A Day in the Neolithic: A Walk Through 5,000-year-old Scotland at the Tomb of the Eagles

Old as dirt. When one steps off the ferry from the mainland of Scotland arriving in the Orkney Islands, that description becomes palpable. I've long been intrigued by what lies beneath the Scottish landscape, whether it's the mythic fairy haven in Dunkeld or the achingly sad battlefield of Culloden. But what has been uncovered and continues to be explored in the Orkneys is rewriting our human history.

Scotland is known to many hikers as a destination for “Munro bagging,” scaling all the peaks that exceed 3,000 feet, and there are 282 of them. The Isle of Skye offers many challenges to intrepid beginning and advanced hikers, including a number of Munros. The peaks of the Black Cuillin, basalt formations that seem to shoot upward directly from the sea, are cloaked in their own lore and magic. I’ve never seen the the Cuillin: in all my travels, they’ve been shrouded in mist and mystery. The Quiraing doesn’t reach the vertical height of a Munro but its unique and dramatic rock formations in the Trotternish ridge of Skye more than compensate for its lower elevation. It was here I lost my hiking nerve while descending the mountainside of the Quiraing when I found myself caught in a scree of shifting basalt. But those challenges were not part of this trip.

A frequent visitor to the British Isles in general and Scotland in particular, I’ve enjoyed visits to the Mainland island of the Orkney archipelago during the past two summers. Within just a few miles’ drive (or bike ride), a visitor can explore the burial cairn of Maeshowe (although as you will discover on the guided walk, apparently never used as such, but one of the finest examples of extant runic text and mostly bawdy Viking graffiti), the Standing Stones of Stenness, The Ring of Brodgar, the Ness of Brodgar, among others. And then there are the Broughs (“brocks”): Brough of Birsay, where your access to the island is determined by your nimbleness at crossing the causeway at low tide (and returning before the tide comes back!), and the Brough of Gurness, where one can walk among the remaining stone structures of a community that bustled during the Iron Age.

Skara Brae, a UNESCO World Heritage site, currently the granddaddy of these excavations, was revealed by a fierce north Atlantic storm in 1850 on a farmer’s property. While it is a fascinating and well-preserved example of Neolithic engineering and domestic ingenuity, it is the Ness of Brodgar that is garnering much international attention. An active archaeological dig for the past several summers, attracting scientists and researchers from around the globe, the exquisite quality of the dry stone structures and the expanse of the site suggest it was the locus of Neolithic society in the British Isles. (One of the guides there commented that the Ness of Brodgar makes Stonehenge look like a minor outcropping of this ancient society.) The BBC has produced a documentary about the Ness of Brodgar which is well worth viewing.

The lives of our ancient ancestors are accessible in this windswept archipelago. One doesn’t really have to know where to look: archaeological sites appear one after the other in dazzling frequency.

So it is in this wild, wind- and rain-swept place that last summer we explored a new locale that we’d not visited previously: The Tomb of the Eagles. (The “we” in this case included my husband, Jim Page, my brother, Cliff Judd, and sister-in-law, Mary on their first trip to Scotland, and our friends Dr. Peter Clark, emeritus professor at St. Andrews University, and his son, Tom. Peter and Tom have been trusted hiking companions on many of our visits to Scotland. I credit Tom with keeping a cool head during a treacherous hike in a swirling maelstrom of fog and rain and guiding me down off Cul Mor in the western highlands when I had no idea where I was.

All the sites previously mentioned are owned and/or maintained by Historic Scotland, the National Trust of Scotland. The Isbister Chambered Cairn, popularly known as the Tomb of the Eagles, and privately owned, is now listed by Historic Scotland. This burial cairn, located on the South Ronaldsay cliffs of Orkney, has been partially excavated and opened to the public by the family of Ronnie Simison. Simison discovered the ancient sites in 1957-1958 on his farm, and engaged archaeologists twenty years later to begin the painstaking excavation. I admit I had my doubts about whether this was some family’s elaborate scheme to separate foolish tourists from their money by sending them out on a mile-long trail that hugs the dramatic coastline to view what would surely be a disappointment. Happily, I was proven so wrong.

The folks who operate the visitor center, which includes several rooms of displays and artifacts removed from the site, as well as the gift shop featuring many items from local artisans and crafters, were gently solicitous and insistent that we change into outerwear they considered appropriate for our walk to the cairn. They provided socks and wellies, rain jackets, gloves and caps, as defense against the pelting rain outdoors. (Should you visit the Tomb of the Eagles, and you should, be sure to listen to and take all the advice and outerwear given freely in this regard.)

We made a small miscalculation here: Rather than start our expedition with the lecture at the visitor center, we opted to reverse the sequence and march out to the tomb first, taking in the presentation later. We were concerned about the declining weather conditions on the trail. Our decision to plow ahead, however, resulted in our lacking a pertinent piece of info once we reached the tomb.

We headed out at a good clip across the pasture land on a well-worn trail. Our first stop was a small cistern, a crumbling remnant of an ancient water works, burnt mound and structure, about 3,000 years old. Ronnie Simison discovered this site in 1957, and it was excavated by archaeologists in 1973. The original function of the building is not entirely clear. Constructed with double walls, there is evidence a fireplace was used to heat water in a trough with a well and drainage apparatus. Possible uses of the trough include cooking and beer brewing, or workshop functions like sheep fleece washing, felt making, leather tanning. Or, early residents might have used it as a bath or sauna. The burnt mound contains the remains of burnt stone and peat ash.

The property is located in a rolling hills area of Orkney, and as the rain subsided that gorgeous late afternoon light, famous in such a northern clime, bathed the terrain of wildflowers and grasses. No matter what else was to come, I knew the walk alone would be worth it. My lungs were filled with clean air, salt-scented from the sea, and my feet were dry!

