Maeshowe Timeline

Maeshowe Timeline

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  • c. 3300 BCE - 2600 BCE

    Neolithic site of Barnhouse Settlement occupied.

  • c. 3300 BCE - 2600 BCE

    The Barnhouse Settlement constructed and inhabited.

  • 2600 BCE

    Structure Eight (so called) erected at Barnhouse Settlement after village abandoned.

  • 2600 BCE

    Barnhouse Settlement abandoned and partially destroyed by inhabitants.

  • 2600 BCE

    The building now known as Structure Eight raised in Barnhouse Settlement after village is abandoned.

Scandinavian Scotland

Scandinavian Scotland refers to the period from the 8th to the 15th centuries during which Vikings and Norse settlers, mainly Norwegians and to a lesser extent other Scandinavians, and their descendants colonised parts of what is now the periphery of modern Scotland. Viking influence in the area commenced in the late 8th century, and hostility between the Scandinavian Earls of Orkney and the emerging thalassocracy of the Kingdom of the Isles, the rulers of Ireland, Dál Riata and Alba, and intervention by the crown of Norway were recurring themes.

Scandinavian-held territories included the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland, the Hebrides, the islands of the Firth of Clyde and associated mainland territories including Caithness and Sutherland. The historical record from Scottish sources is weak, with the Irish annals and the later Norse sagas, of which the Orkneyinga Saga is the principal source of information, sometimes contradictory although modern archaeology is beginning to provide a broader picture of life during this period.

There are various competing theories that have addressed the early colonisation process, although it is clear that the Northern Isles were the first to be conquered by Vikings and the last to be relinquished by the Norwegian crown. Thorfinn Sigurdsson's rule in the 11th century included expansion well into north mainland Scotland and this may have been the zenith of Scandinavian influence. The obliteration of pre-Norse names in the Hebrides and Northern Isles, and their replacement with Norse ones was almost total although the emergence of alliances with the native Gaelic speakers produced a powerful Norse-Gael culture that had wide influence in Argyll, Galloway and beyond.

Scottish influence increased from the 13th century on. In 1231, an unbroken line of Norse earls of Orkney ended and the title was since held by Scottish nobles. An ill-fated expedition by Haakon Haakonarson later in that century led to the relinquishing of the islands of the west to the Scottish Crown and in the mid-15th century Orkney and Shetland were also transferred to Scottish rule. The negative view of Viking activities held in popular imagination notwithstanding, [1] Norse expansion may have been a factor in the emergence of the Gaelic kingdom of Alba, the forerunner of modern Scotland, and the trading, political, cultural and religious achievements of the later periods of Norse rule were significant.


To date, no traces have been found in Scotland of either a Neanderthal or a homo sapiens presence during the Pleistocene interglacials. The first indications of human presence date from a period after the ice retreated in the 11th millennium BC and the current Flandrian interglacial began. (Since that time, the landscape of Orkney has been altered by both human and natural forces.) [5] Back then, sea levels were lower than they are today because of the large volume of ice that remained. As a result, what is today the island of Great Britain was attached to Continental Europe. It is therefore possible that the Orkney islands were also attached to the mainland. Much of the North Sea basin was dry land until after 4000 BC, which would have made travel to northern Scotland relatively easy for early human settlers. The subsequent rise in sea levels coupled with the isostatic rise of land makes estimating post-glacial coastlines a complex task. [6] [7] [8] [9]

The very limited archaeological record of this period provides scant evidence of Mesolithic life - in Orkney in particular and in Scotland north of Inverness in general. "Lithic scatter" sites at Seatter, South Ettit, Wideford Hill, Valdigar and Loch of Stenness have produced small polished stone tools and chippings. A charred hazelnut shell, recovered during the excavations at Longhowe in Tankerness in 2007, has been dated to 6820-6660 BC. [10] However, there is no evidence to suggest whether or not these sites were in year-round occupation and no Mesolithic burial sites have been uncovered anywhere in Scotland to date. [11] [12] [13]

A recently excavated site on Stronsay has produced a thousand pieces of flint and what may be evidence of a temporary camp. With a tentative dating of 7000 BC or older it may prove to be the oldest settlement site found so far on Orkney. [14]

About 6000 BC the Storegga Slides of the coast of Norway created a tsunami that reached 25 metres (82 ft) above normal high tides in places. Evidence of widespread coastal inundations from a wave 8 metres (26 ft) high has been found as far south as Fife and the impact on shore-dwelling mesolithic societies in Orkney would have been considerable. [15] [16] [17]

The assemblage of monumental Neolithic structures in Orkney is without parallel in the United Kingdom and on the Orkney Mainland provides an entire landscape of features from this period. During this time, complex new societies came to the fore that were a radical departure from the earlier hunter-gatherers and which were capable of creating substantial structures. The Neolithic in Scotland lasted from approximately 4000 to 2200 BC and Orkney as a whole has nearly 3,000 identified Neolithic sites all told. British archaeologists have often interpreted this era as having two distinct phases the Earlier Neolithic dominated by regional styles of pottery and architecture followed by a relatively abrupt change into the Later Neolithic characterised by new traditions found throughout the British Isles that incorporate structures on a grander scale. In the Orcadian context, there are definite developments during the Neolithic, but the changes are gradual and tend to build on earlier ideas rather than appearing to form two distinct periods. [18] [19] [20]

