Quoyness Chambered Tomb or Cairn is one of the most impressive ancient monuments on Orkney. It lies near the east shore of Els Ness, an isolated promontory of land almost separated from the rest of Sanday. Els Ness is also home to a further 27 cairns of various sorts, suggesting this was a particularly important area for our Bronze Age ancestors who built the tomb some 5,000 years ago.
You reach Quoyness Cairn via a rough track (passable by car) that starts near the ruins of Lady Kirk; east of Kettletoft and south-west of Lady Village. From the obvious parking area it is about a 20 minute walk along a grassy track beside the shore to the cairn itself.
Quoyness was built on an irregular stony platform some 20m across close to the shore of Els Ness. The platform was built as a sandwich of flat slabs containing a filling of stone, earth and midden.
At the heart of the cairn is a beautifully constructed rectangular dry stone chamber 4m in length, 2m in breadth and an impressive 4m in height. This is now capped by a windowed cover to let in light: it was probably originally covered by a dome of earth.
The central chamber gives access to six side chambers in a way very reminiscent of Maeshowe. When the cairn was fairly roughly excavated in the 1800s it was found to contain the bones of at least 10 adults and 5 children; pottery; and bone and stone artefacts.
Those doing the digging were more interested in emptying the structure than in finding out about the details of 3000BC life, so a lot of information was probably lost during the process.
The central chamber is contained within a small inner cairn, which in turn is contained within a much larger outer cairn. The entrance tunnel originally ran for 9m through both layers of the cairn.
The reconstructed entrance leaves the outer 5.5m as a deepening stone lined trench, and unroofed, leaving visitors to revert to their hands and knees for a muddy crawl only for the inner 3.5m. Crawling through the full 9m of the original tunnel would not have been recommended for claustrophobics!