We proceeded in silence, as we often do, Tom and I at the lead. Our troop stretched out for about a quarter of a mile, and we had the entire trail to ourselves. It’s always a good workout, walking with Tom, as he is roughly a foot taller and vigorous in his strides, not to mention at least thirty years younger than me. He is very patient and has never complained if I lag.

As we drew near to the main site, we could hear the waves battering the cliffs ahead and to the side. Sheep skittered perilously close to the sedgy edges, but paid us little mind. The wind picked up again and the skies closed and darkened. And then, there it was before us, a grassy hummock overlooking a crashing sea below: the Tomb of the Eagles.

I heard the gales of laughter first. A couple was inside the tomb and trying to exit. Apparently, they found their situation hilariously amusing.

Having visited other burial cairns that required one to bend down a bit to navigate the entrance without bashing one’s head, we were unprepared for this one: The entrance was so miniscule, the only way in (and out) was to lie face down on a creaky little wheeled flatbed cart, as recommended by the adjacent signage, and pull oneself in by grasping a rope above one’s head while slinging the cart into the cairn. This was the bit of info that we lacked at the outset. Had we spent more time at the learning center, we would have been instructed that the quickest, easiest and most natural way to enter the tomb is to crawl. I am not claustrophobic, but flinging myself forward into a 5,000-year-old stone cairn of unknown proportions while prostrate on a wee wheeled flatbed thingie, not to mention lack of light inside, was not what I expected. I’m not so sure my sixty-plus year-old frame would have responded well to a hands-and-knees, return-to-my-infant-self adventure, either.

At that moment, a woman came flying out on the cart, head first, screaming with laughter. I helped her up and we pushed the cart back in so her husband could join her. They did not speak English, so interrogating them about their experience was out of the question. Off they went, in high spirits and hugging. Oh, well.

As our troop stood there mulling the situation, it would have been easy to just walk away. Tom, all 6 foot-plus of him, kept his hands in his pockets and looked around. He is usually the most intrepid of our group, but I could see him mentally calculating whether it was even physically possible for him to fold himself into thirds, then flatten belly down onto that seemingly getting-smaller-by-the-moment wheeled cart and hurtle himself in through the narrow opening. Hmm.

So here we were at the Tomb of the Eagles. Why the name? What was the significance of the place? The original investigation yielded thirty human skeletons inside a single chamber in the cairn, along with the skeletons of fourteen sea eagles. Researchers have surmised the human remains were laid out on a stone plateau in front of the cairn and picked clean by the eagles, a process known as excarnation (defleshing), or sky burial. Why the eagles were buried with the humans is yet to be determined, but one theory is that the eagles were critical elements in a funerary ritual. Eagle talons and bones may have been status symbols and/or totems of the regional inhabitants: five talons were found alongside the remains of one person, seven talons with a second, and a third individual was found with fifteen talons plus the bones of two sea eagles, all within the cairn.

Among the artifacts removed from the cairn and the surrounding area are tools used in preparing food, jewelry, and ritual items. Visitors to the learning center are encouraged to handle these early working tools, pottery, eagle talons, and beads, giving one a first-hand sense of these very early folk. Among the ceremonial tools are a perfect hammer-head, a V-bored albertite “button,” and three ax heads.

Some of what has been learned about these inhabitants from the Neolithic Stone Age: The men averaged 5’8″, and the women averaged 5’3″ in height. (I am happy to report I am a full inch taller than my average Neolithic sisters.) Among the six hundred human teeth found, only three had cavities. But many remains bore evidence of osteoarthritis. Ronnie Simison’s two daughters, now managers of the site and the visitor/educational center, have many more surprising and intriguing details and objects to share with visitors through their hands-on presentations.

But back to our dilemma of whether or not to enter the tomb. In the end, we each rolled in and skidded out, either head first (or for the contrary, like Jim, feet first reclining on one’s back), unscathed and the better for it. And by the way, there is lighting inside, so one is not stumbling about in total darkness. While to the uneducated the interior of the cairn with its various small chambers might seem unremarkable, for me it was tangible evidence of from whence our European ancestors came, and a glimpse into the importance of the burial ritual. Their skill at designing and building multiple stone structures still standing after 5,000 years of relentless exposure to the elements and foreign marauders, their tools and systems devised for their use are testaments to their ingenuity and sophistication. I was humbled to be a witness to this enduring creativity.

Our walk back to the visitor center looped to the edge of the cliffs. The magnificent power of the sea and wind etched away the rock formations over millennia and we were just the latest in the series of humans to experience the sheer beauty and scope of that power. Dozens of sheep grazed unperturbed, and a few watched as we stepped carefully along the narrow path. (Among the several breeds in residence there, I recognized the Jacob sheep, holding forth regally with their dazzlingly strange “fascinators” of up to six horns rather than the usual two.)

As we plodded along in the mist, I reflected on what we had just seen and explored. Not only had we trod in the paths of ancient peoples, our small expedition enjoyed this experience unimpeded by vast numbers of tourists. The historic Isbister Chambered Cairn and this breathtaking coastal path were ours to enjoy. On this singular afternoon, Scotland had yielded yet another spectacular memory.

Once again the drizzle subsided and the thin northern light of early evening cast its long shadows on this dramatic landscape. Magic!

Visit the websites of Tomb of the Eagles tomboftheeagles.co.uk,
Orkney Tourism Group visitorkney.com,
Historic Scotland historicenvironment.scot,
Scotland’s National Tourist Organisation visitscotland.com
Photo: David Anderson