Cuween Chambered Cairn
by Tim Miller.
I should go on my hands and knees to you,
you farmers from five thousand years ago.
Even though your skulls are no longer here
or the small skulls of your two dozen dogs,
in retrospect I realize how wise
I was, dipping in and out of your dark
—the familiar main chamber and three rooms—
to never pause in all my picture-taking
to never stop and extinguish the light
to have found you at the end of the day,
so that we were tired and a bit rushed.
Something like the terror at what went on here
would have overwhelmed me in the moment,
the seriousness of generations
which I only became aware of later:
like an ancient fireplace still smudged with smoke,
our shoulders were soiled from the gloom on your hands.
Off the northern edge of the Scottish coast, lies a Sacred Place, the Orkney Isles, where Neolithic man made his home in the far distant past, raised Sacred Circles of stone, and built many Sacred tombs for their dead, while they lived in stone built villages and worshipped long forgotten Gods.
When I first climbed the gentle sloping path up the hill to the Neolithic Cuween Burial chamber, above the bay of Finstown, I was accompanied by two friends on the walk. We chatted along the way in the warm October sun; wonderful weather for the time of year! We speculated that the climate for Neolithic man would have been very much warmer then, than now, and tried to imagine what this landscape would have looked like then, as we wound our way up the hill to the chamber.
Climbing over the style, the atmosphere shifted slightly, and as I opened the little metal gate to the passage way, and I suggested I go in first… something bid me to do so, without the men… so I lit a candle and crawled in, on all fours, down the narrow passage way towards the chamber within.
“Like being born in reverse,” I mused to myself as my hands and knees got cold and wet, and the fear in me rose, as I slowly made my way along the damp flag stones, hued by ancient hands from the shore line thousands of years ago.
Again, I sensed a shift in my perspective. The hackles on the back of my neck came up. I tingled with fear, my breath short and sharp, yet I had to push on…
I opened my “psychic senses” and paused, for I could sense something looking at me half way down the narrow tunnel; in my minds eye I saw an old woman, crouched before me, squatting with her thin legs beneath her; the ancient guardian of the tomb, she challenged me, her eyes aflame with power, her wild hair all around her head, writhing in some unfelt wind, as she shook what seemed to be a short staff or spear, at me threateningly, her toothless mouth moving to speak words I could not comprehend, but I knew, I had to beg her permission to enter the inner chamber. If I did not…
So I did so, reverently and with respect. Head bowed, I paused, and moved on, sensing her no more, I assumed I had done the correct thing and pleased the Spirits.
The narrow passage ended, opening up into the chamber – I felt afraid at what I might find – even tho’ my rational mind told me the chamber had been emptied long ago… I could sense much and what threw me was the fact that this was in reality a place of the dead. How smelly and dirty had it once been! I checked myself then, not wanting to run screaming from this place, but something deep inside me was urging me to do this NOW! Panic rose up into my throat as the reality of this ancient place took me… I pushed the candle before me and feeling in my bag, found another one and lit it. I had to go on, I just had to!
I lit another candle, then another, the panic subsided as the light grew, and slowly I moved on, standing slowly in the chamber, the light gathering as the flames leapt up, filling the small interior with flickering light.
I saw four side chambers, with their dark openings low to the ground.
My senses reeling, I slowly walked around, aware that from the one corner, energy, the likes of which I had never known, radiated, my head swimming with it’s power.
I called the boys in and the atmosphere changed – it grew less intent and part of me was disappointed, and left wondering why.
We lit incense, meditated and one played on his flute… but for me the magick had dissipated.
We spend a while in there, with the Spirits and then left – it felt right to leave the candles burning, and I intended to return to take the holders away later. I silently thanked the Spirits and closed the gate behind me, realising I had to go back again, and not just for the remains of the candles…
Standing and turning round into the sunlight, we found a gentleman, patiently waiting, he didn’t want to disturb us, he said in a soft American accent. We thanked him and told him the candles would still be burning to light the interior, as he’d found the torch (in a wooden box present at all Orkney’s chambers) had no battery life left in it!
I paused to read the information boards which I had missed on our arrival, and to my surprised I saw, that half way along the chamber the archaeologists had found a skull-facing outwards, as tho’ guarding the tomb from intruders… I went cold and then hot. Was this was the old woman who had challenged me?
We walked on up the hill above the tomb, to take in the view out towards the bay below, when suddenly the man we had spoken to, not five minutes earlier, rushed out of the tomb and took off over the style running down the path as tho’ followed by a thousand screaming spirits!!!!
Guess he never asked her for permission to enter….
A true story.
On a Historical Note…
The Cuween Burial Chamber dates back some 3000 years and is known locally as the Fariy Knowe. The actual name, Cuween, is derived from the Old Norse, “kúa-eng”, meaning Cattle Pasture. It lies on a south facing hill some 5 miles outside Finstown, over looking the Bay of Forth.
The lay out of the tomb, is of that of Maes Howe, a long passage way and four side cells of a central chamber. When it was fully excavated in 1901 by M.M. Charleson, remains of eight people were found, including one skull, facing outwards, in the roof of the low passage (less than one meter) way leading into the main chamber. Many animal bones were also found, including some 24 dog skulls.
This has lead to speculation of a dog cult; that the dogs were totems for the tribe, who for many generations used this tomb. Other tombs have also been linked to the remains of animals and birds found in them on Orkney; The Tomb of the Eagles for one
Text and poem edited 25 July 2017. Poem used with permission of Tim Miller, thank you Tim – your poem sums up the atmosphere of the tomb, and for me, confirms what I experienced there was not just a flight of fancy!