Taversoe Tuick, Rousay

Tombs of the Isles - Taversoe Tuick
(Davidson & Henshall. 1989. The Chambered Cairns of Orkney)
Round cairn.
Notes:The Taversoe Tuick is a chambered cairn built into a sloping hillside on the south side of Rousay, overlooking Wyre Sound.

It is a two-storeyed structure, with one chamber set on top of the other. There is only other other cairn of this design found in Orkney — Huntersquoy in Eday.

The cairn was discovered by accident in 1898, at which time it appeared as a small heathery knoll — a perfect viewpoint for looking out across Wyre Sound, towards Wyre, Gairsay and the Orkney Mainland.

This prompted the owner of Rousay’s Trumland Estate, General Burroughs, to erect a sheltered seat where he might enjoy the spectacular views. It was during this construction operation that the cairn’s ruinous remains of the upper chamber were exposed.

The discovery, in particular the human remains within, disturbed Lady Burroughs somewhat.

She wrote:

“When I went to bed that night I could think of nothing else! There we had sat during many happy summers, stretched on the purple heather, basking in the sunshine; laughing and talking with the carelessness of youth, little dreaming that barely eight feet below us sat these grim and ghastly skeletons.” [1]

The site passed into the protection of the Ministry of Works in 1934, and, three years later, an excavation took place.

The structure was found to have a diameter of about 9.2 metres. A platform made up of loose, flat stones surrounded the cairn with a clear, stone-free entrance leading up to the western side.

Two entrances were found — one in the south-eastern side, leading to a lower chamber, with a second north-facing entrance passage into an upper chamber.

Upper chamber

Although the structure was discovered in the late 19th century, the upper chamber of the Taversoe Tuick was much denuded. So much so that its existence was only confirmed by excavation in 1937 [2].

The upper chamber was built on top of the lower, with access provided by a north-facing passage, 3.4 metres long, 0.9m wide and 0.9m high. Although it had been suggested that uppermost chamber was a later addition, the excavation confirmed it was part of the original design.

Measuring 4.7 metres long by 1.9 metres wide, the chamber, which is now covered by a modern roof, is divided into two round-ended compartments — a smaller one in the north-eastern section and a main chamber, which is further sub-divided into two compartments.

The floor was made up of five massive stone lintels, levelled off using clay.

As well as a wealth of pottery, two cattle shoulder blades were unearthed in the chamber’s entrance passage, which had been carefully blocked off after the chamber went out of use.

In 1898, three small cists were found above the floor of upper chamber. These contained “fragments of bones” that “had obviously been incinerated” that had belonged to at least one adult, possibly three, and a child [1]. Pottery sherds within the cists led to the suggestion the burnt bone had been deposited in “urns” [1].

The three cists were clearly much later, Bronze Age additions. By the time they were inserted, the floor was covered by a “layer of earth about a foot thick” [1], suggesting the upper chamber had fallen into ruin.

Lower chamber
The Taversoe Tuick’s lower chamber was was subterranean and created by quarrying down through clay and bedrock. It was accessed by a low, narrow, south-east facing passage approximately six metres long.
The lower passage increases in height and width as it enters the mound. Measuring a mere 0.4m wide and 0.6m high at the entrance, the passage increases to 0.6m wide and 1.2m high at the chamber threshold.

The rectangular chamber measures 3.7m by 1.4m and is divided into four compartments – one at each end and two directly opposite the entrance. These were shelved with stone slabs to form “benches” which were found to contain human remains, including a crouched burial in the west-central cell and fragments of at least three individuals in the adjacent east-central cell. Three piles of cremated remains were also found within the entrance passage [1].

The central chamber itself is 1.5 metres high, the roof formed by the stone lintels that also make up the floor of the upper chamber.

Outer chamber
Perhaps the most intriguing element of the Taversoe Tuick is one that is very easy to miss when visiting the site.

Around seven metres to the south-east of the cairn’s lower entrance passage is a small chamber that has been “hewn out of the rock and lined with most precisely and perfectly built masonry” [2]. 

Measuring just 1.6m long by 1.1 m wide, the tiny oval chamber is a mere 0.85m high [3]. Access was by dropping down into a narrow passage at its south-western end, with the interior subdivided by four orthostats projecting, to differing extents, into the oval-shaped chamber [2].

The chamber is connected to the Taversoe Tuick by a narrow, stone-lined channel that tapers from 0.46m at its widest to a mere 0.06m when it reaches the outer chamber. Originally this small channel was thought to be a drain, designed to carry off water from the main structure. A strange assumption considering the channel would have funnelled water directly to the outer chamber.

Even back in 1899, Lady Burroughs remarked that the channel could not be a drain because of a blocking stone inserted about four metres along the passage [1]. The 20th century excavators corroborated Lady Burroughs’ comments. During particularly heavy rains in July 1938 it was noted that the channel remained dry [2].

Although the so-called “miniature chamber” [2] has an interior layout akin to other known Neolithic chambered cairns in Orkney, e.g., the Calf of Eday South-East, no human remains were recorded. It did, however, contain round-bottomed Early Neolithic pottery [2].
Rousay map
Chambered cairns on the south/south-western coast of Rousay.
(Hutchison et al. 2015. The Knowe of Rowiegar, Rousay, Orkney: description and dating of the human remains and context relative to neighbouring cairns)
Taversoe Tuick remains c1937
The remains of the upper chamber around the time of its excavation in the late 1930s.
Taverso Tuick upper chamber and surrounding cairn.
(Grant, W. 1939. Excavations on behalf of HM Office of works at Taiverso Tuick, Trumland, Rousay)
Taversoe Tuick lower chamber plan and sections.
Taversoe Tuick lower chamber plan and sections.
(Grant, W. 1939. Excavations on behalf of HM Office of works at Taiverso Tuick, Trumland, Rousay)
Outer chamber plan and sections.
Outer chamber plan and sections.
(Grant, W. 1939. Excavations on behalf of HM Office of works at Taiverso Tuick, Trumland, Rousay)