The chambered cairns of Orkney

Quoyness Chambered Cairn, Sanday Orkney. (Antonia Thomas)
Quoyness chambered cairn, Sanday. (Antonia Thomas)

Chambered cairns are found in distinct clusters across Britain and Ireland — notably south-west England, Northern Ireland and western and northern Scotland. In Orkney, they are among the most common, and highly visual, signs of the Orcadian Neolithic (c3700-2500BC).

Objects of fascination since the 19th century, antiquarian investigations saw the term “tomb” attached to these monuments, which led to an inevitable colouring of their interpretation.

The word “tomb” implies a sole funerary function and the permanent interment of corpses. While there is no doubt that human remains played a role in many cairns, they were not mere mausoleums.

“A more neutral term,” suggested Richard Bradley, “is to describe these constructions as ‘mortuary monuments'” (1998: 54), but, again, this may be over-emphasising the role of the dead — particularly given the fact that very few examples in Orkney have yielded human remains (Crozier et al 2016).

Many attempts to understand cairns have undoubtedly simplified their roles, assuming — based on architectural similarity — that they all served the same purpose, despite variations in layout, location and content.

Knowe of Unstan Chambered Cairn, Stenness, Orkney. (Antonia Thomas)
The Knowe of Unstan, Stenness. (Antonia Thomas)


Although their complexity and design varied across Britain and Ireland, chambered cairns generally followed the same basic layout — a stone-built chamber, enclosed by a cairn.

In northern Scotland, Caithness and Sutherland are dominated by Orkney-Cromarty cairns. This design is also found in Orkney, along with the Maeshowe-type — although the former considerably outnumber the latter.

These categorisations are slightly misleading, as Orkney’s cairns do not always fit into one category or the other. Instead we have variants of the Orkney-Cromarty cairns containing elements of the Maeshowe-type, while others, such as the Bookan cairn, to the north-west of the Ring of Brodgar, don’t fit in either.

The two main classifications are:

Orkney Cromarty Chambered Cairn

Orkney-Cromarty cairns: These are made up of a rectangular chamber, divided into stalled “compartments” by orthostat pairs.

The number of compartments varies from as few as three — e.g. Bigland Round to the 26 encountered at the Knowe of Ramsay.

Covered by round or rectangular cairns, these linear structures can also incorporate shelf-like structures and feature end chambers dominated by large, monumental back slabs.

Sticking to typology, Orkney-Cromarty cairns do not have side cells, although they are incorporated into “hybrid” chambers, such as Unstan and Isbister.

Similarities to early Orcadian domestic architecture — specifically the Knap of Howar, Papa Westray — led to the notion that Orkney-Cromarty cairns were the first monumental mortuary structures in the north, dating from between 3750-3500BC in Caithness (Ashmore 1996) and between 3600-3500BC in Orkney (Ritchie 2009; Sheridan & Higham 2006; 2007; Barber 1997).

Maeshowe-type chambered cairn

Maeshowe-type Cairns: These structures – often referred to as passage graves – have one main central chamber that is reached by a low, long entrance passage.

One, or more, side chambers branch of from the main central chamber.

These forced typologies led to assumptions about the age and development of cairns — particularly that the Orkney-Cromarty cairns evolved, over centuries, into the Maeshowe-type structures (Renfrew 1979).

Doubt has been cast on this model by a re-analysis of Orkney radiocarbon and luminescence dates, which prompted “a radical reassessment” of Neolithic Orkney (Bayliss et al 2017).

Rather than Renfrew’s evolution, the Times of Their Lives (ToTL) project posits that both styles were first built in the middle of the fourth millennium BC — “although, with current evidence, it is not possible to state which came first” (ibid).

Which came first?

So, we appear to have a situation where both styles were used concurrently, with deposition of human remains in Orkney-Cromarty structures ending around 2900BC — four centuries before the practice ceased in the Maeshowe group (ibid: 1182). With both styles, however, activity continued around the structures after these dates, specifically the deposition of animal remains (ibid).

Maeshowe, Stenness. (Sigurd Towrie)

While the Orkney-Cromarty style implies contacts with mainland Scotland, the Maeshowe cairns have been linked to relationships further afield, specifically Ireland.

Irish passage grave architecture, it is suggested, was just one element copied by “ambitious and widely travelled” Orcadian groups looking to “enhance their power by appropriating an exotic tradition” (Schulting et al 2010).

This scramble for social standing in Orkney is echoed in the construction of “increasingly large and elaborate stalled cairns” (ibid: 40) as groups sought to outdo each other in the creation and maintenance of “exotic ancestral origin myths” from outside Orkney (Richards et al 2016).

The resultant “competitive, fluid and unstable” situation within Orcadian society (ibid) saw “rivalries played out” as people invested “time and labour in monuments relating to deities, ancestors and origins that stretched well beyond the shores of Late Neolithic Orkney” (Bayliss et al 2017).

The similarity between domestic dwellings and chambered cairns led to the idea that the cairns were “houses of the dead” – physical dwelling places for the spirits of the dead, or the ancestors.

At the end of their use the cairns were generally sealed, in some cases filled with earth or rubble.

At some sites the level of rubble was complete, almost reaching the roof whereas others were only partially filled. The Wideford Hill cairn, for example, was discovered to be two-thirds full when excavated.

What was the reason behind this last act? To protect the remains of the ancestors? To prevent access by anyone else? Did their religious practices or traditions change and the tombs were filled simply to prevent further use?

Again, like many aspects of life in Neolithic Orkney, we simply do not know.


  • Ashmore, P. J. (1996) Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland. B. T. Batsford Ltd/Historic Scotland
  • Barber, J. (1997) The excavation of a stalled cairn at the Point of Cott, Westray, Orkney. Edinburgh: Star Monograph I
  • Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richards, C. and Whittle, A. (2017) Islands of history: the Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney. Antiquity, 91(359), 1171-1188
  • Bradley, R. (1998) The Significance of Monuments: On the shaping of human experience in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe. Routledge.
  • Crozier, R. (2016) Fragments of death — a taphonomic study of human remains from Neolithic Orkney.
  • Crozier, R. (2016) Reorientating the dead of Crossiecrown: Quanterness and Ramberry Head. In Richards, C. and Jones, R. (eds) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Oxford: Windgather Press, 196-223)
  • Davidson, J. L. & Henshall, A. S. (1989). The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  • Renfrew, C. (1979) Investigations in Orkney (Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London)
  • Schulting, R., Sheridan, A., Crozier, R. and Murphy, E. (2010) Revisiting Quanterness: new AMS dates and stable isotope data from an Orcadian chamber tomb. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 140, 1-50.
  • Sheridan, A. and Higham, T. (2006) The re-dating of some Scottish specimens by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU): results receiving during 2007. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 7, 202-209
  • Sheridan, A. and Higham, T. (2007) The re-dating of some Scottish specimens by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU): results receiving during 2007. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 8, 225.