Maes Howe rises from the Harray landscape, its mound visible for miles around. It is around 5000 years old, and is generally considered to be the finest Neolithic chambered cairn in Northern Europe.
The photo above shows some of the wider landscape, with the Watchstone at Stenness visible at the left (just to the left of the cottage on the isthmus), and the ‘teeth’ of the Ring of Brodgar at the right.
As at Newgrange in Ireland, the midwinter setting sun aligns down the passageway to illuminate the interior. The construction is breathtaking, massive stone blocks perfectly aligned in a feat of engineering. The main chamber has three additional smaller chambers, in a cross arrangement.
An account in the Norse Orkneyinga Saga tells how Viking warriors broke into the mound (known to them as Orkahaugr). When Maes Howe was excavated in 1861 this was confirmed by the more than 30 carved runic inscriptions (graffiti) carved on the walls. These carvings are the largest collection of runic carvings in the world.
Entrance to Maes Howe is by guided tour only, available from the nearby Historic Scotland Maes Howe visitor centre. It can be very busy, but choose your time well and you can have the place to yourself.
I was very fortunate on my first visit to be in a select group of just the two of us and our guide. I asked very nicely, and was permitted to play my didgeridoo for a few minutes, the sound reverberating in the chamber and down the passageway. This has been refused on subsequent occasions – maybe it was a one-off!