Sat 28th July
We got the 8.45am ferry from Gill’s Bay, just west of John O’Groats, and an hour later arrived in the Orkneys after seeing dolphins and seals quite close to the ship. This is a fairly new service and is the cheapest way to the islands at present. We found out you had to book too late and just squeezed in last “on standby”. (To save similar stress their website gives times and booking details at www.pentlandferries.co.uk) There is a day trip to the islands but expect coachloads of people at all the sites and little time to look.
We arrived on the southern part of the islands on South Ronaldsay and decided to head south first to visit the Ibister tomb called Tomb of the Eagles and the burnt mound.
of the Eagles
On the far south eastern corner of South Ronaldsay is this recently excavated site. The islands are joined by causeways called the Churchill Barriers built during the last war and the site is signposted 5 miles south of St Margaret’s Hope.
The tomb at Ibister was discovered in the 1970s by the farmer who now runs it as a private museum, which is his front porch, containing skulls, polished axes and tools found in the tomb. Entry is £3 and they sell a useful guide for £2. The tomb was practically intact and the remains of up to 340 burials were found along with bones and talons of sea eagles – hence the name.
You start in the museum porch where members of the farmer’s family give interesting talks and hand out tools, skulls and pottery fragments. They have three beautifully shaped small polished axeheads and a mace or hammerhead, a polished jet button and a scraper as well as beads made from shells and teeth. The quality is superb.
Skulls and tools in the museum
A walk of about 10 minutes brings you to a burnt mound. This site is about halfway between the farm and the tomb and is a well preserved building.
It has a large central watertight trough constructed from large flagstones that was used for cooking in. Stones were heated and dropped in to heat the water. We were given detailed information by the grandfather on the farm who pointed out the features on the site and described how the tools might have been used.
The side of the burnt mound is exposed showing the charcoal and heat cracked stones that were discarded in the midden when they were no longer large enough to be of use.
The photo shows the excavated burnt mound and a selection of tools
The walk continues along a path and then on to the cliff edge where the spectacularly tomb lies. It is a dramatic approach and when we were there the fog started rolling in from the sea and a fog horn started up in the distance.
The entrance is on the NE where you can see the horn shapes either side of the dry stone walling of the entrance. The tomb has been re-roofed to preserve the interior but window panels above allow light in. You can enter by a trolley and pull yourself in on a rope or just crawl in to enter a rectangular chamber, the sides of which are corbelled and were stone capped at a height of 3.5metres.
The chamber is divided into three sections by slabs and at each end is a partitioned area that was originally shelved. There are also three side chambers, one of which still has skulls on display behind glass. The roof is modern and the original roof is believed to have been removed when the tomb was filled with soil and stones. A great mound of pottery was found just inside the entrance and floor deposits showed up large quantities of fish bones and charred wheat and barley seeds. Human bones were piled into the compartments and the side cells in the west were filled with human skulls and sea eagle talons. Radiocarbon dating has shown that the tomb was in use for 800 years before being filled in.
fog coming in at the tomb