The chambered cairns of Orkney

“Despite the large number of Neolithic chambered cairns identified in Orkney, few of them have yielded human remains, yet, even when conspicuously absent,the dead have occupied a central role in interpretation.”

(Crozier et al. 2016. Reorientating the dead of Crossiecrown: Quanterness and Ramberry Head)

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. This word, however, implies a sole funerary function and the permanent interment of corpses. While there is no doubt that human remains played a role in some, the fact that very few examples in Orkney have yielded human remains (Crozier et al. 2016) strongly suggests they were not mere mausoleums.

It seems more likely that they served as monuments for events relating to both the living and the dead.

Where human remains have been found, the quantity could not possibly reflect the size of the populations that built or used the cairns. Therefore, the idea that all the Neolithic dead ended up inside chambered cairns is very unlikely. So if not all, who? There is no answer to that question yet. What we can say is the few instances where remains were encountered, the skeletal assemblage represented men, women and children of all ages.

From the earliest investigations, it was noted that it was not only the number of bodies (if any) that differed but the nature of the assemblages. These varied from entire articulated skeletons, jumbled piles of disarticulated bone or neatly organised deposits.

At the Knowe of Yarso, Rousay, for example, skulls had been placed around the edge of the chamber’s rear with other bones in the middle. At Midhowe, nine articulated skeletons had been placed in a crouched/sitting position along the right-hand side of the chamber. Disarticulated remains that had been “pushed to the rear…in order to create space” (Richards 1993) was seen as evidence that cairns were re-entered regularly — not just to deposit fresh remains but to interact with those already present.

Ritchie had no doubt burials were also being manipulated at the Holm of Papa Westray North and Richards suggested this interaction was a part of daily Neolithic life, which explained why fragmented human remains were not only found in chambered cairns but in domestic contexts (1993).

The disarticulated bone within these chambers led to one of the most tenacious images of the Orcadian Neolithic — that of corpses being excarnated (defleshed) outside the cairn before some remains were transferred inside.  Following the excavation of Quanterness, in 1972-74, excarnation was cited as the reason for a lack of smaller bones (Renfrew et al. 1976) and this arguably reached its zenith following the excavation of the Isbister cairn, South Ronaldsay (Hedges 1984).

Doubt was cast on the idea of excarnation following a re-evaluation of the Quanterness bone assemblage, which now points to whole, fully fleshed, bodies being placed within the chambered cairn and left to decay — a process that may have been hastened by deliberate dismemberment (Crozier et al. 2016).

But it should be remembered that shared architectural similarities does not mean all Orkney’s chambered cairns served the same purpose.

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. Not only did the encapsulating mound ensure the monument was clearly visible in the landscape, it formed a physical barrier separating the chamber and its contents from the outside world.

While attention tends to concentrate to the interior architecture, it is also likely that the exteriors – particularly entrance forecourts – played a major role in their function.


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

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

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).

Horned cairns

Three examples of long cairns in Caithness — Camster Long (top), North Yarrows (centre) and South Yarrows (Henshall 1963).

Alongside the Orkney-Cromarty and Maeshowe-type are the horned cairns, which were subdivided into two subgroups — long and short — depending on the size of their external cairns.

Following accepted typology, long horned cairns comprise a long, sometimes tapering, cairn with at least one chamber occupying a small part of the monument — usually towards the higher and wider end.

A forecourt at this end is often faced with walling, with “horns” projecting from the corners to form a semi-enclosed space.

On occasions, hornwork is found on both ends, the smaller horns lending the cairn plan the “appearance of a stretched animal hide” (Corcoran, 1966:28).

The suggestion, in the mid 19th century, that horned cairns were actually embellished earlier structures (Anderson 1866–8: 493) was confirmed by excavation in the early 1960s (Corcoran 1966).

This resulted in the general acceptance that long cairns were simply later additions to existing passage graves, although Davidson and Henshall conceded “… it is possible that, in a few cases, the two funerary traditions merged to produce a chambered long cairn built as an entity” (1985: 93). This was the situation proposed by Barber for the Point of Cott, Westray.

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.


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