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Tuesday 15 July 2008

Tomb of the Eagles

My visitors from London arrived safely yesterday and we spent the day exploring South Ronaldsay (via the Churchill Barriers on the Orkney Mainland). We ended up at the Tomb of the Eagles which is one of my favourite places to take visitors.

I really like this site as it hasn’t suffered too much from being “over heritaged” and is run by the family who discovered the tomb. There is a new visitors centre where family members will give a short talk about the site and let you handle artefacts found nearby made from stone and bone.

After the visit to the small museum, visitors are able to wander freely along the track to explore the Bronze age house and the Tomb, stopping to admire the scenery, geology, birds, or ponder on life in ages past as the will takes them.

The first site you come across is a “Burnt mound” and remains of a bronze age house from about 1000 years BC. The house is oval with a central hearth and a watertight pit. No one really knows the use of the trough or indeed if the house was a dwelling or a sort of “community hall”. There are various theories that it was used like a sauna – heating the water by putting hot stones in it. Another theory is the pit or trough was used to boil meat, but in truth no one really knows. What is certain is that the burnt mound next to it is made up of vast quantities of cracked, fired stones and ash which were deposited there from the fire.

The Tomb itself was discovered by a farmer, Ronnie Simison, in the 1950’s and excavated by him after several years, along with help from an archaeologist. Apparently there was a lack of funding for a full dig so Ronnie did a lot of it himself with advice from various archaeologists and visiting students etc. The tomb is believed to date from about 3150 BC.

When the tomb was excavated a number of eagle talons were found (hence the naming of the tomb). There were also various human bones, and broken pots and other artefacts made of bone and stone. It’s thought that when someone died their body was put onto a platform where the sea eagles and other birds picked the carcase clean. The bones were then split up and deposited into various chambers in the cairn. The cairn faces the open sea and it is really atmospheric standing there musing about the ancestors who lived on the land many thousands of years ago!

The tomb has a very low entrance and Ronnie constructed a “Heath Robinson” kind of contraption to enable visitors to pull themselves through the entrance tunnel to the tomb behind. Once inside it is possible to stand up and admire the stalled chambers.

Walking back visitors have a choice of taking a short coastal path which gives lovely views of the nearby coast as well as south to the Scottish Mainland. Having lived in the South of England all my life and considering the northern “Highlands” of Scotland as a distant land on the edge of the Earth, it now seems odd to be looking SOUTH to the mountains in the Highlands.

Today my visitors have set off for a walk around the shore on Graemsay – it’s a little breezy with some showers so I’d better put a pot of soup on for their return!

A butterfly seen on the coastal path - no idea what variety it is!


  1. Fascinating stuff, Sian. Thanks. I've looked at their web site, too.

    We loved going around in Brittany, visiting all the out-of-the-way sites with standing stones - just in farm fields and along roadsides.

    I can see we're just going to have to come back to Scotland and spend the whole time in the Orkneys!

  2. I love that butterfly! I'm sorry that we missed the Tomb of the Eagles. Next time we'll have to stay longer.

  3. Yes come back - all is forgiven! Tee Hee! Definitely put Tomb of the Eagles on your itinerary for any future visits.