Coming up on the road from south to Stem Howe with a low autumn sun delineating the various shapes made by the knowes and picking out features on them. The whole is so much sculpted that it is no longer a moraine, if ever it was. Seem to be various levels too. Thought this to be only the upper part but this is an ilusion of time passing sentence on the steeper bits. Partway up the southern edge where it nears the the road the harsh sunlight brings into relief a low ridge, only a couple of feet across a few inches high, forming an edge to the mound as if to stop visitors falling unawares. This looks to stop just where the most man-alters bit starts. I notice it begins at the top end of a twisted rectangular hollow or depression, which doesn't look to be from antiquarian investigation, though possibly a long scoop.
Archaeologist Tom talking to Mick Aston on the Time Team episode about Mine Howe:
- So what do the local people think of this area then, Tom?
- Well I think it's always been considered as somewhere a bit special, a bit unusual.You've got [Mine Howe] here, this thing with this ditch around it which might pre-date it, you've got a medieval chapel over there, and you've got the burial ground as well and it's still in use. But people used to say that there were always things here, you know there were always stories related to this mound.
- What do you mean, things here?
- Well, they, um... back in the old days people believed in trows, which is the Orkney word for fairies...
- Fairies! (snort)
- Yeah they used to have a few ale houses on the way over to Durness and people used to have to stop and get tanked up before they could go past this place at night...
- Yeah? (incredulously)
- ... because they thought there was trows around.
- Because there were spirits about.
- mm and then when they got to Dingieshowe in Durness they would have to have a few more to go past that as well, because it was also believed to be an abode of trows. And there was actually a story about a fiddler that went into the mound of Dingieshowe and played for a night for a trow, and when he came out he discovered he'd been away for fourteen years! Everything had changed - apart from him, he was exactly the same.
- Is it not more to do with the local whiskey than anything else?
- Erm a bit of that probably as well the home brew, it certainly heightened the attention/tension.
I am posting these field notes more as a warning to stay away rather than to encourage others to visit. The site is easy to find off the A960 and left onto Churchyard Road and park just outside the cemetery. The site has been closed for some time and the field it sits in is fenced off and the field gate double secured with rope and chain.
A quick look in all directions, over the fence, past the rotting visitors reception and discovered I could still gain access to the pit. The burial pit has deteriorated rapidly in the time it has been closed. The steps down into it are steep, wet, slime covered and slippery. The old handrail, you must go down backwards, is only secure for the first few feet, thereafter it has broken away from its mountings and dangles loosely and a fall from here to the bottom will result in certain injury. In my humble opinion the only safe way down is with a rope and someone anchoring it from the top of the pit, and not just because of the unsafe nature of the descent but because pure evil resides in this pit and as you go further into it you can feel yourself being engulfed by it, my torch was struggling to penetrate the blackness and the air thickened to the point I thought gravity had doubled in strength. I touched the bottom and could take no more and headed as quickly to the surface as safety would allow, all the while with a feeling that something was clawing at me trying to pull me back in
I stumbled into the daylight, almost jumped the fence and just drove until I recovered my composure. In my opinion something evil is down their and the cairn is closed for a good reason, I thought it was for safety, however, it is clearly for what resides down there.
The authorities should close this pit off, remove it from maps and records and agree that it is never re opened.
This was beyond doubt the most uncomfortable feeling I have experienced in my life and I never wish to again. I bitterly regret going down by myself and urge others to keep away..
The earlier rain has blown over now, but the brisk wind remains (well what did I expect, this is Orkney!) Now that the sun’s out I decide on a walk to the Long Cairn from the centre of Kirkwall. Taking the East road out of town you’re soon in the countryside, with the town spread out behind you as you head along the coast towards the Head of Work.
Once past the sewage works and a couple of gates negotiated, a vague path follows the shoreline to avoid the soggy moorland which comprises the rest of the headland. The walk grants superb views of the island of Shapinsay, seemingly only a stone’s throw away across the Sound, and allows me to get a good view of the chambered cairn atop Helliar Holm, the uninhabited island which practically connects to the south of Shapinsay, probably as close as I’ll get to it without a boat!
