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Knowe of Lairo

Chambered Cairn

<b>Knowe of Lairo</b>Posted by MothImage © Tim Clark
Also known as:
  • Frotoft
  • Hullion

Nearest Town:Kirkwall (18km SSE)
OS Ref (GB):   HY398279 / Sheet: 6
Latitude:59° 8' 1.97" N
Longitude:   3° 3' 7.35" W

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<b>Knowe of Lairo</b>Posted by Moth <b>Knowe of Lairo</b>Posted by Moth <b>Knowe of Lairo</b>Posted by Moth <b>Knowe of Lairo</b>Posted by Moth <b>Knowe of Lairo</b>Posted by Moth <b>Knowe of Lairo</b>Posted by Moth <b>Knowe of Lairo</b>Posted by Moth <b>Knowe of Lairo</b>Posted by Moth <b>Knowe of Lairo</b>Posted by Moth <b>Knowe of Lairo</b>Posted by Moth <b>Knowe of Lairo</b>Posted by Moth <b>Knowe of Lairo</b>Posted by Jane


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Visited 5.6.12

Ever since reading Moth’s exciting field notes I just had to make this tomb a priority visit
All I can say is ‘Wow!’ and echo Moth’s comments – what a fantastic place to visit.

I was a bid worried about finding the tomb or getting access to it but in the end it was all very straight forward.

We parked next to the phone box and I walked up the farm drive while the others stayed in the car. I didn’t want to ‘risk’ taking Dafydd with me on this one. Walk up the drive until you see a gap in the stone wall on your right. All you then need to do is walk a short distance across an overgrown ‘scrubby’ field. Luckily the small stream you have to cross had dried up so that wasn’t a problem. The tomb is not obvious from the road but it is as you get closer.

The entrance to the tomb was clear of vegetation and (fortunately) the mud dried hard.
A large stone is used as the doorway lintel.

I lay on my belly and ‘commando crawled’ my way inside. I was so excited.
I spot some rather unpleasant animal droppings on the floor – I hope no one is at home!
Once you have crawled about 6 metres into the tomb the passage gets a bit higher and you can then waddle into the main chamber.
The ceiling is now a mighty 4 metres above your head.
Like the TARDIS is does indeed seem bigger on the inside.

Notes written from inside the chamber:
I have left the warm Orcadian sunshine behind me and I stand here in the darkness and cool of this scared site. The bright sunshine lures me outside but it is here I want to be.
I shine my light high up onto the roof and along both sides of the narrow passage way.
I have never been into a tomb this shaped before and it reminded me very much of being inside the walls of a Broch.

Two tall upright stones stand approximately 2 metres tall.
I count 5 supporting ‘bracing’ stones used to support the walls – just like a Broch.
Several large stones are used to cap the ceiling

I also count 4 small side chambers / recesses which presumably held the bones?
1 – A small alcove on my left, full of loose masonry
2 – Another small chamber on my left, part blocked with masonry.
3 – Behind me a sealed off chamber with a ‘shelf’ – a small gap allows me to shine my torch into the chamber.
4 – Standing on the chest high ‘shelf’ I look into an alcove on my right.

I decide to turn the light off and sit on the ‘shelf’ in silent contemplation.
You can ‘feel’ the atmosphere of the place and perhaps ever so slightly be in touch with the ancients.

This is a truly wondrous site to visit.
Not only is it so different to any other tomb I have visited it; when crawling up the passage it does feel like you are the first person to discover the site. A real ‘rough and ready’ place.
No easy access or carefully cleaned out chambers here.
No sign posts, information boards or coach loads of visitors.
This is how it must have felt when visiting burial chambers 100 years ago.

It was time to return to the others in the car – I could have stayed a lot longer than I did.
Before I crawled back out along the passage I left a coin ‘offering’ in a gap in the stones.
This is not something that I normally do and I can offer no logical reason why I did other than it ‘felt’ like the right thing to do – make of that what you will.

