The wife and I are considering a trip to the Orkneys to see the ruins at Skara Brae. Anyone here have any experience (or information) on traveling there?
Yes, we went last year. Orkney was just about the best part of the whole trip. Well worth going. We stayed three nights and in retrospect wish we had one more. We flew up from Edinburgh, and then flew down to Aberdeen where we got a car to continue on. Looking back it probably would have been better to just drive the whole way and take the ferry.
One of our traveling companions is an archaeologist and Skara Brae fulfilled a life's dream for her.
We 'did' Orkney as a very long day trip from Inverness. It was well worth it. Skara Brae and the standing stones were both wonderful.
This past August, we squeezed in visits to both Shetland and Orkney between other locations in Scotland, flying to or from each, and renting a car while there. Our vacation time was limited this summer, but more time in each place would have been worthwhile. Still, we went to Skara Brae and other sights.
When Craig, our B&B host picked us up at the ferry dock when we arrived in Kirkwall, Orkney from Lerwick, Shetland he announced that, unfortunately for us visitors, the next day was going to be the Orkney Show, a 1-day agricultural event that drew thousands to Kirkwall to see, buy and sell livestock and farm equipment. We later spied a sign in a liquor store advertising Orkney Show discounts on whisky! We drove south to see the Tomb of the Eagles and other sights that day, so The Show didn't directly affect us (although it did make finding an available place to stay more challenging when we were booking places before leaving the USA). Craig also said the following day would be the second day in the year (there are only 2 each summer) when not one, but two giant cruise ships would be stopping in Kirkwall, and the population of Orkney would nearly double for the day. He suggested that tour buses would pack the area, and that getting in to see Maeshowe, another key archaeological sight, would be impossible, as the cruise boat excursions would have pre-booked all available reserved time slots.
We phoned ahead for Maeshowe and were told slots were still open only in the evening (but we already had plans) and they suddenly determined that there were two slots (presumably relinquished by someone) for 1 PM. That meant we'd miss the daily Ranger-led talk at the Stones of Stenness (another don't-miss sight while you're there), but we went to the Stones on our own and Maeshowe for the required tour.
Many neolithic Orkney sights are 15 minutes or less from each other, and it was good having a rental car, but the roads are narrow (sometimes just a single lane), and Scots drive on the left. There are also tourists in rental cars who aren't used to driving on the left, so beware and pay attention if driving!
Skara Brae was interesting, but, indeed, there was a mass of tour buses when we arrived in the morning. As soon as one busload pulled away, two more buses arrived. An employee said they'd opened early that day, to help accommodate all the cruise ship visitors. Actually, from the tour guides and passengers, it seemed the tour buses were full of German-speaking people, and supposedly the cruise ships were American and would be full of Americans. At any rate, the compact cluster of pit-houses, some outfitted with impressive stone shelving and bed compartments, were a wonder to see. A mob of tour groups, including some people who ignored the signs and chain barricades to stay off the grass (a fragile covering of more Stone Age chanbers) got so bad that we left without seeing every inch of the place. A replica chamber that you can walk inside (watch your head in the passageways!) gives you a feel for the living conditions in the actual chambers. One chamber that used to have a plexiglas cover so you could see inside, has now been covered back up with earth to try and protect it, but you can view a computer virtual tour of it on-site. The remaining chambers are open to the elements, and you can walk to near the edge and peer down inside. A tour bus blocked the parking lot exit when we tried to leave, and we had to wait while people trundled out of it. The bus parking was farther back, but this driver decided to give door-to-door service to his passengers. A Land Rover behind us backed up and exited out the entrance, but wound up stuck waiting behind the bus anyway!
Patience may be required, but Skara Brae waited over 3,000 years for you to get there, so a little more time might not be a big deal. If you're there in July or August, stop at the nearby Ness of Brodgar, an active archeological dig with free presentations.
Scara Brae is very impressive. I see that it is open until 5:30 ,so you might think about going later in the day. I believe that most of the cruises come into Kirkwall in the early AM and cruisers can leave around 8 AM, but must be back by 5PM. So, it would seem that late in the afternoon would be a bit less crowded.
Also, don't miss out on the new Ness of Brogdar. I've been obsessing lately on Orkney, Shetland and other videos and have seem some great one on the new discoveries. This is a great one on the Ness. Then there is the whole Coast series which is a really fascinating mix of history, contemporary Scotland and geology. Here's the one for Cape Wrath to Orkney.
Skara Brae is one of the best places I have ever been. Absolutely fascinating. We took the ferry from Thurso (this was six years ago), and spent four nights on the island - two in Stromness and two in Kirkwall. It was in late September and there were no crowds. I think you need at least two full days to see the major sights. I was glad we had three because one of the days the weather was extremely inhospitable - pouring rain and high winds. Skara Brae was the highlight for us, but we loved everything we saw on the island.
Neolithic Orkney is one of the key archaeological areas in the UK and well worth a visit, not just Skara Brae, Maes Hows and the Tomb of the Eagles. Also it they are in Orkney which is quite unlike the rest of Scotland being Norse rather than Gaelic in cultural origin. You can easily spend several days in Orkney and not regret going. Also, it is simply 'Orkney' or 'Orkney Islands', not 'Orkneys' if you want to blend in!
I was in Orkney two years ago at the end of my Britain trip (first time abroad at age 46!), and it was one of the two highlights of the entire trip (Rievaulx Abbey was the other). We were just completely blown away by everything--the Neolithic sights like Skara Brae, Maeshowe, and the Ring of Brodgar, the Iron Age sights like the Broch of Gurness, the Viking-era sights like the Broch of Birsay and St. Magnus Cathedral, the Renaissance palaces (the two Earl's Palaces and the Bishop's Palace), and the WWII places, especially the Italian Chapel. The shopping was also great, as was seeing the artisans at work.
We were there for three days, and I am anxious to return, this time later in July or maybe in August so I can see the dig underway at the Ness of Brodgar. I am an archaeology fanatic (which is why we went to Orkney to begin with), but I didn't know about the Ness when I was planning our itinerary last time. My niece is studying the subject, so I am thinking she would make an excellent travel partner for my next Scotland trip!
You'll want to get to the Tomb of the Eagles as well next time. And isn't Rivaulx lovely? If you like historical mysteries one of Sharan Newman's novels is set partially at the Abbey. I think it is the second or third one.
I'm so glad for Cyn's mention of the Orkney Show. It's an event my sister and I would love to see, in addition to the usual trip sites, so a summer trip could be planned .. some day, sigh :-)