Skuas wheel around me as I walk along the headland and on arriving at the cairn I’m dive bombed by a tern, which obviously must be nesting nearby. The outline of the Long Cairn looks suitably chunky on the O.S map, and it’s just as substantial in real life. The large mound is visible on the headland from some distance as you approach. Some of the cairn stones are still visible amongst the grassy tumulus, particularly atop the mound where a small dip in the top has been accentuated by the piling up of stones around the depression by someone to create a partial windbreak.
I hunker in the dip to write my fieldnotes and marvel at the site. Another fine promontory location for a monument, and looking out to the west the dark heather clad slopes of Wideford hill draw the eye. The Long Cairn seems to be one in a chain of great burial structures, Wideford and Cuween atop the high ground and the Long Cairn sitting at the edge of the land, perhaps once a large landmark cairn on the coast like Midhowe was on Rousay.
The length of the Long Cairn can still be made out, as can the vestigial remains of the horned enclosure at the front of the cairn. I love the solitude here, so near to Kirkwall but seemingly so remote, one of the places I love to walk to in order to escape the hustle and bustle of Kirkwall when a cruise ship is in harbour!
I’m told there are twenty-three standing stones on Orkney Mainland, and being determined to visit them all I turn to Stembister. It’s been on the radar for a while, and inspired by Wideford’s pictures and fieldnotes I’d attempted a visit before, driving up the track off the A960 and getting as far as the entrance to the farm, before finding I’d have to park in the farmer’s yard should I wish to walk onwards to the stone. Not wanting to intrude, and being a somewhat unsociable creature, I decided then against knocking on the door to request access, and turning the car around decided to find a different approach another day.
That was nearly a year ago, but today I’m back and having examined the 1:25,000 scale O.S. map it looks as if it would be possible to walk along the coastline to reach the stone therefore avoiding having to disturb the farmer. Taking advantage of some brief blue skies amidst the recent showery weather, I drive out to the car park at the wonderfully descriptively named beach at Sandi Sands. There are lovely views out here both to the north and south of this thin spit of land, with the large green mound of Dingie’s Howe, itself an ancient Norse ‘thing’ or parliament, built on the remains of a broch site, dominating the approach to the southern shore of the beach.
Climbing up past the Howe, and following the cliff edge I’m buffeted by a brisk wind as I walk along the vague track that runs next to the fenceline. It’s probably not a route for the fainthearted or anyone afraid of heights as it takes you pretty close to the edge, and I found myself having to keep one eye out for my footing, despite the distractions of the plentiful birdlife, and the desire to spot the pod of Orca’s that have been seen around the coasts of Orkney over the past few days. After negotiating the odd gully, and a quick clamber over a piece of fence which extended out to the cliff edge, the stone itself became visible.
Soon I was there, at a typical slab of Orcadian sandstone around 6’ tall, the tip bent at a jaunty angle, and somehow reminding me of the fin of a whale. The ever present tufts of sea moss ubiquitous on Orcadian megaliths tickle my neck as I sit with my back to the stone looking out to sea. It’s a wonderful view, with the island of Copinsay bold on the horizon, the stone wonderfully placed on its promontory, and reminiscent of the stones I’ve seen on South Ronaldsay in size and shape.
As with many other standing stones there is supposedly folklore surrounding giants attached, the oversized inhabitant of Stembister was said to have flung stones as far as Copinsay, presumably the standing stone here was the result of a duff throw, the name of the farm itself also coming from the old Norse, stein-bolstadr, meaning ‘stone-farm’.
As lovely as the view to the south-east is the same can’t be said of the opposite aspect, with the shabby agricultural outbuildings of the farm a glowering presence, and the farmhouse only a few feet from the stone. Such a close proximity does ruin the atmosphere somewhat, but as long as you fix your eyes out to sea you can forget the trappings of modernity and enjoy the stone, which I do until the clouds I can see sweeping along the coast whisk across me to unload some more rain, forcing me to hurriedly make my damp way back to the car.