Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn

Orkney, United Kingdom

Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn is a Neolithic chambered cairn, dating back to around 3,000 BCE. It is cairn of similar design to Maeshowe, but on a smaller basis. Cuween Hill was constructed as a burial place by a group of Neolithic farmers.

The entry to the tomb is down a narrow passage, partly open to the sky. The main chamber, built on the bedrock, stands well over 2 meters high, and was probably taller before 19th century explorers broke through the roof to gain entry. The roof has been replaced with a modern one. Four small side-cells lead off the main chamber.

Remains of at least eight human burials were found in the chamber along with many animal bones. Most of the human remains consisted of skulls. On the floor of the chamber lay the skulls of 24 small dogs. The discovery of the dog skulls has led to suggestions that the local tribe or family may have had the dog as their symbol or totem.

When the cairn was opened in recent times, it was found to have been carefully blocked up. This could indicate that it was closed permanently when the community stopped using it, or it could mean that tombs like this were closed up regularly between episodes of use.

Access to the cairn is on foot, through the original entrance. Visitors will need to crawl through the passage on their hands and knees. There is enough room inside to stand, but the light is limited. The cairn was excavated in 1901, and it is in the care of Historic Scotland. The roof is now a modern concrete dome.

In the 1990s, excavations uncovered the remains of a small Neolithic settlement at Stonehall, below the cairn at the foot of Cuween Hill.

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User Reviews

CUPIDO Interreg (2 years ago)
It is a stunning place, that is well preserved and allows to be explored for free by entering through a side entrance. Definitely worthwile a visit. Also there are some great virtual tours available 3D models available to explore it online.
Tor PB (3 years ago)
Fascinating place, completely free and well worth a visit. You'll need a torch (phone will do) as it's pitch dark inside, and you'll have to climb over a stile and crawl through a low tunnel to get in. There's a good information board outside. No other facilities, but the parking area and access is well maintained. It's not remotely on the same scale as Maeshowe but it is a similar design, and does have the advantage of having very few visitors, so you can take your time having a thorough look around.
Max Collop (3 years ago)
À remarkable gem of a place.....beautiful inside and a fabulous location. Take some waterproof over trousers unless you want muddy knees....
Riana Allen (3 years ago)
We visited this after having been on the Maeshowe tomb tour so the kids better understood what they were seeing, which was helpful. The entrance is quite small and a little muddy. I ended up crawling in on hands and knees. I did appreciate the provided torch, but the battery was almost dead when we got there so it was dim. Still very cool to see inside. The kids enjoyed the outside more and rolling down the hill. The view from here is also stunning. Definitely worth a quick (slightly dirty) visit.
Bob Brown (3 years ago)
A great experience, crawling into this ancient cairn without artificial lighting. A torch is available, although don't rely on this being adequate, so take your own. The site is not manned and entry is free. It is worth seeing with its interesting internal structure and informative information panel. The view from the hill is worth seeing too.
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Broch of Gurness

The Broch of Gurness is an Iron Age broch village. Settlement here began sometime between 500 and 200 BC. At the centre of the settlement is a stone tower or broch, which once probably reached a height of around 10 metres. Its interior is divided into sections by upright slabs. The tower features two skins of drystone walls, with stone-floored galleries in between. These are accessed by steps. Stone ledges suggest that there was once an upper storey with a timber floor. The roof would have been thatched, surrounded by a wall walk linked by stairs to the ground floor. The broch features two hearths and a subterranean stone cistern with steps leading down into it. It is thought to have some religious significance, relating to an Iron Age cult of the underground.

The remains of the central tower are up to 3.6 metres high, and the stone walls are up to 4.1 metres thick. The tower was likely inhabited by the principal family or clan of the area but also served as a last resort for the village in case of an attack.

The broch continued to be inhabited while it began to collapse and the original structures were altered. The cistern was filled in and the interior was repartitioned. The ruin visible today reflects this secondary phase of the broch's use.

The site is surrounded by three ditches cut out of the rock with stone ramparts, encircling an area of around 45 metres diameter. The remains of numerous small stone dwellings with small yards and sheds can be found between the inner ditch and the tower. These were built after the tower, but were a part of the settlement's initial conception. A 'main street' connects the outer entrance to the broch. The settlement is the best-preserved of all broch villages.

Pieces of a Roman amphora dating to before 60 AD were found here, lending weight to the record that a 'King of Orkney' submitted to Emperor Claudius at Colchester in 43 AD.

At some point after 100 AD the broch was abandoned and the ditches filled in. It is thought that settlement at the broch continued into the 5th century AD, the period known as Pictish times. By that time the broch was not used anymore and some of its stones were reused to build smaller dwellings on top of the earlier buildings. Until about the 8th century, the site was just a single farmstead.

In the 9th century, a Norse woman was buried at the site in a stone-lined grave with two bronze brooches and a sickle and knife made from iron. Other finds suggest that Norse men were buried here too.