Stone-age Orkney: Fairy Mounds and Maeshowe

Part two in my series on stone-age Orkney is on the neolithic burial chamber of Maeshowe.

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Fairy Mounds feature heavily in the folk lore of Britain and Ireland. The mounds are believed to be the dwelling place of fairies (or faeries), elves or the sidhe. Fairy favour could bring prosperity and happiness but woe betide the miserable mortal who offends a fairy! Just one of the many creative ways fairies chose to wreak revenge was by leaving a changeling in place of a human baby. It’s no wonder that, for fear of angering their supernatural neighbours, Medieval people made offerings and referred to them euphemistically by terms such as ‘the good folk’ or the ‘good neighbours’.

Archaeologists are interested in Fairy Mounds for quite a different reason. When excavated, they usually prove to be interesting sites from the neolithic era. Many of them, like Maeshowe in the Orkney Islands, are burial chambers but any circular building covered with soil and grass could create the appearance of a fairy mound. If the roof has fallen in, the mound will be solid; if the roof remains, then it will be hollow. Superstition aside, there was a practical reason for keeping yourself and your livestock away from a so-called fairy mound – you might fall in!

Maeshowe dates from around 2700 BC and, like the nearby Ring of Brodgar, is listed as a World Heritage site. There are several chambered cairns (man-made piles of rocks) around Orkney – the Tomb of the Eagles is another popular tourist attraction – but Maeshowe is regarded as the most impressive because of the good construction and well-preserved interior. (Actually, the tourist literature describes it as ‘the finest chambered tomb in North-West Europe’ but not having seen the others, I have no clue whether such a boast is justified). It was first excavated in 1861 and taken into state care in 1910. It was built on a platform of flat ground and is surrounded by a moat and a raised bank.

To go inside Maeshowe, you need to buy a ticket from the office across the road (where the car park is). You’ll join a guided tour on a timed entry basis but you can wander across and admire the mound from the outside while you wait. The site is managed by Historic Scotland and at the time of publication, tickets cost £5.60 for an adult, £2.60 for a child aged 5-15 (free for children under five), and £4.20 concession. If you plan to visit other sites around Orkney or Scotland you may save money with an Orkney or Scottish Explorer Pass.

The entrance is through a long, narrow passageway with a low roof but it widens back out so you can stand upright inside the chamber. There is a central chamber with a concrete roof (dating from 1910) and little chambers off to the sides. It seems likely, based on the excavations of similar neolithic burial sites around Britain and Ireland, that these little side chambers once held bones. But for some reason, there were almost no bones found inside Perhaps the ancient people moved them out after a time, or perhaps later visitors did.

Some time in the 12th century, Vikings broken into the tomb and the walls are covered in graffiti written in Nordic runes. Most of it is of the “Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes” variety, and there are also quite a few relating to women and sex. Some were simply boastful, such as: “These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean”. Others talked about the viking’s purpose: “It is surely true what I say than treasure was taken away. Treasure was carried off in three nights before those.” And my personal favourite? “This mound was raised before Ragnarr Lothbrocks her sons were brave smooth-hide men though they were.” Smooth-hide men – I love it!

The episode is actually recorded in chapter 93 of the Orkneyinga Saga:

“On the thirteenth day of Christmas they travelled on foot over to Firth. During a snowstorm they took shelter in Maeshowe and two of them (his men) went insane which slowed them down badly so that by the time they reached Firth it was night time.”

Graffiti inside Maes Howe

We weren’t allowed to take photos inside the chamber, but I found this picture of the runes on Flickr (courtesy of marcus_jb1973 and reproduced under a Creative Commons licence). There are some more photos from inside the tomb on this website (go to the ‘about’ tab).

Although there are other neolithic burial chambers in Europe, Maeshowe has a unique characteristic – the alignment of the entrance gives a particular light effect in midwinter. This is a time of the year when there are just a few hours of daylight in Orkney. In the weeks leading up to the winter solstice, the rays of the setting sun shine directly through the entrance way and illuminate the back wall. We don’t know why since other tombs don’t have this feature but it probably marks the passage of time in some way – especially important in the cold, northern land of Orkney. In a wonderful marriage of ancient and modern technology, you can follow this event from the comfort of your own home via the Maeshowe Web Cam.

Maeshowe
Grid reference – HY 318 127
Near Stenness
West Mainland, Orkney Islands
Scotland, UK

See the position of Maeshowe on Google Maps.

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This is the second of a three-part series on Stone-age Orkney. The final installment, on the neolithic village of Skara Brae, will be published next Wednesday. Please subscribe so you don’t miss out on this or other great posts.

Part one was on the Ring of Brodgar – the best preserved circle of Standing Stones on the Orkney Islands.

You may also like Photo Friday: The Standing Pebbles of Orkney.

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Comments

  1. Fascinating site, Maes Howe. Especially as archaeologists are still in dispute over what it was used for (as you said, the lack of any human remains – and there should be fragments, even after tomb-robbing – is curious if it’s a mortuary monument) and what it looked like. Was it actually a grass-covered mound at its time of use, or exposed? Like most monuments in Orkney, it’s a delicious mystery.

    And it’s a place of profound, safe-feeling darkness, when the lights get switched out. On this topic, I can recommend this essay from Kathleen Jamie, a chapter taken from her book ‘Findings’ and reprinted in The Guardian:

    http://books.guardian.co.uk/lrb/articles/0,,1124890,00.html
    .-= Mikeachim´s last blog ..What Is A Staycation? =-.

    Thanks for the link – I’ll certainly check it out! – Caitlin.

  2. The fairy mound in your picture looks just how I envisioned Bilbo Baggins’ house. Do you think JRR Tolkien might have been influenced by Orkney?

    Good spot! It’s usually thought that Tolkien based The Shire on Oxfordshire where he lived but I think the hobbits’ homes were almost certainly rooted in the mythology of fairy mounds, which were found all over Britain and Ireland. – Caitlin.

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