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Saturday, 9 August 2008

Descent into the Past

One of the eeriest places on Orkney is Mine Howe at Tankerness, Orkney, which I visited a few years ago. It was first excavated in 1946, and thought to be an Iron Age Broch (which abound in Orkney.) It was covered over and forgotten until local farmer Douglas Paterson re-opened the mound in 1999. The discovery of 29 mysterious steps leading down into a unique three-chambered structure caused a sensation. Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’ excavated the site in the summer of 2000.
As you get ready to descend into the mysterious shaft entrance, there’s a smell of damp earth. The shaft leads right into the ancient heart of the Iron Age mound. I edged closer to the tunnel entrance, held tightly to my hard hat, and carefully climbed down the stone steps…
The steps are steep, and it’s a tight squeeze. Each step takes you further into the gloom, and further back in time.
As the daylight grows fainter, the only light comes from rope lighting fastened along the handrail. The tunnel shrinks, then turns sharply; I had to take care not to stumble on the awkwardly-shaped steps. But it really doesn’t take very long to reach the underground chamber at the bottom.
Then comes the surprise; above your head is a kind of vaulted ceiling, like the inside of a huge stone thimble. The air holds an unearthly chill. There’s only room for two or three people at the base of the chamber; it felt uncomfortably crowded. The atmosphere was hushed; were we in an Iron Age cathedral? The way back up to the modern world was signposted by the cheery glow of the rope lighting, snaking up the handrail like Christmas tree lights.
Down at the bottom of the Howe, it’s impossible to escape the conviction there are more discoveries waiting to be made behind the intricate stonework. Who built this unique structure? Why was it constructed in this unusual fashion? There are no answers, no written records; all we can do is guess and wonder. I was glad to climb up to the sunlight, and breathe fresh air again.

It helps to be reasonably agile to enter some of these unique monuments, such as the Tomb of the Eagles , another ‘must-see’ on mainland Orkney. Entrance to this tomb is lying down on a trolley! Another tight squeeze is the nine metre crawl through the narrow entrance of the Quoyness Chambered Cairn on Sanday. But it’s really worth the effort for an unforgettable experience.
Image: Quoyness Chambered Cairn, Sanday. © Nigel Wilkes.

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