The great Orcadian Neolithic monuments were constructed almost a millennium before the sarsen stones of Stonehenge were erected. [21] At one time it was believed that this flowering of culture was essentially peripheral and that its origins were to be found to the south on mainland Great Britain. However, recently discovered evidence shows that Orkney was the starting place for much of the megalithic culture, including styles of architecture and pottery, that developed much later in the southern British Isles. [22]

Early dwellings and chambered cairns Edit

Knap of Howar Neolithic farmstead is probably the oldest preserved house in northern Europe. Situated on the island of Papa Westray (which may have been combined with nearby Westray in the early Neolithic), the farmstead consists of two adjacent rounded rectangular thick-walled buildings with low doorways linked by a passageway. This structure was inhabited for 900 years from 3700 BC but was evidently built on the site of an even older settlement. Unstan ware pottery pieces were found on the site, which was only discovered in the 1920s when this part of the coastline was exposed by gales and tides. [23] [24] [25]

The Barnhouse Settlement is a cluster of at least fifteen buildings, including one that may have been used for communal gatherings, occupied between 3200-2950 BC. The design of the houses, which were built above ground level, includes a central hearth, recessed box beds and stone dressers. There is a network of stone drains leading to a common ditch. [26] [27] [28] Pottery of the grooved ware type, flints and stone tools have been found, as well as three flakes of pitchstone thought to have come from the Isle of Arran. [29]

Skara Brae consists of ten clustered houses and is northern Europe's most complete Neolithic village. Occupied between 3100–2500 BC the houses are similar to those at Barnhouse, but they are linked by common passages and were built into a large midden containing ash, bones, shells, stone and organic waste. Only the roofs, which were probably supported by timber or whalebone, would have been visible from the outside. In each case the stone dressers were erected so that they dominated the view on entering the house through the low doors and there are elaborate carvings of unknown meaning on some of the stones in the houses and passages. A variety of bone beads, pins and pendants and four carved stone balls were also discovered at the site, which was only revealed after a storm in the winter of 1850 ripped away the grass from a covering sand dune. The existing ruins mostly belong to a secondary phase of building with the foundations of the first phase largely hidden from view. [30] [31]

There are two main types of chambered cairn on these islands: the Orkney/Cromarty type with a burial chamber approached through a low passage and usually divided into "stalls" by upright stone slabs, and the Maeshowe type (see below), which is a later development with a cruciform layout and an elongated passage. [32] [33]

The island of Rousay has a substantial number of prehistoric sites (see also below), including fifteen of such tombs, resulting it becoming known as the "Egypt of the north". [34] Midhowe Chambered Cairn on the western shore of the island is the finest example. The exterior walls of this large stone burial mound survive to well over head-height and the constituent stones are arranged in a herring bone pattern. The original interior chambers were simple in style and dived into two or three stalls, but were later enlarged to include twelve separate compartments set along a 23 metres (75 ft) passageway. [35] There are other substantial tombs at Blackhammer, Taversoe Tuick, and Yarso. [34] [36] [37] Enlargement and elaboration of burial cairns as the Neolithic progressed is a theme found throughout Scotland, and the move from simple and private tombs to larger structures, some with entrances apparently designed for public gatherings may also be linked to the emergence of landscape-scale ceremonial complexes. [38] Other chambered tombs of significance include those at Unstan and Bookan on the Mainland and Holm of Papa Westray. [39] [40]

Links of Noltland, a site on the north coast of the island of Westray has been excavated since the 1980s. In 2009 a lozenge-shaped figurine was discovered, which may have been carved 2500-3000 BC and is believed to be the earliest representation of a human face ever found in Scotland. The face has two dots for eyes, heavy brows and an oblong nose and a pattern of hatches on the body could represent clothing. Archaeologist Richard Strachan described it as a find of "astonishing rarity". [41]

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney Edit

Skara Brae, Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness together form the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site in the western part of the Orkney Mainland and which was inscribed in 1999. [42] This small area has provided a rich archaeological heritage in a location that is relatively remote from both the main centres of population in Scotland and from more densely populated parts of Europe. However, it would be a mistake to imagine that because Orkney is so placed today that this was always so. There is a substantial amount of evidence that suggests that a variety of the smaller islands in the British Isles developed an advanced society in the Neolithic that took several centuries longer to develop on the mainland of Great Britain. [43] It is also clear that whilst the flow of ideas and technologies in Britain has often been from the south to the north, that at this time, it is evident that Orkney played a significant role in the development of British Neolithic culture.

There is also the possibility that tribal differences were part of the Neolithic cultural landscape. Unstan Ware pottery is associated with small settlements like Knap of Howar, and stalled tombs such as Midhowe. Grooved Ware pottery on the other hand tends to be associated with larger 'village' settlements like Skara Brae and Barnhouse, and with Maes Howe style tombs. [44]

Maeshowe Edit

Dating from about 3000 BC, Maeshowe is a large chambered cairn and passage grave. "Howe" as an element in a name, from the Old Norse word haugr meaning mound or barrow, is common throughout Orkney. [45] The grass mound hides a complex of passages and chambers built of carefully crafted slabs of sandstone that in scale and accomplishment has few equals in prehistoric Europe. It is aligned so that the rear wall of its central chamber, a rough cube of 4.5 cubic metres (5.9 cu yd) is illuminated on the winter solstice. It gives its name to the Maeshowe type of chambered cairns, (see above) that include other significant sites such as Cuween Hill, Quanterness and Wideford Hill, and at Quoyness on Sanday. [40] [46] [47] [48]

