by Chris Brooks, Heritage Action. All images © Chris Brooks.
The weather had turned wet and windy, and while checking my programme of events I decided I would visit some of the more local sites that day. Now I was staying in Finstown, which is very close to some of the local sites that would be on most people’s ‘Top 5 Orkney places to visit’ list. First off though was a trip to Crantit Souterrain near Kirkwall so, with the satnav set, off I trundled. After a relatively short drive I ended up on a small road just outside Kirkwall where there was no signage to help me identify where I should be looking. A quick look on the map suggested I was at the right place, but after looking over a few fences, and even asking a bewildered passer-by, had no luck. The weather was still poor and not wanting to just invade private property (well not with people about anyway) or to waste much time on a wild goose chase, I decided that, as this site wasn’t very high on my ‘to do’ list, hopefully there would be better ones and I could try to find this one again later.
The next location on my list took me to Grain Souterrain. I arrived at the coordinates and after a bit of a look around managed to find the entrance. As expected this a small mound with a hatchway surrounded by a fence with a locked gate. I went to get the key but had no luck as it was a Sunday and nobody was available, or it was too early (not sure which). This wouldn’t be a problem as I would again return when I had time in the week. Things were not going to plan at the moment so I decided I would get out of Kirkwall and hunt for better game else where.
As I drove back towards Finstown I spotted the sign for Rennibister Earth House so turned off down the farm track and parked in front of the sign telling me I couldn’t drive any further. As you approach the farm on foot there is a small sign which points you around the back of the main house, follow this and you immediately see the site in front of you. In a similar fashion to Grain, this too is fenced off but this time the gate is not locked and you are able to walk straight in. There is a small information board (which says it was discovered when a piece of farming machinary drove over it and broke through) and a hatchway directly into the ground where access is via a shortish ladder of about 6 rungs. When you have descended you are met with a sort of hexagonal chamber with pillars of stone in each ‘corner’. There is also a passage way leading to an entry point protected at the other end by a metal grid. The stone corbelling is very good too and overall the chamber was in very good condition.
As normal I sat there a while and thought about what it was used for, and I guess (as the information board says) storage was the most likly reason. The very small passageway to the main building could create a nice airflow and reduce moisture build up. Indeed this was a very pleasant and thought-provoking place, and a lovely example of a souterrain you could wish to see.
Having taken my fill of photos and video at Rennibister I drove to the top of Wideford Hill looking for the next place on the list. I didn’t see any signs for the cairn after I left the Old Finstown Road at the foot of the hill, and eventually arrived at the top where all the communication antennas are. As I was here (I thought to myself) I would take a look around. Now I could hear and feel the wind in the car but nothing really prepared me for its strength when I tried to open the door, it was absolutely phenomenal. Had I been a small and meagre person (rather than a large one) I may not have been able to get out of the driver’s side of the car (but I did). Standing in the wind was a bit of challenge let alone walking in it. Looking down the side I tried to see if I could see Wideford Cairn but was having no luck… again. I knew it was towards the Kirkwall side of the hill so I consulted my notes. These suggested there was a parking area before you get to the top of the hill, and so as I drove back down I noticed the information board on the right and a small parking area which, for some reason, I had missed on the way up. It was big enough for maybe 3 cars and so I parked up and took a butchers at the board. Thankfully, it showed exactly where the cairn was with a good description of how to get there.
I put on my wet and windy gear and off I trundled. Initially the walk is fairly flat but, as you walk along, the stones that had been put down to create a sort of cobbled path, the walk then gradually begins to descend. As it does so the stones disappear and the path becomes a track worn into the peat. Luckily, because Orkney had had very little rain in the last 10 days or so, the peat was quite dry and firm and it was just a case of following it. Along the route you come across a black and white banded pole and then a gate with no fence on one side and a sign saying ‘Please shut the gate’ which obviously I found amusing. There is also another sign which states ‘Alternative route to Finstown’ which I also found amusing as to why would anybody want to get to Finstown by going over this hill? Keep following the route in the same general direction and eventually you can see the cairn just a short distance away. The path had taken a bit of a steeper fall now so I had to watch my footing.
You enter the site through the normal gate on its lower edge. There is an information board in front of you and to the left of the cairn there is a little box on a post containing both battery powered and wind up torches – both of which were working which was nice. Now while it is probably possible to enter the tomb through the passageway, the easiest way is through the sliding hatch that is sited on top of it, but of course to get to it you have to walk over the mound. The grass covered terracing of this cairn is more defined than that at the Tomb of the Eagles and (in my opinion of course) it looks better, almost as if it has been built into the side of the hill. The view out to the bay is breath-taking, well I imagined it would be if it wasn’t now raining and blowing a gale and I could actually see it. Pulling back the sliding hatch and making my way down the metal ladder – this time quite a bit higher than the one at Rennibister.
As you touch down you can only but admire the construction of this inner chamber. Reasonably wide at the bottom, the chamber narrows as it rises up over your head toward the new entrance and the magnificeant dry stone work, meticulously interlayered. Around the bottom of the chamber are a number of small passageways that lead to further chambers. A little small for me to feel comfortable to get right in to but I was able to examine them with the torch - with my feet stuck out into the larger chamber. Again the stone work was fantastic, stepping its way to the top of the chamber like some sort of mini cathedral and capped at the top with a single slab.
The other chambers were similar and one had its own short passageway which was way to small for me to attempt to get in to. A few more photographs and a moment of silence to take in this place was had. It is very difficult to get across the feeling of awe you have just sitting there unless you come here yourself. I climbed the ladder, slid back the hatch and placed the torches back into the box. The wind had picked up but the mist cloud had dispersed revealing that hidden view for a brief period. It certainly was worth the walk.