Maeshowe is one of the more famous Neolithic sites on Orkney. It is a chambered tomb constructed around 2700BC, so later than the village of Skara Brae.
Visible from the road, Maeshowe from the outside is a large grassy mound. It is located on the Kirkwall to Stromness road, near the small village of Stenness. The site is looked after by Historic Scotland, who have a small visitor centre and shop in the Tormiston Mill building beside the road, opposite Maeshowe.
Entry is by prebooked guided tour only. These run on the hour from 10am to 4pm. You can call to book, or drop into the centre. Car parking is fairly limited, there is really only enough space for one tour group at a time to park. The tours are £5.20 for adults, £4.20 concessions and £3.10 children. We used our Orkney Explorer passes, with my dad getting free entry as my mum was using a wheelchair.
When you book the tour, you're asked to turn up 15 minutes prior to the start time in order to get tickets processed and walk to the tomb - they say it's a 10 minute walk, but for an average person it will take only a few minutes. Perhaps on a nice day you could have a leisurely stroll, but we were there in typical Orkney winds so we went as fast as possible to get out of the wind sooner. The path to Maeshowe is well maintained, gravelly and a bit bumpy but fine for wheelchairs. The last 10 metres are tricky as they are over the ditch surrounding the tomb, and the path is strangely corrugated.
We were told at the centre that wheelchairs were now permitted inside Maeshowe itself, but being permitted and actually getting in are separate matters. The entrance tunnel is rough and bumpy, with some large dips you can't push the chair back out of - wheelchair access was not a consideration in Neolithic times. My mum is able to walk, using a wheelchair enables her to get about more, so she got out and walked through the tunnel, but this of course is not an option for many wheelchair users. Another point to note about the tunnel is that you really do have to stoop quite a lot to get through.
Having studies Maeshowe at school, I had ideas in my head of what it was like. First impression on reaching the end of the entrance tunnel...a LOT smaller than I expected. It looks much bigger on the outside than it does on the inside (a kind of anti-TARDIS then), but also I was sure I remembered images of a much bigger space from what I had learned at school. Our tour group was approximately 12-14, and while everyone fit in comfortably, any more and it would have been feeling cramped.
The interior of the tomb comprises of one main chamber, and three side chambers or cells. There is a barrier around the main chamber so people don't go climbing into the smaller side chambers, but you can see into them quite easily.
Our tour guide had a very informal manner, and I suspect she wasn't at ease with speaking to groups and so developed this to cover nerves. She did however give us plenty of interesting information, some of which I will share here.
It is of course hard to know exactly what many Neolithic sites were used for. Maeshowe was a tomb, but not much else is certain about how it was used. On fascinating fact however is that the entrance tunnel is perfectly aligned so that on the Midwinter Solstice and for a few weeks either side, the sun shines directly onto the back wall of the main chamber.
In the twelth century Norsemen broke into Maeshowe, and may have removed any human remains still there. However they left behind a large number of Runic carvings, which are now part of the history of Maeshowe. These are basically ancient graffiti - some amount to little more than "Thorfinn woz ere"! One sings the praises of a woman named Ingibiorg - "call Ingibiorg for a good time!" - while another, carved high up, points out how great the carver is for managing to write so high on the wall.
Much later the Victorians excavated the tomb, with more enthusiasm than knowledge. Any evidence still there was lost, except one piece of human skull taken by the lead excavator, who later left it on a train. The Victorians also built a new roof, as the original had been smashed, which looks very out of place - it reminded me of roofs seen in some London Underground stations.
Maeshowe is a truly fascinating place. I love that within this Neolithic monument is evidence from other periods of history. It's a very peaceful place, especially with the wind howling outside. A visit to Orkney is not complete without a tour of Maeshowe.
Maeshowe is fantastically well-preserved neolithic chambered cairn in the west of Orkney's mainland, thought to date from around 2700BC. The cairn looks like a large grassy mound from the outside and was first excavated in 1846. It is now looked after by Historic Scotland and an appointment must be made to view the cairn as there are a limited number of people allowed inside on each tour (which is compulsary). I made an appointment earlier on the day I wanted to visit, in the height of the tourist season and on a nice day, so it doesn't seem likely that you need to book way in advance.
