Published in Orcadian Papers (1905)
Location: Near Breckness, Stromness, Orkney
In the summer of 1900, by the kind permission of W.G. T. Watt, Esq of Skaill, I commenced the excavation of a large mound on the farm of Westerleafea, near Breckness, in Outertown, Stromness.
There was no room for doubt as to the artificiality of the mound, which, apart from its symmetry and surroundings, had previously supplied a neighbouring farmer with a quantity of material for building purposes, these operations, more properly depredations, leaving a gap on the south side of the mound in which several upright slabs of some size were noticeable. At this point we began the excavation, and before long struck a low wall between two upright slabs which projected from it and which were 6 feet apart.
In the middle of this wall that is between the two upright slabs an opening was found and this led to a passage running inwardly for a few feet, and roofed over with large transverse slabs. At the inner end of this passage, the interior wall branched sharply to right and left and in following it up on the right we found that it extended first in an easterly and then in a northerly and westerly direction, ending in a large recess which subsequently proved to be of equal height with the wall exposed.
The outline of the structure being thus far laid bare the excavation was carried on in a downward direction beginning at the entrance. At a depth of five feet from the surface of the mound a floor was discovered together with a lateral recess off the east side of the building. This floor however proved to be secondary for at a depth of a foot another and evidently primary one was found, the debris between the two consisting of black unctuous earth intermixed with animal remains.
Almost in line with and four feet from the entrance we noticed a large slab on the floor which on being raised revealed a square built cavity full of black earth having a single slab for its base. The recess on the east side was next cleared of its contents consisting of black earth reduced to the consistency of mud and animal remains few of which survived handling. Contrary to expectation, this recess extended downwards beneath the level of the floor and diverged in a north easterly direction from the axis of the chamber while the back wall was acutely constricted in the middle of its length.
The walls of the recess converged towards the top which was formed of slabs laid across and near which its width was reduced to about one half by the breadth of the lintel and the thickness of the superincumbent masonry. In the recess off the north side of the chamber were found a fragment of rude pottery evidently part of the base of a vessel and the tine of a deer horn. The walls of the chamber and recess last mentioned were beehive in form and dry built, the lower portions of the former being here and there formed of slabs set on edge and resting on the floor. The walls of the recess it may be added showed traces of the action of fire.
At this point the excavation had to be abandoned and was not resumed until the summer of 1902 when we exhumed the wall on the west side beginning as before at the entrance from which it diverged to the west for a few feet with an inward tendency and then trended to the north and east until it joined the recess off the north side of the chamber at the point where the excavation had been stopped in 1900. The remaining debris was then removed together but without revealing relics of any kind. The wall on this side showed no traces of convergence.
The chamber being now cleared of its contents which consisted throughout of compacted earth intermixed with stones we found that it took the form of an irregular square with a passage and recesses off the south, east and north sides respectively. The extreme length from north to south was 9 feet and from east to west 9 feet 10 inches the greatest height being 5 feet. The entrance passage the floor of which was paved and which faced the south measured 4 feet in length 1 1/2 feet in height and 1 1/2 in breadth. The recess on the east side was about 5 1/2 feet from top to bottom about 3 feet in greatest length and breadth respectively and 2 feet square at the opening while that off the north side measured 3 1/2 feet in length and 4 1/2 in breadth. The cavity in the centre of the chamber was about 1 1/2 feet each way and 1 foot in depth.
But the excavation was not finished…..
Part 2 next week
This is of great interest. This section of coast-line is being eroded badly and rapidly. I wonder how much of this cairn remains? It’s tantalising to read of the “black earth”, pottery and bones which were found, and which, with today’s methods, could have provided much information. It’s good that there is at least a record of the first excavation, and even a plan of the interior of the cairn.