by Chris Brooks, Heritage Action. All images © Chris Brooks.
Day 2: Battle of the Tombs. Attack of the Otters.
I was awoken at 5am by some other person arriving and parking right next to me with their radio blasting out… what is it with people and their need to make as much noise as possible regardless of what other people might think… I was very glad when the ferry arrived and I booked in, boarded and sat down somewhere quiet.
I was quite tired but the excitement was now building as I was actually on my way to Orkney and was living one of my dreams. We arrived an hour or so later and I didn’t have a clue where to go as in all the excitement I had forgotten to programme the sat nav. Initially I headed for Kirkwall until I found the sign I was looking for… Cafe. Two bacon rolls and a strong coffee later I felt so much better especially as the weather was starting to improve a little. I examined my maps and first up was South Liddle and Tomb of the Eagle on the southern end of South Ronaldsay (which was way back down south). Actually it is easy to find as there are plenty of road signs for Tomb of the Eagles and South Liddle is part of that area. As I was driving the last quarter of a mile down the little lane I saw the sign for Banks Chambered Tomb. Now this was not on my list but I had heard a lot about it and decided to head for it first… this is an adventure after all.
As you approach there are various parking signs for Skerries Bistro so I parked in the ‘Vistors’ car park, noticing the £5 ‘entry’ fee as I entered… This better be good I thought. I just got out of the car and was met enthusiastically by a tanned skin man who told me his name was Hamish and who owned the land the tomb was on. The tomb was in the process of an on-going excavation with a makeshift fence around it and a small metal bridge over the top to observe its internal structure.
Hamish gave a full account of how the tomb was ‘discovered’ while digging away at the bank and breaking through one of the cap stones. When he reported what had happened the archaeologists investigated and found many skulls and femur bones but little in the way of other bones except for what appears to be the backbone and arm of a small child or baby, but luckily the digger had missed completely these burials.
Located near to a cliff edge the tomb consists of an entrance passage way which faces away from the sea and is partially cut into the bed rock. From the passage way you enter into the central section of the tomb and from here chambers are found to the left and right. Some of the cap stones were broken and one was missing completely. During the investigations by the archaeologists the chambers were found to contain a layer of otter faeces on top of which bones were found meaning that either otters had been using this tomb as a home since it was first built or that the it was deliberately placed in the tomb through out its use.
Hamish insisted that the backbone of the small child was in fact that of an otter, identifiable by a single claw attached to the arm and led to the cairn being called Tomb of the Otters (in competition to the similar name tomb near by).
After looking over the tomb I was taken into a small shed near by and shown three stones taken from the chambers bearing various markings including lines and V’s. Hamish insisted that these were real prehistoric designs created by the Neolithic builders but apparently the archaeologists have suggested they were just scrape marks caused by the digger and other mechanical equipment. To my untrained eye they certainly looked convincing and the scores were quite deep and sort of regular but not enough to be made by the action of a machine. I took some photos of these to have a look at later but it was certainly interesting.
What of the future of the tomb? Well Hamish eventually wants to develop the site and house the tomb in a sort of building which would have a visitors’ centre and a half grass covered mound to a height or the original tomb with the other half open so that light could get into the tomb for visitors. He insisted he did not want to cover the tombs in the concrete bomb shelter style of so many others on the Orkneys which, looking back on my trip, is a good idea.
To be honest, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Banks and my one-to-one talk with Hamish was both delightful and interesting; the man is, quite rightly, very passionate about his tomb and so would I be. Was it worth the £5 entry fee? Yes, in my opinion, it was very much so, however, if I had been there with a coach load of visitors then maybe not. But to support Hamish in his venture to a great future for the cairn £5 seems very little in the scheme of thing.
Before I left, Hamish had pointed over to a mound a short distance away stating that it was probably of a similar nature to Banks but that the owner of the land did not wish it to be disturbed. I asked whether it would be OK to take a closer look before going over and getting a few photo’s. There isn’t much to see but some of the slope is giving away probably due to natural erosion.
Journey continued in next article: Tomb of the Eagles.