Skara Brae

Skara Brae

When Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids of Giza were in their infancy, the prehistoric houses of Skara Brae were filled with life. Should you happen to visit the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO Heritage Site on Stromness, then Skara Brae should be on the top of your to-do list.

When Skara Brae was first uncovered by a storm in 1850, historians were amazed by the quality of the ancient houses that were revealed. As Neolithic sites go, Skara Brae is considered to be the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe. Come and explore the amazing settlement at Skara Brae, with the chance to walk amongst homes, explore inside, and discover what life was life for Neolithic humans.

We plan to cover everything you need to know about Skara Brae, from its fascinating history and folklore to how to get to Skara Brae and what you can look forward to seeing.

Learn the Amazing History of Skara Brae

History of Skara Brae

Skara Brae is an amazing historic site not only because of its immense age but also because of how preserved it remains to this day. You won’t be able to find a place like this anywhere else in the United Kingdom, that’s for sure.

Historians believe that Skara Brae Village was built over 5000 years ago, sometime around 3100 BCE. This village was inland but stood beside a freshwater loch, with several defences against the waters of the loch and rainfall. Each house had a foundation of wet stone slabs, which provided support for the home on the otherwise sodden landscape.

They were further reinforced with midden (a refuse heap) and linked together by covered passages that could shelter residents from winter rain and summer sun. Skara Brae is evidence that Neolithic humans were extremely talented and intelligent, with sophisticated pottery and furniture. In tours today, you can see a representation of what this Neolithic furniture may have looked like, which paints a remarkable picture of the daily life led by residents of Skara Brae.

Then, around 2500 BCE, Skara Brae was abandoned. Historians are still debating why exactly Skara Brae was left, with some speculating that a sandstorm covered the houses while others say it was likely slower immigration. Regardless of the reason, a large part of Orkney’s history can be attributed to the settlement of Skara Brae.

Skara Brae Uncovered

When the encroaching sand was whipped away by a severe storm, Skara Brae was uncovered to local Orcadians. This storm hit in 1850 and devastated the West Coast of Scotland and stripped the earth from many of its coastal islands. Once the storm had died down, villagers on the Orkney Islands happened upon a new addition to the standing stones at the Ness of Brodgar.

At the time, what they found were partially destroyed homes without roofs, but soon, the son of a local laird chipped away at the square catacombs. William Watt of Skaill began an amateur excavation of the site and discovered four houses underneath the earth. Further excavations were abandoned in 1868, but the Neolithic settlement had the world’s eyes on it.

The eyes were malicious in nature, unfortunately, and in 1913 the site was plundered by a group of individuals who took with them several artefacts. Over a decade later, Skara Brae was assaulted by a storm that swept away one of its houses. This act of nature caused the site to finally be secured by a university professor called V. Gordon Childe, who secured the location in 1927.

The Modern Day

Today, Skara Brae is one of the most popular attractions in Stromness. It forms a greater collection of Neolithic sites called the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, which includes other monuments, including the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, and several smaller stones. Skara Brae itself consists of ten stone structures that you can visit.

The visitor centre is managed by Historic Environment Scotland, and there are several amazing tours to enjoy, artefacts discovered, and even a cafe and gift shop to stock up on goodies. Come and see several artefacts, including a set of gaming dice, tools, pottery, and more.

Skara Brae Facts and Folklore

Skara Brae is a fascinating site for many reasons, but especially the amazing stories that surround it and were created here. The Neolithic settlement on Orkney had a central hearth, and it’s likely were residents would gather together around during the harsh Orcadian winter and share stories, songs, and their own myths amongst each other.

While no Scottish stories include Skara Brae, this site at Neolithic Orkney has been used several times in today’s shows and movies. Indiana Jones speaks about the Skara Brae in “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and is a prominent location in Kathleen Fidler’s children’s story “The Boy with the Bronze Axe”.

Rumours and speculations about the purpose of Skara Brae and the other historical monuments nearby are plentiful, from ancient rituals to alien communication, but we’ll leave it up to you to decide which theories are worth diving into.

Opening Times & Ticket Prices

Skara Brae is open to visitors throughout the year, except for special holidays like Christmas and New Year. Opening times are dependent on the time of year:

  • 29 March – 31 October: 9:30 – 17:30 (last entry at 16:30)
  • 1 October – 28 March: 10:00 – 16:00 (last entry at 15:15)

Ticket Prices also vary for adults, children, and families:

  • Adult Tickets: £9
  • Children Tickets (aged 7 – 15): £5.40
  • Family Tickets: £17.50 – £35.50

Note: These are online ticket prices, in-person ticket prices are slightly more expensive (we recommend booking online for the best price). You can purchase a joint ticket, which will guarantee entry into Skaill House at a higher cost.