Cairn simply refers to a man-made conical stone structure but in reference to the neolithic structures found particularly across Scotland but also elsewhere in the UK, they are usually thought to be a sort of tomb.
After booking a tour all you need to do it turn up at the visitor centre a few minutes before it is due to start and a guide will take a small group (around 10 people) across a field and up to the cairn itself which can be easily seen. I am often dubious about guided tours as I have been on some truely awful ones and also I like being able to do my own thing and take my time but I have to say that the woman who took us was excellent. She was both informative and entertaining and the hour passed extremely quickly-she also gave plenty of opportunity to ask questions and we didn't feel rushed or bored.
The tour starts just outside the cairn's main entrance where the basic background history to the place is outlined. As with many ancient sites there isn't actually a lot that can be said for sure but the rough date it was constructed and what it was for can be 'guestimated'. It is a pretty incredible piece of architecture for the time and being almost 5000 years old shows that they knew what they were doing-not many modern buildings will last that long! Also at sunset on mid-winter a ray of light comes through the entrance passage illuminating the back wall-something which indicates a detailed knowledge of the sun and of construction which is amazing for the time. It is a surprisingly big area as from the outside the cairn has a diameter of 35 metres and this is surrounded by a moat around 20 metres further out.
The next part is the most exciting as you get to crawl along the passage into the main domed area. Most people will have to bend double to get along this passage which is around 10 metres long and can elicit some claustrophobia (and banged heads!), however, the main chamber is around 5 square metres in floor space and the roof is almost 4 metres so there was plenty of room for everyone without feeling squashed. Most people should feel fairly comfortable inside. It is a fascinating experience as the cairn is made simply by carefully placing stones on top of one another with no material to hold them together-yet the inside is watertight and very sturdy. Despite all the people inside with you it is quite easy to imagine being back in 2700 BC and this space having some special significance to you. The inside is really quite beautiful with huge, heavy but perfectly hewn stone curving up above to the roof-it is quite clear that an enormous amount of effort must have gone into constructing it.
Once inside our guide ran through some more of the known history of the cairn which is fascinating because of a few complications in the usual story of these places due to some viking grafitti from the 12th century. The early history of the cairn is quite standard as it is thought to have been used as a tomb with four chambers coming off the main chamber that were probably used to store bodies. However, at some point in the 12 th century some vikings seem to have broken in to get shelter and it is presumed that they threw out all the bodies and stole anything of value.
This little complication means there is no actual evidence of burial in the cairn and so it is even more guess work than normal as to what it was originally used for. It also resulted in making Maeshowe doubly interesting because of all the viking grafitti left behind. This was my, and most peoples, favourite part of the whole tour, as the vikings carved pictures and runes into the wall. What I love is there is a mixture of some quite artistic drawings coupled with just pointless doodling and stupid comments. Most of the grafitti translations turn out to be something like 'I love Doris' or one was 'I went to a lot of effort to write this up really high'! It gives a feeling of real humanity to the vikings which is quite rare and also make them seem far more similar to us modern day Scots than we may care to admit normally! I could imagine a bunch of vikings sheltering from a storm, chatting and carving things because they were bored-much closer to the day to day reality than most history about a major battle or important figure.
After this the guide ran through some of the modern excavation of the cairn and the new roof due to the original one being torn away by the first team to excavate the place. At the end I was really surprised to find that I had been inside almost an hour as every part of her speech was really interesting. I do love history but even for a few friends who are less fascinated by this did enjoy the tour and said she managed to bring it to life for them.
Maeshowe got World Heritage status in 1999 which is well deserved as it is a fascinating and quite unique glimpse into neolithic and viking times. For an adult it is £5.60 for an adult or £2.60 for a child and is well worth the cost. As a small aside, noone is sure what Maeshowe means although there are a number of possible theories-like most of this place you can choose which one you want to believe!