Lonely Planet review for Maes Howe
Egypt has the pyramids, Scotland has Maes Howe. Constructed about 5000 years ago, it’s the a Stone Age tomb built from enormous sandstone blocks, some of which weighed many tons and were brought from several miles away. Though nothing is known about who was interred here, the scope of the project suggests it was a structure of great significance.
Creeping down the long stone passageway to the central chamber, over 6.7m high and 3.5m wide, you begin to sense the indescribable gulf of years that separate us from the architects of this mysterious place.
No remains were found when the tomb was excavated in the 19th century, so it’s not known how many people were originally buried here or whether they were buried with any of their worldly goods. What is known is that Vikings returning from the Crusades broke into the tomb in the 12th century, searching for treasure. They found none, but left a wonderfully earthy collection of graffiti, carved in runes on the walls of the tomb. These include such profundities as ‘Thorni bedded Helgi’ and several 12th-century tags of the ‘Ottarfila-was-here’ variety – some things never change. There are some more artistic engravings too, including a crusader cross, a wonderful dragon-like lion, a walrus and a knotted serpent.
By chance or design, for a few weeks around the winter solstice the setting sun shines along the entrance passage and strikes the back wall of the tomb in a spooky alignment. If you can’t be there to see it in person, check the webcams on www.maeshowe.co.uk.
Maes Howe is about 10 minutes’ walk east of the Stenness crossroads. Buy your ticket at Tormiston Mill, across the road from the tomb, where there’s a cafe serving snacks and light meals, a gift shop, a small exhibition and a 15-minute video about Orkney’s prehistoric sites. Be sure to reserve your tour-slot in advance by phone.
Entry is by 45-minute guided tours that leave on the hour. On site, a guide will take you through the history of Maes Howe and pinpoint the various bits of graffiti with a torch. The official guide is worth buying: it contains all the runes, mapped to the walls of the tomb. From June to August, there are twilight tours running in the evening; these need to be reserved ahead.