How You Get to Skara Brae

Skara Brae is located on the Orkney islands, specifically the main Isle of Stromness. There are a variety of ways to reach prehistoric houses, such as cars, ferries, and planes. Here are the quickest ways to reach Skara Brae, no matter which way you’re planning to travel.

By Car

Kirkwall is the largest city on the Isle of Stromness, and it’s the most common route to start your adventure. If you’re planning to drive, here is the quickest way to do so:

  • From Kirkwall, drive south west along the A965. This road takes you through Finstown and down towards the Heart of Neolithic Orkney Heritage Site.
  • Once you begin to see signs for the Barnhouse Stone and Standing Stones of Stenness, turn right onto the B9055 and carry on over the Ness Bridge.
  • Carry along the B9055 north west towards the Orkney Folklore and Storytelling Centre and East Aith.
  • At the Loch of Skaill, turn right onto the B9056 and continue north west. You should begin to see signs for the Skara Brae Visitor Centre and Prehistoric Village. Turn left, and the attraction will be directly to your front and right.

By Ferry

Ferries are an excellent and cost-effective way to reach the Isle of Orkney. From the Scottish Mainland, there are North Link Ferries from Aberdeen as well as Island towns like Scrabster and Lerwick. These take you to Kirkwall, but there are also ferries to Stromness if you want a quicker route to Skara Brae.

There are ferries every week throughout the year, and they can take cars as well as people. Car transport costs range from £63 – £70 and £19.45 – £22.65 for passengers.

By Plane

Stromness’ main town of Kirkwall has a thriving airport that hosts several flights from all over Scotland. Arriving with a plane reaches Kirkwall with such haste that you’ll have time for the other amazing attractions you can look forward to in Orkney.

Flight times vary, but you can reach Kirkwall Airport within an hour or two of airtime. There are options to fly from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, and even England if you don’t mind catching a connecting flight.

Local islands like Sumburgh, Papa Westray, North Ronaldsay, and more also offer flights to the Kirkwall Airport, although more infrequently.

The Best Time of Year To Visit Skara Brae

As with many of the fantastic attractions at the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, Skara Brae is a splendid visit, no matter what time you come. The most popular times to visit the historic site are undoubtedly spring, summer, and autumn when you can enjoy the Village of Skara Brae with mild weather and plenty of sunshine.

For the best weather and the least crowds, it’s best to avoid visiting during the summer peak of June and July. May and September tend to be the best times to visit, as rates are lower, visitors are fewer, and the weather is still balmy and excellent.

This sentiment is the same for the other sites at the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, including Standing Stones of Stenness, Ring of Brodgar, and more.

Attractions to Enjoy at Skara Brae

The ancient houses of Skara Brae are yours to explore during your visit, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg for attractions to enjoy. Historic Scotland has done an amazing job of creating a unique experience at Skara Brae, here are the top things you can look forward to:

Wander the Best-Preserved Prehistoric Houses in the UK

Best Preserved Prehistoric Houses

The delight of Skara Brae is, without a doubt, the Neolithic village and the well-preserved houses within. Taking a stroll through the World Heritage Site is nothing shy of magical. Each Neolithic house stokes the imagination to imagine a time before phones, cars, and even medicine, with period-accurate representations of furniture.

Neolithic humans had many items of furniture that we’d expect in homes today, and you can see stone beds, cupboards, dressers, and even indoor toilets with a fully functioning drainage system! This is even earlier than the Roman sewers, isn’t that surprising?

There are nine houses that can be viewed from the path, and if you peek through the narrow doorway, you’ll be able to see the furniture that was likely used over 5000 years ago! What surprises many people on their visit is the intimate size of the square houses, which rarely exceed 40 square metres. Historians believe that roughly only about 50 people ever lived in the ancient homes of Skara Brae at any time!

See Artefacts at the Visitor Centre

Visitor Centre Artefacts

The Visitor Centre at Skara Brae is stocked full of amazing artefacts and items that offer amazing insight into the lives of Neolithic humans. Many of these items were the prized possessions of the inhabitants, which some people believe is why Skara Brae was suddenly enveloped in a sandstorm—why else would they leave these treasures behind?

