Celia Haddon - Cat Expert

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Ring of Brodgar on the slope of the hill

These are some of the sites I saw when I visited Orkney in 2016. I had been there about 20 years ago but with time only to see these  briefly. This time I went with Orkney Archeology Tours and had a whole week. I can recommend their tour. Early man came to Orkney probably from Doggerland, the land which was slowly covered by the North Sea as sea levels rose. Orkney lies in the Gulf stream and as a result has a warmer climate than might be expected from its position in the north of Scotland. From 4000 to 2000 BC neolithic man built settled villages, dry stone walled tombs, and ceremonial monuments such as stone circles and standing stones. Because the island was not intensively farmed, many of these survive. If you click on the photos, most of them come up larger. (Some don’t. I don’t know why!!).



The Dwarfie stane. HY 243 004

The only Neolithic rock cut tomb in Britain – if it is Neolithic. It is possibly later in the bronze age. There is no way of knowing because the contents of the tomb were thrown out two or three hundred years ago. It is aimg_1613 huge chunk of rock which has fallen from the escarpment behind. A tomb with two chambers has been cut into the rock itself. Outside the rock lies a shaped stone (see right) which originally blocked access. In the sixteenth century, the blocking stone was still in place but 200 years later it had been pulled out. On top of the dwarfie stane is the hole that had been used to push out the stone. This is now covered with cement. There were sea eagles nesting (unsucessfully)  in the escarpment in 2016














Cuween passage grave. HY 364 128

img_1569Excavated in 1901 it contained the bones of at least 18 people and – extraordinarily – those of 24 dogs, cuweendeposited later than the main human burials. A single chamber with a corbelled roof opens into four side chambers, one of them a double. There are the remains of a small neolithic village  below the hill. It is necessary to crawl on hands and knees down the passage. The finely corbelling roofs of the various chambers are topped with stone slabs or in the case of the main chamber with modern concrete.






Gurness Broch and village HY 381 268

Broch with village

Broch with village

The ruined broch (the mound of stones on the left) stands in its normal context, a surrounding iron age village. There is also a later pictish house not photographed here. The broch had been partitioned inside and shored up to prevent collapse. The double ditch and bank surrounding the village seems to peter out and later houses were built over it. The broch also has a relatively extensive earth house (called a fougou in Cornwall or a souterrain in Ireland), the purpose of which is not clear.




Maes Howe chambered tomb. HY 318 127


Maes Howe

A narrow passage leads into a huge square central chamber with an upstanding tapering orthostat at each corner and three chambers leading off it. A long low passage – you have to crouch but not go on hands and knees – leads into the fourth side of the square. Photographing the inside is now banned. The corbelled roof of the main chamber is no longer authentic as it has been strengthened with an arch and cement and painted white. To get an idea of what it would have been like, look at Cuween chambered tomb roof above. There are runic inscriptions made by Vikings. The mound is surrounded by a henge, said to be the third largest in the British Isles but I think it might be the fourth largest if you count Stanton Harcourt (see Oxfordshire page). More interesting than these is the fact that from Maes Howe you can see the Watcher stone and the Stenness stone circle and the Ring of Brodgar circle (just) from across the water (Left to right below, between the electricity poles). Historic Scotland are closing it this autumn temporarily – due to “health and safety” worries about the main road. Or are they just saving a bit of money?



Rennibister earth house.  HY 397 126


The narrow entrance from inside.

These rather strange earth houses (or fogous or souterrains) are found at iron age defensive sites and were originally thought to be places where the population could hide, though very uncomfortably! The other possibility was that they were for storage, though they would have been too damp to store grain. Nowadays the hypothesis is that they have some ritual significance. This particular one had the bones of 18 people deposited in it. The entrance passage is very narrow so visitors get into the main chamber via a hatch and a ladder.




Ring of Brodgar. HY 294 133

img_1640Surrounded by a henge with two entrances cut into the rock, there were once about 60 standing stones here. Now there are 27 of them some about 6ft to 15 ft high. They are set on a slope which looks towards Maes Howe. The bank of the henge can no longer be seen but a large mound, one of many mounds around the circle, has no tomb in it and might just consist of the spoil from the ditch. This is a very busy site and difficult to photograph without a drone!



Skara Brae neolithic village. HY 231 187

A neolithic village, hidden under sand dunes, discovered in 1850 but built before the larger pyramids of Egypt and lived in from about 3100 BC. Built by a loch, the ruins are now by the sea shore. The house layout is similar in most of them – an entrance from a corridor linking the various houses, a central hearth with beds either side, and a “dresser” with a mantlepiece and a storage area behind.The biggest house, House no 1, should have a storage area behind the “dresser” but this was eroded by the sea and the”window” at the right of the dresser has been wrongly rebuilt. House no 9 was built in the first phase. House no 8 had no beds but tools and pottery suggesting some kind of working room. Worth reading this on Orkney domestic architecture.



Stennes stones. HY 306125

img_1624The visible bank of the henge round this stone circle has been made by archeologists. There is one entrance and it is thought that originally there were 12 standing stones. The local farm tenant Captain MacKay broke up one of the stones and pulled down a second before being stopped by the local sheriff on Christmas day 1814. A later excavation in the 1970s found animal bones of sheep, cattle and dog were found in the ditch. There is a hearth in the centre. Within the circle is a fake sacrificial stone, set up originally like a dolmen, to please Sir Walter Scott, and carefully aligned to Maes Howe! There are two outliers – the Watch Stone, the remaining one of a pair, and the Barnhouse stone. A local stone with a hole, the Odin stone, was broken up by Captain MacKay.





Blackhammer Tomb HY 414 276

BlackhammerA stalled cairn of the Cromarty type without side chambers but with uprights along the chamber sometimes with shelf stones between on which are depositied bones. The wall intruding into the tomb near the entrance is that of a later house built into the tomb. Excavated in the 1930s and roofed over in concrete.





Midhowe Tomb HY 372 304

Central passage with stalls

A straight central passage has upright slabs at an angle, usually described as a stalled cairn, or a cairn of the Cromarty type. (It put me in mind somewhat of the gallery graves found in the Channel Islands). No side chambers. It was originally thought that the bones inside had been defleshed. Lately it is thought that this may not be so. The cairn is huge with two retainng walls to keep the stones from slipping off. To give an idea of the work involved: modern stone walls need a ton of stone for each yard. There would have been a corbelled ceiling. This is the second largest tomb in Rousay. It was covered over and donated to the nation by Walter Grant. The outside walls of the tomb were slanted dry stone walling in a herringbone pattern. Two horns were built outward from the long side furthest from the sea perhaps to enhance visibility from the hillside  – normal horns of a cairn are at the entrance.






Taverstoe Tuick. HY 425 276

Taversoe TuickA very rare double storey cairn set on a slope. The bottom chamber was dug into the slope, on which the tomb was built. Below the top one, and the floor of the top tomb is the roof of the bottom one, but with no communicating passage between the two. The top tomb has traditional rounded chambers for remains. It was built after and on top of the lower tomb. Today a ladder takes visitors to the lower chamber which has four compartments, two separated with tall uprights and benches, like a stalled cairn. It entrance passage, pictured below, is much longer than that of the top chamber. About 20 or so feet away is a small chamber dug in the ground – too small for a modern human to enter. There were no human remains in it, just some pottery bowls so it may not have been a tomb but instead had some ceremonial purpose.



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