After it fell into disuse during the Bronze Age, Maeshowe was re-opened and used centuries later by Vikings from about the 9th to the 12th centuries AD. The Norsemen left a series of runic inscriptions on the stone walls of the chamber, some of which were left by a group of crusaders in the winter of 1153–54. Over thirty individual inscriptions remain, one of the largest such collections in Europe. [49] [50]

Ring of Brodgar Edit

The Ring of Brodgar is a henge and stone circle 104 metres (341 ft) in diameter, originally made of 60 stones (of which only 27 remain standing) set within a circular ditch up to 3 metres (9.8 ft) deep and 10 metres (33 ft) wide. Some of the remaining stones are 4.5 metres (15 ft) high and it has been estimated that the ditch alone took 80,000 man-hours to construct. The ring stands on a small isthmus between the Lochs of Stenness and Harray and it is generally thought to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC. [51] [52] [53]

Ness of Brodgar Edit

Excavations by Orkney College at the nearby Ness of Brodgar site between the Ring and the Stones of Stenness revealed several buildings, both ritual and domestic and the works suggest there were likely to be more in the vicinity. One structure appears to be 20 metres (66 ft) long by 11 metres (36 ft) wide. Pottery, bones, stone tools and polished stone mace heads were discovered. [54] [55] Perhaps the most important find was the remains of a large stone wall which may have been 100 metres (330 ft) long and 4 metres (13 ft) or more wide. It appears to traverse the entire peninsula the site is on and may have been a symbolic barrier between the ritual landscape of the Ring and the mundane world around it. [56] [57]

In 2010 a rock coloured red, orange and yellow was unearthed. Although containers of pigments have been found previously at sites such as Skara Brae, this was the first discovery in Britain, and possibly in Northern Europe, of evidence that Neolithic peoples used paint to decorate their buildings. [58] [59] It is thought that the primitive paint could have been made from iron ore, mixed with animal fat, milk or eggs. [60] Only a week later a stone with a zigzag chevron pattern painted with a red pigment was discovered nearby. [61]

More recent excavations have revealed a large temple complex on the site without parallel in western Europe, with more than a dozen large temples that were linked to outhouses and kitchens by carefully constructed stone pavements. [62] The site is now considered to be of such significance that Nick Card, director of excavations, was prompted to say in 2012: "We need to turn the map of Britain upside down when we consider the Neolithic and shrug off our south-centric attitudes. London may be the cultural hub of Britain today, but 5,000 years ago, Orkney was the centre for innovation for the British isles. Ideas spread from this place. The first grooved pottery, which is so distinctive of the era, was made here, for example, and the first henges – stone rings with ditches round them – were erected on Orkney. Then the ideas spread to the rest of the Neolithic Britain. This was the font for new thinking at the time." [62]

In 2020, researchers found evidence of 5,000-year-old fabric by examining markings on pottery from Ness of Brodgar in Orkney. However, Neolithic woven textile was first discovered in Scotland at Flint Howe, near Stranraer, in 1966. [63]

Stones of Stenness Edit

The Stones of Stenness are five remaining megaliths of a henge, the largest of which is 6 metres (20 ft) high. The site is thought to date from 3100 BC, one of the earliest dates for a henge anywhere in Britain. [64] [65] [66] The Stones are part of a landscape that evidently had considerable ritual significance for the "Grooved ware people". The Ring of Brodgar lies about 1.2 kilometres (0.75 mi) to the north-west, and Maeshowe is a similar distance to the east. Barnhouse is only 150 metres (490 ft) to the north. [29]

The existing megaliths were originally part of an elliptical shaped stone circle of 12 stones, about 32 metres (105 ft) in diameter surrounded by a ditch that was 2 metres (6.6 ft) wide and 7 metres (23 ft) deep and with a single entrance causeway on the north side that faces towards the Barnhouse Settlement. The Watch Stone stands outside the circle to the north-west and is 5.6 metres (18 ft) high. Other smaller stones include a square stone like a huge hearth setting in the centre of the circle and this along with the bones of cattle, sheep, wolves and dogs found in the ditch suggest ritual sacrifice and feasting. [66]

Even in the 18th century the site was still associated with traditions and rituals, by then relating to Norse gods. The "Odin Stone" was pierced with a circular hole, and was used by local couples for plighting engagements by holding hands through the gap. [67] In the early 19th century a local landowner and recent immigrant to Orkney decided to remove the Stones on the grounds that local people were trespassing and disturbing his land in using the stones. He started in December 1814 by smashing the Odin Stone. This caused outrage and he was stopped after destroying one other stone and toppling another. The toppled stone was re-erected in 1906 along with some inaccurate reconstruction inside the circle. [64] [68]

Other Late Neolithic sites Edit

The Isbister Chambered Cairn, popularly known as the "Tomb of the Eagles" is located on the cliffs of South Ronaldsay. This chambered tomb was in use for 800 years or more from 3150 BC, and has five separate stalls and three side-chambers. 16,000 human bones were found during the excavations, as well as 725 bird bones, predominantly white-tailed sea eagle and over 25 kilograms (55 lb) of pottery shards. [69] [70] [71]

