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Bernie Bell: Orkney Walks (with stories) – The Eagle Cairn

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


The Eagle Cairn (a.k.a. The Tomb of the Eagles)

Or, to Andrew Appleby – Tom of the Beagles!

This is a big one, in every way.  Where to begin?  At the beginning!

It was either the first or second time we came to Orkney on holiday.  We went down to South Ronaldsay to visit the Tomb of the Eagles.  At that time, the Visitor Centre hadn’t been built, and the ‘museum’ was housed in a lean-to conservatory attached to the house.  A young lass showed us the exhibits, including some skulls which had been found in the cairn.  We were allowed to hold the skulls, but I didn’t want to.  This was un-usual, as I don’t usually mind such things.  In fact, I like bones and bring home many which we find on beaches – not usually human, but I wouldn’t really mind  that, either, mostly.  Depends on whose skull it was!

We then went along to what’s referred to as the Burnt Mound , escorted by Ronnie Simison (R.I.P.) on his moped/scooter thing, and also by his collie dog.  Ronnie is the man who discovered the Eagle Cairn.  That is all very well documented, especially in John Hedges book ‘Tomb of the Eagles’, so , I’ll get on with our visit.

The Burnt Mound was thought to be a Bronze Age………….house?  That’s what was thought, then.   I think that people are seeing it differently, now.  It never made sense to me, as a house.  It would be very un-healthy to live in a place , where the cooking was done by plunging hot stones into a big trough of water, into which you’d placed the food which you wanted to be cooked.  That would produce a lot of steam,  which would be un-healthy for the people, and also make everything in the room, rot!  They had the fire, they had the pots, so, why cook that way?  Also, where are the beds? and, try looking after small children in a house with a huge trough of water in the middle of the room!

My take on it is………….some kind of ‘Sweat Lodge’ where folk went when they were ill, and sweated out the illness.  Maybe with herbs added to the water, to help the process of healing.  That’s my take on it, and I really don’t see how it can be a normal dwelling-place.

Ronnie gave us his tour and showed us some rounded stones, probably used for  grinding grain, or maybe smoothing skins.  It was a real treat, to be able to handle these implements, which are the kind of thing which would usually be in a museum case, labelled – ‘DO NOT TOUCH!’  Ronnie said to notice that they are all for right-handed people, and wondered if left – handers were seen as being ‘wrong’, as they were, until quite recently.  Left-handers were seen as ‘sinister’, as the left side was considered to be the ‘sinister’ side.  Maybe it was so , back then, too.  I don’t know, but the stones all were for right-handed use.

Another reason that I didn’t see this place as being a ‘house’, was the elaborate system of water channels, next to it –why have that, for a house?  Maybe it was used for processing something, for example, washing sheep fleeces?

Ronnie and his collie departed, and left us to walk on, to the cairn, ourselves.

I started this, as Ronnie took us, the first time, but I’ll now change the order in which you do things, so that you get a more direct idea of the time-line.

When you arrive, park in the car park and go into the excellent Visitor Centre, where you will be given a talk, and are still allowed to hold artefacts.  As long as the Cairn and Museum are in the hands of the family, this will probably be the case.

You then head off along the path, and turn right  to go along the cliff path for some spectacular scenery.  This will lead you to the  Eagle Cairn itself, and you will then return via the Burnt Mound.

This will mean that you will visit the sites in the correct ‘order’, for time – Neolithic followed by Bronze Age.  then you can walk back to the Visitor Centre, and have a look in the shop, which tends to have things which are very much produced locally, no standard Historic Scotland stuff, here!

What I’ve described, is the walk, and the visit to the archaeological sites – here’s the story, or, one part of the story…………………..

Tomb of Eagles

The Tomb of Eagles (B. Bell)

That first time we visited the cairn, I didn’t like it, I really didn’t like it.  I didn’t like the feel of the cairn, or of the whole area.  Mike and Ben went into it, but I didn’t go in, as I ………really didn’t like it.  And that was strange, because it has everything going for it.  It’s in a stunning position, way up there, on the cliffs, almost in the sky.  If you stand on the cairn, you can see all around.  I should have taken to the place, but I didn’t, not at all.  When we left there, I said that I was never going back there again.  I felt that strongly about it.  I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I didn’t like the feel of the whole area.  But then, when we were back home in Suffolk,  I had a ……………dream, vision – not sure what to call it – which changed everything ………………

I was a young girl, at the Eagle Cairn settlement, about 5,000 years ago.  The folk that  used the cairn, lived in a settlement, down and across from the cairn, so that the cairn was outlined on the sky-line from where they lived,  and their settlement, could be seen, from the cairn.

I was a girl of about 15 years of age, and I was a ‘seer’.  This is hard to explain…..I’ll try!  This girl was/is partly ‘me’ , and I, am partly the girl, as we are each partly/also many forms of life, through time, some closely connected, some not so closely.  To quote the wonderful Robert Plant “All are one, and one is all”.

