Rousay – prehistory everywhere on this fascinating island

If you like pre-history, Rousay is totally wow-say, we say. An easy ferry-trip from Tingwall on Mainland Orkney. ‘Egypt of the North’ is forgivable guidebook hyperbole. The Midhowe Chambered Cairn is the must-see but there are lots of other prehistoric sites, plus beaches, seals and maybe otters.

The Orkney conversation with our friends went like this… ‘On our Orkney adventure, we had a day on Rousay.’  ‘And how was it?’ (we asked). ‘Wow-say’.

I thought that was clever, and perhaps it should be a marketing slogan. (OK, Orkney tourism folk, you can use it for nothing. Partly because my friends visited Wyre as well and came up with a less positive rhyme. But let’s leave that for another day.)

So, this year, they took us over for an excursion. And, yes, Rousay is, uhmm, wow-say. And here are some pictures. Actually, quite a few. Let’s make a start.

Rousay ferry
Ferry berthing at Rousay pier

Getting To Rousay

First of all, you get to Rousay from Tingwall, on the north of mainland Orkney, rather than from Kirkwall.

Like the island of Hoy, but much less so, Rousay has some high-ish moorland, as opposed to the low green ambience of many of the other Orkney islands.

Anyway, there are a lot of early sites to see in quite a small area. 

You practically fall over them from the moment the ferry-ramp goes down. 

Rousay has so many prehistoric sites that it is sometimes called the ‘Egypt of the North’.

And, apparently, it’s called this perfectly seriously, in the same way, old guidebooks would refer to Crieff (hah) as the Montpellier of the North; Dornoch (on our Vikings tour description) is called the St Andrews of the North, while Edinburgh is the ‘Athens of the North’. There are others but you get the idea.

Taversoe Tuick chambered carin
About to descend into Taversoe Tuick chambered carin.
Inside Taversoe Tuick chambered cairn
Inside Taversoe Tuick chambered cairn

There is Taversoe Tuick, a rare two-storeyed chambered cairn. (Pictured here.) And it’s a bit weird inside.

Under a concrete dome to preserve it, through a narrow claustrophobic passageway, you can climb down a short ladder into a, ehmm, a stony hole in the ground. (Hope that wasn’t too technical.) The island’s then not-terribly-popular-owner, General Burroughs, discovered it in 1898.

There is the Blackhammer Cairn along the road to the west. And the Knowe of Yarso. Then, after a super view across Eynhallow Sound (pictured here below), there is the Midhowe Broch and Cairn, Rousay’s best -known and most spectacular prehistoric site.

Eynhallow Sound
Eynhallow Sound between Rousay and the Orkney mainland – the heartland of Orcadian prehistory
Signpost to Midhowe, Rousay
Downhill to the Midhowe Broch and the Midhowe Chambered Cairn. Prehistoric Rousay.

Visiting Midhowe Broch And Cairn

Midhowe is well worth the walk, which is, unfortunately, downhill at the beginning, from the wee car-park. (You can get an idea of the distance from the picture here.)

I reckon it’s best to approach these places with a sense of mystification. You’ll probably leave with one. Because, frankly, how do we connect with the folk of 5,000 years ago?

What looks like a barn or an aircraft hangar on the rocky shore turns out to be a shelter that protects the largest chambered cairn of its kind known in Scotland.

There is even a kind of girdered walkway over the site that enables you to look down on – well, what exactly? The way of death of five millennia ago, presumably.

Collective burials in stalls. Site of rituals. It all just seems to be overwhelmingly puzzling – the ways of the ancestors of our ancestors.

Midhowe Cairn, Rousay
Midhowe Cairn, Rousay

And it’s just the oldest part of a congregation of prehistory.

A few paces away are the remains of a broch – Bronze Age, possibly as late as the 1st century AD, positively youthful when compared to that enigmatic barrow that sits silently adjacent.

(You can tell I was a little spooked by it all!)

What Were Brochs For?

Personally, I like brochs. (Perhaps that’s because I’m a Brocher. Warning: virtually opaque Scottish in-joke unless you’re born and bred ‘up north’.)

Hundreds of these characteristically northern structures have been identified, though nearly all are reduced and many have all but disappeared.

Midhowe Broch
Midhowe Broch hard by the sea and protected by a modern wall.

The Broch of Gurness is just across Eynhallow Sound. Two more (less obvious) lie on either side of Midhowe (hence the ‘mid’ part).

Personally, I like the thought of life within a circular stone tower, with internal stairways – and imagine them as Bronze Age community centres.

(Tuesdays, sword-sharpening classes; Thursdays, do-it-yourself dentistry; Fridays, keep-fit for the elderly, ie anyone over 25.)

However, some say that circular high wall was a response to troubling times, when sea-borne raiders would disturb the seasonal round of hunting and farming.

Heck, it’s all wondrously thought-provoking! (By the way, you should probably have started your visit, just by the ferry terminal, at the Trumland Visitors Centre and Waiting Room.)

Rousay's Midhowe Broch
Rousay’s Midhowe Broch, from the shoreline.
Midhowe shore, south-east from the Broch
Midhowe shore, south-east from the Broch

A coastal stroll

As you’ve come down to shore level from the car-park, it’s also well worth strolling along the coast to the south-east.

There are more ruinous evocative lichen-encrusted buildings there as well.

You’ll probably see seals there. If it’s quiet you can hear them sing, though they won’t do requests and, anyway, it’s more like moaning.

There is an abandoned farm, a scarcely distinguishable mediaeval hall, a roofless church and much more, as well as evidence of Clearance episodes (not confined to the Highlands hereabouts).

It’s all very atmospheric on a fine day; otherwise, you’ll probably get your ears blown off when the westerlies come down Eynhallow Sound.

On Rousay, near Saviskaill Beach.
On Rousay, near Saviskaill Beach.

Touring round Rousay

Continuing to drive round the island, the northern panoramas are very fine, as is a signpost that points to otters and seals by Saviskaill Beach.

The road then sweeps round and up to higher ground. Then, if you haven’t seen enough rock for one day you may note a large block of pale (non-native?) stone, by the seaward side of the road and about the size of a large table.

‘gods of the earth / gods of the sea.’ What?

It jars a bit in the grand sweep of the panorama at this point (though that may be just me again).

Stroll down to it and you’ll see it not only commands a fine viewpoint but it has a net carved on it and the words ‘gods of the earth / gods of the sea.’

It’s by the ‘internationally respected’ concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay who worked briefly in Rousay when he was young. (Maybe he was just trying to cement his reputation…boom boom.)

Ian Hamilton Finlay – pointless and obtrusive arty lump of carved stone on Rousay.

That presumably was justification enough for lugging a whomping great stone block and planting it here in such a splendidly pointless way.

Still, 5000 years ago, our own egotistical ancestors must have had an eye to the future when they built their great mounds about which we speculate today.

It’s nice to think that several millennia from now, archaeologists will dig out this block and solemnly conclude that it was a Neolithic table-tennis table, needing extra-heavy balls because of the windy location.

There is a whole lot more to Rousay, of course. For a small island, it has places to stay, places to eat, nature reserves for the birdy visitors, plus viewpoints, moorland lochs and its own community.

It even has a ‘big hoose’ that lets visitors walk round its restored grounds and gardens. Rousay is definitely different and should be on an Orkney must see list. We would go back and stay longer.

If you like ferry trips in the north of Scotland, here’s some information on a short ferry crossing to Orkney. Plus some more info on Orkney’s wackiest island… 

By the way, you’ll need to book accommodation on Orkney in advance.