There are some places that you want to visit for so long that getting there becomes akin to a pilgrimage. Holm of Papay was one of those sites that took on an almost mythic quality for me. I’d figured that out of everywhere in Mr Cope’s big orange book, this would be one of the most difficult places to get to. I spend a lot of time on Orkney, but even from there it seems impossibly remote, and from the mainland a trip involves a jaunt on a number of ever smaller boat trips, like a matryoshka of ferries.
But today the stars are aligned, and we are standing under glorious sunshine outside the Co-op on Papay, looking down to sea, the holm dominating our view, with the distinctive green lump of the cairn unmistakable due to the curious chimney like structure poking out of the top.
Inside the Co-op a handy poster advertises trips to the Holm with a contact number to call, and an enquiry with the lady at the shop (whilst perusing the rather good selection of single malts) suggests that I first contact the Papay Ranger to see if anything can be arranged and she gives me his number. Outside I can just about get a mobile phone signal and eagerly enquire as to when it would be possible to get over to the Holm, ‘Well’, comes the reply, ‘I’m not sure whether anyone is heading over there today, and I’m not around this afternoon otherwise I’d take you over’, instantly my heart sank, with the reality that perhaps I should actually have tried to arrange things before coming over to Papay and expecting to automatically get a boat to the Holm, the luxury of being able to regularly hop onto ferries to pop over to the other islands having blinded me to this fact. ‘Leave it with me’, says the friendly neighbourhood Ranger, and I’ll phone Tim the boatman and see if he’s about’.
So with some hope restored we walk down to the shore, just to be tantalised further by the cairn smugly filling our view, across an achingly narrow gap of water. I’ve been in this position before, when we visited Shetland we tried to get across to Mousa broch, but the weather was so windy during our stay (what a surprise!) that all boats were cancelled, and we had to content ourselves with staring wistfully at the nearby object our quest. Today the sun sparkles off the sea and there is so little wind that for Orkney it may as well be dead calm, and to be prevented from a visit by my own lack of forethought would be the final irony. We daren’t wander too far away, as the vagaries of the phone reception means that the signal bars on my phone are flashing on and off like a strobe light. We decide to head back up to the Co-op, feeling a bit in limbo, but at least there we know we can receive calls.
It isn’t too long before the Ranger calls back, to tell me that Tim is going over to the Holm later to shear some sheep, so to head down to the pier at the allotted time and we could come along.
We have a wander around Papay for a couple of hours while we wait for our trip before making our way to the pier. Moored at the end is a small boat, The Dunter, looking like a mini landing craft, with around eight seats and a small ramp at the front, and soon a lady accompanied by a sheep dog turns up and introduces herself as Tim’s partner, and we chat amiably for a few minutes until Tim turns up accompanied by his son and daughter, also here to help with the shearing.
We clamber down some very sleep and slippery steps at the end of the jetty, and step into the boat, doing our best not to plunge into the water, and then donning life jackets we set off! The crossing is a short but exciting one, the small size of the boat makes you feel very close to the water, as small waves slap against the bow spraying us all with salt water, and Tangle the sheepdog stands at the prow like a figurehead. We pass close to seals hauled out on the skerries, who regard us curiously, and Tim slows the boat to give us a better look, also pointing out gannets, terns and eider ducks as we pass them.
Nearing the beach the chambered tomb looms ahead of us, looking longer than anything else I’ve seen on Orkney (save for Midhowe, concealed within its shed), and as the boat grounds on the sand and the front ramp is lowered we step gingerly through the brine onto the island.
At first it’s hard to believe I’m actually here. Tim and family head off to a ruined shieling along the coast, and we are left alone, with just the sea birds wheeling overhead. Trekking up the short distance to the tomb we get fine views out to sea, the water deep ultramarine around us, and Papay and Westray both visible behind . The original low entrance on the east side of the tomb is now blocked to access, instead relying on ingress through a ladder from the roof. Atop the mound I’m surprised to see the brick ‘chimney’ structure, so visible on the tombs profile, is actually just a plinth for an information board! It strikes me as somewhat bizarre that wasn’t placed at ground level set back form the tomb itself, rather than going for the silhouette of a submarine look, but I suppose the roof isn’t original anyway so it doesn’t really matter.
Hauling open the hatch I’m into the tomb like a rat down a drainpipe, and in the cool dim interior I drink it all in. It’s lot lighter than I was expecting, several skylights providing a good level of illumination, but just in case, tucked onto a ledge, is the good old municipal torch, so beloved of sites in Orkney. Also though just like the vast majority of such civically provided accessories the batteries have run out. I ponder on whose job it would be to change them, and whether there is a position vacant within Orkney Islands Council for a Chambered Tomb Torch Maintenance Operator (if so can I put in my application now please). Rather more helpfully there are also several rolled up sleeping mats, not for those who fancy overnighting in the tomb, but to lay on the gravelly floor in order to enable you to crawl into the very low side cells within suffering multiple puncture wounds.
