Around the Ness: ‘Little Barnhouse’ mound
By Sigurd Towrie
Most visitors to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site will be familiar with Maeshowe. Few, however, will know that what appears to be an equally large chambered cairn stands by the roadside about a mile to the west.
Just outside Stenness village, and opposite the Standing Stones Hotel, is a large oval mound. It was given scheduled monument status in 2002 and the designated name “Little Barnhouse”.
Measurements in 1946 put the mound’s diameter at 50.3m (55 yds) and 42.1m (46 yds), making it larger than Maeshowe. The later evidence of a ditch, however, suggests the original cairn must have been around the same size. It was, however, not as high – presumably due to collapse.
Strangely, the mound was the subject of debate for decades, with some saying it was artificial and others adamant it was natural.
Why strange? Because the mound was “excavated” in the early 1890s and, according to newspaper reports, was found to contain a three-metre-diameter chamber with a flagstone roof, a 3.2-metre-long (10ft 6in) paved entrance passage (0.76m high and wide) and possibly two side-chambers:
“The chamber is circular in shape and ten feet in diameter. Its walls are built with stone and are a good specimen of mason work. The roof was composed of large flagstones, one of them being two feet thick (the main beam, as it were, of the roof) and these were supported by the side walls and by stone pillars in addition, and over the flagstones there were placed safe stones for additional support of the earth above them.
The flagstones, however, had given way and the roof fallen in, but the height of the chamber had been probably seven feet or thereby.
The passage leading into the chamber from without was 10 feet 6 inches in length and 2 feet 6 inches in width and in height, so that entrance could only be obtained by creeping upon the hands and knees. The passage was paved with stones and the floor of the chamber was composed of two courses of mason work.
The structure was altogether a singularly complete one and being circular would stand considerable pressure on all sides. The one weak point was the wide roof, which may have been brought down partly by its own weight.”
A few years later, in 1899, outlining the ancient monuments of Stenness to a visiting group of Irish antiquarians, James Cursiter, a native of the county, wrote:
“[A]lmost opposite the Stennis (sic) Hotel, there is a glacial moraine, in which was discovered, about four years ago, a single-chamber burial-place, constructed of heavy stones, and having a drain-like entrance.”
The scant details available, particularly the long, low and narrow entrance passage, certainly suggests a chambered cairn but a “circular chamber” is not something you would expect to encounter with these. In this case, however, it is clear the landowner’s use of “chamber” is not referring to the interior but the circular shape of the structure as a whole.
There are no details of the mound’s opening, other than the information in the 1893 newspaper report and Cursiter’s brief comment. As a result, the excavation seems to have been forgotten about. In 1946, the mound was considered “apparently artificial” and perhaps a chambered cairn. By 1966, 75 years after the excavation, it was described as “probably natural”.
Geophysics scans in 2001 showed this was not the case and that the mound, which had been truncated by 19th century road improvements, was once surrounded by a two-metre-wide (6ft 7in) ditch with a diameter of circa 40 metres (131ft). Other linear features were noted parallel to the ditch, which may represent secondary ditches or banks.
Possible entrances were found on the north-eastern and southern sides of the mound as well as evidence suggesting side chambers.
If the structure within the mound is a chambered cairn, the presence of the ditch is significant. For a long time Maeshowe was considered unique because it was the only surviving example of Neolithic funerary architecture enclosed by a ditch.
It seems we may have another.
The possible Maeshowe parallels continue. The 1893 newspaper account referred to pillars supporting a heavy flagstone roof. Did the 19th century investigators encounter something similar to the four large standing stones in Maeshowe’s central chamber and which, until recently, were considered to be buttresses bearing the weight of the roof?
-  The Orkney Herald November 8, 1893.
-  The Orkney Herald March 4, 1891.
-  Journal of the Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (1899). University Press: Dublin. Pg 282.
-  https://canmore.org.uk/site/2110/standing-stones-hotel
-  Challands, A. (2001) Report on the Geophysical Survey at Little Barnhouse, Stenness, Orkney (Archaeological Geophysics Rep No. AC/01/03).