The discovery of the Taversoe Tuick – a ‘most remarkable’ Neolithic cairn

“After Maeshowe, the Taiverso (sic) Cairn in Rousay may be regarded as perhaps the most remarkable of all the Orkney cairns; for here we have the extraordinary phenomenon of a two-storeyed chambered cairn.”
Hugh Marwick. Ancient Monuments in Orkney. (1952)
Taversoe Tuick - entrance to the upper chamber with Wyre Sound in the background.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Taversoe Tuick – entrance to the upper chamber with Wyre Sound in the background. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

By Sigurd Towrie

Rousay map

Echoing Marwick’s comment above, for me the Taversoe Tuick [1] stands out as one of our most fascinating chambered “tombs”.

Built into a hillside overlooking Rousay’s south coast, the structure is one of only two “double-decker” Neolithic cairns known in Orkney.

Like Huntersquoy, in Eday, the Taversoe Tuick has an upper and lower chamber, one stacked on top of the other, with a third, beautifully built, but separate, chamber downslope to the south-east.

Although the structure was discovered in the late 19th century, the upper chamber was ruinous and its existence only confirmed by excavation in 1937.

The discovery

Lady Burroughs' sketch of the Taversoe Tuick - referred to as Flagstaff Hill by her and her husband - before excavation in May 1898.
Lady Burroughs’ sketch of the Taversoe Tuick – referred to as Flagstaff Hill by her and her husband – before excavation in May 1898. (📷 [5])

Lying 200 metres to the west of Trumland House, in 1898 the site appeared as a heathery knoll just over nine metres in diameter.

1898 Sketch of Taversoe Tuick.
The position of the cists in relation to the upper chamber. (📷 [5])

Although it was “known by the local name of Taversoe Tuick”[2][3], the owner of the Trumland Estate, the infamous General Burroughs, referred to it as “Flagstaff Hill” [4] and considered it the perfect spot for looking out across the waters of Wyre Sound, towards the islands of Wyre, Gairsay and the Orkney Mainland.

So, Burroughs set men to work, cutting into the mound’s southern face to erect a sheltered “summer-seat” where he and his wife might enjoy the spectacular views.

It was during this operation that a small portion of the upper chamber was exposed, along with three stone cists containing “fragments of bones” that “had obviously been incinerated” and broken pottery. [2]

1898 Sketch of Taversoe Tuick
1898 sketch of the lower chamber in relation to the upper. (📷 [5])

Analysis at the time proposed that the cremated remains belonged to at least one adult, possibly three, and a child. The pottery sherds suggested the cremations had been deposited in “urns”. [2]

As we’ll see, the cists were much later Bronze Age additions. By the time they were inserted, the chamber floor was covered by a “layer of earth about a foot thick”. [2]

At that point, because of the denuded condition of the upper storey, the Burroughs had no idea their discovery had two levels. Accordingly, the well-preserved “underground chamber” lying beneath, along with the finds within, were the focus of attention:

Lady Burroughs’ 19th century sketch of the lower chamber. (📷 [5])
“By [candle] light, one of the party descended by the broken lintel and explored the underground chamber … sufficiently to show that we had come upon a wonderfully preserved and complete ‘Chambered Cairn’, of four Chambers and a Passage, almost intact. In the short survey, remains of a skeleton in a doubled-up, sitting position was observed, also various distinct heaps of bones; some of these heaps reaching along the passage at intervals.” [5]

The discovery, in particular the human remains, disturbed Lady Eliza Burroughs somewhat:

“When I went to bed that night, I could think of nothing else! There we had sat, during many happy summers, stretched on the purple heather, basking in the sunshine; laughing and talking with the carelessness of youth, little dreaming that barely eight feet below us sat these grim and ghastly skeletons…” [5]

The Burroughs continued exploring the structure for three weeks, finding that the “underground chamber” was made up of a central area surrounded by four compartments – two at the north end and a pair of larger ones at the eastern and western sides.

And it is thanks to Lady Burroughs “dig diary” that we have a detailed account and illustrations:

“Though the building is neat, even precise, there are no marks of implements other than- stone on anything. Two of the Compartments look like huge Stone Armchairs [A], two might be sleeping places [B]. In the sleeping places are layers of black greasy mud, separated by slabs of paving stone!” [5]

As well as the crouched burial in the north-western rear cell, fragments of human remains were also found in its north-eastern neighbour.

1898 drawing of compartments at the rear of the lower chamber.
1898 drawing of compartments at the rear of the lower chamber. (📷 [5])

A long, narrow entrance passage ran from the chamber’s southern end, but appeared to have been partially blocked towards the outer end, where “a block of stone lay … across the passage and fitted into the wall on each side”. [5]

Three piles of bones lay within the passage, while beyond the “barrier stone” was a fragment of a broken macehead. [2]

“The remains of the Skeletons were in the Armchairs. 13½ feet down the Passage is an unmoveable stone Barrier [C] of over one foot in height. The Passage then narrows till at 30 feet from its commencement it ends in only 6 inches of width!

“It is paved and roofed throughout the 30ft with neat but rough flat stones. In fact but for the barrier it might have been intended for a well built-drain, but the Barrier disposes of the possibility of this. What then is its purpose?