The Dwarfie Stane tomb on the island of Hoy is made from a single huge block of red sandstone with a hollowed-out central chamber. This style is quite unlike any other Neolithic Orkney site and probably dates from about 2500 BC. It was the first Orcadian ancient monument to be described in writing, appearing in the 16th century Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum by Joannem Ben who provided the explanation for its existence as having been built and used by giants. [72] [73]

The Bronze Age in Scotland lasted from approximately 2200 BC to 800 BC and northern Scotland has produced a relative dearth of remains from this period in comparison to the Neolithic and later Iron Age. This may in part be due to deteriorating weather conditions in the second millennium BC. [74] [75] In Orkney, fewer large stone structures were built during this period, burials were now being made in small cists well away from the great megalithic sites and a new Beaker culture began to dominate. Nonetheless the great ceremonial circles continued in use [76] as bronze metalworking was slowly introduced to Scotland from Europe over a lengthy period. [77] [78] There is agreement amongst historians that from about 1000 BC it is legitimate to talk of a Celtic culture in Scotland, [79] although the nature of the Orcadian Celtic civilisation and their relationships to their neighbours remains largely unknown.

In addition to various Mainland sites such as Knowes of Trotty, Kirbuster Hill and the impressive Plumcake Mound near the Ring of Brodgar there are various Bronze Age structures on other islands such as Tofts Ness on Sanday, Warness on Eday, the remains of two houses on Holm of Faray, and a burnt mound and farmstead on Auskerry. [80] [81]

Early Iron Age Edit

The Iron Age provides numerous substantial building remains. In the 1970s excavations at Quanterness, near the site of the Neolithic chambered tomb, revealed an Atlantic roundhouse. This was built about 700 BC using stone stripped from the older building that had fallen into disuse some two millennia previously.

Numerous similar finds have been made at for example, Bu on the Mainland and Pierowall Quarry on Westray. These are also many impressive broch sites. These are substantial stone towers that developed out of the roundhouse tradition in north and west Scotland, whose dry-stone walls may have reached 13 metres (43 ft) in height. Although Orkney has no broch towers where the surviving walls are more than a few metres high, several important sites have been excavated which have numerous associated buildings forming a "broch village". [82]

Midhowe Broch lies close to the chambered cairn of the same name on Rousay. There appear to have been at least two separate periods of occupation and at some point buttresses were added to the exterior of the wall, suggesting the structure was in need of support. It is one of 11 broch sites on either side of the Eynhallow Sound. [83] [84] Burroughston Broch on the island of Shapinsay was built in the second half of the first millennium BC and excavated in the mid 19th century. Its earth cladding is intact, allowing visitors to peer down into the broch from above. The walls are up to 4 metres (13 ft) thick in places and there is a complete chamber off the entrance passage. The remains of stone furniture are evident in the interior. [85] [86] [87]

Mine Howe, located near Tankerness in the parish of St Andrews, is a prehistoric subterranean man-made chamber dug 7 metres (23 ft) deep inside a large mound. Its purpose is not obvious. The walls are lined with stones fitted to form an arch over the cavity and steep steps lead to a rock floor. The entrance is at the top of the small hill and there is a surrounding ditch and evidence of sophisticated metal working around the site. [88] The Rennibister Earth House is a souterrain consisting of an oval chamber with a corbelled roof supported by pillars. Although these structures are usually associated with the storage of food this site is reminiscent of the Neolithic chambered tombs and excavations revealed 18 human skeletons. [89]

Wheelhouses are stone buildings from the later Iron Age whose characteristic features include an outer wall within which a circle of stone piers (bearing a resemblance to the spokes of a wheel) form the basis for lintel arches supporting corbelled roofing with a hearth at the hub. [90] Eight presumed sites have been identified in Orkney although the style is different from those of Shetland and the Western Isles. The Orkney sites are four on Sanday, one on Calf of Eday, one at Hillock of Burroughston on Shapinsay and two on the Mainland at Burrian Broch and Broch of Gurness. [91] [92]

The influence of Rome Edit

For a brief period Orkney emerged from prehistory and into protohistory. The Greek explorer Pytheas visited Britain sometime between 322 and 285 BC and may have circumnavigated the mainland. In his On the Ocean he refers to the most northerly point as Orcas, conceivably a reference to Orkney. [93]

Remarkably, the earliest written record of a formal connection between Rome and Scotland is the attendance of the "King of Orkney" who was one of eleven British kings who submitted to the Emperor Claudius at Colchester in AD 43 following the invasion of southern Britain three months earlier. [94] The long distances and short period of time involved strongly suggest a prior connection between Rome and Orkney, although no evidence of this has been found and the contrast with later Caledonian resistance to Rome is striking. [95] Pomponius Mela, the Roman geographer, recorded in his De Chorographia, written c. 43 AD, that there were thirty Orkney islands. [96] There is certainly evidence of an Orcadian connection with Rome prior to AD 60 from pottery found at the Broch of Gurness and 1st and 2nd century Roman coins have been found at Lingro broch. [97] [98]

The Roman presence in Scotland was however little more than a series of relatively brief interludes of partial military occupation. [99] As Roman influence waned in Scotland from 211 onwards, [100] Orkney faded from history again and the Celtic Iron Age way of life continued, largely unchanged. [101]

Pictish rule Edit

In the centuries following Rome's excursions into Scottish territory Orkney was, at least for a time, part of the Pictish kingdom. Very little is known about the Pictish Orcadians, the main archaeological relics being symbol stones. One of the best examples is located on the Brough of Birsay it shows 3 warriors with spears and sword scabbards combined with traditional Pictish symbols. [102] [103] This small tidal island has a long history of settlement that continued into the Norse period.