Highlights of the Visitor Centre include:

Stone Balls

One of the most mysterious pieces of history to be scavenged from Skara Brae are a set of stone balls with strange carvings. The runic language that seems to be carved into the stone are subject to debate, with no clear translation. Other items like this have been found all over Northern Europe, specifically Norway and Ireland, which may point to a Nordic connection.

Jewellery and Tools

You can see various pieces of jewellery and tools at the visitor centre as well, with unique stories behind them. There is a set of beads, for example, that likely came from a necklace owned by one woman resident of Skara Brae. It’s speculated that she left a room through a low doorway so quickly that her necklace broke and scattered the beads all over.

You can also spy animal bones, a wooden handle, and sets of gaming dice as well! The residents of Skara Brae were proficient in farming, hunting, and fishing as evidenced by the limpet shells found on site when it was excavated.

James Robertson even reports finding a skeleton with a Danish axe in their hand, but this fact is not confirmed and cannot be seen at the visitor centre.

Touch Screen Presentations

If you want to learn more about this ancient village, there are several touch-screen presentations you can interact with to discover some facts about Skara Brae that you may not have known. You can enjoy learning about when the settlement dates back to, the chambered tomb of Corrimony, and many more useful facts about the historic site.

Learn about the Mysterious End to Skara Brae

Skara Brae on Orkney is one of the best-preserved sites in the UK, but even modern historians aren’t completely knowledgeable about how it became abandoned. There are, of course, plenty of theories on why this Orkney Neolithic settlement was left to ruin, including a terrible sandstorm that covered the site and a slow emigration from Skara Brae.

Modern historians, however, tend to believe that the Skara Brae prehistoric village was slowly covered by sand. It stood further from the coastline than the current day, and rising tides and coastal erosion may have caused a build-up of sand.

Shop at the Well-Stocked Gift Shop

Gift Shop

The Skara Brae Visitor Centre has a great gift shop to peruse that has several amazing locally-made souvenirs to take home with you. We highly recommend that you pick up a few amazing items here, including postcards, clothing, stamps, mugs, and many more uniquely Scottish items to gift to friends and family.

Grab a Pick Me Up From the Cafe

There’s a fantastic cafe right next to the gift shop that offers a range of delicious foods and drinks. From coffees to croissants and snacks, it’s an excellent place to fuel up before tackling the other sites at the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.

Stop by Skaill House Next to Skara Brae

Skaill House

While Skara Brae is far from a Pictish village, you can enjoy something a little closer to the present day at Skaill House. This 17th-century home was built by Bishop George Graham and was a laird’s home up until 1991. The home has been restored to resemble as it was in the 1600s, with unique period furnishings.

You can purchase a joint ticket to both Skara Brae and Skaill House at a slight premium, but it’s a must-see attraction for history lovers.

Spot Local Fauna and Flora

Stromness Wildflowers

Once you’ve had your fill of this amazing Neolithic settlement, don’t leave just yet! Taking a walk along the coastline close to this stone-age village is a fantastic way to unwind and soak in the sights of Orkney. Stromness is one of the most beautiful places in Scotland, especially in spring when wildflowers bloom and you can go bird-spotting.

On occasion, there are puffins, gannets, and seals that are visible along the coastline’s rocky outcroppings for visitors to see. And if you’re stopping by on a particularly warm summer day, then the white sand beaches of Orkney are great for a little seaside picnic.

Frequently Asked Questions

From questions like, “How old is Skara Brae?” to “When was Skara Brae built?”, we receive a lot of questions about this Neolithic settlement. If you have any burning questions about Skara Brae, then take a look at the questions we’ve answered below.

When was Skara Brae Discovered?

Skara Brae was discovered in 1850, after a powerful storm hit Scotland and the Orkney Islands. The winds and rain ripped away the sands that covered the Neolithic site of Skara Brae, revealing to the world after centuries of remaining lost to history.

Who Lived in Skara Brae

The exact residents of Skara Brae are unknown. Neolithic humans lived at the site for over 600 years between 3100 BCE and 1500 BCE. There is evidence that the humans who lived at Skara Brae were Norse, or at least traded with Nordic traders, due to several Norse items found during excavation.

Where is Skara Brae Located?

Skara Brae is located on Stromness, the main island of Orkney. These islands are located north of the Scottish Mainland and are only accessible by ferry or plane.

You can find Skara Brae on the Isle’s west side, between Loch Skaill and the coastline. It takes about 30 – 40 minutes to reach the Neolithic site from Kirkwall via car.

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