Not all monuments were created equal: part two

‘Expedient architecture’ and Orkney’s Neolithic long cairns

Tulach an t-Sionnaich, Caithness (redrawn after Corcoran 1972).
The Tulach an t-Sionnaich horned cairn in Caithness (redrawn after Corcoran 1972).

By Sigurd Towrie

Tulach an t-Sionnaich, Loch Calder, Caithness

Site Location

As we have seen, the box-construction device was recognised at both the Point of Cott and Vestrafiold.

Re-examining earlier excavations suggests the same architectural method was exploited at other cairns — but not fully understood at the time.

In Caithness, plans to raise the water level of Loch Calder saw a cluster of three chambered cairns excavated between 1961 and 1963 [3].

At the largest, Tulach an t-Sionnaich, a long cairn had been added to a heel-shaped passage grave, possibly resulting in a stepped monument [3].

One of the two Cnoc Freiceadain long horned cairns in Caithness. The sunken feature visible along the spine of the cairn in this picture is similar to that encountered by Corcoran at Tulach an t-Sionnaich and visible at the Head of Work, Orkney, and suggests the use of orthostatic box-construction technique. (Hamish Fenton)
One of the two Cnoc Freiceadain long horned cairns in Caithness. The sunken feature visible along the spine of the cairn in this picture is similar to that encountered by Corcoran at Tulach an t-Sionnaich and visible at the Head of Work, Orkney, and suggests the use of orthostatic box-construction technique. (Hamish Fenton)

As at the Point of Cott, prior to excavation “surface indications” on the tail of the 60-metre-long cairn had “suggested the presence of a chamber”. Investigation, however, revealed “various cist-like arrangements of stone” which were subsequently “shown to be part of the cairn’s structure” [3].

Clearly another example of box-construction, Corcoran noted that the long cairn was “less carefully constructed” than the primary chamber, with vertically arranged flagstones resulting in “many earth-filled gaps”.

These gaps were reponsible for the sunken feature visible along the spine of the cairn – something notable in a number of long cairns.

This vertical arrangement “suggested the appearance of disturbed chambers or cists…” [3] providing direct parallels with the collapsed “boxes” encountered at Vestrafiold and the Point of Cott.

Enclosing this northern section was a “roughly built” drystone wall. Comparing Tulach an t-Sionnaich to the chambered cairn Bryn yr Hen Bob, in Anglesey, Corcoran highlighted the “inferiority of [both long cairns’] construction when compared to that of the [primary] cairns proper” [3].

The Knowe of Lairo, Rousay. Note the 'broken spine effect,' highlighted in red, across the tail of the cairn. (
The Knowe of Lairo, Rousay, Orkney. Again, note the ‘broken spine effect,’ highlighted in red, across the tail of the cairn. (

Tulloch of Assery B, Loch Calder, Caithness

This, the third Loch Calder monument, was a circular stalled cairn that is included here because the excavation report suggests that box-construction — if that is what was encountered — may not have been restricted to long cairns.

In this case, Corcoran noted that: “Vertical slabs, the tops of which were visible in the upper part of the cairn before excavation, and which resembled the sides of cists, were found in every case to form part of the inner structural complex” [3].

While this is not proof that box-construction was employed, the fact there was, yet again, indications of cist-like structures on the surface of the pre-excavated mound is interesting.

Setter, Eday, Orkney

Setter, Eday, Orkney.

An example of a small cairn that did utilise the box-construction method was found in the Orkney island of Eday.

Here, a small, circular chambered cairn — with a diameter of five metres — had a tiny central chamber (1.8 metres long; 1.10 metres wide and less than a metre high) surrounded by orthostatic boxes [8].

Just as at Vestrafiold, but on a greatly reduced scale, stone slabs were laid on top, and up against, the “construction boxes” to form the body of the external cairn.

Roseness, Holm, Orkney

Roseness, Holm, Orkney.

Although not recognised by Davidson and Henshall [5], it is likely this is a long cairn, measuring 46 metres long and with traces of hornworks surviving at both ends.

During a 2014 survey, Chris Gee noted: “The tail end [of the long cairn] running to the south-west is visible as a turf ridge with much stone and several orthostats protruding along its length, orientated at right angles to the length.

“The visible orthostats give the impression of a possible box-construction in the tail — a building technique observed at Vestrafiold horned cairn and others.” [9]

Expedient architecture

Maeshowe interior. (Jim Richardson)
The central chamber at Maeshowe, Orkney. The superb masonry found in this chambered cairn, among others, has led to the widespread assumption that all Neolithic monuments were built to endure. (Jim Richardson)

The use of the box-construction method, and the resulting structures, calls into question many assumptions surrounding chambered cairns and, indeed, Neolithic architecture.