Adomnan, the biographer of St Columba, states that there were Orcadians at the court of the Pictish High King, Bridei, in AD 565. [103] These Orcadians were described as "hostages" which could imply difficult relations between Orkney and the king, although they may have simply been guests at the court. [104] A Pictish cemetery was found in the grounds of Skaill House (adjacent to Skara Brae) in 1996. [105]

Christianity probably arrived in Orkney in the 6th century and organised church authority emerged in the 8th century. The Buckquoy spindle-whorl found at a Pictish site on Birsay is an Ogham–inscribed artefact whose interpretation has caused controversy although it is now generally considered to be of both Irish and Christian origin. Evidence associated with the St Boniface Church on Papa Westray suggests this island had been the seat of the Christian bishopric of Orkney in Pictish times. [106] [107] The 8th century was also the time the Viking invasions of the Scottish seaboard commenced and with them came the arrival of a new culture and language for the Orkney islands. The Norse era has provided a variety of written records, the substantial Orkneyinga Saga amongst them and at this point the archipelago fully emerges into the historic era. [108]

Around the Ness: Maeshowe – part two

Based on shared architectural elements, Maeshowe has given its name to a specific class of chambered cairn.

Characterised by side cells branching off from a central chamber accessed by a long, low passage, the Maeshowe-type cairns have been linked to relationships further afield, specifically Ireland. Irish passage grave architecture, it is suggested, was just one element copied by “ambitious and widely travelled” Orcadian groups looking to “enhance their power by appropriating an exotic tradition” [1].

But despite the similarities, Maeshowe has distinct differences and, it could be argued, may have had a different role. As we have seen, it contained little, if any, human remains and it has been argued that access to its interior was never intended. Maeshowe perhaps represented something else entirely. Does this anomalous nature hint that it was later in the history of chambered cairns?

An earlier building

Maeshowe was built on an artificial platform fashioned by depositing huge quantities of clay on a natural knoll to create a level surface. In 1991, excavation outside the entrance revealed a stone drain beneath the clay platform. Soil analysis suggested occupation deposits, so the drain was interpreted as the remnants of an earlier Neolithic house [2]. This building, it was suggested, had been demolished and the area covered with clay to allow the construction of Maeshowe – on the same alignment as its predecessor.

To the excavators, the location chosen for Maeshowe was clearly influenced by the earlier building: “…it can be confidently suggested that the place selected for the construction of [Maeshowe] was already occupied by some form of structure…” [2]

“Whatever the role of the structure beneath Maeshowe, it was deemed appropriate to act as the place for the construction of the massive passage grave.” [2]

Because we have no dating evidence for Maeshowe, how its suggested predecessor fits into the timeline of Neolithic Orkney remains unknown. But as we will see below, the construction of a Maeshowe-type cairn on top of earlier buildings has been encountered elsewhere.

Standing stone

The position of the standing stone socket to the rear of Maeshowe (Challands et al. 2005)

The 1991 investigations also revealed a large standing stone socket hole on the platform to the rear of Maeshowe. Based on its depth, the megalith it once contained was bigger and taller than those found at the nearby Stones of Stenness [2]. It had been carefully removed in antiquity but on the available evidence we do not know when. Nor do we know how it related to Maeshowe.

A very similar situation was encountered at Howe, Stromness, about three miles to the south-west of Maeshowe.

The position of the stone socket at Howe, Stromness. (Ballin-Smith. 1994)

There, excavation between 1978 and 1982 showed that an equally large standing stone stood beside a Neolithic structure that was replaced by a building interpreted as a stalled cairn [3]. This interpretation is problematic, however, considering the presence of a hearth – a feature highly unlikely to be found within a funerary structure. Instead, architectural parallels between Structure Twenty-Seven at the Ness of Brodgar and the Howe “stalled cairn” suggests it served a different, and as yet unclear, role.

Whatever this role was, the Howe structure was very carefully dismantled and covered in a thick layer of clay. On top of this a Maeshowe-type passage grave was built, on the same alignment as its predecessor.

“From the quality of the masonry that survived it is clear that this tomb would have been one of the finest Orkney Neolithic tombs yet discovered, possibly the equal of Maeshowe in its quality and constructional details.” [3]

Although smaller than Maeshowe, the passage grave was stylistically so similar that the excavators considered it “probable that same builders were involved.” [3]

How the standing stone related to the Maeshowe-type cairn at Howe is not clear.

All that can really be said is that it was removed at some point before the Early Iron Age re-occupation and remodelling of the site. The excavators thought it may have been removed prior to the construction of the Howe cairn and ditch. The fact the stone socket cut the surrounding ditch, however, has been taken as evidence the Maeshowe-type structure and the megalith were contemporary [2].

Plan of the Maeshowe-type passage grave encountered at Howe. (Ballin-Smith 1994)

Back at Maeshowe, in 1991, the orientation of the stone socket suggested it may have been part of a stone circle. Unfortunately, there was no conclusive evidence for other stone sockets [2]. If the standing stone was earlier than Maeshowe and part of a stone circle, it may be that more sockets lie beneath the clay platform on which the passage grave was built.

Were the megaliths incorporated into Maeshowe once part of this ring of stones? Until proof is found – which is unlikely given Maeshowe’s protected status – the existence of an earlier stone circle must remain hypothetical.

