My visit to Skara Brae and why it induced such rage

Well, it’s really been a while since I posted here. Obviously, having my head firmly outside the world of archaeology has caused my rantings and musings to lag somewhat. On a positive note, I’m waiting to hear back about the outcome of my bid for the PhD in history and video games at the University of Lincoln, which should be any day now.

In the meantime, I have recently visited an Aunt in Caithness. For anyone who hasn’t visited Caithness before, the amazing landscapes and brilliant prehistoric archaeology are just about the only things going for it. And of course the presence of my lovely Aunt who runs a truly beautiful B&B there (I really would recommend staying at The Hawthorns in Mey if you are ever making the journey up to Orkney and need somewhere to stay before making the crossing from the mainland).

We drove about the countryside in Caithness, visiting various cairns etc, but also indulged in a coach tour (collective shudder here, please) of Orkney. The tour cost £58 per person, which I personally feel is utterly outrageous. If we hadn’t landed ourself a BOGOF deal because of all the trade that my Aunt sends to the people then I would have outright refused. But, as it was, we decided to go.

On a side note, I would not recommend a John O’ Groats to Kirkwall ferry crossing with even the slightest hint of a hangover.

The coach tour was pretty much as you’d expect. Lots of people from different backgrounds all being herded about the place and allowed to wander off for 20 minutes to an hour and a half at each destination. It all felt rather rushed and, whilst the constant running commentary of the driver was at times informative, it did rather grate on the nerves. Nonetheless, a great way to see Orkney if you only have a day in which to do it and only a general interest, rather than my very specific I-want-to-see-all-the-prehistory interest (and a hundred quid to spare).

Figure 1. UNESCO World Heritage Site, Skara Brae, exposed on the shore of Orkney for visitors to experience (source: orkneyjar.com)

What really took the biscuit was our visit to Skara Brae (we didn’t even make it to Maeshowe because they don’t allow coach trips – good on ’em says I!). Anyway – Skara Brae (see fig. 1). This is a site that I learned about right from the outset in year 1 of my undergraduate Archaeology degree. It has been exulted as one of the most iconic Neolithic sites in Britain, nay Europe! And the site itself was amazing and fascinating and brilliant. It was the ‘visitor experience’ that I struggled with.

As someone with existing (although I will say limited) knowledge of the site and Neolithic Britain in general, I was able to make sense of the site. As a cynical witch, I was perhaps more than able to poke holes in the thin veil wrapped about the site in the form of a visitor centre. The following observations are preliminary, and I am sure there are lots of aspects of the situation of which I am not aware, these are just things as I see them from my initial visit to the site.

I think that the first thing I need to point out is the entrance fee, which is £7.10 per adult. Seriously steep stuff, especially if you’ve just forked out over £100 to get onto Orkney in the first place! According to Historic Scotland in 2009 (Historic Scotland 2009) revenue was in the region of £375,000 per annum. Why I couldn’t find anything more recent, I don’t know (I’d be grateful if anyone knows of anything more up to date), but I feel certain that that profit is now considerably more. Whilst I am sure that the profits go into the collective pocket of Historic Scotland, I find it hard to accept that with a turnover like that, a site such as Skara Brae can’t afford to employ more archaeologists in full time positions.

What would have made the experience more fulfilling and informative would have been the presence of knowledgeable, friendly, happily employed specialists; ready to answer questions or provide suggestions about the site to visitors. This is the kind of interactive experience that I think is so important for heritage sites across the UK. It may be slightly hypocritical for a Digital Heritage postgrad to dismiss the use of the hallowed touch screen in a museum or heritage  environment, but really I think there is a time and a place. When you have such marvellously preserved archaeology that really needs to be bodily experienced in order to be understood, giving someone a tiny, digital version to squint at is NOT the answer and is, quite frankly, a massive waste of time and money.

A guest of my Auntie’s was genuinely overheard telling guests over breakfast ‘yeah the stuff at Skara Brae is absolutely amazing, it’s this huge burial site where they buried the ancestors’ – they’d visited the site on the very same tour that we had been on the day before. What the actual!? This may be a one off case of lunacy and confusion, but what if multiple visitors of Skara Brae are leaving the site with that little understanding!?

Anyway, I’m kinda done with this post now. It’s been sitting in my dashboard for yonks and my rage has run out and become exasperated resignation. I do think I’ll publish it though as I’d love to know anyone else’s thoughts on their own experiences at Skara Brae or similar sites. Oh, and please, tell me if I’ve got something horribly wrong, because I don’t claim to have any sort of in-depth understanding of how interpretation or management, or division of funds for that matter, occurs at a site like this. I’d like to understand more but from my quick bouts of Googling, the information is not readily out there.

References

Historic Scotland. 2009. Commercial Review of 2008-2009. Available at: http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/hsb-commercial-review-june09.pdf

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2 thoughts on “My visit to Skara Brae and why it induced such rage

  1. I was also disappointed with my visit to Skara Brae in 2010, when my husband and I went for our honeymoon. I am a total amature, but I love archeology and all things old! I had learned about the site in history at school when I was 13 and had always dreamed of my future visit. We spent the best part of a week exploring Orkney, visiting Maes Howe and some other main attractions as well as just driving about and finding all the little ‘out-of-the-way’ lesser known burial chambers etc. We specifically saved Skara Brea for the grand finale. When we got there I was very disappointed at the lack of information when we were walking around the site, but mostly that we could not walk around the site freely! I think it must be the ONLY historical site in Orkney that you are not able to actually look around – sticking to the gravel paths and trying to see anything which is ACTUALLY old (as apposed to the reconstruction) was very disappointing. I left feeling deflated. We ended up going up a hill on our own with a map to find another underground chamber which we could actually go inside. I would recommend the DIY approach to an Orkney holiday, as it has so much more to offer than Skara Brae.

  2. I knew nothing about Skara Brae when we visited in 2005 and I never heard anything about it being burial site. That was Tomb of the Eagles. I suspect it was pure ignorance. The best museum in the world cannot pierce through to some people.

    I very much liked our visit and we learned a lot. I also don’t think £7.10 to visit a museum is unreasonable. Stonehenge is going to be a lot more than that when we visit next month. It cost me thousands to get to the Orkneys. That has no relation to what a museum charges for admission.

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