It might be ‘hello’ to longer and warmer days but it’s not quite ‘goodbye’ to travel restrictions yet, so we’re taking the ‘staycation’ theme to heart and spending time discovering and exploring some of Orkney’s lesser-known locations over the coming months.
Led by local photographer Kendra Towns, we’re starting off by exploring cairns this month – but cairns with a difference. You’re no doubt familiar with the concept of these carefully constructed (man-made rather than naturally occurring) stacks of stone that feature in landscapes across the world. From the ‘inuksuit’ found in the Arctic territories (from Alaska to Greenland) to the ‘ovoo’ found in Mongolia, ancient (and modern) civilisations have built cairns for numerous purposes – as navigational aids and boundary signifiers, as grave markers and as ceremonial sites.
Chambered cairns, however, are underground burial monuments, often part of bigger community complexes. Scotland has more than its fair share of these incredible Neolithic structures and some of the most archaeologically significant are right here, in Orkney. Maesehowe is undoubtedly the most well-known chambered cairn so we’re going off the beaten track to explore three of its neighbours…
Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn
Situated high on a hillside, overlooking the Bay of Firth, it’s certainly a hike to reach the Cuween Cairn but well worth the effort. An exploration of the tomb in 1901 discovered the remains of both humans and dogs, perhaps suggesting the role of a four-legged companion in family or community life. According to Historic Scotland: “Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn illustrates the sophistication of life among Scotland’s earliest agricultural communities. It’s a fine example of Neolithic architectural design, with evidence of complex burial rites.”
Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn
As orkney.com points out: “There aren’t many hills to hike on Orkney’s mainland, but the walk up Wideford Hill from Kirkwall is certainly one of the best.” Like Cuween Cairn, the 5,000 year old Wideford Cairn is a walk and a half to reach but the views across Scapa Flow, the extraordinary Neolithic building work and even evidence of Neolithic ‘scratch art’ are all the reward you’ll need.
Unlike Cuween and Wideford, Unstan Cairn is entered via a modern roof (added in the 1930s!) which orkneyjar.com flags up as “A welcome change for those fed up of scrambling, torch in hand, around the inside of these Neolithic tombs.” Sitting quietly on a grassy promontory, overlooking Stenness Loch, one of the key findings when this cairn was excavated was the discovery of an unusually large quantity of pottery fragments, now known as ‘Unstan Ware’.
Grain Earth House
Although not a ‘chambered cairn’, this curious underground chamber – more commonly known as a ‘souterrain’ – certainly deserves a mention. Discovered in 1827, it was built during the Iron Age and most likely designed as a food store. Unlike Cuween, Wideford and Unstan, the search for the Grain Earth House takes you not on a challenging hike with rewarding views, but to a local industrial site – proving the point, that here in Orkney, archaeology is all around you, you just need to know where to look!