by Chris Brooks, Heritage Action. All images © Chris Brooks.
I left Banks very happy and made my way to the Tomb of the Eagles. In comparison to Banks this place seems better organised in terms of signage and parking. I paid my entry fee (£6.80 I think it was) and was led into an adjoining room where a member of the staff was talking to a small group of visitors about the tomb.
The talk was interesting and informative, with some of the artefacts being handed out for examination. Particularly interesting for me was the albertite ‘button’ that I has seen on the ‘Standing With Stones’ DVD by Michael Bott and Rupert Soskin. One member of the group refused to handle any of the pieces, whether out of respect, revulsion or because of the damage that handing them can cause, I am not sure but personally I could not resist it. Once this talk is over (having repeated the bit I missed at the beginning) you are then led into the next room for another talk on another site called South Liddle, Liddle 1, Liddle Burnt Mound or even Fulacht Fia. Both the talks were great with a great deal of hypothetical ideas thrown in and debated, such as was the stone water boiler shaped as such so that it fitted the approximate shape of the animal to be cooked (answers on a postcard!!).
We were then shown the directions to the two sites and left to it… well at least I thought I was. I was just about to leave when a member of staff called Freda (I think that was her name) stopped me and asked me what I was doing by the mound near Bank, what I thought of Bank and was it worth the £5 as compared with what they charge for their site? I felt a little like I was being interrogated for a moment (although very nicely). I basically said the same as I have written here about the two sites but as to whether Bank compared more favourably I said I couldn’t answer as I hadn’t seen the tomb yet but did enjoy the presentations they had given. I got the feeling they were a little worried about the potential competition from Bank and the other mound should it be opened; I don’t see why they should as it gives people a better reason to visit the area, and if they combined the experience of the whole would be greater than the parts.
I started on my journey to the burnt mound site which was only about a third of a mile away; the route was dry and easy going taking little effort. When I arrived I was quite amazed really as there in front of you was the layout of a little house or building complete with the central stone ‘boiling’ area mentioned in the talk at the museum.
I had not seen anything like this before and the fact that it was fairly intact was lovely. You could see the stone walls and the fired stones that created the mound in which the building stood. After a while though when the excitement calmed down, it became clear that some of the features, such as the stone walling and grinding stones, had been placed into position for the benefit of visitors but, unfortunately in the case of the walling, not very well. However it was to be a good introduction for sites around the rest of Orkney.
I moved on toward the Tomb of the Eagles. This is about another two thirds of a mile away, and as you approach the somewhat more muddy path takes you towards the cliffs and the ever so dramatic coast line. My excitement increased again as I drew closer to the now very visible cairn. You can make out the stone terraces that I had seen in pictures and my pace quickened in eagerness to get there. I walked through the gate and walked towards the entrance passage way. The outside is a little untidy and, I thought, could do with smartening somewhat.
The passage way is quite small especially for a fat bloke so I took the pensioners option (rather than the knee pads) and made a grab for the purpose built trolly. This seemed the best way forward as I was carrying my very heavy camera bag full of kit… ah em…. well that’s my excuse anyway. Actually it was quite fun lying face down on the trolly holding my camera bag under my chin while pulling myself along with the overhead rope.
I was in, and stood up to admire the tomb. Now I saw about the concrete bunker, it was absolutely hideous but I suppose I felt it performs a function. I admired the original stonework, and the effort that went into building this wonderful place, but I was a little disappointed with many aspects. Obviously for health and safety reasons much of one side of the chamber was being constrained by a wooden frame covered in chicken wire, an old broom had been left in one of the chambers, a horrible ill fitting metal grill ‘stopped’ access to one of the small side chambers. There were also many annoying little plastic laminated warning signs dotted around everywhere telling you not to do stuff, all of which detracted from the experience.
Unfortunately there were no skulls in any of the chambers as I hoped and seen on the ‘Modern Antiquarian’ website which was again a little disappointing. The stone work on the other hand was fantastic.
Outside the knee pad bin was a cut away chemical container right by the side of the entrance along with the old bag of sand used as a crash mat for the trolly. This all added to a bit of an eyesore as far as I was concerned.
This next bit may may not be a view everybody shares but it is my opinion.
Here we have an important well advertised prehistoric gem. It has a great well run interactive museum, shop and vital facilities with extremely enthusiastic members of staff. But when it comes down to the actual bits of real interest, the bits that people come all this way to see, it appears the money is not being invested so well. Earlier I was asked whether the entry fee for this place was worth it compared to Bank. Well the answer is yes, or at least it could be I think, with some of the takings invested in making both the settlement and tomb look more welcoming. This could partly be achieved by replacing the horrible knee pad container with something more aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Likewise with removing the broom in the end section of the tomb, and installing purpose built non-rusting grills in the section you don’t want people to get into. Also remove those overused warning labels from the actual chamber walls (they could be put on the hideous concrete ceiling instead) or better still put a detailed information board outside where everybody can read it.
Two good points were the supply of torches outside the chambers (but make the rusty chains a little longer so we can get a good look around) and the fact I saw my first wild seal in British waters when I took the lovely coastal path back to the car. Overall the place is worth visiting but the next few day would show me that there are other burial tombs on Orkney that are just as good if not better.
My next stop was to be Mine Howe which I saw the sign for as I made my way back up to the main island. However, as I got closer to the location there were no longer any signs. I initially drove past the tombs and had to use the OS map to confirm where I was. But when I arrived at the location I found the place closed with a black bin liner covering the sign by the tombs. I consulted my TMA printouts and they informed me that the site wasn’t open every day out of season; I assumed this was the case so planned to come back another day.
By now I was now quite tired and very hungry and decided I would grab a bite to eat, find the cottage I had booked and call it a day.