Quoyness, Sanday

Tombs of the Isles - Quoyness, Sanday
Notes:Located on the peninsula known as Elsness, the Quoyness chambered cairn lies close to the shore, just above the high-water mark.

At the heart of the Quoyness cairn is a rectangular chamber accessed via a nine-metre-long, low, passage in the south-eastern side. Inside, six cells branch off from the main chamber, giving the structure a layout very similar to that of Quanterness, on the Orkney Mainland.

Dug into the chamber’s clay floor is a shallow, rock-cut pit and a short trench.

The structure was excavated by James Farrer – an antiquarian notorious for his mound-breaking exploits across Orkney – in 1867, when bones from at 14 or 15 individuals were found in four of the side cells, with bones also filling the pit.

Other finds included fragments of animal bone, pottery, bone and stone tools, along with two carved stone objects, similar to those found at Skara Brae on the Orkney Mainland.

The wide, stone platform surrounding the central cairn was a later addition, probably constructed in the later Neolithic given the presence of Grooved Ware pottery in and around it.

Quoyness was re-excavated and consolidated in 1951-52 by V. G. Childe. This work resulted in its current external appearance, which is intended to highlight its internal structure rather than its original appearance.

Various accounts over the years – including Childe’s excavation report – incorrectly ascribed the name “Augmund Howe” to the Quoyness cairn. Egmondshowe, to use its correct name, is a possible chambered tomb lying c60m south of the Quoyness cairn.

This stems from an account of the antiquities is Sanday written by Rev Walter Traill and published in the New Statistical Account of Scotland in 1845.

Writing about the Quoyness cairn, but giving it the wrong name, Traill wrote:

“In the northern extremity of this cape, there is a burgh or fort called Augmund’s Howe. It is now in ruins and overgrown with grass and weeds. It is situated close by the beach, and has been surrounded to landward, by a circle of upright stones. On the east side, where the ground is low, there is a semi-circular terrace, the outer edge of which is formed also by stones set upright. The height of the fort is about 18 feet.
“From Augmund’s Howe, there may be traced the remains of a wall thickly studded with circular forts, running to the northwest across the Ness, and thus enclosing fully a third of the whole Ness. These small forts on the wall are, now, only ruinous cairns. They are all, or most of them, placed on the inside of the wall. The few on the outside seem to have been so placed for security’s sake, as they are uniformly on gentle risings. The wall does not run in a straight line, but has several curves, to avoid low spots of ground which are, in winter, covered with water.
“The enclosed space is literally covered with tumuli and heaps of ruins. None of those now remaining are of great size. The largest have been levelled and ploughed over.”

Traill’s “forts” are probably Bronze Age barrows, a cluster of which can still be seen to the south-west of the Quoyness cairn, including an arc of 11 around Egmondshowe.

The Tresness stalled cairn lies to the east of Quoyness, across the body of water known as Stywick.

From Rambles in the Far North – Fergusson, R.M. (1884)
At Quoyness, in Elsness, there is what appears to be a large brough—a mound which was opened in the summer of 1867 by Mr Farrer MP. At the present time its diameter is about 63 feet and its height 12.5 feet. Inside a building about 32 feet in diameter several cists were found. A passage about 12 feet long by 21 inches wide — of a nature similar to that at Maeshowe—runs along from the southeast side of the mound.

A number of decayed human skulls were found here. In the course of the excavations many decayed bones were turned up. Four cists of a semi-circular shape were discovered within this brough — two of which contained skulls and a few human bones. The other two were empty.

Three other cists of smaller dimensions and containing human remains were discovered. Some of the teeth found in them still preserved the enamel, and others bore evidence to the fact that toothache must have made itself felt amongst that ancient people.

In the midst of the rubbish a bone dagger, 7 inches long, a battle-axe of basalt, and a stone used for pounding corn, were found. One of the thigh bones measured 17.5 inches long, and was fairly well preserved.

It is not yet precisely ascertained whether this mound was originally a burial place or not. Some of the excavated bones were forwarded by Mr Farrer to Dr Thurnam of Devizes ; but that learned gentleman could only say they were of great antiquity—some male, some female, and some of children.

From The Orkneys in Early Celtic Times – Macbeath, J.M. (1892)
The cairn of Quoyness, in Sanday, has been a large circular mound fully 60 feet in diameter, with an average height, even now, of nearly 10 feet ; while, from the accumulation of debris, it must have been much higher originally.

The passage leading into the interior was about 24 feet in length, and led directly to an oblong shaped chamber, nearly rectangular, 12.5 feet in length, 5.5 feet in width, with walls upwards of 12.5 feet in height.

From this there were six passages leading to an equal number of irregularly – formed oval cells, two on each side, and one on each end of the central chamber. Fragments of upwards of twelve human skulls were found in these cells, of all ages ; one or more had the appearance of having been cleft prior to being interred. With these fractured skulls were found some animal bones, supposed to be those of the ox. No pottery was found, but two stone implements of unknown use, and a third, made of bone, resembling an elongated borer, 7 inches in length.

It has been suggested that possibly this cairn was originally a broch, and that within its central area the building just described was subsequently constructed. But the essential features of a broch are conspicuous by their absence, and the relics found are those associated with the chambered sepulchral cairns. Its design, and the character of its contents, clearly indicate its typical relationship.

Closely resembling Quoyness, in its internal structure, is that at the north side of Wideford Hill
[Quanterness], commanding a fine view of the bay of Firth, with the island of Damsay embosomed midst its waters.
Scottish Radiocarbon Database
Working Stone – Quoyness
References:Davidson, J. L. & Henshall, A. S. (1989). The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Farrer, J. (1868) Note of Excavations in Sanday, one of the North Isles of Orkney. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Volume 7 (1866-68).
Childe, V. G. (1952) Re-excavation of the Chambered Cairn of Quoyness, Sanday, on behalf of the Ministry of Works, 1951-2. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Volume 86 (1951-52).
Macbeath, J.M. (1892) The Orkneys in Early Celtic Times.
Fergusson, R.M. (1884) Rambles in the Far North.
Interior of the Quoyness chambered cairn. (Antonia Thomas)
Quoyness exterior, looking towards the entrance. (Sigurd Towrie)
Quoyness Plan
Quoyness plan. (Childe 1952)
Quoyness sections.
Quoyness sections. (Childe 1952)
Quoyness ground plan. 1892
Ground Plan of Chambered Cairn at Quoyness, near Elsness, Sanday. (Macbeath, J. M. 1892. The Orkneys in Early Celtic Times)