So, I and this girl, have that connection, which is presumably how and why she  contacted me.  The idea was, that she was of the group of people who lived there, and she wanted me to know what had happened, and to go to the cairn, and help to ‘clear’ it, before it went into the sea.

It doesn’t seem likely that it’ll go into the sea, as it’s well above the cliffs, high and dry.  Who knows, though – it may deteriorate or disintegrate, in some other way.  I don’t know, this is just what she told, and showed, me.  She told me some of it, and some of it I could ‘see’ happening, as I was there,  as I was her.

And now, here’s the other story………………

Her people lived locally.  They had their cairn, as their place of reverence.  The Sea Eagle, was their totem, which they revered.  When members of their group died, they were laid out on the cliffs, by the  cairn, and the wind, weather, animals and Eagles, disposed of them.  How the people saw it, was this………..

The body was laid out, the Eagles ate of the flesh.  This way, the actual flesh of the people, became the flesh of the Eagle, and so, flew with the Eagle .  The spirit of the person, also joined with the spirit of the Eagle, and so, flew with the bird.  This is how and why the Eagles were held in such reverence.  They , along with the wind, weather and other beasts, disposed of the dead, and the dead, joined with them, to continue LIFE.  At a certain point, any bones which were left lying about, were collected and stacked neatly in the cairn.

This co-operation continued, and all went well.

Then……………….

A Shaman arrived, from elsewhere.  He was taller than the local people, dark, but not much darker than they were.  He had a similar, wiry, muscular build, with thick, very black hair and he wore a wolf-skin as a cloak, with the head, over his head.  I have to admit, he was a looker!  A very striking figure, and presence.  The people of the group, took him as their Shaman, and began to follow his instruction.

The girl who was/ is ‘me’, and some others of the group, weren’t happy about this, as his way of being, was harsh, and did not fit, with how they were.

He was all about Power and Control.  Power  and Control, for him, that is.  A Shaman should be a good thing, a good person to have in a group, to help to guide the people.  Unfortunately, then, as now, all people who walk in Spirit, aren’t good-hearted people with the interests of the group at heart.  Some have only their own interests, and ego, at heart.  The Wolf-Man, was such a one.

He led the people badly astray.  They even began to trap and kill the Eagles, to use their feathers for display.

It all went very wrong.  The land failed, the animals failed,  the people failed – and, finally, faded into the land.  This took some time to happen, but that’s how it happened.

My friend, my Anam Cara was showing me this, so that when I next visited Orkney, I would go to the cairn, and help to ’clear’ it, as the time was ripe.  The Wolf-Shaman had learnt, as we all learn, eventually, and the air about the cairn was shifting and stirring.

This was what I ‘saw’ and was told.

So, the next time we visited Orkney, Mike and I and Ben-The-Dog went to visit the cairn, again.  Though I’d said that I never even wanted to visit the area again, I/we felt that we should.  So, we did.

We went along to the cairn.  I walked up on top of it, and Mike and Ben went into it.  Mike wandered about on the rocks of the cliff-top, as he said he felt he had his part to play in what we were there for.  We very much felt that we were there for a reason, and were guided in our walking.

I sat on the slab of rock which is to the left of the cairn, as you look at it from the front.  I felt the presence of the Wolf-Shaman, behind me.  I then felt that he stepped ‘through’ me, and he stepped away, over the cliffs…………… and flew with the Eagles!

He’d taken a long time, but he’d learnt to lose the power and control focus, and had returned to help to set right what he’d put wrong, with help of the people of the cairn, and us, and anyone else who comes there and understands what the place is.

I’ll mention here, Babette Barthelmess’ book ‘Sunrise at the Tomb of the Eagles’.  I wasn’t aware of it, then, but have it, now! and recommend it, strongly.

This was the beginning of a long association with the Eagle Cairn, and the people there, both in-carnate, and dis-incarnate!

It took some years before I actually went into the cairn.  Then, one time, we were there, visiting.  I looked in, down the passage-way.  It looked inviting, so I got down on my hands and knees, and scurried in.  It was warm and welcoming, very like the feel of Unstan Cairn, in Stenness.

We later found that an experiment had been done, to see if Eagles would feed from a carcase left on the cliffs  – using, I think , a pig, not a person!  And….it looks like they would do so.  There was a sort-of table set up, which the carcase was placed on.  It may still be there, or may have succumbed to the weather, by now.

The cairn is very much still there, and the difference is, that we now love to visit there.  I stand on the top, and sing “Shine It All Around” by Robert Plant!

I know of other stories, from other people, of what they have experienced at the Eagle Cairn, but what you’ve just read, is our story.

cliffs at Tomb of Eagles

at the Tomb of Eagles (B. Bell)


Bernie Bell is a regular columnist with The Orkney News and has written a series of ‘Walks with Stories’ – check out more of them.

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