Cuween hill is one of the most wonderful chambered tombs on Mainland, like a scaled down version of Maes Howe, without the attendant crowds of that site, and somewhere you can spend time to take in the atmosphere of the place.
Today is a glorious sunny day, with no wind, almost unheard of on Orkney. I take the opportunity of the fine weather and long northern summer days to cycle from the house, out along the Old Finstown road, passing the brooding flanks of Wideford Hill, its chambered cairn hidden from view at this angle, towards the hills surrounding Finstown and my destination. Soon the great bowl of Heddle quarry becomes visible, like a giant bite taken out of the hillside, and in the foreground the green lump of the Fairy Knowe, highlighted by the strange piles of rocks which have been constructed behind it. When I first visited Cuween Hill I got very excited by what looked like a line of standing stones arrayed above the top of the chambered cairn, only to find stacks of stones instead of fine megaliths.
I leave my bike in the small parking area at the foot of the hill, and head up to the tomb, the heat of the sun, and the echoing call of a cuckoo, give the evening a very summer idyll. Clambering over the stile allowing access through the fence which surrounds the tomb I notice the little municipal torch provided outside the entrance is still in situ, but lacking in batteries. No matter, the sun directly over the mound is bright enough to illuminate the entrance passageway, and even provide a dim glow into the interior.
A low shuffle down the entrance passage brings you into a surprisingly tall chamber, the ceiling arching overhead in a wonderful corbelled construction. My eyes adjust to the gloom enough for me to make out the darker squares of the small openings of the side chambers, one on each wall of the tomb. I crouch down and enter the side cell opposite the entrance. Inside this side chamber opens out, a smaller cell partitioned by a low stone step, and now turned away from the main chambers tenebrous interior the blackness ahead of me becomes almost tangible. It’s difficult to know how far this chamber will extend, I reach out gingerly, touching the wall, further away than I thought, and hunker down. Now the sensory deprivation seems total, sounds muffled to an almost inaudible extent, and the darkness enveloping me like a shroud. I relax, the stone beneath me not uncomfortable, and the chamber dry for once due to the lack of rain over the past week. Soon I think I hear the sound of dripping water, although none is there, and small dark shapes seem to flit before my eyes. Oh yes there are fairies here, though not the twee winged creatures of children’s stories, but the needle teethed mischievous peedie trows of the Orcadian landscape. Visions come easily here and as I mediate time seems to take on a fluid nature, and I’m unsure how long I’ve actually been here.
Eventually it’s a cramped feeling in my legs that brings me back to reality, and I uncurl myself and stumble outside into the sunlight. The site of cars on the road below reassure me that I’m still in 2016, and the sun overhead doesn’t even seem to have moved, although a glance at my watch shows I’ve been inside around half an hour.
I sit atop the mound to write my fieldnotes, And gaze down to the Wide Firth below, and try to make out Wideford cairn hunkered into its hill to the east. Whatever our distant ancestors had in mind when designing these tombs we will never know, but what’s clear to me is that they still retain an ability to affect us in the here and now, whether in wonderment at the dry stone construction, or as a place of shamanic journeying, they are still places of inspiration seen through whatever filter we want to put on them. For those venerable people who were buried here along with their dogs, a finer resting place can’t be imagined, and our continued wonderment now is surely a testament to the ancient builders.
Before I set out for home I soak in some more of the evening sun, the cuckoo has stopped now, but it still feels like summer.
A bitter-sweet moment. My last site on Orkney before catching the ferry to Shetland.
We parked in the parking area and Karen and Sophie sat in the car whilst myself and Dafydd heading uphill towards the chambered cairn.
The cairn itself is prominent as a grass covered mound surrounded by heather.
Dafydd ran on ahead as I struggled behind.
I was feeling at my worst and my legs felt they were made of lead after visiting Wideford Hill chambered cairn.
We passed a couple of people coming back from the tomb so when we got there we had the place to ourselves.
It was overcast but dry and we had the added bonus of no wind.
There are splendid views from the cairn.
The crawl into the chamber was helped by the flag stone floor which helped keep mud to a minimum.
As with many sites on Orkney the stone construction of the chamber is first class.
Probably because I wasn’t feeling too good I don’t think I fully appreciated this site.
Only on Orkney can you become almost blasé about such magnificent sites.
This is yet another ‘must see’ site – one of very many on these special islands.
I know for most of us it is a long way to travel but it is most certainly worth the effort.
You couldn’t go anywhere else in the UK to have such a rang of magnificent prehistoric monuments.
On the steep climb to the tomb you are grateful for a few flattish bits but don't pay much attention. Yesterday, however, whilst taking shots from Wideford Hill it was evident that these result from a couple of very large 'platforms' (seen in outline on the north side of the images). First thought was that these are connected with the tomb, which they dwarf almost as much as Heddle Hill. Second thought is cultivation terraces related to the nearby Neolithic settlements.
Prepared to be shot down in flames.
A short but steep-ish walk up the hill and we were there; then there was the obligatory crawl through the passage into PITCH BLACKNESS. We had a couple of torches but there was no real sense of the size of the place until we managed to get all 9 of us in there! There was lots of hilarity as we tried to work out what was there and I used my camera flash to illuminate the whole chamber a couple of times but this felt like the real thing.....discovering little side chambers and squeezing inside with just a pin prick of light from the torch was just incredible. Even better than Unstan which, with its helpful glass skylight at least allows you some perspective, Cuween leaves it up to you to find your bearings and create your own light. All 9 of us trying to talk at once, someone suddenly saying "oooh, there's a wee chamber here, give me some light" and constantly bumping into one another, I am not sure we gave this tomb the respect it deserved but we had a fabulous time and we all agreed that Cuween was the unexpected highlight of the trip. Emerging back out into the most beautiful, bright sunshine with 9 sets of muddy knees and bums, Alan pointed out places where other excavations had taken place and we pin-pointed the cairn on Wideford Hill opposite.