Of all the very many sites I visited during my stay in the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland this would be in my top 3 - along with watching the sun rise from the Callanish stones and being inside the Dwarfie Stane on Hoy.

In terms of sheer excitement – this is probably the best site I have ever visited.

If you are fairly nimble I would recommend you make this a ‘must see’ site when on Rousay.
(Wear old clothes if it is wet – you are going to get muddy!)
Posted by CARL
11th July 2012ce

Access unless you're fully mobile I'm afraid you're not likely to get much out of this one! We parked by the farm at about HY397280 and walked a few yards uphill along the the lane.

Here the lane bears left away from the cairn, but it's a handy place to cross the stream. Once across the stream, we turned to the right and crossed the rather overgrown fields to where the cairn stands. It's pretty easily visible, so we just followed our noses. Torch ESSENTIAL and 1:25,000 map handy!!!!

Wednesday 23 June 2004
The mound is fairly impressive approaching from the 'back', but having not researched it or read the fear's fieldnote, we didn't know what to expect. Partly because it's fairly overgrown and overlooked, we were very much expecting it to 'just' be a mound, and so it seemed once we arrived.

Having looked around the mound and walked up on top of it Jane decided to head back to the car, rather than to climb the extremely steep and rather craggy escarpment up to where the Knowe of Ramsay appears on the map. I decided to press on and found its remains (lowish mound only remaining).

Having taken a few shots of the Knowe of Ramsay, I considered just walking along the hillside and rejoining the lane back to the car at a higher point than we'd left it, in order to avoid the incredibly steep decent back down towards Lairo and the thrash through the 'overgrowth'.

I decided to go back the way I came, as at least I knew exactly where I was going, and was extremely glad I did. Firstly because the view down onto Lairo and its place in the landscape are worth seeing, but more importantly, because I could see a glimmer of white at ground level between the 'horns' (evident from above) of the cairn's mound.

I descended, still not expecting to be able to get inside the cairn, as I took the whiteness to be perhaps a notice or a barrier of some kind. But at least I'd be able to see where the entrance had been. Once I reached it however, the whiteness proved to be lichen on the lintel of the entrance, reflecting the bright sun!

I set to work ripping away vegetation to reveal a downsloping entrance only around 18" high. The entrance to the passage was a little muddy (no problem) but had a good covering of rubble that looked is if it might've fallen from the passage itself (potential problem!). I decided that as long as I was careful and bore the possibility of instability in mind, I should be OK and that it wouldn't take Jane and the boys long to work out where I was should the worst happen.

Gripping torch between my teeth, I crawled in. The passage is around 15-20ft long and although it is slightly higher than its entrance, it stays pretty damn low! As I reached the inside end of the passage, I sensed more space, though hadn't realised that I'd reached the chamber as it is hardly wider than the passage. But as I shone my torch upwards, my breath was taken away by the height of what was in fact the (very narrow) chamber!!! Stunning!!!

'The fear' is right. It actually seems taller than the mound - a mixture of optical illusion and psychological illusion caused by the narrowness and the surprise! That said, I'd be amazed if it's less than around 18ft from floor to ceiling!

Edit: according to Rodney Casterton in 'The Stonehenge People', it's 4 metres high, but may even appear more due to entasis - that visual effect where the builders use narrowing to distort perspective.

Inside and upright, I found it difficult to work out what was 'going on' in the chamber*. It certainly didn't seem to be a stalled cairn, unless a severely mucked about with or damaged 'double-decker', originally like Taversoe Tuick. But equally, the lack of side chambers seemed to say it wasn't a Maes Howe type either. It also has a number of 'cross-bracing' lintels across the upper part of the chamber to add to the confusion. I wonder whether these are 'original' or a later addition.

Edit: Rodney Casterton (see above) says they are original and similar cross beams may also have figured at Midhowe.

