For the impatient this site can be visited within minutes of leaving the ferry after arriving on Orkney, which is what I did on my first visit to Mainland, overwhelmed as I was by the excitement of finally being here.
In fact I would recommend coming to Unstan first for two reasons. Firstly it allows a great vista across the Loch of Stenness to take in the heart of the Neolithic Orcadian landscape, Maes Howe, the Stones of Stenness and Brodgar are all visible from here. Secondly it’s worth remembering just how impressive this site is, something which can be overshadowed by the sheer grandeur of its more famous nearby neighbours, or after the megalithic overload of the surfeit of ancient sites on Orkney leads to complacency.
Today I take the opportunity to sit atop the mound and take in the wonderful views while I write my fieldnotes and Ellen sketches. Inside the cairn is a good size and an interesting hybrid of stalled cairn, with a side chamber such as those found in the tombs such as Maes Howe and the Fairy Knowe. Fortunately there are no smelly offerings inside today, but the covering of green algae colonising the stones seems to be getting ever greater. When I first visited in 1999 I remember there being hardly any on the stones, now it’s everywhere. Probably the horrendous excavation methods courtesy of archaeological cowboys Callander & Grant in 1934, which ripped off the original roof before slapping on a concrete dome, is leading to the problem. The concrete impeding ventilation, whilst the skylight in the roof raises the temperature inside enough to increase the interior humidity. I hope Historic Scotland are monitoring things to prevent any permanent damage to the stones.
The bird carving and twig runes are still visible thankfully on the lintel to the side chamber, and despite its increasingly verdant interior, it’s nice to spend sometime inside a light and spacious cairn. I’ve a soft spot for this place, as it always reminds me of my first trip to Orkney, and I think of it whenever I look at my reproduction Unstan ware bowl I bought all those years ago on my first time on the island. Although often overlooked don’t pass it by, you’ll be missing out if you do!
This H.S. site is very easy to access being sign posted off the main road.
As the day wore on I was feeling rougher and rougher but as we were due to catch the night ferry to Shetland I knew this would be my last chance to visit any ‘must see’ sites.
The views from the tomb are good with the Ring of Brodgar, Maes Howe and the Stones of Stenness all visible in the distance.
Dafydd of course was his usual keen self to get inside the tomb and shot off ahead of me.
I dawdled behind as best I could.
As soon as I entered the tomb I could detect a funny smell – I put it down to my imagination.
We first looked at the chambers to the left and then the chambers to the right.
Then I saw it – a putrid, festering fish ‘offering’ left in the last chamber!
Now normally this wouldn’t have bothered me – but not the way I was feeling today.
I scampered back down the entrance as fast as I could and was sick over the fence – not wanting to be sick next to the tomb!
I have seen all sorts of ‘offerings’ over the years – nuts, berries, money, candles etc but never a fish! Did the person who left it not consider the stench it would cause?
Due to this I didn’t spend as much time in the tomb as I would have liked and decided to head for my next site. Dafydd enjoyed telling the story of the fish to his mother!
Interior video of the Unstan Cairn taken on my last day on Orkney mid August 2009 which up for the Ness of Brodgar dig & related sundries.
This was a grand day's culmination walk from the main road to Stenness,Barnhouse, N.o.B., Brodgar to the Ring of Bookan, then back & out to Unstan.
When we reached Unstan the wind was really picking up a pace and standing on top of the mound was a feat in itself but the views back across the loch were stunning.
We dutifully crawled in to the passage and into the chamber, torches lighting the way. After the pomp and ceremony of visiting the "big" sites we had all dreamed of, Unstan was breathtaking and stole the show for me. This is how I like to see archaeology; on my knees with a torch in my hand and a slightly hysterical sensation coursing through my body! We all got a bit giddy again and kept bumping into each other and talking over each other – 9 of us crammed into the central chamber, just awe-struck by it all. The almost luminous green of the algae reminded me of the covered cairns at Cairnpapple. This was definitely my favourite site of the day.
Unstan is a great example of a stalled tomb and is particularly easy to access. No expensive ferry fares to Rousay, no long drive over the Churchill barriers to Isbister, no entry fees or booking required, easy parking, easy to find. But just because it's easy, don't think it'll let you down. It's great.
From the outside, the knowe is tall - about 2.5ms, I guess, and unlike many Orcadian tombs which are built on slopes, stands proud from it's flat base like an upturned pudding basin. It doesn't have a henge like Maeshowe.
A mercifully short stoop through a short passageway takes you into the chamber, which has been re-roofed with a concrete bowl with skylight. I like the way Historic Scotland have done this to many tombs on the islands as you still get a sense of the interior space and those wonderful stalls.
If you're passing, say from Stromness to Kirkwall or Finstown, Unstan is near the road, and has parking.
If you aren't sure about dark dingy tombs, it's neither, the whitewashed modern ceiling and the skylights make it quite dry, and well illuminated. To the point where the stones are a vivid green on a bright day, due to the algae growing on them.
There are many inscriptions, you could lose an hour or so trying to decipher if any are prehistoric. Most seem to be 19thC
All the years that I have been in Orkney of all the major sites to look at I had never been to the Knowe of Onston, despite its lying alongside the main road just short of the Brig o'Waithe.
Somehow it looked insignificant and also I was put off by the thought of crawling through some damp passage. Then I saw a photo of the inside on a website and was surprised by the light and space. So one weekend two weeks later I finally paid homage to the Unstan Tomb, finding it to be just as the photo showed. Such a contrast to the Cuween Hill Cairn: there really was a short crawl, here more a shambling crouch, there the main compartment only fairly visible with a lantern, here apart (alas) for the side-chamber it was as if you were out in the open.
The place is refreshing to look at and in my limited opinion is as good as our stalled cairns get, short of a trip to Rousay. A couple visiting at the time were impressed by the use of red sandstone slabs.
Heading from the great mothership of Maes Howe towards Stromness, take a R (signed) shortly before the junction that leads to Stromness and park at the house. You reach this beautifully formed "mini-maes howe" down a fenced path - it appears to be open round the clock , as we visited late evening. The entrance chamber has been cut away, but inside are the stalls and the gravel covered floor. Much of the walls is incomplete, and there is not the fine stonework seen at "big sister" or at Cuween.
A pretty little page about the Unstan cairn, including background information, a simple plan of the tomb, and links to high resolution photos of the tomb (including one photo of an engraving on the interior which I don't recall seeing when we visited).