The lantern at Cuween Hill is next to useless, the pinprick of light and its umbra good for picking out points but next to useless here, really need one of those dome lanterns to see much of anything (especially if you wish to take photos, for which it is necessary to know what is in the frame before the flash goes !). And my 1 lux videocamera proved useless too, once inside. Decided to take pics of the ceilings as I figured not many people would have done this. Simple technique, lay the digital camera on its back roughly central and press go. This works well here. (But when I tried it at Wideford Hill's chambers this Sunday I only got half of un in, so credit to whoever shot the 'beehive' chamber there). Bit of a hands and knees job but reasonably dry. Only one I put myself entirely inside for a good look was the double at the back, all the rest I basically laid out flat with arms in front to place the camera. If there had been more light and if I hadn't been alone ... The double was split by two thin slabs across the width, the chamber on the right has a thin slab acoss the end of the the entrance flag marking the chamber itself. You certainly have the feeling that all the cells are by different hands, finally unified by the covering mound. Apart from that at the left (which you can practically walk into therefore) all the chambers' entrances are raised above the floor of the main chamber, though at differing heights. A lost rough sandstone ball came from the s'ern half of the doublet. On this occasion I missed the chamber to the left of the main entrance (It actually showed in a photo, but being uncertain of the batteries I looked at none whilst there). I was looking for four spaces and found four, not thinking one main chamber plus four cells leading off !
Looking along the entrance to the outside it is possible to see Wideford Hill in the distance like the say. But on the diagonal - was this an accident, explaining the slight curve of the passage, or deliberate like the sightlines that 'pass' across the outside of a mound for instance. And rather than looking across to the other chambered cairn did it look down onto the various settlements.
A lot like Maes Howe but smaller, this tomb has the same distinct build of staggered walls. By this I mean that the stones that make up the walls are placed in such a way that makes the tomb taper towards the ceiling. Like a pyramid. Maes Howe uses the same design, so maybe the two are linked in someway?
A torch is left outside for visitors to use. You have to crawl through a 2-3m passage to get in, on hands and knees. This tomb seems to have it's original ceiling of stone and has 4 cells.
Careful when standing on the top of the tomb. Best not to really!!
Excellent view from the opening of the tomb, as it is positioned on Cuween Hill overlooking the Holm of Grimbister next to Finstown. See photo.
Can be reached by car, and then a short walk up the hill to the tomb. Heading towards Kirkwall on the A956 look for the turning towards Grimbister just after Finstown, then watch for the sign.
I went to cuween in may 2000 and was completey blown away. This seems to be the most genuine and untouched of the orkney sites (that isn't to detract from the enourmous awe inspiring nature of the whole orkney landscape).
Whilst in the chamber, I was crawling on my knees, feeling around and my hand came across what felt like small twig wedged between the lower slabs of stone and the floor. Without thought, I picked it up and continued to experience the mood.
Once outside, I looked at the twig and saw that it was a thin small bone with a sharpened end opposite a knuckle end- "probably from somebody's piece of cold chicken" I thought and chucked it away feeling annoyed that someone could have left litter in such an amazing place.
the next day I was in the Skara Brae visitors centre and saw the bone awls found there - thin bones with one sharp end opposite a knuckle end probably used to make holes in hides and leather ................... doh.
Cuween Chambered Cairn (AKA The Fairy Knowe)
Visited Cuween cairn today- a wee climb up a hill to the mound and Historic Scotland sign. There was a wooden box next to the mound- so I had a look inside- lo and behold!- a torch- very thoughtful! The entrance passage was quite small and was a hands and knees job in the mud, but the main chamber is large enough to stand in and has a very impressive roof on it. There are three pitch-black side chambers where the remains of eight humans and 24 dogs were placed. Actually for all the complete darkness of this tomb and it's history it doesn't really freak me out- there's a certain calmness about the place.
PS- I totally agree with a23- this is one of the most atmospheric places on Orkney.
This has to be the most fabulous cairn in Orkney! Yes, it's dwarved by the might and elegance of Maes Howe, but it beats them all on atmosphere for my money.
The tomb is set up a farm track, well signposted, about half a mile out of Finstown (if coming from Brogar). There's a gentle slope to climb, and the monument sits pertly nestling inot the hillside. Historic Scotland provide a torch beside the entry, and the tomb wasn't locked (day or night).
Creeping inside for the first time is a bit of an act of faith...esp if your torch is low on batteries! There is a low, narrow entrance of maybe 5.5 metres, which was wet and made one mess of my jeans. Inside the tomb is beautifully restored and entirely dark - no artificial roof with light panels here. The main chamber is a good height - maybe 61/2 -7 feet and there are 3 chambers opening off. Each of these is also of good height, allowing you to stand erect inside but the entry to each is narrow and not for those of a claustrophobic disposition. The chamber facing the entrance has a double chamber inside.
The construction of the tomb is beautifully done with small flagstones and if you switch your torch off inside you could easily be back the 5000 years to it's building. The symbolic crawling back inside the mother was particularly strong in here - I could have stayed for hours! So good we visited it 3 times over our week on the island. A must!