Places to Visit on Orkney - 3

An Ancient Burial Cairn

Maeshowe is a dry stone burial cairn, declared by Historic Scotland to be the finest chambered tomb in North West Europe. It is about 5,000 years old and surprisingly for a ancient monument of this age you can still go inside.  It was built around the same time as the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae and it is possible that they may all have been linked in some way. The Ness Of Brodgar, currently being excavated, is now having to be factored in to its history as well.

MaeshoweCredit: M E Park

Maeshowe was deserted for centuries and then broken into by the Vikings who left their mark, quite literally in runes, on the walls inside. It was finally excavated in 1861 and a stone and concrete roof was added later. It may have originally been higher than it is now.


Burial Mound - Print

The Location

Maeshowe is located on West Mainland Orkney, a few minutes past Finstown, on the Stromness Road.

Maeshowe - Orkney

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Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, Stromness, Orkney Islands KW16 3HH, UK

The Tour

Tickets are bought at the nearby Tormiston Mill, where you may also park your car. The mill can also be looked around but I was not overly impressed with it. The stairs in the mill are steep and awkward, not for the disabled. There is also a shop upstairs in the mill. The tours usually leave on the hour every hour during the summer. There is a short walk, following a gravel path between fields, after crossing the main road. You  must take great care here as the speed of the traffic on this stretch of road is notoriously dangerous.

When you get to the tomb there are information boards outside which give a bit of the history and more details about what to expect inside.

It doesn’t look much from the outside, just a grassy hillock. You can make out the surrounding ditch as you get closer. Take a moment to look towards the hills of Hoy. The dip between the hills lines up with the entrance and for a couple of weeks either side of midwinter the sun sets at this point and illuminates the inside of the tomb. There is a web cam set up each year to allow you to watch this, weather permitting. 

SunsetCredit: M E Park

The guide will talk a short while about the outside of the tomb and the surrounding area before leading you inside. The entrance is a slab lined tunnel and can be daunting. You need to duck and stay stooped while walking down the tunnel. The taller you are the more difficult this will be. Mind your head! Inside it opens up into a reasonably sized room and you can spread out a little. You will be told about the suppositions for it’s construction and use, and translations (cleaned up versions) of the graffiti will be offered. You will be also given the opportunity to look at some of the runes more closely. It is mostly roped off inside so you do not have free access to the interior.

In Conclusion

I have to admit I am somewhat claustrophobic and it was only on my third visit that I actually managed to get it together enough to get inside. The entrance is daunting to someone with problems like me so be warned. Once inside it is not too hard to deal with, if you go on a quiet day. If there is a large tour then it can be a little overwhelming. The stewards are wonderful and if you explain you are worried then they will try their best to make sure you are coping with things. I found going in last and out first was the way to do it. That way I did not feel trapped.

It is essential that you call and book your tour, as in the summer months it is always very busy and you will probably not get in if you just turn up unexpectedly. Tours can also be arranged in languages other than English but again these must be booked.

If the weather is bad make sure you are well wrapped up as you may be outside for a while, and even in good weather it is not warm on the inside of the tomb. As mentioned in a previous article an Historic Scotland Explorer Pass covers entrance to this monument and may be worth purchasing.


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