Maeshowe Chambered Cairn is arguably the most impressive of the Neolithic chambered tombs in not only theOrkney Islands but in all of north-west Europe. Maeshowe is approximately 5,000 years old and the largest of the burial tombs on Orkney’s Mainland, standing at a height of 7.5 metres tall.
In modern times, Maeshowe appears as a grassy mound on a flat landscape; but underneath the turf is a significant stone building, created by the Neolithic people of Orkney in approximately 2750 BC. The mound itself sits on a circular platform and is surrounded by a ditch. There is also a passage of 1.2m in height and 9m in length. To enter the tomb, and see the grand interior – lined with stone and clay – visitors have to crouch through this passageway and mind their heads!
Maeshowe has been strategically built; aligned so that the interior of the chamber catches the midwinter sun as it sets. The setting sun shines straight down the length of the passageway and hits the back wall of Maeshowe’s interior for two weeks before and two weeks after the shortest day of winter (21th December.) It has been suggested that this is significant as the light symbolises change, consequently resulting in warmer days for the Neolithic people. As the sun sets during midwinter it first refracts off the ‘Barnhouse’ stone that is positioned in the field adjacent to Maeshowe.
There is remarkable runic writing on the interior walls of the tomb, and these inscriptions are rarely seen outside Scandinavia. These are thought to have been carved by Vikings who sheltered in Maeshowe during the 12th century. Many of the inscriptions are boastful and similar to ‘Thorfinn wrote these runes’, but the tomb (and its lack of treasure) is discussed; ‘Treasure was carried away three nights before they broke this mound’. Descriptions of women are carved on the walls; ‘Ingibjorg the fair widow’ and some of the writing is quite crude. There is an f-word in runic writing on the walls of Maeshowe!
Also on the walls are some remarkable drawings, including the iconic Maeshowe dragon, a picture of a sea serpent, and a depiction of a seal.
In comparison to other burial tombs dotted around Orkney’s mainland, Maeshowe was built on a much grander scale. Though it is tricky to interpret Neolithic belief systems; this was possibly a significant tomb for important people. It stands out against the surrounding landscape, which is comprised of flat terrain and overlooks Barnhouse village, the Ness of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.
Visits to Maeshowe Chambered cairn are by guided tour only, so make sure you book your tour for your time in Orkney via the Historic Environment Scotland website or at the Maeshowe Visitor Centre. Visitors must park their cars at the Maeshowe Visitor Centre in Stenness village; there is a shuttle bus to take you to the tomb itself.