Staneyhill long horned cairn

“Staneyhill horned cairn, at 67m the longest known cairn in Orkney, lies three kilometres north of Maeshowe. Again, in terms of visibility it is a striking visual component of the [World Heritage Site] landscape as it is positioned across the contour – unusual for Orcadian long cairns – making it clearly visible across the Loch of Harray from the Brodgar isthmus.”
Brend et al. Landscapes Revealed (2020)
Staneyhill Map

By Sigurd Towrie

Across the waters of the Harray loch, just over two miles north-east of the Ness of Brodgar complex, is one of the few known Orcadian examples of a Neolithic long horned cairn.

Known locally as the Staneyhill cairn, the unexcavated structure lies 350 metres north-west of a Neolithic quarry site that is marked by a solitary standing stone.

Three examples of long cairns in Caithness — Camster Long (top), North Yarrows (centre) and South Yarrows (after Henshall 1963).
Three examples of long cairns in Caithness — Camster Long (top), North Yarrows (centre) and South Yarrows.

Following accepted typology, long cairns comprise a long, sometimes tapering, cairn with at least one chamber occupying a small part of the monument — usually towards the higher and wider end. 

A forecourt at this end is often faced with walling, with “horns” projecting from the corners to form a semi-enclosed space. [1]

On occasions, hornwork is found on both ends, lending the cairn plan the “appearance of a stretched animal hide”. [2]

The suggestion, in the mid-19th century, that horned cairns were embellished earlier structures [3] was confirmed by excavation in the early 1960s. [2]

This resulted in the general acceptance that long cairns were simply later additions to existing passage graves, although Henshall conceded:

“… it is possible that, in a few cases, the two funerary traditions merged to produce a chambered long cairn built as an entity” [1]

Chambered cairns abound in Orkney and those known today are undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg.

However, despite the rush instigated by Victorian antiquarians to open and “excavate” passage graves, and which saw many investigated, long cairns have long been declared a rarity in the Orcadian Neolithic.

Writing in 1989, Davidson and Henshall identified five, adding that two others — Hacksness, Shapinsay (badly damaged) and Curquoy, Westray (destroyed) — could not be confirmed. [1]

In their comprehensive catalogue of Orcadian chambered cairns, at least two were not recognised as long cairns — Vestrafiold, Sandwick and Roseness, Holm. [1]

Since then, excavations at Hurnip’s Point, Deerness and Vestrafiold have added to the confirmed number, with other suspects at the Bay of Stove, Sanday; Outer Holm, Stromness; Outertown, Stromness; and Roseness, Holm.

Ranging from 47 metres to 70 metres, long cairns in Orkney are similar in length to those on the Scottish mainland. All were also assumed to enclose earlier Orkney-Cromarty cairns but it is now clear that this is not always the case. [4]

Plan view of the Staneyhill long cairn, Harray. (After Davidson and Henshall 1989)
Plan view of the Staneyhill long cairn, Harray. (After Davidson and Henshall 1989)

Because the Staneyhill cairn is unexcavated we do not know much about it.

In fact, the site, which stands on private land, was unknown until 1982, when an area of heathland was reclaimed to create pasture. [5] 

Situated on a gentle north-facing slope, the cairn is oriented north-west to south-east and measures 67 metres long. At its south-eastern end, which lies uphill, it measures 27 metres across, tapering to 11 metres at the midpoint of the cairn body. It survives to a maximum height of c0.8m.

Aerial view of the Staneyhill long cairn, showing hornwork at the south-eastern and possibly north-western ends. (
Aerial view of the Staneyhill long cairn, showing hornwork at the south-eastern and possibly north-western ends. (📷

The huge structure is beside another rock outcrop, which matches the lithology of the Staneyhill standing stone, c350 metres to the south-east, and one of the surviving megaliths in the Ring of Brodgar.

The outcropping is also likely to be the source of stone used in the creation of the long cairn.

To Davidson and Henshall, the Staneyhill cairn was “difficult to interpret.” [1]

“A number of slabs can be seen within this long cairn, all set transversely to the axis. One slab at each end looks like the back-slab of a chamber. At the SE end there are two slabs and at the other end five slabs all of which appear to be divisional stones.
“It seems most likely that there are two chambers in the cairn, built in line, on exactly the same axis, neither entered from the end of the cairn.
“It hardly seems possible that all the slabs belong to one chamber as it would be 49 m long, approaching double the length of the longest known chamber.” [6]

The cairn was too damaged to assess the original profile but at the wider end projecting horns defined a “seemingly straight facade”. There was also “the hint that the other end also had horns”. [1]

Davidson and Henshall concluded: “Until excavated it is uncertain if the cairn is multi-phased or contains one long stalled chamber, if so, the largest recorded in Orkney.”

But another possibility is that the Staneyhill cairn contained no chamber(s).

Excavation of a denuded structure on Vestrafiold in 2003 showed that not all apparent long cairns were embellished earlier structures. The Vestrafiold cairn, which lay 50 metres east of a megalithic quarry, contained neither chamber nor passage.

Instead, the excavators found they were dealing with a haphazardly built construction that, to all intents and purposes, mimicked the external appearance of a monumental horned cairn.

Not only that, but animal remains found within the body of the Vestrafiold cairn were radiocarbon dated to 2800–2500BC — placing the construction of what was once thought to be an Early Neolithic phenomenon firmly in the Late Neolithic.

The Vestrafiold cairn’s position at a confirmed megalithic quarry links the structure to 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 the Brodgar stones — stood in the forecourt.

According to Richards et al, the Brodgar link continues with Staneyhill. Not only does the long cairn lie near another possible quarry site for the stone circle but they suggest it was positioned to be visible from the Ring of Brodgar, across the loch. [4]

Rather than being built across the hillside, maximising its prominence from downslope, the cairn’s long axis runs upslope, meaning it is skylined from the south-west – the direction of the Brodgar ring. [4]

“Here then is good evidence to indicate that the Staneyhill cairn was positioned to be viewed to maximum effect from the Ring of Brodgar, and if this is the case, built at the same time or later than the great stone circle.”

This, they suggested, would make the Staneyhill long cairn a “new construction”, raised around 2600BC. [4]

Its position – running up a slope – casts doubt on the idea that the cairn “absorbed” one (or more) earlier stalled structures – unless these too were built on sloping ground, on exactly the same alignment, which goes against the general pattern noted across Orkney. [1]

But, as always, only excavation will provide the answers.


  • [1] Davidson, J. L. & Henshall, A. S. (1989). The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • [2] 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
  • [3] 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
  • [4] 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
  • [5] Discovery and Excavation in Scotland. 1982.
  • [6] The Knowe of Ramsay, Rousay. 26.8 metres long.

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