For those of a claustrophobic disposition, the Neolithic1 tomb of Maes Howe should probably not be top of the 'must-visit' list. As the Ring of Brodgar frees the spirit and envelopes you in magic, so Maes Howe embraces you with its mystery and sheer weight of rock and earth.
It is one of the few ancient monuments that benefits from a guide. Apart from anything else, without a guide's high-powered lamp, you'd be in darkness. Without help, it is almost impossible to find the carvings of real interest on the internal walls and it is difficult to understand the structure without the well-rehearsed spiel of the Historic Scotland Guide.
Where is Maes Howe?
It is located in central Orkney mainland, immediately north of the A965 at OS Ref HY 3181292, close to the south shore of the Loch of Harray. Entrance is by ticket, available from Tormiston Mill on the other side of the road. The guide will wait until enough people have bought a ticket3 before taking you into Maes Howe, but it is usually no more than a ten-minute wait and there's a Historic Scotland shop in the mill for you to browse in should it take longer.
What is Maes Howe?
Maes Howe is a large regular mound, 35m, or 115ft, across and over 7m (23ft) high, which contains an entrance passage and burial chambers, dating from about 3000 BC; this dates from the same time as the construction of the Ring of Brodgar and towards the end of the occupation of Skara Brae. It is surrounded by a ditch 14m (46ft) wide and 2m (6.5ft) deep.
To enter the central chamber the visitor needs to hunker down and almost crawl along the 9m (29ft) passage from the entrance. The passage is flagstone-lined and about 1m2(11ft2), which is big enough for one person at a time who will cut out the natural light as they move inside. The guide usually goes ahead of visitors.
The central chamber into which you stand up is surprisingly spacious. It is 4.6m (15ft) square and much higher than that. The chamber is flagstone lined in the same fashion as the entrance passage. Each corner is buttressed with a huge stone and slabs which support the stone of the roof. The roof stones originally overlapped each other until the remaining gap could be covered with slabs. However, in the 12th Century, Norsemen broke in through the roof and destroyed the top of it.
The three side-chambers lie above floor level, midway along each of the three full walls and each one is roofed with one great stone slab.
What is Maes Howe All About?
Neolithic Orcadians seem to have been divided into two groups, which were at least partly contemporary. The first laid the bones of its dead in mounds containing long chambers lined with several stone stalls, of which many remain in the islands. The other group built tombs with a central chamber from which led side chambers, like Maes Howe, which is the largest and best-preserved of all the round tombs in Orkney and one of the best examples in the world4.
Those who constructed Maes Howe were aware of the movements of the sun through the year. The passage points towards the sunset at the Winter Solstice and the sun therefore shines into the chamber on the shortest day. We do not know what the significance of this was to the Neolithic people, but it does suggest that the chamber was open at least once a year.
Looting, Storms and Excavations
The tomb was first excavated and recorded in 1861. When all of the soil and rubble had been cleared out of it, only part of a human skull and some horse bones had been discovered. So nobody knows how many people's bones were deposited in Maes Howe, nor whether there were any grave goods accompanying the bones to indicate the status of the dead.
The Norsemen who broke into Maes Howe in the 12th Century did so on a number of occasions5. They may not have found much more than the 19th Century excavators, but we do know that the tomb was not filled with rubble and soil, because on one occasion they found shelter inside from a storm. Two of the warriors went mad in so doing, according to the Orkeyinga Saga. More significant for us though: they left graffiti.
Maes Howe has a collection of more than 30 Norse runic inscriptions, which include twig runes, ordinary runes and some beautifully fine carvings of a walrus, a serpent knot and a dragon or lion. Several inscriptions mention pillaged treasure: It was long ago that a great treasure was hidden here and Hakon alone bore treasure from this mound. Other runes are the 12th Century equivalent of mindless graffiti: Ofram the son of Sigurd carved these runes, Thorni bedded Helgi and Ingigerth is the most beautiful of women. The latter is carved next to a slavering dog. All these runes, and more, can be seen to this day.
The tomb was left in peace until J Farrer, an assiduous digger of mounds, decided to tackle it in 1861. Fortunately he kept an account and good records of the dig. Having found next to nothing within Maes Howe, he mapped it, drew it and moved on. Good fortune again smiled on the tomb, because the landowner took the trouble to repair the roof to make it weatherproof. Much of this roof remains today.
Maes Howe was included in the schedule of monuments to be protected in the first Ancient Monuments Act 1882 and has been in the care of the UK Government and its agencies since 1910. This explains its remarkable state of conservation.
Should You Visit Maes Howe?
The enclosed nature of Maes Howe is the antithesis of the freedom of the Ring of Brodgar. This reflects the concerns of the living at Brodgar, as opposed to those of the dead at Maes Howe. Despite the hordes of tourists around this site, it really is worth a trip inside the tomb, to be regaled with tales of Stone Age builders and Norse warriors by the Guide and to be cut off from the 21st Century for a short while.
Under the convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, Maes Howe forms part of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.