I spent as long as I reasonably could (with the others waiting back at the car) wondering open-mouthed at the place and trying to get decent photos. As I wriggled back out of the tiny entrance I just thanked my lucky stars to have been there and to have 'stumbled across' the entrance in such a fortuitous manner!!!

(Oh, and 'the fear', if you're still around here - you had the right place - the one to the NE is the Knowe of Ramsay and is much less impressive!)

*I've since read that it is in fact a modified tripartite chamber, with the 2 side chambers walled-off. I guess this may also kind of explain the chamber's extreme narrowness. No wonder I couldn't work it out!
Moth Posted by Moth
3rd July 2004ce
Edited 3rd May 2005ce

Unlike the other tombs on Rousay, this isn't in the care of Historic Scotland, so there are no signs, footpaths or easy accesses. This requires determination. To reach it, one must pass through incredibly high, verdant weeds and grasses on uneven ground up a hillside which I found very tough going.

It's very big and long and tall and I couldn't see where the entrance was at all. A little of the rubble of the cairn showed through the grass on the top. But I didn't hang around as the cold beat me. And I now know that I missed out.

Moth continued on poking about, going up to the Knowe of Ramsay further up the hillside from where he spotted the very overgrown entrance to Lairo. He returned to the car 30 mins later lost for superlatives about what he discovered. I'll let him tell the rest...
Jane Posted by Jane
30th June 2004ce
Edited 30th June 2004ce

Don't miss this. In my opinion, the finest cairn I have ever seen. It's a real hidden gem - no guidebook makes anything of it and it's not coloured blue on the OS map like it's neighbours.

Access is difficult - approaching from the small road to the west, there is first an open field, then field boundary that must be crossed. This is most easily achived by balancing on the concrete drinking trough. When I visited, there were tall thistles, grasses, teasels and other such things blocking access.

The mound is very long and impressive, although it does not stand out very much in the landscape. The entrance to the chamber is small, hidden and at the far end of the long mound. The chamber occupies only the extreme end of the mound. The entrance passage is very low and is silted up - be prepared to lie on your chest in the mud and compress your rib cage.

Once inside, your labours will be richly rewarded. The roof is intact, and is finely corbelled. More importantly, it is extremely high. I felt certain that the inside of the chamber was higher than the mound itself. Although the entrance passage does slope downwards slightly, this is a psychological product of the impressive nature of the chamber.


[Note: it is possible I have confused this with its neighbour slightly to the north and east]
Posted by the fear
24th January 2003ce


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From "Wisdom of the Ancients" by Neil Oliver

Rousay locals have mostly never been inside the tombs. They say when you grow up surrounded by them, the tombs are of no more interest that the ruined, abandoned cottages that also dot the fields. I think this is just what they say to strangers. I think it is more likely those folk were raised to respect the tombs, maybe to fear ghosts so kept their distance. As recently as 1911 an Orkney farmer reported how he had been digging into a burial mound on his farm when there appeared beside at his side an old man, grey-bearded, in tattered clothes. He had a warning for the farmer:

“Thou are working thy own ruin, believe me, fellow, for if thou does any more work, thou will regret it when it is too late. Take my word, fellow, stop working in my house, for if thou doesn’t, mark my work fellow, if thou takes another shuleful, mark my word, thy will have six of thy cattle dying in thy corn-yard at one time. And if thou goes on doing any more work, fellow – mark my word, fellow, thou will have six funerals from the house; does thy mark my word: good-day fellow."

According to the tale, the deaths of six cattle duly follow and the funerals of six members of the household.
tjj Posted by tjj
2nd December 2020ce


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The Stone Tapes

Video of a visit to the Knoew of Lairo, showing how the narrow tunnel opens up like the neck of a bottle to reveal the chamber within.
Posted by missinghen
7th October 2009ce

The Stone Pages

Though I think the measurement for the height of the chamber is underestimated, useful info on what is still one of the best megalithic sites on the web! (Thanks peeps!)
Moth Posted by Moth
3rd July 2004ce