| 2 September 2003
Heritage agency may limit visitor numbers to Skara Brae
Architects and conservationists from Historic Scotland are investigating the impact of visitors on the ancient village of Skara Brae on Orkney (Scotland) following concerns that the monument is suffering serious damage. Visitor numbers may have to be cut if the agency’s fears are confirmed. The chambered burial cairn of Maes Howe is also included in the study, which is expected to take 18 months.
Part of a World Heritage Site and dating back to 3200 BCE, Skara Brae attracts some 55,000 visitors each year. The site comprises 10 stone houses furnished with stone cupboards, beds and seats, and linked by a maze of covered stone passages. The village is serviced by a primitive drainage system, complete with toilets, built more than 3,000 years before the Romans arrived in Britain. Steve Watt, an architect with Historic Scotland, says: “Both Maes Howe and Skara Bra have particular issues we are looking at in depth at the moment. Because people are walking on the wall heads we need to know if that is having an effect.” Cameras will record whether the stones in the walls are moving under visitor pressure.
Other conservation issues will be addressed by the study. The masonry in one of the houses, fitted with a glass roof in the 1930s to protect it from the elements, seems to be deteriorating. The roof was installed shortly after excavation, before the stone walls and furniture had time to weather. Watt says: “We were not sure if the glass was generating a heat build-up and damaging the structure.” Scientific equipment will monitor temperature and humidity to determine the effects of opening and closing the sliding roof. Lasers will measure whether inscriptions are being eroded. Given the village’s coastal location, salt crystals are another suspected cause of damage to the site.
Despite these concerns, Steve Watt says the monument is not in imminent danger of collapse: “Skara Brae could last another 1,000 years, depending on what is done and how it is done.”
(Editor’s comment: During the early Neolithic Orkney was part of an axis of communication which extended from Brittany, through the Irish Sea, to the Hebrides and northern Scotland. Megalithic monuments were well established on Orkney when the peoples of mainland Britain were still building timber henges. And, as reported in Archaeo News on 29 June 2003, a recent archaeological dig has revealed what may be the earliest farm settlement so far discovered in Britain, dating back to at least 4,000 BCE.)
Source: The Scotsman (31 August 2003)
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