The dark of winter

Maeshowe in winter. (Sigurd Towrie)

“Surely there could be no darker place in the be-wintered world than the interior of Maeshowe. One of the light rays is caught in this stone web of death. Through the long corridor it has found its way it splashes the far wall of the chamber. The illumination lasts a few minutes, then is quenched.”

Maeshowe entrance passage from the interior. (Sigurd Towrie)

With its south-westerly facing entrance, Maeshowe’s best known attribute is its orientation towards the setting sun around midwinter. But although the idea of the last rays of the winter solstice setting sun piercing the darkness of the cairn’s interior conjures suitably dramatic imagery the actual situation is much more complex.

As archaeoastronomer Clive Ruggles pointed out: “[A]lthough it has been stated a number of times that the setting sun’s rays around the midwinter solstice illuminate, or at least once illuminated, the rear wall of the central chamber, the mean axis of the inner part of the passage (azimuth 221°) was more in line with sunsets some three weeks earlier or later.” [4]

Although this seems pretty clear cut, note that the orientation refers specifically to the inner passage. And therein lies the problem. Much of what has been written about Maeshowe and the winter solstice relates to the current configuration of the entrance and outer passage.

Not only was the outer arrangement reconstructed at some point after the excavation but details of the original layout are lacking. Not only was it probably ruinous but further damaged by Farrer’s operation to clear it out.

Maeshowe from the rear. (Sigurd Towrie)

As Petrie pointed out in 1861, the outer passage appeared to have originally 71cm (28in) high [5] – lower than the intact inner section. Although unroofed when excavated, if the outer section was originally covered then this would dramatically impact the sunlight entering the chamber [6].

There is, however, no reliable evidence that the outer passage was covered.The situation is not helped by inconsistencies in the early accounts and plans. As mentioned previously, in his 1861 letter to the local newspaper, Petrie said “the covering stones had been removed for about 22½ feet” [5]. A very brief report to the Archaeological Journal, also written in July 1861, states: “the covering stones for about 15ft were wanting” [7]. Knowing Petrie’s work elsewhere, I find it hard to believe he would not have spotted and recorded collapsed roof material.

It has been suggested that the outer section “may have been in the form of an open trench” leading to the actual entrance – much as the reconsolidated entrance appears today [6]. It is interesting to note that the excavators of the Maeshowe-inspired passage grave at Howe suggested a forecourt enhanced the grandeur of that construction [3].

If it was the blocking stone that marked the original entrance to Maeshowe, via the megalith-lined inner passage, and was used to seal the chamber, it did not completely block the passage. The top is lower than the passage roof so, when in place, left a distinct gap. It is often suggested this gap acted as a “lightbox”, similar to the one found in Newgrange, Ireland. However, once again, given the uncertainty surrounding the original entrance, this function cannot be verified.

Because the form of Maeshowe’s outer passage is not clear, we cannot say how the midwinter sunsets affected Maeshowe and how, if at all, they were experienced in the central chamber. But whether the sunlight penetrated the depths of the chamber or the setting sun was framed by the entrance, the time around the winter solstice was clearly significant.

It may be then, as now, it marked the passing of time – the death of the old year and the birth of the new one. In the dark depths of an Orkney winter today, the solstice remains a welcome indicator that the sun is returning.

To the people of Neolithic Orkney the return of the sun heralded a resurgence of light and the return of life to the land – just as it still does.

Although in Orkney the worst of winter often follows the solstice, it remains a comforting thought to know the days are lengthening again.

3. Oswald of Northumbria

Oswald was a Christian King of Northumbria during the 7th century. After his brother Eanfrith was killed by the Celtic ruler Cadwallon ap Cadfan, Oswald attacked Cadwallon at Heavenfield.

Oswald is recorded having a vision of Saint Columba before the battle. As a result, his council agreed to be baptised and accepted Christianity. As the enemy approached Oswald even set up a cross and prayed, encouraging his small force to do the same.

They killed Cadwallon and defeated his much larger host. Oswald’s success as a Christian king led to his veneration as a saint throughout the Middle Ages.

Oswald of Northumbria. Image credit: Wolfgang Sauber / Commons.


It all started with James VII, as we called him in Scotland or James II as he was known in England, the last Roman Catholic monarch to reign over the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. Invaded by his Protestant son-in-law and subsequently overthrown, James was forced into exile in France.

From 1689- 1690 Viscount Dundee, James' most zealous Scottish supporter, rallied troops and turned to military action against William and Mary's government forces. The first Jacobite rising broke out but didn't prove popular at all.

In 1707, the two kingdoms of Scotland and England were united much to the dismay of those who supported the Jacobite cause. James VIII/III attempted to claim the throne twice, in 1708 and in 1715, which resulted in a rising led by the Earl of Mar. In 1719, the Jacobites found an ally in Spain and this rebellion was led by Lord Tullibardine and Earl Marischal.

After failing to persuade the French government to commit to another invasion, Prince Charles, the 'Young Pretender', decided to fund his own rising. He sailed from France to Scotland, arriving on Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides in July 1745 and then travelled across the Highlands, to assemble a Jacobite army. This venture ended in the Battle of Culloden in 1745 whereby the Scottish army was defeated in what is probably the worst event to have ever overtaken Scotland.

