Maeshowe – historic additions, incursions and the Norse runes

“Earl Harald set out for Orkney at Christmas with four ships and a hundred men. He lay for two days off Graemsay then put in at Hamnavoe on Hrossey [Mainland Orkney], and on the thirteenth day of Christmas they travelled on foot over to Firth. During a snowstorm they took shelter in Orkahaugr [Maeshowe] and there two of them went insane, which slowed them down badly, so that by the time they reached Firth it was night-time.”
Orkneyinga Saga (Pálsson and Edwards translation)
Maeshowe. July 1861.
Maeshowe. July 1861. This watercolour by A. Gibb shows the conical, pre-excavation outline of the mound – although perhaps exaggerated through artistic licence. Lieutenant Thomas’ profile of Maeshowe, created two decades before this, shows a much rounder outline.

Today, Maeshowe has a rounded, dome-shaped profile – the result of consolidation work in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Prior to its “excavation” in 1861, Maeshowe’s exterior looked very different, described as an 11-metre-high (36ft) “conical tumulus” [4] with a “bluntly conical outline” [12] and a deep depression in the top.

The present mound, approximately seven metres high (23 ft), still stands out today so Maeshowe’s pre-excavation form must have been an even more imposing sight.

We cannot, however, assume that this was the form intended by the Neolithic builders. Maeshowe had seen much activity, inside and out, before Farrer’s crew broke in.

As Petrie pointed out in 1861:

“[The tumulus] had evidently been previously opened.”[4]

Some years previously, Lieutenant Thomas, surveying the monuments of Stenness, noted:

“Many attempts had been made to explore [Maeshowe], as there are several small heaps upon its sides; but at last sufficient force and perseverance was brought to work, and a huge misshapen mass upon the east side shews [sic] the explorers were successful.[12]

This apparent interference with the mound, and perhaps its contents, goes back centuries.

The earliest account of Maeshowe is found within the pages of the Orkneyinga saga, written In Iceland around AD1200.

According to the saga, a group of Viking warriors, led by Earl Harald, sought shelter within the prehistoric chamber during a blizzard in 1153:

Norse runes in Maeshowe.
Norse runes in Maeshowe. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The saga account is borne out by the fact that Maeshowe is renowned for containing one of the largest collections of Viking runes in Europe. These were spotted soon after Farrer’s workers entered the chamber and, I would argue, became the focus of his investigation.

But how do we know Orkahaugr is Maeshowe?

Fortunately, an obliging Viking left a runic inscription that tells us that it is. The inscription reads: “Jórsalafarar brutu Orkhaug,” which translates to: “Jerusalem-travellers [crusaders] broke Orkahaugr”. [13]

Unfortunately, the saga tells us nothing more about Maeshowe, but there are a few things we can glean from the story.

Runic illustration
A selection of the runic inscriptions recorded by Farrer upon entering the chamber.

Firstly, it is highly unlikely that a travelling warband seeking shelter in a snowstorm would dig their way into the ruins of a prehistoric chamber. Instead, it implies the chamber was already at least partially accessible.

Secondly, the saga account tells us that chambered cairn was clearly a well-known landmark. Familiar enough to the readers to know what it was without explanation.

Why was it well known?

There are a number of possibilities. The placename element “howe” is widespread in Orkney and comes from the Old Norse “haugr” meaning “(burial) mound”.

The practice of burying the dead inside or under mounds was a common practice among early Norse settlers [14] and excavation outside the chamber in the 1970s suggested the bank had been rebuilt in the 10th century AD:

“The radiocarbon date from within the bank at the south side of the monument now gives clear corroboration that the early, low stone bank was indeed modified at a later stage [AD950].

“Indeed, it is not impossible that the chamber may have been used for a Viking burial in the tenth century, when the bank was reconstituted, which would perhaps lend substance to the twelfth-century claim (in the runes) that ‘treasure was carried off in the course of three nights’.”

There is, however, a lack of evidence for Viking reuse of Maeshowe – not surprising given Farrer’s excavation method – prompting Graham-Campbell and Batey to declare the idea “lacks conviction”. [16]

They added:

“The reason for this rebuild is unknown but it is possible that the great mound was chosen as a pagan cult-place – or it might well have been the site of an unrecorded thing, given its central location.” [16]

Based on their format of the runes, the chamber was first entered before 1125 because none of the runes inside are stylistically older than that. They date from 1125 to 1175 [17] and may have been added piecemeal over a period in which Maeshowe’s interior was freely accessible.

The fact there are runes at ground level also suggests the initial incursion cannot have been responsible for the mass of rubble encountered by Farrer in 1861. We don’t know how access was gained but it may be that the entrance passage was cleared out and used.

Carved in runes high above Maeshowe’s entrance are the words:

“That is a Viking…then came underneath to this place” [14]

Clearly this does not necessarily refer specifically to the passage, but another implies that “visits to Maeshowe were a regular feature of mid-twelfth-century Orkney life.” [14]

The rune in question is interpreted as:

“Ingibjorg, the fair widow. Many a woman has gone stooping in here.” [17]

Does this “stooping” refer to the height of the entrance passage? If it does, it suggests the passage was open for an unknown period.

