The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian


Chambered Tomb


A long and lovely ride up hill and down dale into the South Parish. Before getting to the branch road there is the one that passes the post office where you need to go for the key to the church (along the road to Burwick) that now holds the Ladykirk Stone (a.k.a. St Magnus Boat) once in another now gone. This stone has two foot hollows. A sandstone block bearing the 'impression' of a right foot alone was found in St Andrew's in the area where you find Mine Howe [Stoney Howe], Round Howe and Long Howe so is likely to have been similarly in (St Ninian's) Chapel.

Going by road it is not difficult to miss the turn-off for the Tomb of The Eagles despite the direction marker. Should have one opposite the junction as well. Once on the right road you then need to make sure to take the correct piece for the Banks Bistro rather than that for Liddel/Liddle and the Isbister tomb. To the right of the final stretch I see a large conical mound, too large to have been missed before now and too clean-cut to be prehistoric (unlike CANMAP on the newer Canmore Mapping they do mark the Banks tomb). On leaving the bus the horizon presented several panoramas; long lines of cliff and Muckle Skerry with its lighthouse. Nearer to my left I saw a section of cliff lit up on the far side of a narrow inlet. At its far end the earth dips down and there is what I take for a mound though my photo only resembles two horns of stripped turf. Further away and near the horizon there is a wall of weather coming in across the waters to my right. The 'Tomb of The Otters' is slap bang by the customer car park. Only now do I find out none of my companions had realised about the tomb being here, they've come for the culinary experience after their walk. My gaffe. The weather arrives light summer rain. Decide it would be a good idea to check whether I can publish photos to the Net. A young lady passes me on to the finder, Hamish Mowatt, who guesses that I am Wideford but has no firm opinion in response to my question.

The mound is said to be low. It actually stands a couple of feet proud of the surrounding land, which is nae bad really. We decide that I shall concentrate on the recently restored chamber that first brought attention to the cairn - you can still see a circle above the top of the rock-cut rear wall where he frst peered in. Last year he found a long heavy slab buried alongside the damaged chamber. All that had been above ground had been a few inches of litch covered corner. On the edge facing into the ground Hamish found a host of markings made in antiquity. An attempt was made to downplay its relationship to the tomb itself - ah, that sacred phrase "in situ" is being applied way too restrictively here, because not only had the stone been buried alongside the disturbed chamber but it also slots into place to complete the capping in the chamber's restoration, not merely somewhere in the vicinity as "not in situ" implies. In April the owner and a Rousay mason affectionately known as Colin 'Bin Laden' followed Orcadian tradition and sensitively restored the damaged chamber. The stones added to complete the passage were keyed into the existing stones at two key points. To roof the chamber they put back the slab hit by the digger and placed the buried stone over the front of the chamber, where the way that it slotted in confirmed the original fit. In between was filled in by a new slab taken from the shore below. Altogether, even using the digger, it took two days to finish the job - from seven in the morning to seven in the evening of the first day and until four in the afternoon of the second day. The final result justifies the decision to ignore the archaeological authorities leave the capstone over the eastern chamber in place, giving the public a proper idea of how the tomb looked - the purpose of a capstone is to stop the whole falling apart. It is interesting to speculate about when the tomb was 'decommissioned' by the removal of that roofing slab, especially in relation to the otter incursions chronology.

The man's a gae good yarn teller, can tell you all kinds of stuff to do with the locality and his experience of the archaeologist in the field. Could have listened to him until the cows came home, as it were. Only the truth of it comes from him, though a visiting archaeological student will give good tours when he comes to work here. Hamish mentioned that he had more marked stones in a shed. Whilst he answered the phone I took my photos of this end of the tomb as agreed - unfortunately my foties of the chamber's actual insides weren't up to snuff, but the important ones were. When I moved away his work on the phone came to a close and he was gracious enough to show me the writings. The shed turned out to be a fair sized new wooden rotunda that acted as his peedie interpretation centre, with info around the walls and a camera feed to the chamber at the other end of the long axis. On a table in the middle are three stones full of promise. One is dominated visually by a single vee of large size and broad lines upside-down at the edge [from a larger slab I would hazard]. Some authority tried to claim that this sign owes its existence to contact with the digger, which is bull (as you can see by comparing its mark on the roofing slab with this, no comparison at all !). Indeed along the left channel you can see the individual tool marks made in gouging the channel in antiquity. Lines criss-cross other two stones, both singletons and simple sets. The next day I visited St Magnus Cathedral and noticed some of the blocks have thin straight lines of crystal inclusion gathered in similar groups, imitation using grooves the sincerest form of flattery possibly. If the vees are seen as chevrons it brings up the thorny question of which came first, scribed stones or decorated pot. Of course this assumes that all the 'inscriptions' are art rather than palaeoepigraphy [pre-writing].One of the stones seems to me to distantly foreshadow the Pictish symbol stone as it is more a geometrical shape than a split slab or found rock.