Human Burial Chamber and Artwork: Million Years Of ‘Culture’

I was delighted to find the Hougue Bie burial chamber on what is now called ‘Jersey’. It reminded me of the Maeshowe one on what is now called ‘Orkney’ in what is now called ‘Scotland’ that I’d seen on television. Maeshowe is another fine example of early greenYgrey architecture:

Reading about it again on the orkneyjar website I saw that it is different to Hougue Bie in that its alignment is for the midwinter sunrise to reach its back wall, similar to Newgrange in what is now known as ‘Ireland’, with Hougue Bie said to be structured for the equinoxes.

British and European Burial Chambers and Artwork

Britain’s stone circles and burial chambers date from about 6,000 years ago before the great pyramids of Egypt, and thousands of years before ‘monotheism’ emerged in the Middle-East, and God and Devil, Heaven and Hell, took the place of reverence for nature and the cosmos.

Although that seems a long time ago, it is quite ‘recent’ compared to artwork, with cave paintings in modern Europe dated to 30,000 – 32,000 years ago.

That’s right, 30,000 years before Christ was born and the Romans invaded ‘Britain’ that’s 15 times the amount of time we’ve got any written recorded history for northern Europe, and 30 times modern history started in Britain after the Norman invasion our ancestors were creating artwork like this:

Cave painting found in Indonesia dating to 35,000 – 40,000 years ago are now thought to be the oldest found:

Above knowledge refreshed on Wikipedia.

African Burial Chamber Million Years Old

Funnily enough, I watched a documentary this week about what is thought to be the oldest burial chamber yet found that doesn’t mean it’s the oldest, just the oldest found. There’s an article about it on BBC news.

It’s deep underground in modern ‘South Africa’, and needed thin archaeologists to access it and recover the remains of fifteen of our ancestors. It resulted in a team of intrepid non-claustrophobic researchers, backed by greenYgrey:

They’ve been dated to a million years old yes, that’s right, 1,000,000 years compared to the 2,000 since Christianity, 500,000 times as much human life we know very little about as that we do except that if our ancestors were conducting ritual burial at the start of it, then there is likely to have been a lot of ‘culture’ and ‘cosmology’ going on long before the cave paintings of 30,000 – 40,000 years ago, and the stone circles and burial chambers of 6,000 years ago.

One of the XaW Files subtitle Beyond Humanity’s meanings is this knowledge beyond humanity, either in the past or the distance of space for the human species, and the mind for individual humans.

Living in a narrow band of troposhere atmosphere on a planet circling a star that is one of billions in our Milky Way galaxy a galaxy that is one of billions in the known universe (which may be one of many, millions or billions?)…

… which sometimes looks greenygrey/gYgPOP…

… in a very short period of recorded history, compared to how long we’ve been walking the Earth and looking to the stars, we try and make sense of our place in existence.

We even make it hard for ourselves by shutting down knowledge because it doesn’t fit in with ‘beliefs’, or cloud history by raising religious, geographical or cultural bias over scientific paradigms and investigative research.

In general, it is believed by historians that the Celtic people migrated from a common Indo-European homeland somewhere in Eastern Europe and migrated westward. The increasing sophistication, social-stratification, state-building, and so forth, of central Europe gave rise to the periods that that scholars call proto-Celtic and Celtic, or Hallstat 800-500 BCE and La Tene 500-100 BCE. The spread of Celtic culture to the British Isles and to the Atlantic seaboard of Europe took place roughly around 900 BCE. It is safe to assume that there were religious specialists of some kind there at the time, though the notion of "Druids" as a comprehensive religious and intellectual caste doesn't emerge until about 500 BCE or shortly after.

To correlate that date with other world events, 500 BCE is about the same time that the Buddha is alive in India, Aeschylus and Thespis are writing plays in Greece, Confucius is working for Emperor King-Wang 3rd of China, The Republic of Sicily establishes its first allegiance with Rome, Jeshua is high priest of Palestine, Darius 1st heads the Persian Empire, annually elected archons rule Athens, and Pythagoras is visiting Egypt.

There is good evidence that through their trade routes, and the adoption of customs indigenous to the areas they colonized, that Celtic culture experienced much change and innovation over time. The British Isles may have been visited by humans as early as the retreat of the Ice Age, and has been home to an indigenous neo-lithic (new stone age) culture that contributed much to the development of the Celtic culture at its height of achievement. (Historian Colin Renfrew has, for example, argued that the Celts emerged from an indigenous pre-Celtic Neolithic culture.)

Here is a brief, and certainly not complete, timeline of the history of the Celtic people, and the islands of Britain and Ireland.

Fort William

Fort William is the second largest settlement in the Highlands of Scotland with around 10,000 inhabitants – and the largest town: only the city of Inverness is larger.Fort William is a major tourist centre, with Glen Coe just to the south, Aonach Mòr to the east and Glenfinnan to the west, on the Road to the Isles. On the 7th (Fri), take in the awesome beauty at Nevis Range Mountain Resort, pause for some photo ops at Seated Sculpture, contemplate the long history of Glenfinnan Monument, then contemplate the long history of Glenfinnan Viaduct, and finally pause for some serene contemplation at Glenfinnan Church. On the 8th (Sat), you'll have a packed day of sightseeing: appreciate the history behind The Glencoe Massacre Monument, admire the verdant scenery at Glen Coe, then take your sightseeing to a higher altitude at The Three Sisters, then admire the sheer force of Steall Waterfall, and finally take in the awesome beauty at Ben Nevis.

