Neolithic 4000 -> 1800 BC
The chambered cairn on Wideford Hill is situated a little way outside Kirkwall on the Orkney mainland, just off the Old Finstown Road. It is clearly signposted and easy to find, particularly if you have your resident Orcadian brother with you, as I did (he regularly walks his dog past the cairn; even more enviably the other place they walk is the Ring of Brodgar).
The cairn is a distinctive sight as the original earthen covering was removed when the cairn was taken into the care of the state in the 1900s, exposing its stonework terraces. There is a nice Historic Scotland interpretation board outside and also a sign pointing out the entry hatch along with a box usefully containing a torch to take with you as there is no lighting inside other than the daylight from the open hatch. Descent is via a metal staircase down 2.7 m to the floor. The space is rather restricted although this has the advantage of making it difficult to fall as you are fairly wedged-in as you climb down.
The archaeology bit
Wideford chambered cairn consists of a main chamber measuring 3 m by 1.5 m at ground level (although this narrows as it goes upwards) with three side chambers. Its form and construction make Wideford, in effect, a mini-Maeshowe and both monuments were built at around the same time, c.3000 BC and, along with a further eight cairns in Orkney form the so-called Maeshowe-type. Wideford was excavated in 1849 when it was found to contain only rubble representing deliberate, perhaps ritualistic, end-of-use infill along with some animal bones and teeth which are now thought to have resulted from more recent mammal incursion. It is probable that Wideford was capped with clay as a form of weatherproofing. Interestingly, it also contains a chimney-like structure which was likely to have been the conduit for the infill and it has also been suggested that, prior to this final act of deposition taking place, it may have functioned as a ‘light slot’ for communicating with the dead. Further reading about this, Wideford cairn and Orkney archaeology generally can be found on the excellent Orkneyjar website (link below).
Wideford Hill is also notable as the location of one of three Neolithic habitation sites recently investigated by Professor Colin Richards of Manchester University and Dr Richard Jones of Glasgow University. Settlement at Wideford has been traced back to the Early Neolithic period and evidence has been found here of timber roundhouses with central scoop hearths.
It has been noted that the entrance passage of the cairn on Wideford Hill faces the nearby cairn on Cuween Hill; a similar observation has also been made regarding Taversoe Tuick cairn on Rousay and the cairn on Gairsay, as well as the cairns of Eday Church and the Holm of Huip. It is suggested that these alignments may indicate a ‘community of the dead’ or perhaps symbolise claims to the land (Garnham, 2004). This certainly seems feasible when you consider the monumental landscape of the Orcadian Neolithic farmers but, as with many aspects of prehistory, there are many and varied possible explanations for apparent patterns and observations in the archaeological record and it is unlikely a definitive explanation will ever be arrived at – which is what makes it so endlessly fascinating!
Orkney abounds with folklore and it is believed that much of that which has been passed down through the ages survives as a combination of Norse beliefs merged with those of the earlier inhabitants of these mystical isles. ‘Hogboons’ or ‘mound dwellers’ were the spirits of the dead believed to inhabit the ancient mounds. They were thought to provide a protective presence and hence dwellings have long been built alongside these prehistoric monuments. Offerings were made by inhabitants of farming settlements to appease their resident ‘mound-dwellers’ and comprised such things as milk from the first cow that calved or the first beer that was brewed and these were poured over the mound. Such beliefs continued into the 19th century and beyond.
After my somewhat gusty and soggy underfoot walk across the heather-clad hill to Wideford Cairn I partook of a coffee at my brother’s house just down the road. However, later in the day I sampled a Raven Ale or two from the Orkney Brewery. This 3.8% quaffable bitter is refreshingly palatable and comes highly recommended.
Garner, T. 2004 Lines on the Landscape, Circles from the Sky Stroud: Tempus