This is a tomb near Kirkwall on the north coast of Mainland Orkney, built by Neolithic farmers around 3000BC.
Dozens of tombs were built around Orkney and each was probably linked to a small community who farmed the immediate area. There was a small Neolithic settlement at the foot of Cuween Hill. Unlike the chambered tombs of southern Britain such as Belas Knap and Wayland's Smithy, Orkney’s tombs were often in use for a thousand or more years and may contain several hundred bodies.
Cuween comprises five dark, damp chambers leading out from a central chamber. This is reached by a long, low passage entered at a crawl. Some of the chambers are level with the central chamber; others are raised; others have a flagstone divider. The arrangement seems entirely organic with no overall grand design. This is the case with many of the tombs, which each have a unique layout. Perhaps the builders worked entirely through intuition or with the help of spirit guides who, while in a trance state, ‘drew’ the tomb into this world.
Cuween was excavated a century ago and was found to contain the bones of eight people and 24 dog skulls. The small number of human bones suggests the tomb was periodically cleared of bones, or perhaps emptied at the end of its use-life. The presence of dogs is unique, although other tombs contained animal bones such as red deer, otters or sea eagles, and may indicate a community totem or spirit guide. Dogs are commonly seen as guardians of the underworld or as guides for the dead. The dogs were collie-sized and resembled a grey wolf.
The view from the cairn across the farmland and the sea
Cuween probably derives from ‘kewing’, meaning cattle pasture. Due to the short growing season at this northern latitude, cattle have always formed the basis of Orkney’s agriculture. In more recent folklore it was known as the Fairy Knowe.
The tomb was cut out of the bedrock and roofed with flagstones then covered with earth. From a distance it blends into the hillside in this respect resembles the southern tombs. Its purpose was to form a bond with the land, and its influence spread over the farmland below it.
Most of the Orkney tombs face out to sea. The sea was a provider and nurturer as much as the land, and it makes sense for the guardian influence of the ancestors to extend across the water. It may also reflect the journey of the souls of the deceased.
Like many of the tombs, Cuween had been carefully sealed up. This generally seems to have happened around 2500BC, when Orkney’s Neolithic culture dramatically ended. The tombs gradually became the haunt of fairies and ghosts, left undisturbed for fear of violent repercussions from angry ghosts.