Bernie Bell: Orkney Walks (with Stories) – Cuween

For all these walks, take a good map with you and wear stout footwear!


Cuween cairn is on a hillside above the Bay of Firth.  If you drive along the Inter-City-Super-Highway between Kirkwall  and  Stromness, and turn off when you see the sign, you’ll drive along a track to a small car park.  Cuween  cairn is up the hill, in front of you.

When Mike and I first visited Orkney, and read about Cuween cairn, I didn’t want to go there!  I read that a lot of dog skulls had been found there, of some kind of small, terrier-like breed.  I condemned them,  as dog-killers, and didn’t want anything to do with them!  But…………we decided to go and visit, and see what we made of it.

Bernies dog Ben


So, we went along with our little Jack-Russell Cross, Ben.  He loved it!   As soon as we crossed the stile into the enclosure round the cairn, he ran round and round the cairn, then went up on the side of the mound, and sat completely still, with his ears flapping gently in the wind, the picture of contentment and serenity.

Now, Ben, at that time, was a young terrier, who never sat still.  In fact, it was difficult to take a picture of him, because he was always moving.  It looked like maybe they weren’t  such horrid dog-killers, after all, or Ben would know.

Mike and I thought that maybe the dog was so loved by these people, that they buried them in  the cairn with them, in their special place.  I think this is pretty much accepted as an approach, by archaeologists these days – to look at present day or recent practices among tribal groups, and connect these with what the ancient folk may have done.  There are tribes today, and were more until very recently, who have totem animals, which they revere, and sometimes fear.    Possibly, I’d say probably, the ancient folk of Cuween so loved their dogs, that they were their totem animal, and due much respect.

The eagles, of the Tomb of the Eagles in South Ronaldsay, were possibly the totem creature of the folk who lived in that area.  (More of which, in the story about the Eagle Cairn).

We now had a different perspective on the Cuween folk.  Not dog killers, but dog lovers.  Ben just loved the place, and there is much to love.

If you stand on top of the cairn,  and look all about you, you look across to Wideford Cairn   (more of that later, too!), then, away , over the bay to other islands – land, sea and sky.  It lifts your heart, and lifts your spirits.  They really knew what they were doing, those ancient folk.

If you go into the cairn (with a torch), it’s a warm, welcoming place.  Mike and Ben went in and out of it, Ben trotting back and forth, repeatedly.  I didn’t go in, then, and didn’t go in, for some years.  I didn’t  feel an inclination to go inside.  I don’t know why.   I may not have been someone that they wanted in their cairn.  I don’t  take offence at  that –  I may not have been ready, or may have been the wrong gender!

Another time, some years later, when Mike was in  Cuween, he was politely asked to leave.  The spirit-folk, there, wanted to  have a meeting, and , as he wasn’t part of their group, they weren’t prepared to start the meeting, while he was there.  So, he left.  It is their cairn, after all!

We’ve seen them, at Cuween, Barnhouse, and The Eagle Cairn.  They were smallish, dark, wiry people. Brown skin, very black, thick hair and very bright, dark eyes.  Muscular, in a wiry way – they’d have to be, to live the life they lived!

After coming away from the cairn itself, if you walk up the path which goes to the left of the cairn, you’ll find yourself at a point where you can look across, through the hills, to what is now called The Neolithic Heart of Orkney – Brodgar, Stenness and the two lakes, Stenness  and Harray.  This is yet another example of how the ancient sites, connect.  From that point, you can link The Neolithic Heart of Orkney, with Cuween, with Wideford, and  what about the islands in and across the Bay?  This  Bay, is currently being  researched, to explore the possibility of there being  ancient sites which have been ’drowned’ since the sea-level rose.  Hmmmmmmmmmm.

There are many paths here, which can lead you right over the hill, but we’re dealing with Cuween as a walk, and this visit makes a good outing, in itself.

On the way back down the hill from the cairn, Ben found  a ball in the heather.  We saw this as a gift from the Cuween dogs, and said “Thank-you”!  Ben then played with the ball,  and we threw it for him, until, at the end of the walk, he tore it to bits, as a terrier will do, with a flimsy, spongy ball!

A good walk, a good place, a great view, or two, and……………good folk, as well.

Related story:

Bernie Bell: Orkney Walks (With Stories) – Warbeth

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