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Rousay Knowe Howe

23 June 2004
When visiting the Orkneys, one could easily spend the whole time whizzing round the largest island, Mainland, oooing and ahhing at the neolithic treasures there and not get bored. But as we had come so far and had the luxury of a whole week, we couldn't miss the opportunity of visiting an outlying island.

Rousay, inspiringly described as 'The Egypt of the North' in one piece of tourist literature we picked up, was an easy ferry ride away and held much promise, with at least seven corking places to see within the day. We booked ourselves and the car* onto the inter-island, open-decked ferry (which worked out at a tenner each) and crossed the Eynhallow Sound to Rousay, a journey time of about 40 mins.

The ferry requires you to drive on in reverse, down the slipway, up the ramp and park neatly on the deck. Like a 'Real Dad', Moth stretched out his left arm behind the passenger seat and cleanly reversed one-handed to the alloted space. But we were STAGGERED at the inability of at least 50% of the drivers to perform this simple manoeuvre. Like Grumpy Old Men, we concluded that none of these people should have licences. Even the Viking deck operative commented to us how thrilled he was that we found this simple act of reverse parking so easy and shook his head desparingly at the tw*t in the silver Rover 75. But I digress.

As the boat approached Rousay, we spotted the hummocks of the chambered cairns we were about to see rising out of the treeless landscape and got really quite excited.

Turn left when you get off the ferry and a coupla hundred metres along, the first monument you reach is Taversoe Tuick.

Taversoe Tuick — Fieldnotes

My first double-deckered chambered cairn! Topped with a rounded concrete roof with skylight, this tomb is a tardis. You enter via the back into the upper deck, which has 'stalls' in the typically Orcadian fashion. There's hole in the middle with a metal ladder to climb down into lower deck. The lower chamber is as big as the upper with a side chamber, if I remember rightly, and long passageway (the original entrance) facing to the front - and the sea. Because of the slope of the ground, it makes perfect sense that the tomb is split level. What impressed me is the sheer size of the flat stones that make up the floor or the upper deck/ceiling of the lower deck and the perfection of the masonry built round it.

The whole place had the feeling of a ship - tight for space and neat compartments.

I was intrigued by the luminous green powdery lichen growing inside the tomb, which made it look as if alien blood had been spilled. This appears to grow in all of Rousay's tombs.

Outside, at the front, is a metal hatch which protects another chamber, but is outside the main mound.

Taversoe Tuick — Images

<b>Taversoe Tuick</b>Posted by Jane<b>Taversoe Tuick</b>Posted by Jane
Along the road another 1/2 mile or so and you reach Blackhammer.

Blackhammer — Fieldnotes

This one was my first real l-o-n-g stalled cairn. I had already seen Unstan and Taversoe Tuick which are both essentially round cairns with stalls, but Blackhammer was different. Like the others, it has been topped with concrete to protect it but the construction and its length is what wowed me. (I hadn't yet seen Midhowe.) I paced it out at 12 1/2 ms!
Along the road another 1/2 mile or so and you reach the footpath up to Knowe of Yarso.

Knowe of Yarso — Fieldnotes

The sign at the roadside says 1/2 mile to walk. But the walk is up quite a steep hillside, so take your time if you're not a confident walker. I found it a bit slippy. It's a nice walk though, past a load of noisy fulmars nesting on the rocky outcrops on the hillside.

It's always damned windy in Orkney, but the gale on that hillside was vicious and bitingly cold. I was very glad to find this tomb was also concrete covered and sealed with a big metal door, giving both the tomb and me some protection from the wind. I took the opportunity to make a quick sketch of the chamber without my paints flying away. I paced out the length at 14ms.

Each side has evenly spaced stalls of big flat stones. The head stone at the end of the
passageway was bright green with alien blood lichen again.

Knowe of Yarso — Images

<b>Knowe of Yarso</b>Posted by Jane
Along the road another 1/2 mile or so and you reach the lane that gets you tantalisingly close to the Knowe of Lairo.

Knowe of Lairo — Fieldnotes

Unlike the other tombs on Rousay, this isn't in the care of Historic Scotland, so there are no signs, footpaths or easy accesses. This requires determination. To reach it, one must pass through incredibly high, verdant weeds and grasses on uneven ground up a hillside which I found very tough going.

It's very big and long and tall and I couldn't see where the entrance was at all. A little of the rubble of the cairn showed through the grass on the top. But I didn't hang around as the cold beat me. And I now know that I missed out.

Moth continued on poking about, going up to the Knowe of Ramsay further up the hillside from where he spotted the very overgrown entrance to Lairo. He returned to the car 30 mins later lost for superlatives about what he discovered. I'll let him tell the rest...

Knowe of Lairo — Images

<b>Knowe of Lairo</b>Posted by Jane
Enroute to Midhowe a mile and half away, we paused to admire the Southshore standing stone right by the roadside next to a farm building.

Long Stone — Fieldnotes

A large flat block of sandstone 6 or 7 feet tall and 8 inches thick, straight sided and flat topped at a slight angle, this has had a chunk taken out of it, as if some alien rockeater had taken a bite and rejected the rest. It's a nice stone, but pales into insignificance when surrounded by such wonderful cairn building.

Long Stone — Images

<b>Long Stone</b>Posted by Jane
The road continues on towards the north west of island, following the coastline, and rises away from the sea as you approach Midhowe. This gives you a fantastic view of the remains of Midhowe Broch on the sea shore and a large aircraft hangar type building which houses the great tomb of Midhowe. Its a long steep walk down the fields, though, especially when you know you have to get back up... but its worth it because...

Midhowe — Images

<b>Midhowe</b>Posted by Jane

Midhowe — Fieldnotes

30.06.04ce's quite astonishing!
It is a shame it's had to be housed in this way, but to preserve its wonders, definitely worth it. A large stone shed with metal and skylighted roof from which a series of walkways take you over the tomb, which is simply HUGE! A great lozenge shaped heap of stones and rubble, carefully corbelled at an angle on the outside walls, thick rubble and then through the middle a passageway 23ms long, yes - 23 of your earth metres! - with at least 12 pairs of stalls, some with little stone beds. Like all the other tombs on Orkney, the quality of the masonry is precise and in places, painstaking. Each stone marking out a stall is about 5 or 6 feet high and neatly fits into the passage walls.

This is easily one of the finest, grandest pieces of neolithic engineering I've ever seen. Certainly as impressive as Maeshowe. It feels like a temple.

We wondered 'why so big?', 'why here?' and not least 'how on earth...!?' We mused on it's
usage and wondered if as time had gone on, the bones of the dead had been moved over the centuries further down the passageway through successive stalls into the tomb, like a journey, until the bones reach the very end head stone, after which, that person becomes a fully-fledged 'ancestor'.

The 'why here?' question was more easily answered as we looked around for a place to picnic out of the wind by the cliffs. The tomb is built right on the shoreline, next to the flat sandstone rocks which form the water's edge, which chip and flake and can be quarried easily. To build a tomb of that magnitude, it's easier if access to the thousands of tons of building material is near at hand. And so it is. You can almost see where the stones were cut from.

We sat, we picnicked, watched the seabirds and the seals and as I painted, the lads took at look at the ruins of Midhowe Broch, immediately next the to the tomb. Jamesie returned from looking at it saying: 'Pah! It's not old at all, it's only Iron Age!'

How Rousay changes one's sense of time.

*You could 'do' all these sites on Rousay without a car in a day, but you'd have to enjoy walking and do it quite fast.
Jane Posted by Jane
30th June 2004ce
Edited 24th November 2005ce

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