Goodfellow’s account

In 1902, Rev Alexander Goodfellow, a local amateur antiquarian, carried out a small excavation at The Cairns site. His notes concluded that he found a “souterrain”, or earth-house, as they are more commonly known in Orkney — an underground passageway apparently dating to the Iron Age.
Rev Alexander Goodfellow.

In 1902, Rev Alexander Goodfellow, a local amateur antiquarian, carried out a small excavation at The Cairns site.

His notes concluded that he found a “souterrain”, or earth-house, as they are more commonly known in Orkney — an underground passageway apparently dating to the Iron Age.

Rev Goodfellow outlined his excavation at The Cairns in Volume IV of the Saga Book of the Viking Club:

“. . . at a place in the South Parish [of South Ronaldsay], generally known as the Cairns o’ the Bu, or occasionally the Cairns o’ Flaws, an underground house with passage, to all appearance like a Pict’s house, or a weem, has been discovered.

The situation is on a rising slope, with a beautiful outlook towards the east, or German Ocean, where, in the olden days, the sea-robbers might have been sighted at a long distance, and the people on the shore be prepared for any attack.

Although the contour of the cairns might have suggested something important to the observant eye, yet no-one ever suspected that there were buildings underneath. Farmers, when ploughing near the spot, have at different times come across stones, bones, shells, etc., but the cairns was supposed to refer only to a gathered heap of stones, and not to any built walls.

It looks as if there has been a subterranean passage in connection with Windwick Bay, which is not far away. The part of the building opened up was the passage, the walls of which were built mostly with stones taken from the quarry of Oback, nearby, while large boulders brought from the shore were laid across, as cover or roof stories for the passage.

Each of these boulders (there were three whole, one broken, and probably more) were fully five feet in length, and about two feet in breadth and thickness. One wonders by what means such stones had been brought up there. The walls themselves were well-built, being six feet deep, while the width of the passage was 31 feet.

There were dividing stones to strengthen the structure, as well as to indicate chambers beyond. Across the passage was a wall, apparently a terminal wall, but on examination we came to the conclusion that the end had not yet been reached.

Nothing very special was picked up during the partial excavation beyond two pieces of human bones, a boar’s tusk, a deer’s horn, a stone scraper, and shells.

To open up the place fully men and money would be required, and as the tenant of the ground was unwilling to leave the hole open, It was filled up again.”


The Saga Book of the Viking Club was a regular publication of the Viking Club, aka the Society for Northern Research.

Founded in 1892, as the Orkney, Shetland and Northern Society, Rev Goodfellow was the organisation’s district secretary for Orkney.