Calf of Eday Long

Tombs of the Isles - Calf of Eday Long
Calf of Eday Long plan.
Calf of Eday Long plan.
(Calder. 1937. A Neolithic double-chambered cairn of the stalled type and later structures on the Calf of Eday, Orkney)
Rectangular cairn.
Stalled and “Bookan-like” chambers.
Notes:Calf of EdayOne of three known chambered cairns on the Calf of Eday, an uninhabited island lying to the north-east of Eday.

Situated on a hillside c39 metres from the Calf of Eday North-West, the Calf of Eday Long is a large rectangular cairn covering two separate chambers – a small, horseshoe-shaped structure to the west and a four-compartment stalled chamber to the east.

To its north-east are two Iron Age structures, “joined” to the cairn by the remains of a later drystone dyke.

In the 1850s, James Farrer had noted the remains of these features, interpreting the visible remains of the chambered cairn as standing stones within the line of an “Ancient Rampart of stones and earth somewhat resembling the letter S in form” and having at each end the “foundation-stones of towers.” [1]

An old man, wrote Farrer, “remembered many standing stones having been removed when he was quite young.”

Excavating the site in 1936, Charles Calder confirmed Farrer’s “rampart” was “merely a grass-covered stony ridge formed by the debris of a drystone wall”. At the south-western end, the “standing stones” turned out to be part of a “long, Neolithic, chambered cairn of the stalled variety”. [2]

The cairn measured c20m by 8.2m, c1.22m thick walls and had slightly curved sides and ends. The larger, stalled, chamber, is aligned on its aligned on the cairn’s ENE-WSW axis, with its entrance passage (c3.3m long and 0.7 m wide) in the eastern side. In 1937, the outer walls survived to c0.61m and 1.22m inside.

This chamber was divided into four compartments, c1 .4 to 1.8m long, by three pairs of projecting orthostats. Against each side of these were smaller slabs set on edge to form the supports for stone “benches”. The remains of benches were found in three compartments.

The largest surviving orthostat stood over two metres high, suggesting a minimum height for the roofed chamber.

Two stone axes were found on the end-compartment bench with “a small quantity of broken and badly decomposed bones of a human being and of an otter” in the stone “box” beneath it.

The compartments were otherwise empty, the only finds coming from the threshold of compartments two and three (the area marked X on above map). This consisted of the pottery sherds from at least 34 vessels, which the excavator suggested “had been gathered together and thrown in a heap, where it was found below the sand amongst black, greasy, peaty humus and peat ash.” [2]

Among the pottery were two leaf-shaped arrowheads (a possible third one was damaged), a short flint knife, two scrapers, and several unworked flakes.

Although the smaller, western structure had been “absorbed” into the fabric of the body of the later cairn, Calder was of the opinion that it was contemporary with the stalled chamber and in use at the same time.

The heel-shaped structure had a sub-rectangular chamber, c3m long and 2m wide) and sat at a 45 degree angle to the axis of the stalled cairn. Given other examples of structures being incorporated into the fabric of chambered cairns, there is little doubt the western building was an earlier construction. For whatever reason, it was considered appropriate to assimilate it into the fabric of the stalled cairn.

The structure had walls c1.22m thick, although Calder noted that they were of “inferior craftsmanship” to that encountered in the stalled cairn. [2]

A pair of orthostats flanked the entrance, with another pair in the centre of the walls dividing the interior. A third set were set up against the end wall.

To Davidson and Henshall, the western chamber did “not conform to either the Bookan or tripartite plan” but they still considered it to be an early chambered cairn [3]. This remained the sole interpretation until excavations (1994 until 2000) at the Neolithic settlement at Stonehall, Firth, Orkney, revealed a building resembling the Calf of Eday western structure.

The excavators wrote:

“The Calf of Eday Long building is difficult to interpret given the situation at Pool where some early ‘dwellings’ possess no formal fireplaces. Noting its structural relationship with the stalled cairn, the encased building is clearly of early construction and has a relatively thin outer wall with no indication of a cairn.” [4]

So whether the absorbed structure was an early “tomb” or whether it represented a dwelling or mortuary building remains open to debate.

Whatever its role, after abandonment the entrance passed was carefully blocked.

“The entrance passage, which is somewhat irregular in shape and wider than normal, was deliberately closed up for the whole of its length by a well-laid infilling of stones, with some especially large blocks placed transversely outside its mouth.”

Whether this took place immediately prior to the contruction of the enveloping cairn or immediately after it went out of use is not clear.

After the stalled cairn became ruinous, a layer of sand covered the clay floor, on top of which was domestic refuse – including pottery, bone and shells – that Calder suggested dated to the Iron Age.
Working Stone – Calf of Eday Long
Calf of Eday: Plan of Wall and Associated Structures.
Calf of Eday Long: Plan of wall and associated structures.
(Calder. 1937. A Neolithic double-chambered cairn of the stalled type and later structures on the Calf of Eday, Orkney)
Calf of Eday Long section drawings.
Calft of Eday Long section drawings.
(Calder. 1937. A Neolithic double-chambered cairn of the stalled type and later structures on the Calf of Eday, Orkney)
The two stone axes recovered from the end chamber.
(Calder. 1937. A Neolithic double-chambered cairn of the stalled type and later structures on the Calf of Eday, Orkney)