At present, (July 2013) sections of the tomb are cordoned off with rather ugly safety barriers, and there are notices claiming work to restore and make safe will commence in June 2013(!). While I found the distraction minor, but annoying, others may find that they spoil the experience.
Cost is now £7.00, though I suspect you could get away with just walking up to the sites. However, although before I went I thought the cost seemed steep, you get two useful introductory talks, and the opportunity to handle original artefacts from the excavation, as well as the small museum. Certainly the talk on the burned mound made visiting the site much more interesting.
After a very enjoyable hour or so at Banks Chamber Tomb I was really looking forward to my visit to the famous Tomb of the Eagles.
We parked in the large car park and wandered into the visitor’s centre. There were a few people around but not too many. Karen and Sophie looked around the shop whilst myself and Dafydd paid our money and entered a side room where we were given a talk about the site and what had been found. This is also the room which has the finds in glass cases.
The lady giving the talk took some objects out to show us (including the skulls) and we were allowed to hold a few stone items. There were several of us in the room and the talk was very interesting. I was hoping to be able to hold the famous polished ‘button’ but had to settle for looking at it through glass instead.
We then went into another room where we had an interesting talk on the brunt mound and Bronze Age building also discovered. I will certainly give more thought to burnt mounds in future! All questions asked were well answered and all the staff were very friendly.
We then went outside and it was a little daunting to see the sign which said the tomb was 1 mile away – I knew this meant a part-walk / part-carry with Dafydd! Lucky the weather was nice. Dafydd insisted on wearing his ‘burial chamber’ kit – head light and old clothes.
The rest of the group decided to head straight for the tomb but me and Dafydd instead went to visit the Bronze Age building and Liddlell Burnt Mound. This worked well as we ended up have both sites to ourselves. I was able to appreciate the building / burnt mound a lot more after listening to the talk we had just had.
We then walked out to the main attraction and were glad to see everyone else had moved on. Dafydd excitedly lay on the ‘skateboard’ and pulled himself inside. I excitedly followed!
Inside the chamber was light and airy. We took it in turn to peer/crawl into the side chambers and look at the skulls behind the Perspex. Once we had seen enough we pulled ourselves back out of the tomb and walked back to the visitor centre.
Karen and Sophie were patiently waiting for us and chatting to staff, who kindly provided a box of toys to keep her entertained. We looked around the shop and I bought a guide book although in hindsight I wished I had also bought a sweatshirt.
As we were leaving the lady who gave the first talk called us to one side. She said that she and her staff had been very impressed with Dafydd’s behaviour, knowledge and interest in the site. She asked if Dafydd would like a photo holding ‘Jock Tamson’s’ skull? – of course he did!
We went back into the room and the door was closed. Dafydd was handed the skull and was able to hold it (with support from the lady) whilst Karen took some prized photos. I was really impressed by how friendly the staff were and very proud of Dafydd to be recognised this way.
It goes without saying that this is a ’must see’ site for anyone visiting Orkney (although I thought the guide book was a bit pricy at £5.95)
(Don’t forget to visit the nearby Banks Tomb while you are at it. Both sites are fab!)
Not all authorities believe in Hedge's hornworks, calling the north one only a wall (the south being at most modified natural). Inside the fence the exposed wall [which puts me in mind of the Ness of Brodgar] runs so very straight, smack into the outermost cairn walling. Bronze Age bones were found enclosed in the 'hornwork' wall, and the suggestion is that this is therefore itself of that date. How it looks to me is that the wall once led near to the cairn at an earlier time only to be later blocked off by the present outer cairn walling. Outside the fence the possible continuance of the wall presents more the appearance of curving. And to me there look to be a few taller fallen stones on either side of this section - the remains of a processional way ?
John (Hedges) wondered if any of the various sites Ronnie Simison had noticed had been taken on board. Well, the 1958 newspaper report on the Tomb of the Eagles reports a little disturbed long grass-covered mound (smaller than Isbister) between the tomb and the burnt mound settlement, with a few protruding stones. The tomb les in front of where two fences meet at an angle, and infield of the start of the straight fence leading to these (near where the 1:25.000 shows another North Taing) this can still be seen. It presents as a low pillow shape of earth with a few stones of varying size, cut through in a few places then ending just before the modern fence. It is most striking that a only a few metres to its south is the angled top of a very regular-shaped stone, projecting a couple of feet or so and about six inches thick. My rough measurements give NGRs for the stone at ND46938423 and the eastern end of the mound at ND46958425 [photos http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=20250&mode=&order=0&thold=0]. Is there a relationship with the tomb, as both of these and another 'hump' past the tomb can be seen on the horizon from the burnt mound.
