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1 December 2021

New digital model of Skara Brae

3D scan shows how HES is investigating climate change impacts at the World Heritage site in Orkney.

a 3D model detailing the layout of Skara Brae shown from above, with small interlinked drystone rooms

It may be older than Stonehenge and even the Pyramids at Giza, but Historic Environment Scotland (HES) is bringing over 5,000 years of history at Skara Brae in Orkney into the 21st century with a new digital 3D model of the site.

The model, available to view on Sketchfab, allows virtual visitors an immersive digital experience of the Neolithic settlement, including the unique opportunity to gain virtual access to House 7, the best-preserved house at Skara Brae which is not normally accessible to the public.

The 3D model has been created through a process of laser scanning, using ultra-fast, high-resolution laser scanners which capture 3D spatial data in the form of a point cloud. To capture a photorealistic model, hundreds of overlapping images of the site are then combined with the 3D data, in a technique known as photogrammetry.

As well as offering a unique perspective on the iconic site, the digital model also allows users to explore how climate change and its impacts have shaped Skara Brae - from its discovery just over 170 years ago as the result of a severe winter storm, to the threat of coastal erosion from rising sea levels and increasingly frequent extreme weather events the site is experiencing today. Users can also see how HES and its predecessors have responded to those challenges, by exploring the sea wall which was constructed in the 1920s to protect the site from wave and storm damage and which has been extended and repaired numerous times over the decades.

The 3D technology used to create the model also has an important role to play in protecting the site for the future. Since 2010, Skara Brae and the surrounding bay have been laser scanned every two years by HES to monitor coastal change at the site. The data from this scanning is then used to inform management and maintenance of the site, and is shared with Scotland’s national coastal mapping project, Dynamic Coast.

a 3D image of the inside of one of the houses at Skara Brae, with drystone walls and shelves and beds made of stone slabs

The new 3D model allows visitors to explore inside House 7 at Skara Brae. The house is sealed off and closed to the public, but the 3D scan allows people to explore the room virtually, including 5,000-year-old patterns on the side of a bed.

Al Rawlinson, Head of Digital Innovation and Learning at HES, said:

“We’re really pleased to make this 3D model of Skara Brae available, which not only offers an innovative way to access this unique site, but one which also showcases how we are using cutting-edge technology to monitor and maintain our historic environment.

“As we reflect on COP26 and the challenges ahead, we want to demonstrate that in order to protect our past from the impacts of climate change, we must look to the future.

Digital technology such as this will be a vital tool to help us better understand and manage the climate risks to our historic places, and to share their climate stories.”

Dr Alistair Rennie, Dynamic Coast Project Manager, said:

“Whilst the challenge posed by climate change is stark, new technologies like those deployed by HES, increase our ability to monitor, learn, collaborate and find new approaches to become sea-level wise and adapt to our future climate.”

The model was created using laser scan data captured as part of the Rae project, which aims to accurately digitally document over 300 heritage sites and their collections in the care of HES.

About Year of Coasts and Waters 2021

The Year of Coasts and Waters (#YCW2021), led by VisitScotland, will be showcased throughout 2021. Activities and ideas will shine a spotlight on the impact our waters have had on Scotland, from the formation of beautiful natural features to the creation of our national drink - whisky.

About Historic Environment Scotland (HES) 

  • We are the lead public body charged with caring for, protecting and promoting the historic environment. We will lead on delivering Scotland’s first strategy for the historic environment, Our Place in Time.
  • Historic Scotland, Scran, Canmore, The National Collection of Aerial Photography (NCAP), The Engine Shed, Stirling Castle and Edinburgh Castle are sub-brands of HES.
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For further information, please contact:

Claire Mullaney
Historic Environment Scotland Media Office
Mobile: 07221 959 962