A Tale Of The Eagle Cairn

By Bernie Bell

But it isn’t my tale, it’s by Jim Crumley, and I read it in a compilation of essays entitled ‘Antlers of Water – Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland’, edited by Kathleen Jamie.

Jim Crumley’s essay is called ‘A Handful of Talons’ – because that’s the heart of what it’s about.

I know nothing about Jim Crumley apart from what he tells of himself in this essay – that he is a “nature writer with a love of eagles.”  And this love of eagles became tangible for him when he held/cupped four eagle talons in his left hand.

Jim visited the Tomb of the Eagles at Isbister Farm in South Ronaldsay, where, in the Visitor Centre, he was given eagle talons from the cairn to hold, and he thought….”These talons flew.”

He thought of all that the bird would have done with those talons – grasping prey, leaving imprints in snow, sand and mud.

Jim says that for months afterwards, he would feel the presence of the talons in his left hand, and find himself back at the Eagle Cairn.

I’ve been to the cairn many times.  My first visit was when the ‘museum’ was in the conservatory of the nearby farmhouse. Then the new Visitor Centre was built, and we’ve been there many times too.

For some reason, I never held the human skulls or the eagle talons – I don’t know why.

Though the cairn itself will be open again post-Covid, the Visitor Centre has become another casualty of that disease, with the family who own the cairn, and who organized exceptionally informative visits to the site, reluctantly making  the decision not to re-open.

Reading Jim Crumley’s essay, the realization hit me that no-one will be able to have this experience from now on, apart from archaeologists studying the talons, or the staff of  Tankerness House Museum in Kirkwall, where it is hoped that the artefacts from the Cairn might find a new home.  Hopefully, maybe in an exhibit dedicated specifically to them and the Cairn.  But they will be a long way from home, and in glass cases – untouchable.

Needs must, and those who – like Jim Crumbley – did hold the talons and connect with the eagles will remember and value that experience.

Even though I never held the talons, I connected with the place and the people there.  Reading of that sensation in his hand, as described by Jim – to quote the man himself…..”The very thought produces a strange feeling in the palm of my hand.”  And his words took me back to the Eagle Cairn, too.

People will still visit the Cairn, will still think about the people and the eagles and the life there – the connections will still be made.  Ancestors – past, present and future –– will gather by Ronnie & Morgan’s memorial stone by the cairn…….

Today’s generation, are tomorrow’s ancestors, and tomorrow’s generation are the ancestors of the people of the more distant future.

The Eagle Cairn still lives.

Touch can help connection – but connection is just – there.

A Bird In The Hand by McB 

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  1. Like you, Bernie, I hope the finds at the Tomb of the Eagles are given a dedicated space at Tankerness House. They deserve it, and their discovery story needs to be told. I encourage you to read more of Jim Crumley’s considerable writings. He has a great gift of ‘noticing’. Rosie

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