The plastic sheeting mentioned in the Fear’s fieldnotes is nowhere to be seen, but it’s still a little damp in here, and once again I’m disappointed to see that a build-up of green algal growth is starting to accumulate on the stones, a sight seen across all of the concrete topped chambered tombs in Orkney. It’s doubly tragic here, where it makes the unique carvings found within the tomb all that much harder to make out, and I wish the roof had been re-constructed in dry stone instead. I’m not too disheartened though for this place is still amazing!
There are seemingly endless chambers to explore, and with my phone’s flashlight in hand I inch into the low openings to several of them on my back, the mats definitely proving their worth. As I shine the light around inside the dark side cells, scanning for carvings, shadows fleeing across the walls, all of my Indiana Jones fantasies come to life and I’m elated. Scurrying from one chamber to another (there are 12 to choose from) I try to pick out any patterns or carvings amid the slimy green film covering the walls. It’s then I find it, the unmistakable ‘eyebrows’, along with some cup-marks on a lintel of one of the side chambers. There are also hatched, vaguely diamond shaped scratches into the stone, visually reminiscent of some of the carved stones recovered from the Links of Noltland that we saw in the visitors centre on Westray a few days ago.
We end up spending some considerable time in the tomb, its light and roomy interior making it a pleasant place to spend a while (if you’re into ancient burial sites that is), but with always half an eye on the clock, we know there is still a plane to catch back to Kirkwall later, and we will need to go and find Tim to interrupt him from his shearing before he can take us back, so regretfully it soon becomes time to leave.
I hope to try and catch a glimpse of the remains of other two chambered tombs as we walk across the island, but the large cleft of a geo cutting across our path on the way to forces us to backtrack and there’s just not time.
Before long we’re climbing back aboard The Dunter, on our way back to Papay. The trip to the Holm has cost £25 each, the flights from Kirkwall another £35, but the experience is priceless.
I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who gets a thrill out of these ancient places, and more than likely you’ll have the island to yourself! My one tip would be to plan the trip way in advance though. Luckily everything fell into place for us, and although the whims of the Orkney weather are not something you can plan on you can at least check things out with the Papay Ranger (he’s on Facebook) or phone 01857 644224, you won't regret it!
This site is well worth the extreme difficulty of reaching it (three ferrys and an open boat with an outboard motor mimimum). Ferry 1: to mainland Orkney, Ferry 2: Kirkwall - Westray, Ferry 3: Westray - Papa Westray, Small Boat: Papa Westray (Papay) - Holm of Papay. Enquire at the Youth Hostel/Co-op for boat trip (a few pounds).
Site is very visable from Papa Westray - looks like a submarine due to upstanding concrete entrance through roof. Roof has been restored with concrete and glass bricks. Muddy floor is covered in plastic sheets, which is useful but ugly.
Worth visiting for the sheer number of antechambers (14 or so from memory). "Eyebrow carvings" are less impressive in reality than in photos.
There is also another, round chambered cairn at the north of the Holm, which is less well preserved (ground plan only) but easily found, and worth visiting.
Incidently, there is a natural rock bridge in the cliffs on the south end of the holm.
This passage taken from Amy Liptrot’s book The Outrun – is an account of her trip to the Holm of Papay with the farmer who is delivering a ram over to his sheep on the Holm. Amy herself was spending winter on Papay.
“There are no signs that the Holm has ever been inhabited yet it is where the ancient people brought their dead. There are three chambered tombs, the biggest of which, the South Cairn, well excavated and maintained, is now looked after by Historic Scotland. Due to its inaccessibility, it is Historic Scotland’s least visited site.
I see the cairn every day from Rose cottage and it is strange now to be standing on top of it, the low sun casting my shadow over the island. I lift a metal hatch and descend a ladder into the mound. I use the torch left for visitors to crawl through the long passageway and look into the ten small cells or enclosures leading off. There are carvings of what look like eyebrows on the stone similar to the ‘eyes’ of the Westray Wife.
A friend tells me that the cairn is - like the tomb of Maeshowe on the Orkney Mainland - aligned with the midwinter sun. At Maeshowe, on the solstice and a few days on either side, on the rare cloudless days at that time of year, the setting sun will shine directly down the entrance corridor. Webcams are set up there and one midwinter afternoon I watch over the internet as the golden light hits the end wall.
I had a reckless idea to get farmer Neil or fisherman Douglas to take me out to the Holm one day around midwinter and leave me overnight - for both sunset and sunrise - so I could investigate and find out if there is any sun alignment. I thought I was brave and had no superstitions to stop me spending a night in the tomb but now, after just a few minutes down there, I want to get out: it is cold, damp, dark and scary. There is no way I’m going to spend a night there.”