The Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn can be found on the flank of Cuween Hill, half a mile south east of the centre of the village of Finstown on Orkney's West Mainland. You reach it from Old Finstown Road, which leaves the A965 in the village. From the road a track lead a few hundred yards to a small parking area, from where it is a walk of a few hundred yards more up the hill to the cairn.
What you find is a grassy mound set on the side of the hill, not far below its summit, offering wonderful views to the east and north. The site is fenced off to keep animals out, and access is via a wooden ladder-stile. The cairn itself comprises a narrow entrance passage, the first part of which is open to the sky while the rest is low enough to require crawling for a distance of around 3 metres; and the chamber beyond. The chamber stands over 2 metres high, and is said to be a little like that at Maes Howe, only smaller. There are four cells leading off the main chamber, one on each side.
The observant will notice the "said to be" in that last paragraph; and the lack of interior pictures of the chamber on this page. We turned up with torches, ready to explore (there is a torch kept on site for visitors, but it wasn't working when we were there). We then realised that crawling into the passage would entail crawling through a large muddy puddle and - as we were due to catch a ferry later that day - vanity triumphed over curiosity. (Continues below images...)
Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn is thought to have been constructed by a group of local farmers in around 2500BC-3000BC. Doing so would have entailed significant time and effort. The cairn seems to have been in use for some time, and the remains of at least eight human burials have been found. Also found here were skulls of 24 small dogs, and it is thought that this might signify that the dog was a symbol or totem for the local community. It has been suggested that the dog skulls post-dated the original use of the cairn, but modern radiocarbon dating suggests they were contemporary with the burials.
The cairn seems to have attracted the attention of explorers in the 1800s, who broke into it through the roof. A slightly more scientific approach appears to have been taken in 1901, when the cairn was properly excavated and a new roof placed on the main chamber (probably at a lower height than the original). This concluded that the entrance passage had been deliberately blocked up in ancient times to put the cairn out of use.
Of interest in the cairn are examples - said to be hard to see - of Neolithic scratch art. There is also a twig-rune inscribed in the cairn, which is believed to be a modern addition, copied from Maes Howe. The cairn itself has not been excavated in modern times, but excavations downhill from it have revealed a settlement, which in part may have been contemporary with the use of the cairn.
The track continues past the cairn to the top of the hill, where on our visit we encountered a series of - presumably modern - stacks of stones formed into columns and, in one case, a small shelter. Someone went to a lot of effort to construct these here: we've not been able to find out why or exactly when.