The tomb's north hornwork would appear to continue past the fenced enclosure, and additionally I found a few very small erect slabs barely protruding in the same general area.
Pay at the interpretation centre at (South) Liddel/Liddle - vital talk there included in the price. On the way to the main objective the BA house at the burnt mound is a must see. As you come closer to the tomb (RCAHMS NMRS record no. ND48SE 1 at ND47048849) there is a low bank of earth and exposed stones in a field by the track that may be the reduced remains of a cairn or barrow. It is about a couple of metres across and at least several metres long (though you can see the end), starting by the field boundary and at right angles to the fence. From this direction the Tomb of The Eagles (the White-tailed Sea Eagle, or erne, called aigle) is only another scruffy mound.
Coming closer you see several smallish stones projecting from this side, the full glory appearing as you move around, with a resemblance to Wideford Hill Cairn. Best viewed from just ouside the fencing - look from the coastal (i.e. east) side and south is to your left and north at the right. A little of the area about the entrance has been eroded, from just to the left of the passage to way over to the right, so that we are missing the actual entrance (there is no evidence for it being a connecting passage anyway. From the the north side of the central cairn a 1.5m wide wall, standing to 0.3m, runs NNE from the outer wall-face for at least 12m that is known about (? 'death road'). This feature is later than the cairn but pre-dates the overlying rubble mound. On this side there is strong evidence of a hornwork curving to the NE, on the opposite side an apparently balancing earthwork is canny use of a purely natural formation.
In one place there is a short length of higher standing wall parallel to the NNE running wall behind its western face - part of said hornwork? Climbing on top of this side of the mound there is exposed a long dark stone (or possibly two) that looks to be an E/W course of wall, and looks to be shown on the plan in Davidson and Henshall. Others can describe the interior better than I. The south end side chamber has a display of skulls behind a screen. There is a light switch for this, but you have to keep it pressed in order to even attempt a photo. Davidson & Henshall mentions that quite aways from the cairn a 'storm beach', again to the NE, covers some kind of stone structures.
Surprisingly, it's quite a long drive down to the southern end of South Ronaldsay island, which you can reach from Mainland thanks to the Churchill barriers. But the Tomb of the Eagles is SO well worth it.
The tomb was discovered, excavated and is now run as a family business by Ron Simison, now well into his 70s, who had the vision to understand and realise the potential of the tomb and it's contents as a major tourist attraction. But don't be put off by that. This ain't Disneyland.
Part of the Simison family farm has been converted into a visitor centre with car park, shop and ticket booth (where Ron's daughter-in-law took our entrance fees of 3 quid) and a splendid exhibition area. Ron's granddaughter gave us a lecture on the artifacts found in the tomb and allowed us to handle some of them. She showed us the skulls of people buried there and put the whole of the place into the context of neolithic Orkney. We hadn't even seen the tomb yet and were already having a great time.
Next, donning foul weather gear to face the best of Orcadian summer days, we made our way down the path towards the Bronze Age house and Liddell burnt mound which Ron had also discovered and excavated. To my delight, Ron was there and would be our guide. Softly spoken, witty, knowledgeable and, refreshingly, without a care for diplomacy, he launched into his fascinating spiel. He showed us quern stones and tools he'd found and described everyday Bronze Age practices based on what he'd dug up here. All six of us thought Ron was a wonderful, admirable man. I felt quite starstruck to have met him, actually.
And then on to the main event: a short walk towards the cliffs and the tomb itself!
The tomb, built into the cliff edge like an eyrie, is certainly no more dramatic or unusual in it's construction than other Orcadian tombs, like Wideford or Unstan. What makes this special is the fact that it's so much part of the landscape; no wonder it wasn't identified until Ron stumbled across it.