For where to stay, other places to visit, more things to do, and other tourist information, you can read our Fort William online attractions planner.

Getting from Edinburgh to Fort William by car takes about 3.5 hours. Other options: do a combination of train and bus or take a bus. Finish up your sightseeing early on the 8th (Sat) so you can go by car to Isle of Skye.

Inverness Castle


HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: Medieval castle well

Inverness Castle is an imposing Victorian building on a rocky outcrop overlooking the River Ness. The current 19th-century castle is just the latest in a series of fortifications dating back to at least the 11th century, though not all were on the same site.


William Shakespeare has Inverness Castle as the site where Duncan is murdered by Macbeth in 1040. The playwright took liberties with history, however, as Duncan actually died in battle near Elgin. The castle that Shakespeare used as the setting for Duncan's murder was located several miles south of the current riverside site.

In 1057 Malcolm III built a new castle on the present site after destroying Macbeth's earlier fortress at Crown Hill. The 11th-century castle was occupied by English troops in 1303 as part of Edward I's attempts to seize Scotland. In 1308 Robert Bruce recaptured the castle and had it destroyed to prevent it from being used by the English.

In 1410 Donald, Lord of the Isles attacked Inverness. This prompted the Earl of Mar to rebuild the earlier castle two years later. Sixteen years later Inverness Castle was the setting for King James IV's bid to break the authority of the Lords of the Isles. King James occupied the castle and invited Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles to appear before him. as soon as Alexander appeared he was thrown into prison along with other Highland lords who had defied royal power in the Highlands.

After spending some time in prison Alexander was released, but he almost instantly launched a fresh revolt and led a large force of soldiers on Inverness in 1429. MacDonald sacked Inverness but was eventually forced to submit to the king. That did not stop his successor, John MacDonald of Islay, from attacking Inverness Castle on three separate occasions. After each attack, the castle defences were strengthened.

In 1508 the Earl of Huntly was appointed hereditary keeper of Inverness Castle. In 1548 the 4th Earl rebuilt the castle in stone. In 1562 the Earl refused to allow Mary, Queen of Scots to enter the castle. His defiance prompted an immediate attack by loyal soldiers drawn from the Fraser and Munro clans. Mary's forces captured the castle, but oddly, the Gordons of Huntly were allowed to continue as keepers. They transformed the castle into a comfortable residence with opulent staterooms.

In 1644 the castle was occupied by Covenanter troops who repulsed a siege by the Royalist leader General James Graham, Marquis of Montrose. Royalist soldiers supporting Charles II eventually captured the castle in 1649 but surrendered it to a Covenanter army under General Leslie.

In 1652 Oliver Cromwell began building a new fortress at Inverness, closer to the mouth of the River Ness, using stone taken from churches in the region. The new fortification was known at the time as 'The Sconce' but is now known simply as Cromwell's Fort, or Citadel. The only part of Cromwell's fort to survive is the clock tower and a section of ramparts.

Inverness Castle was captured by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746, but after the Jacobites were defeated at the Battle of Culloden government forces destroyed the castle.

The Victorian Castle

The final phase in the castle's long history came in 1836 when architect William Burn designed new buildings in castellated style. he first was used as the County Hall for Inverness-shire while the second, built in 1848, was used as Inverness gaol, though it was later converted to be the Sheriff's Court. This 19th-century version of the castle is made from striking reddish sandstone.

Only two parts of the medieval castle survive. In between the County Hall and Sheriff's Court is the castle well, restored in 1909. A short section of retaining wall is the only other part of the medieval structure intact today.

In front of the castle is a statue of Flora MacDonald and her dog. MacDonald is famous for her role in helping Bonnie Prince Charlie to escape capture by government forces, even though she herself was not a Jacobite supporter. The sculpture was created by an Inverness native, Andrew Davidson, and was erected in 1899.

Since the castle is still in use as a Sheriff's Court and for government proposes only one tower is open to visitors. The tower, known as Inverness Castle Viewpoint, gives wonderful 360-degree views over Inverness and the River Ness. Even if you don't ascend the tower you can still get outstanding views across the river to Inverness Cathedral on the far bank.

As you explore the castle site you will notice small posts in the ground, each with a date and historical event. The posts are arranged as a timeline tracing the castle's long history and are extremely well done, giving you an excellent overview of the castle's heritage.

Getting There

Inverness Castle is very well signposted around Inverness town centre. It stands directly above Inverness Museum at the top of Castle Wynd. There is easy pedestrian access from High Street at the east end of Ness Bridge. There is no public parking on site but there are paid parking areas nearby. The best views of Inverness Castle are from the opposite (west) side of the River Ness on Ness Walk.

Most photos are available for licensing, please contact Britain Express image library.

About Inverness Castle
Address: above Castle Wynd, Inverness, Highlands, Scotland, IV2 3EG
Attraction Type: Castle
Location: Access via a stair above Castle Wynd, off Inverness High Street. Well signposted from the town centre for pedestrians.
Website: Inverness Castle
Location map
OS: NH666450
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express



Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest

Abertarff House - 0.3 miles (Historic Building)

Nearest Accommodation to Inverness Castle:

Nearby accommodation is calculated 'as the crow flies' from Inverness Castle. 'Nearest' may involve a long drive up and down glens or, if you are near the coast, may include a ferry ride! Please check the property map to make sure the location is right for you.

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