Measuring some 23m long, Midhowe Cairn is a vast and hugely impressive stalled cairn found on Rousay's south west shoreline. While it lies just a hundred yards or so from Midhowe Broch it dates back to the years after 3500BC: more than 3000 years before its near neighbour and well over 5000 years ago.
The cairn was excavated by the landowner, Walter Grant, in 1932-3. What he revealed was a long chamber divided by vertical flagstones into 12 compartments or stalls. Each of these had a bench on either side, on which bodies of the dead were laid.
The remains of 25 people were also found during excavation: some as if laid out on the benches; some crouched against the walls; and others as neat heaps of bones. It is thought that periodically the bones of the departed would be cleared out, leaving space for their replacements.
After excavation, the cairn was in an extremely fragile condition and, being close to the shore, in a very vulnerable location. Grant therefore protected the entire structure with a huge stone hangar-like building. This allows viewing of the exterior of the cairn at ground level, while raised walkways give a clearer impression of the interior.
The effect has doubtless been to preserve what otherwise might well have been lost: but it feels more like a bonded warehouse at a distillery than an archaeological site, and we are left hoping that erosion problems at Skara Brae never reach the point where a similar approach is needed.
Externally the original cairn was straight sided and probably faced with stone, but with a turf roof. A short entrance passage gave access to the interior. Stone walls led off from both ends of the cairn, either indicating it was simply built into the local field pattern, or signifying areas in which ceremonies associated with death took place.