The entrance is low and long and you get in by lying on an oversized skateboard and hauling yourself along with a conveniently placed rope. Inside the tomb there are stalls and side chambers, a bit like a cross between Blackhammer and Fairy knowe. For striking dramatic effect, one of the side chambers is lit from within and houses a collection of skulls.
All six of us were all very excited about this place. The whole 'Tomb of the Eagles Experience' was thorough, in good taste, personal, meaningful, informative and thought-provoking. Even Cloudhigh and Jamesie, who are not tomb-chasers like the rest of us, thought so. Certainly one of the highlights of Orkney.
We took the cliff top path back to the farm and below us watched fulmars and kittiwakes soaring, gullimots and razorbills diving and seals bobbing around in the sea below us.
One of the best things about this place is the Simpsons obvious enthusiasm for their prehistoric gem. Visitor centres aren't usually particularly inspiring, but the opportunity to talk with the fella who discovered it is a fine thing. The hands on approach makes the experience much more real.
As for the tomb itself, it's canny enough, though the sandbag placed outside to supposedly stop folk from shooting over the cliff if they exit too fast on the skateboard, is more likely to stop them getting minced by the fence.
I found the surroundings are as breathtaking as reported.
Discovered by a farmer (Mr. R Simison) and then leter excavated by students the tomb is managed by the farmer's family with a little help from Scottish heritage. As well as the tomb there is a Stone Age house nearby. Both sites are maintained by the Simisons.
Like the Dwarfie Staine, this tomb's position is full of drama. The tomb sits a top of a cliff face looking out to sea and can be rough if the weather isn't nice. Getting inside is fun. Pull yourself into the tomb on the 'Pensioners Skateboard' just like Indiana Jones. Once inside the fun never ends!! A light switch reveals a set of genuine skulls found in one of the tombs' cells.
Bodies were allegedly left outside for the eagles to de-flesh before the bones were placed inside the tomb. Many eagle talons were found inside the tomb suggesting that the eagle was some kind of totem for the people here. Dog skeletons were found inside Maes Howe and Cuween which has also been sugested as a sign of tribal totem.
When we got back they farmers daughter gave us a talk on both the tomb and the house. We handled various artifacts but no skulls.
She gave refreshing 'common sense' aproach to the archeology of the house and tomb and the lives of the people who built them.
BTW we also learnt here that burnt mounds are nothing mysterious, they're just piles of rubble created by the discarded and cracked stones used for cooking. Behind the house is a burnt mound half excavated, no evil there then.
This site means driving down to South Ronaldsay for at least an hour or so. Take the A961 south of Kirkwall and just keep going. You reach the island by a series of barriers created during the war and there are a couple of skuppered German war ships still poking out of the water. When it seems like your going no where you will see a sign for the tomb.
When you do get there you will be supplied with oilskins if needed (depends on the weather) and then allowed to drive a little way up to the house site. From there you'll take a scenic walk along the cliff face to the tomb.
Field Notes From The Tomb of the Eagles 5th September 2000
We arrived in Orkney on 3rd September 2000 with the idea that we would tour around and had pitched camp initially at the campsite at Stromness which was on the headland overlooking the harbour at this stage we had a vague plan to camp at different places as the week wore on.
Every morning as we paid for another night at the Stromness campsite the woman who ran the site would ask where it was we were off to that day Stennes, Maes Howe etc, until one day we said that we were going to visit The Tomb of the Eagles. This led to the following conversation which if you have seen the Comic Strip’s Five Go Mad in Dorset ran along the lines of the exchange Robbie Coltrane as the old gypsy/ old woman etc warning the Famous Five not to go anywhere Kneecap Hill (a strange place full of mysterious comings and goings etc)
It went something like this
Campsite warden (in mysterious knowing all but giving nothing away Scottish tone)“So your are going to the Tomb of the Eagles are you? Aye that’s a place you will never forget you will still be talking about it many years from now”
Joolio Geordio “ Why what is it like?”
Campsite warden “ I cannot tell you but you will never find me going all of the way out there but it will be an experience that you will never forget aye you and your friend!!”
I have to admit that in the true Scooby Doo tradition that this got the alarm bells going somewhat – what was out there that was so scary?
Julian described the Tomb of the Eagles as an outstanding place a perfect place “Visit the Tomb of the Eagles it’s a killer.”