Next week Alice Roberts will be followed by 360 Production as they continue their behind the scenes look at "Digging for Britain". Perhaps Sigurd Towrie could use the opportunity to bring the story up to date from material gathered since his last report. Hamish Mowatt had been hoping to start up a webpage but a family death and pressure of work have meant that this has had to be put on the backburner, for this year at least. Though not wishing to be involved with material remains such as bones it is possible that he might eventually follow further in the steps of Ronnie Simison (though not alone) if he ends up in the same position - several times in the local papers from 1825 on I have come across reports where the excavator stated his intent to dig the next year or come back for a continuance, and then decades or even a century later still nothing has happened. Of course the modern reasoning is that these sites are being left to posterity and its advances rather than in reality lack of funding or the search for the next big/new site. He has learned about the different factions amongst the archaeologists, and having found that there are still digs in Orkney where finds are collared by those who did not find them now only has faith in ORCA and the County Archaeologist, like Ronnie having been disparaged by some who should know better.
Speaking of which I was surprised to learn that John Hedges is still renting a nearby cottage, over towards Liddle, as he further investigates the prehistoric landscape brought to light by Ronnie Simison. 'Wedgie' would love another major site to crown his life's work, after an hiatus due to debilitating illness, but apart from one eventually disappointing 'settlement' has been unlucky thus far. Apparently the great man has made many reports and such on his work at this time. However I must imagine this has been in the nature of what they call 'grey literature' as apart from a initial outline in "The Orcadian" things have been quiet [one would dread it going the same way as the digs at Skaill in Deerness]. We would love an interim 'work in progress' article in the paper guv.

Came time for lunch. Gourmet meals for £10.95 pretty as a picture and filling too. Half the price for a light meal, say £3.50 to a fiver. Had a toasted sandwich - they also do ordinary ones, paninis and baked tatties. Ignored the lovely sounding home made desserts and plumped for a clotted cream tea for four pounds fifty. Gosh it did me grand.

The Blide Trust were making enquiries about a fishing trip. Then on the skyline Hamish showed me the mounds Ronnie had investigated between here and the Tomb of The Eagles, and described one in particular, inviting me back to the neighbourhood to see more. I had to be virtually dragged away. Ah, if I had money or transport. Closest are four turf-covered mounds that may be natural. Next comes a group of six low stone cairns averaging 28 feet across and two high, with the largest a fraction over half as high again and forty-eight feet in diameter. These are now described as disturbed - in 1973 Ronnie had trenched two and it is easy to imagine him having gone on to the rest next. The NGR is given as ND46128326 but a 1997 survey gives this as ND460432 with additionally a possibly prehistoric mound at ND462833. Ronnie is known two have dug two mounds with drystane wall kerbs and the O.S. thought one might be linked by a causeway to yet another [double BA house ??]. Further along a probable animal pound (a term almost as useless for dating as "enclosure") had been formed by walling off the SW end of a promontory an area some sixty by forty metres, and has another kerbed cairn within (at ND46338323) that he was investigating at the time of the O.S. visit [is that what I saw on first alighting ?? Too big]. Underneath a cairn of more recent vintage grass covers a mound 2' high and about 8m diameter. There ws a double kerb found at the south around a body of stones with some earth, with small horizontal slabs between the twa kerbs - a trench at the SW, then unfinished, found two stones of purpose unknown but larger than the fill. The inner arc seemed to be drystane walling but the outer had been made from larger blocks, both being in courses. If you do go this way to the Tomb of The Eagles don't forget to go back by way of the burnt mound to the Simison's museum and cafe so you can pay the tomb's entrance fee. Fair do's.

Starting for Kirkwall the massively ugly tires at Burwick are offset for me by the sight of the grass dressed iron age fort (though you have to know where it is to see it).

Any errors and omissions are mine
wideford Posted by wideford
1st July 2011ce
Edited 2nd July 2011ce

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