Skara Brae – the name

Section of the 1880 OS map of Skaill Bay showing the location of 'Skerrabrae'. (National Library of Scotland)
Section of the 1880 OS map of Skaill Bay showing the location of ‘Skerrabrae’. (National Library of Scotland)

The origin of ‘Skerrabrae’

By Sigurd Towrie

The second element of the name Skara Brae is the Scots word brae, meaning slope, but which is often found in Orkney referring to mounds. The first element, however, has long been pondered and remains unclear. But as we have seen, Skara Brae is a relatively recent invention. [1]

The older version, Skerrabrae, suggests the first element may relate to the Old Norse sker, meaning reef, which is found today in the word skerry. It is perhaps no coincidence that a large, rocky skerry lies at the southern end of the Bay of Skaill, a little to the west of Skara Brae.

This possibility is strengthened when we look at the name given by Orcadian George Marwick in the late 1800s.

Recounting a folktale centred on the Bay of Skaill, Marwick explains that “Skerow Brae” was used as a navigation aid by those at sea. [2]

In this form, the presence of -ow suffix could represent the Old Norse haugr, meaning mound and which is often found in placenames as -howe, -how or -ow.

If we follow the sker avenue, Skerow is simply descriptive, meaning skerry mound.

Skara Brae. (Sigurd Towrie)
Skara Brae. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

In a retelling of the same folktale, Marwick give the navigational mound a different name – Skawhowe.

Skaw is generally thought to derive from the Old Norse skagi, meaning headland or promontory, so we have promontory mound. The problem with this is that Skara Brae does not sit on a headland, but beside one.

While Marwick may be referring to a second, different navigation point, this seems unlikely as the instructions given to line up the two points are the same. Instead, I wonder whether there was an error when Marwick’s handwritten article was transcribed for publication in The Orkney Herald in December 1891.


  • [1] Skara Brae is a modern corruption of Skerrabrae or Skerrabra – the names by which the site was known until at least the 1950s. Writing in 1928, the Orcadian scholar Hugh Marwick explained: “An elderly Sandwick man, who has lived in the neighbourhood all his days, informs me that he had always hear it referred to as ‘Styerrabrae’, i.e. Skerrabrae, with the local palatalising of ‘sk’ before a front vowel.”
  • [2] Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.

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