A well-preserved stalled cairn
Knowe of Yarso is a well-preserved example of a Neolithic stalled cairn, dating from around 5,000 years ago.
These cairns are characterised by a rectangular chamber subdivided by pairs of upright slabs into individual stalls, or compartments. Knowe of Yarso is one of at least 15 chambered tombs on the small island of Rousay, of which four are in Historic Scotland’s care. Each seems to have served as a cemetery for a small farming community, and remained in use over hundreds of years.
The central chamber, with its four stalls, is reached from the east along a narrow passage. On either side of the entrance the builders of the cairn laid the masonry in slanting courses, to produce an attractive pattern. Other cairns given a similar treatment include nearby Midhowe Cairn
and Blackhammer Cairn
Neolithic burial practices
In 1934 excavators found the remains of at least 29 individuals in the cairn. The majority of these were in the innermost compartment. The remains of 17 individuals were represented only by skulls, most of which were neatly arranged side by side, facing inwards.
This discovery was found repeated elsewhere, for example at Midhowe (25 individuals). It suggests that Neolithic people believed that the spirit or soul was released when the body had decayed rather than at the actual point of death. Only when the corpse had been reduced to bones could it be rearranged, to make room for new burials.
Along with the human remains were bones from at least 36 red deer. Other Orcadian tombs have yielded large quantities of bones from particular animals – including the 24 dog skulls from Cuween Hill
and, most spectacularly, the countless bones of sea-eagles, including their talons, found at Isbister, ‘Tomb of the Eagles’, on South Ronaldsay (in the care of the Orkney Islands Council). Could these animal remains represent tribal emblems?
- The ‘walk through prehistory’ – along the south shore of Rousay from the ferry pier, via Blackhammer, Taversöe Tuick and Knowe of Yarso, to the magnificent stalled cairn at Midhowe.
Region – Orkney
On the island of Rousay on the B9064, 3m from pier. Reached by Orkney Ferries from Tingwall Terminal.
Grid reference - HY 404 279.
Access to chamber only. Telephone 01856 751 360 for details.