Infinite Scotland

Maeshowe | Culture

The massive cairn of Maeshowe was built to house the bones of honoured dead. It is made of huge Orkney flagstones, some weighing up to 30 tonnes. The way those stones are used is magnificent, laid in layers that curve up and inward to the peak of the central chamber. The low entrance passage to this chamber is aligned so that the rays of the setting sun at midwinter beam along it to illuminate the interior. During the three weeks before and after the shortest day of the year (21st December) the sunset shines straight down the passage. It’s a magic-seeming transformation of darkness to light in the core of a building that held remains of ancestors. The sun’s rays also align with a single, large standing stone – the Barnhouse Stone – that stands 800 metres to the south-south-west of Maeshowe. Quite simply, this is the finest stone age drystone building in the whole of northern Europe. In could, in fact, be one of the finest drystone structures ever made. Like some of its neighbours, it’s a monument of global significance. And, like them, it has been part of the Orkney scene for thousands of years, as familiar to the Picts and the Vikings that once lived and farmed here as it is to the Orkney dwellers and Orkney visitors of the present day.  There’s a wealth of Viking graffiti inside it, carved in runes of different kinds by Norsemen who entered the tomb for plunder of shelter. It’s intriguing to think that when they did this, perhaps a thousand years ago, Maeshowe was already several thousand years old.

After Maeshowe came the construction of a building so huge (25 metres by 20 metres) that people are still uncertain of its full function. Archaeologists, if they’re being minimalist, call it ‘Structure 10’. If they’re showing their excitement about it, they call it ‘A Stone Age Cathedral’ – a place that almost certainly had great ritual significance to the people who used it.