“In this underground Chamber and Passage nothing has been found but bones and greasy mud; but from the broken Lintel, which first revealed the Chamber of which it formed part of the roof, has been collected beautiful specimens (sadly broken) of Clay Urns; and from outside the Barrier the strangest “find” of all is a polished granite axe head in company with a small bit of flint.

“Cremation burials, under inverted Urns were also found where the Passage begins to narrow, all of which probably point to their being of much later date than the Underground Chamber.

“We have since found this Chamber to be roofed with five large stone lintels, two of them of 12 inches in thickness. A thinner Lintel having broken, and fallen in ages ago, was the cause of our ever discovering the gloomy Chamber which first met our wondering eyes on that night of thunder!”

Pondering their incredible discovery – only part of which had been revealed – Lady Burroughs concluded:

“[F]or what purpose was this Tumulus originally constructed? Is it a purely a burial Chamber? I cannot think it is only that. Has it been the Law-giver’s seat, to administer Justice to the District? Or has it some connection with Sun-worship, or Astronomical observation?

“What a pity the Stones cannot speak, and reveal to us the intentions of their builders. As I sit there now and think over the thousand and one ideas it suggests, I find it far more interesting, – though perhaps less cheerful – than the merry parties we had promised ourselves, in the ‘Summer-seat’ which has revealed so much mystery.”


The entrance to the lower chamber during excavation in 1937.
The entrance to the lower chamber under excavation in 1937.
(📷 Grant. Excavations on behalf of HM Office of works at Taiverso Tuick. 1939)

The Taversoe Tuick passed into the care of the Ministry of Works in 1934, and, three years later, was thoroughly re-excavated.

The work was carried out by the then owner of the Trumland Estate, Walter Grant – the excavation just one of a number on his land that he financed and carried out in the 1930s.

Lady Burroughs' sketch of the north-western section of the upper chamber, exposed in 1898, showing the orthostats bonded into the wall. (📷 [5])
Lady Burroughs’ sketch of the north-western section of the upper chamber, exposed in 1898, showing the orthostats bonded into the wall. (📷 [5])

During their 19th century explorations, Lady Burroughs had recorded a “neat, well-preserved, rough-built wall with uprights of stone slabs,” on the ground above their “underground chamber”. [5]

At the time, what this represented was not clear.

It was subsequently mooted to have been a second chamber, but, according to Grant, “antiquaries were reluctant to believe that the two chambers were contemporary, since a two-storeyed burial vault would be unprecedented”. [6]

The 1937 excavations, however, confirmed that was exactly what it was – an upper storey contemporary with the Burroughs’ subterranean chamber.  

Plan of the Taversoe Tuick following excavation in 1937. (Davidson and Henshall. The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. 1989)
Plan of the Taversoe Tuick following excavation in 1937.
(Davidson and Henshall. The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. 1989)

Both had been constructed and enclosed within the same stone cairn, one placed almost exactly over the other and each with a separate entrance passage – the upper served by one in the north side, facing inland, the lower facing south-east towards the sea.

The excavators also revealed a third, intact chamber, outside, and downhill from, the lower level’s entrance.

We’ll start our exploration of these three chambers next time


  • [1] Also recorded as Taiverso Tuack, which predates the current spelling and undoubtedly reflects the original pronunciation. In 1903, Turner apparently decided to add an umlaut, creating Taiversö – an anomalous spelling still found in some quarters today. The earliest account I have found that was written by an Orcadian simply states: “Another [chambered cairn was] discovered on the top of a hillock called called Taiverso…” (Marwick 1924. Antiquarian notes on Rousay). See [3].
  • [2] Turner, W. (1903). An account of a chambered cairn and cremation cists at Taversoe Tuick, near Trumland House, in the island of Rousay, Orkney, excavated by Lieut. General Traill Burroughs, CB, of Rousay, in 1898. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 37, pp. 73-82).
  • [3] Although the origin of the name is unclear and open to debate, there are interesting possibilities. The second element Tuick is an attempt to record the Orcadian dialect word tooack, which derives from the Old Norse þúfa, in this case meaning small knoll or mound. For Taversoe we must look at earlier spelling/pronunciation — Taiverso. Here the final “-o” element is common in Orkney and is a contraction of howe, from the Old Norse haugr, meaning (burial) mound. Taiver, on the other hand, is not so clear. Although the word taiver is used in dialect to refer to rags, Hugh Marwick proposed, in this case, it was related to the Old Norse tafr — a sacrifice or offering to the gods. As such he wondered if the name could be interpreted as the mound of sacrifice.
    Gregor Lamb, however, suggested that taiver may relate to a piece of now-lost folklore surrounding the site, given that the Old Norse taufr means sorcery or charm. The verb taufra means to enchant.
    Was the mound once considered the abode of a mythical sorcerer? We’ll never know, although this fits with the widespread Orcadian belief that mounds were the homes of otherworldly spirits/beings.
  • [4] Although it already had a name, the Burroughs referred to the mound as “Flagstaff Hill” because an old ship’s mast had been raised on top. This, according to Lady Burroughs, “acted as the pole for the vermin-trap set by the gamekeeper.”
  • [5] Reynolds, D. M. (1985) ‘How we found a tumulus’ a story of the Orkney Islands — The Journal of Lady Burroughs. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 115, pp. 115-124).
  • [6] Grant, W. (1939) Excavations on behalf of HM Office of works at Taiverso Tuick, Trumland, Rousay. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Volume 73, 1938-39, pp. 155-166).

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