First, it shows that not all structures were meant to be the steadfast edifices, e.g. Maeshowe, that have come to typify chambered cairns. From the many surviving examples, Neolithic stonemasons knew their craft, so any suggestion that scrappy construction was accidental, or due to inexperience, must be challenged.

Instead, the box-method should perhaps be seen as another string to the stoneworkers’ bow — a means of erecting monuments (large or small) quickly and easily, reducing not only construction labour but time spent quarrying and preparing suitable stone.

Undoubtedly quicker than “conventional” techniques, perhaps box-construction was the only way certain monuments could be erected with the resources available — whether that be the visually magnificent, such as the Point of Cott, or the pedestrian, such as the tiny Setter cairn.

Where once building projects required, and called upon, the mobilisation of large numbers of people, by the final centuries of the Neolithic was there a situation where it was no longer possible to achieve this, so a quicker solution sought?

After encountering the box-construction, Barber concluded that previous labour estimates for building chambered cairns were too high.

A visually impressive monument, such as the Point of Cott, he suggested, could be built “in just over a week, by a workforce of ten persons” [4]. In these cases, the fact the completed structure was unstable and prone to collapse was clearly irrelevant.

Were they, as suggested by Barber, temporary constructions that could be quickly built and dismantled? Or was the goal actually the creation of a structure that was meant to decay rapidly? An “ancient monument” in appearance only? Whatever the case, the permanence ascribed to chambered cairns today did not apply to all forms of Neolithic monumental structure.

From the few examples excavated to date, there are three distinct patterns — a stepped long cairn enclosing one or more “burial” chambers (Tulach an t-Sionnaich); a large, stone building (Point of Cott) and a fake cairn erected to look like the former, or perhaps a decaying, ruinous version of the latter (Vestrafiold).

Despite differences in the three, one element pervades — the fact that the Neolithic builders were doing this much later than previously thought [7].

Late Neolithic turmoil

South-eastern entrance to the Ring of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)
South-eastern entrance to the Ring of Brodgar – another suggested example of expedient architecture. (Sigurd Towrie)

Regardless of the reasons behind the constructions, the method used not only explains the poor state of preservation at Vestrafiold but may account for the apparent rarity of long cairns in the Orcadian Neolithic.

The haphazard constructions have simply not survived — at the very least in a recognisable state — and may have been among the many “tumuli or barrows” destroyed by agricultural improvements and lamented by the Orcadian antiquarian George Petrie in 1849 [10].

This use of “architecture of contingency and expedience” [7] ties in with current thinking on the seemingly volatile nature of Late Neolithic Orcadian society [11] [12].

Although chambered cairns undoubtedly had multiple roles, archaeological work in Orkney suggests a major element was providing links to the past, kinship and descent [13]. Behind this is the idea that cairns not only laid claim to land but emphasised the builders’ connection to it and the physical presence of genealogical forebears legitimised these claims. These “ancestors” were represented by the remains of the dead, housed in structures that were visible indicators of their builders’ right to be there.

In Orkney, it is suggested that the importance ascribed to ancestral links sent Neolithic society down an unsustainable path in pursuit of prestige, social status and influence. This was manifested, in a highly visual manner, through the construction of monuments [11].

This not only saw “increasingly large and elaborate stalled cairns” but elements of Irish passage grave architecture adopted by “ambitious and widely travelled” Orcadians, looking to “enhance their power by appropriating an exotic tradition” [14].

Interior of the Cuween chambered cairn, Firth, Orkney. (Jim Richardson)
Interior of the Cuween chambered cairn, Firth, Orkney. (Jim Richardson)

With different groups seeking to outdo each other in the creation and maintenance of “exotic ancestral origin myths”, the situation in Orkney was “competitive, fluid and unstable” [12] with “rivalries played out” as people invested “time and labour in monuments relating to deities, ancestors and origins that stretched well beyond the shores of Late Neolithic Orkney” [11].

Against this backdrop of intense competition, not only were new monuments built, but, towards the middle of the third millennium BC, earlier passage graves were “re-appropriated and transformed” into massive long cairns [12].

These transformations were all about illusion — the veneer of magnificence overlying what was essentially a scrappy construction. Focus had shifted from the interiors, which were often sealed up and “perhaps relegated to myth”[15], to superficial exteriors.

The scramble to construct bigger, but not necessarily better, monuments had led to a situation where appearance was key — or as Richards et al. put it, “surface over substance” [7]. This is most apparent at Vestrafiold and the creation of what was — in appearance only — a substantial monument.