Farrer’s discovery of a “rune” in the passage has been cited as evidence of this but this marking, dismissed as one of a group of “unimportant ‘scribbles’ and scratches” [7], is probably one of the Neolithic carvings identified in the chamber in the past 20 years. [18]

However the medieval visitors were entering Maeshowe, it seems they were closing their access point afterwards. There is no evidence of interior weathering that would be expected had it stood open to the elements for any length of time.

In July 1866, five years after Farrer broke in through the roof, a small “aperture at the summit” remained, causing a visiting scholar studying the runes to comment that the walls were “streaming with moisture”. [19]

1784 woodcut.
Rev Henry’s 1784 woodcut, showing Maeshowe (bottom right) and the other monuments in the Stenness area.

Vague local traditions that Maeshowe remaining a trysting place for the young men and women of the parish would seem to be disproved by a 1784 “rude woodcut” of the area produced by Rev Dr Robert Henry in 1784.

Highlighting Maeshowe, which must have been inaccessible by this time, the good reverend explains that, in the 17th century, soldiers sent to Orkney by Oliver Cromwell “dug tolerably deep into the mound” but found “nothing but earth.” [20]

Aside from people digging into the mound, an Orkney tradition recorded by George Marwick in the late 19th century suggests the top of Maeshowe was, and had been, added to regularly:

“[A]t every full moon, every young lass for a mile round the knoll had to take a ‘caisy’ [basket] of ashes and go to the top of the knoll during moonlight, coup the caisy of ashes and make water on it.” [21]

Marwick added:

“I have often heard an old Stennis man tell all these particulars; his grandmother told him she carried ashes every moonlight night to the knoll top.”


  • [1] Challands, A., Muir, T. and Richards, C. (2005) The Great Passage Grave of Maeshowe. In Richards, C. (ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 229–248.
  • [2] Ashmore, P. (2000) Maeshowe. Historic Scotland: Edinburgh.
  • [3] Petrie, G. (1855) Description of antiquities in Orkney recently examined, with illustrative drawings. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 2, pp. 56-62): “Mr Farrer again visited Orkney last summer and resumed the excavations in Burray. I accompanied him to the island, and suggested the propriety of leaving the building undisturbed, and of the careful removal of the rubbish, both outside and inside.”
  • [4] Petrie, G. (1861) Letter to The Orcadian newspaper. July 20, 1861.
  • [5] Stuart, J. (1864) Notice of Excavations in the Chambered Mound of Maeshowe, in Orkney, and of the Runic Inscriptions on the Walls of its central Chamber. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 5, pp. 247-279).
  • [6] Davidson, J.L. and Henshall, A.S. (1989) The Chambered Cairns of Orkney: an inventory of the structures and their contents. Edinburgh University Press.
  • [7] Farrer, J. (1862) Notice of runic inscriptions discovered during recent excavations in the Orkneys. private circulation.
  • [8] Edmonds, M. (2019) Orcadia: Land, Sea and Stone in Neolithic Orkney. Head of Zeus Ltd.
  • [9] Thomas, A. (2016) Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney: Process, Temporality and Context. UHI Archaeology Institute Research Series: 1. Oxford, Archaeopress.
  • [10] Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richards, C. and Whittle, A. (2017) Islands of History: The Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney. Antiquity, 91(359), pp. 1171–1188.
  • [11] Marwick, H. (1931) Modern views of ancient Orkney. Proceedings of the Orkney Antiquarian Society 9, pp 9-16.
  • [12] Thomas, F.W.L. (1851) Account of some of the Celtic Antiquities of Orkney, including the Stones of Stenness, Tumuli, Picts-houses, &c., with Plans, by FWL Thomas, RN, Corr. Mem. SA Scot., Lieutenant Commanding HM Surveying Vessel Woodlark. Archaeologia, 34(1).
  • [13] Barnes, M. (1993) The Interpretation of the Runic Inscriptions of Maeshowe. Viking age in Caithness, Orkney and the North Atlantic : select papers from the proceedings of the Eleventh Viking Congress, Thurso and Kirkwall. Edinburgh University Press.
  • [14] Somerville, A.A. and McDonald, R.A. (2014) The Viking Age: a Reader. University of Toronto Press.
  • [15] Renfrew, C. (1979) Investigations in Orkney. Thames & Hudson.
  • [16] Graham-Campbell, J. and Batey, C.E. (1998) Vikings in Scotland: an archaeological survey (p. 296). Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.
  • [17] Barnes, M.P. (1994) The runic inscriptions of Maeshowe, Orkney. Univ., Inst. för nordiska sprak.
  • [18] Bradley, R., Phillips, T., Richards, C. and Webb, M. (2001) Decorating the houses of the dead: incised and pecked motifs in Orkney chambered tombs. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 11(1).
  • [19] Carr, R. (1868) Note on No. VII. of Mr George Petrie’s Copy of the Maeshow Runes. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 8, pp. 139-142).
  • [20] Hibbert, S. (1823)The Tings of Orkney and Shetland. Archaeologica Scotica VIII.
  • [21] Marwick, G. (1892) Howastedgarth, The Standing Stones, Stennis. In Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.

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