Holm of Papa Westray North

The Holm of Papa Westray North
The Holm of Papay North stalled cairn. (After Davidson/Henshall 1989)
Rectangular cairn.
Stalled chamber.
Notes:In September 1854, the Orcadian antiquary George Petrie “opened a sepulchral mound, which I had long desired to explore.” (Petrie 1856). Following his two-day excursion Petrie declared it to have been divided into three compartments by pairs of orthostats.

Subsequent excavation in 1982/83 showed that Petrie had not revealed the entire chamber and that the 4.8-metre-long chamber was actually divided into four compartments by four orthostatic pairs. A small cell (c1m by 1.1m) was accessible in the southern end of the chamber.

Measuring between 1.2m to 1.7 m wide, the central chamber’s walls had survived to a height of 0.9 metres.

Petrie found the compartment nearest the northern entrance to be filled with a mix of rubble, earth and animal remains – including antler, cattle horn – and “portions of a human skull”. The second compartment contained more rubble and animal remains – including “portions of ten pairs of deer’s horns” overlying two human skull fragments.

Area three contained more deer antler and the remains of three human skeletons – minus their heads – while three skulls had been deposited elsewhere in the compartment. One of these may have been associated with a third skeleton, but “there was not time to excavate the rubbish under which it lay”.

Re-excavation in 1982 and 1983 revealed a rectangular cairn, about 11.8 by 6.3 m, with its axis lying NW to SE and three-metre-long entrance passage (0.8m wide and surviving to maximum height of 0.7m) in the northern end.

The structure had undergone a series of changes throughout its life, with the small cell at the rear end of the chamber was the first construction.

The cell had been filled with layers of stones, shells, deer tines, animal, fish and human bones. Its entrance had been sealed off early in the life of the main chamber.

The fourth compartment – not subject to 19th century investigation – had a raised stone “bench” on the west side with a partial human skeleton beneath. On the eastern side were the remnants of a burial, associated with a deposit of periwinkle shells.

The eastern side had later been subdivided, subsequent to the sealing of the end cell, by an upright slab. The north-eastern stall this created had been half-filled with stones, on top of which was a small stone setting containing a quantity of very small fish bones and tiny stones.

After it went out of use, the structure and entrance passage had been filled deliberately with earth and rubble.
References:Ritchie, A. (2009) On the fringe of Neolithic Europe: excavation of a chambered cairn on Holm of Papa Westray, Orkney. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
Davidson, J. L. & Henshall, A. S. (1989). The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Petrie, G. (1856) Description of Antiquities in Orkney recently examined, with Illustrative Drawings. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Volume 2 (1855-56).
Ritchie, A. (1982) Holm of Papa Westray North chambered tomb. In Discovery and Excavation in Scotland.
Ritchie, A. (1983) Holm of Papa Westray North – Orkney-Cromarty stalled cairn. In Discovery and Excavation Scotland.
Harland, J. and Parks, R. (2008) Holm of Papa Westray North – fish bone project. In Discovery and Excavation in Scotland Volume 9.
The remains of the Holm of Papay North, looking through the entrance passage towards the stalled chamber. (Dan Lee)
The remains of the Holm of Papay North in July 2021, looking through the entrance passage towards the stalled chamber. (Dan Lee)
Petrie plan of Holm of Papay North
Orcadian antiquarian George Petrie’s plan of the Holm of Papay North, “opened” in September 1854. Given its curve, the inner wall at the bottom of the illustration is the western end of the structure.