The Ring of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)
The Ring of Brodgar, Stenness, looking towards the Staneyhill quarry, Harray. (Sigurd Towrie)

What is particularly interesting, however, is that its position at a confirmed megalithic quarry links the cairn to another example of “expedient architecture” [7] — the Ring of Brodgar.

Not only was the cairn built at the same time megaliths were being quarried for the stone circle (2800–2500BC), but a large standing stone — extracted from the same rock stratum as Brodgar stones — stood in the forecourt [7].

Staneyhill, Harray, Orkney.

The Brodgar link continues at Staneyhill, Harray, where a massive long cairn was erected at another known quarry site for the Brodgar ring and Maeshowe [7]. The largest example found in Orkney to date, the Staneyhill cairn is approximately 70 metres long, shows evidence of box-construction and seems to have been specifically positioned to be visible from the Ring of Brodgar [7].

If, as seems likely, the visual link was a deliberate part of its construction, it also places the erection of the Staneyhill cairn around 2600BC — either at the same time as the Ring of Brodgar or at some point afterwards [7].

Had it been found in isolation, a shoddily built, fake cairn could be considered a mere archaeological anomaly.  However, as has been shown, there is evidence that the building technique used was key to the construction of other monuments — in Orkney, the Scottish mainland and perhaps beyond.

This suggests the orthostatic box-construction method encountered at Vestrafiold was an accepted, widely used means of creating large structures with minimal effort. The fact that the resulting building was anything but stable was clearly of no concern to the people of third millennium BC Orkney.

They were caught up in an escalating race for status in which different factions sought to outdo each other through the construction of monuments. It is this instability that may lie behind the apparent dearth of long (and short) horned cairns in Orkney.

The fragile constructions have simply not survived or, where they have, are in a condition that has made identification impossible or, at the very least, difficult — unless the surveyor knows specifically what to look for. Roseness, Holm, for example, was not recorded as a long cairn by experts Davidson and Henshall following a visit in August 1957. Post Vestrafiold, however, the visual clues left by collapsed box-construction were recognised almost 60 years later.

The situation is possibly exacerbated by the fact that the long cairn builders seemed to favour coastal locations. The damage at the Point of Cott, for example, is a stark illustration of devastation caused by erosion.

After years languishing in the shadow of their more prolific siblings, long cairns have a vital role in the understanding of the final centuries of the Orcadian Neolithic. Like the monuments themselves, however, details of this role will remain elusive until unlocked by further investigation and excavation.


  • [1] Henshall, A. (1985) The Chambered Cairns. In Renfrew, C. (ed) The Prehistory of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • [2] Anderson, J. (1866–8) On the horned cairns of Caithness: their structural arrangement, contents of chambers &c. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 7: 480–512.
  • [3] Corcoran, J.X.W.P. (1966) Excavation of three chambered cairns at Loch Calder, Caithness. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland 98, 1–75.
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  • [7] Richards, C., Downes, J., Ixer, R., Hambleton, E., Peterson, R. & Pollard, J. (2013) Surface over Substance: the Vestra Fiold horned cairn, Mainland, Setter cairn, Eday, and a reappraisal of later Neolithic funerary architecture. In Richards, C. (ed) Building the Great Stone Circles of the North. Oxford: Windgather Press, 149 – 83.
  • [8] Downes, J. (1999) Orkney Barrows Project. Current Archaeology 165: 324-329.
  • [9] Gee, C. (2014) Canmore [online]. Available from [April 3, 2019].
  • [10] Petrie, G. (1849) Letter to Daniel Wilson, quoted within Davidson & Henshall 1989: 15.
  • [11] Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richards, C. and Whittle, A. (2017) Islands of history: the Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney. Antiquity, 91(359), 1171–1188.
  • [12] Richards, C., Downes, J., Gee, C. and Carter, S. (2016) Materialising Neolithic House Societies in Orkney. In Richards, C. and Jones, R. (eds) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Oxford: Windgather Press, 224-253.
  • [13] Richards, C. and Jones, A. M. (2016) Houses of the Dead: The transition from wood to stone architecture at Wideford Hill. In Richards, C. and Jones, R. (eds) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Oxford: Windgather Press, 16-40.
  • [14] Schulting, R., Sheridan, A., Crozier, R. and Murphy, E. (2010) Revisiting Quanterness: new AMS dates and stable isotope data from an Orcadian chamber tomb. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 140, 1–50.
  • [15] Richards, C. (1993) An Archaeological Study of Neolithic Orkney: Architecture, Order and Social Order.

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