing into the coast the waves explode through the hole in the headland. On clear calm days it is possible to walk out to the hole and explore.

skaill in a winter storm

Things to Look Out for At Skara Brae

  • The small trinkets and tools in the museum
  • The cosy fire and animal skin blankets in the box beds in the reconstructed building
  • Time line stones. Look ahead as well as behind you while making this walk
  • Tiny doors and tunnels within Skara Brae itself
  • Dressers, beds and hearths, it could almost be home
  • Beautiful furnishings and interesting books in Skaill House

Photography Notes

Skara Brae is a bit of a nightmare to photograph. Flat sand dunes surround it and it lays beneath the dunes. You have to stay on a clearly marked path and so getting down into the buildings is not possible giving an over-view of the site. However, from the far end of the site by the information hut gives the best views across the homes and the bay. Wide angle shots to include the sea give a sense of place to the homes.
The bay is west facing and has the most amazing sunsets. You cannot get into the site out of opening hours, but it is possible to walk along the beach and photograph the sunset or after a storm the waves crashing onto the beach.

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

The Bay of Skaill and Skara Brae is located on the west coast of Orkney Mainland. It is about 20 minutes drive from Stromness and just over an hour from Kirkwall. Take the A967 from Kirkwall and Stromness towards Birsay and on the first sharp bend the B9056 forks to the left. This road will take you to Skara Brae and a little further on from the house is a parking area on the right with access to the beach.

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.

The whole site is maintained by Historic Scotland and having their membership will get you free admission. If you have English Heritage membership you can also enjoy reduced entry costs.

Other Places Near to Skara Brae

  • Ring of Brodgar – this is an impressive stone circle with a number of standing stones
  • Stones of Stenness – close to Brodgar are these standing stones
  • Maeshowe – one of our favourite places on Orkney. A chambered tomb that needs booking to explore with a guide
  • Brough of Birsay – in the far north west of Orkney is Brough of Birsay, a tidal island with lighthouse and ruined palace.

Updated April 2020

Find out more about Neolithic Orkney

3 thoughts on “Skara Brae, Orkney – An Insight into the Past”

  1. Bernie Jackson

    What a fascinating place! I’ve worked on an Iron Age dig in the past, and this got me itching to learn more. I was also interested to see the 1850 house; home’s a mere 7 years younger, but so very different in style.

    1. Meandering Wild

      We love it there. The Ness of Brodgar which is nearby has an annual dig on a neolithic site which is really interesting to watch it evolve over the years. My home was built in 1822 and is definitely very different as well!!!

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