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Attractions

Maeshowe

Find Scotland Tours that feature Maeshowe on Orkney.

Address: Tormiston Mill, Orkney, KW16 3HA.  01856 761606
Operated by: Historic Environment Scotland
Opening Hours: Summer: 1 April to 30 September, Daily 10 am to 5.00pm 
Winter: 1 October to 31 March, Daily 10 am to 4.00pm
Guided Tours only. Last Tour 1 hour before closing time.
In July and August there are sometimes extra tours later in the day.
Tours should be pre-booked via the Historic Environment Scotland website, OR by calling the Visitor Centre - 01856 851266
Admission: Adult £ 6.00, Senior £ 4.80, Child £ 3.60
Parking: Yes, car parking at Tormiston Mill
Languages: Guided tours in English only 
Accessibility: From the visitor centre, you cross a main road and then follow a short path  to the cairn. The entrance to the cairn is low so you have to be able to walk in a stooped fashion in order to enter the burial chamber.
Toilets: Yes, at the nearby Tormiston Mill visitor centre
Shop: Yes, there is a gift shop upstairs at the Tormiston Mill visitor centre
Cafe/Restaurant: No

 

Maeshowe is one of the "must see" sites if you are staying on Orkney. It is fascinating to see the skilled construction techniques of the Neolithic builders, but the burial cairn also tells a story about the nature of their ancient culture and that of the Norsemen who came later.

All tours of Maeshowe are conducted by a guide and they can only take groups of 20 at a time. Consequently, you really need to book at least a day in advance in order to get the time slot that you want. Unfortunately, they don't allow photography inside the cairn and there really isn't anyway that you'll manage to take one without the guide noticing. This is all part of a cunning plan to tempt you to buy the official Maeshowe souvenir guide, but we'd actually recommend getting this book anyway as it is full of information about other Neolithic sites on Orkney.

The guides explain how Maeshowe was built around 5,000 BC using some massive stone slabs, several tonnes in weight, that Geologists have identified as being sourced from sites at least 6 miles away. But the marvel of Maeshowe is less about the scale or the physical effort, it is more about the fine detail of the construction. The dimensions of main chamber are almost perfectly square with the sides only being a few centimetres different in length. The stone work is finished with an eveness that is really quite amazing when you consider that no metal tools were involved.

Maeshowe also reveals a very human side about the history of the Norse raiders who broke into the cairn sometime around the mid 12th century. Unfortunately, they entered via the top and destroyed the upper tiers of the corbelled roof (now replaced with a roof that has been deliberately made to contrast with the original stone). If there were any remains of interest in the cairn, the Norse raiders took them away. But it may be the case that the Vikings raided the tomb even earlier.

What the Norsemen did leave behind in Maeshowe was their grafitti written in Runes. The guided tours highlight examples of the Runic writing that is carved into the stone. However, it is sometimes quite hard to make out the writing that is being refered to. Fortunately, the guide can give you the translations of the Runes and much of it reveals that the Norsemen (and women) had a sense of humour. The Runes are actually one of the most interesting aspects of a visit to Maeshowe and the guide points out some subtle details which help you to envisage the people that left their marks on these walls nine centuries ago.

The tour will take about 40 - 45 minutes and it can be quite cold in the chamber so wear something warm if you are visiting on a winter's day. On that note, we should add that special tours take place in winter so that you can witness the corridor and chamber being lit up by the mid-winter sun. Mid winter is on the 21st December, but the setting sun illuminates the corridor and chamber for ~3 weeks either side of this date.

Read our Travel Blog for more information on the best things to do in Orkney.

Maeshowe

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