Houses of the dead
On the island of Rousay are 15 chambered tombs dating from the Neolithic period, over 4,000 years ago. Four of them, strung out along the island’s south coast, are in Historic Scotland’s care. They are, from east to west, Taversöe Tuick
, Knowe of Yarso
Each of these tombs is fascinating to visit. When excavated in the 1930s, they all contained human remains, mostly disarticulated skeletons. Midhowe and Knowe of Yarso each contained in excess of 20 individuals.
These houses of the dead served as cemeteries for the small communities of farmers working the surrounding land.
An amazing cairn
Midhowe is by far the best of these chambered tombs to visit. Not only is it the longest (at 32.5m it is a third as long again as the next, Blackhammer) but it is also wonderfully presented. A hangar protects it from the elements. Its compartments, or stalls, can be viewed from above by walkways that enable the visitor to see the tomb in all its glory.
The tomb is entered from one end (south). Upright slabs projecting from either side divide the 23m-long, narrow passage into 12 stalls. The stalls are plain at the entrance end, but become more elaborate towards the far end, with low benches built into their right-hand (east) sides. The last stall, at the far north end, is the most elaborate. This stall is paved and further subdivided by low slabs.
A dark sepulchre
When the tomb was excavated in 1932–3, nine corpses were found lying in the stalls. They were crouched on their sides and facing into the central passage, their backs to the wall. Three more skulls had been placed upright on a bench. The remains of at least 15 other people were found scattered about the chamber.
The evidence from Midhowe and elsewhere (for example, Blackhammer) suggests that these chambered tombs were not sealed sepulchres, where the dead could rest in peace, but were visited by the living. The living certainly visited them for a new interment and possibly also during important festivals.
Just imagine what it must have been like creeping along that passage over 4,000 years ago, the light from your firebrand dimly revealing the rows of decomposing corpses and eyeless skulls.
During such occasions the living reordered the bones of their ancestors – but why is a mystery. Perhaps the crouched corpses lying on their sides were the most recent burials, awaiting the time when they too would be dismembered and rearranged. That time never came. At some date unknown to us, the part-filled chambered tomb was deliberately filled with stones to prevent further use.
- The location – close to the shore, overlooking Eynhallow Sound, the culmination of a wonderful walk along the south coast of Rousay.
- The walkways – a great way of viewing the best stalled cairn in Orkney.
- The central passage – imagine what it must have been like to have made that journey over 4,000 years ago.
Region – Orkney
Tel: 01856 841815 (Skara Brae)