So with curiosity and trepidation we drove down there past the Churchill Barrier and the hulks of wrecked ships to the Tomb of the Eagles. And what did we find?
Firstly an excellent and informative presentation on the history of the tomb at the museum at Isbister Farm handling some of the relics found there. Then a walk to the Iron Age House where Ronald Simison who had discovered the tomb, again gave an excellent talk on the history of the house.
And then we were off to the Tomb itself the walk to this is worth the admission fee alone, along the coast skirting high cliffs and the weather was perfect “on a clear day you can see forever”
The tomb itself sits not far from the cliff edge facing the sea Julian was right a perfect place. To get into it you have to lie on a wooden trolley (like those used by Charles Bronson in the Great Escape) and pull yourself through the tunnel using the rope.
And what did we find? Come on that would be like giving away the ending to The Mousetrap! If you haven’t been there already then you really need to go. If you have already been then go again.
Incidentally for those of you that are interested the reason for the Campsite Warden’s mysterious warning was that two long lost relatives returning from Australia had tried to enter the tomb and not being as slimline as they once were had become wedged in the tunnel. I take it that this was a hint for me to go on a diet!!
Tomb of the Eagles (AKA Isbister)
Tomb of the Eagles was totally fabby- best £2 I think I have ever spent (well- Kat spent as she paid me in!). I actually got to handle a 5000 year old skull (along with many other archaeological artefacts)in my shaking hands- wowsers! After the 'hands on' museum (which is housed in the conservatory/extension part of the farm house) we went to the next part of the tour which was the burnt mound and here we met the manny who had actually excavated the tomb (along with his dog 'Sky'!). Then to the tomb Émost of the tombs we visited on Orkney (and elsewhere) are crawled into on hands and knees- but not here- oh no- you get down on yer belly on a wee cart-like thing and zoom in on it's shaky wheels! Once inside I had realised I'd gone and forgotten torches etc etc, but luckily there was a guy in there (who was the double of Jarvis Cocker as it happens!) and he gave us a shot of his for a look into the side chambers- of course one of them has a button to press to light it up to revealÉÉ
Possibly the most enjoyable of the Orkney sites. Why? Two reasons. The lady, on whose fathers land the site is on, is a star! When 4 blokes turn up (one in a Man Utd hat - eek) at your doorstep on a rainy April morning, you must have your doubts - none here - we were welcomed like relatives and treated like kings. A good 2 hours spent in her farmhouse-come-museam really gets the message across about how much the Orcadians care about their heritage, and there are some fantastic things to be seen - hold a 5000 year old skull, faaar out (just use both hands!) and fantastic ceremonial artifacts. All very REAL and basically a one off unless you work in a museam! It blew my mind.
Secondly, the place itself - pearched on a cliff at the extream south of the 'mainland' (although on South Ronaldsey - connected by The Churchill Barriers) the tomb is awe inspiring - especially after learning it's history prior to seeing it - and getting in is a blast! Only one factor detracts from the whole experience - nasty covering roof on the tomb - but close your eyes, relax, forget about the concrete and enjoy. Don't forget to press the button..........boo!
Going on past St.Margaret's Hope you almost reach Burwick at the tip before finding the turning for the Tomb of the Eagles on the left . Never been there yet , but it is the place to go for a real sense of ancient family . This is also one of those archaeological sites that we would not have in all their glory if it had not been for the enterprising curiosity of a native Orcadian . Even emergency excavations often owe more to their location skills in the first place than the reports show .
The 1958 newspaper report on the Tomb of the Eagles reports a little disturbed long grass-covered mound (smaller than Isbister) between the tomb and the burnt mound settlement, with a few protruding stones. This can be found where North Taing appears on the O.S. as you are in close sight of the Tomb of The Eagles, inside a field.
It is a low bolster shape of earth with a few stones of varying size, and ends just before the modern fence. It is most striking that a only a few metres to its south is the angled top of a very regular-shaped stone, projecting a couple of feet or so and about six inches thick.
My rough measurements give NGRs for the stone at ND46938423 and the eastern end of the mound at ND46958425.
After the first fortnight of John Hedges recent survey of the area including the Tomb of The Eagles he found many dfferent Bronze Age sites.