The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

The Fairy Knowe

Chambered Cairn


Visited 6th June 2016

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.
Ravenfeather Posted by Ravenfeather
11th June 2016ce
Edited 11th June 2016ce

Comments (2)

Perhaps the definitive field note for an exceptional site... excellent. GLADMAN Posted by GLADMAN
11th June 2016ce
Agreed. Posted by CARL
12th June 2016ce
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