Top Historic Sites in Orkney for Tots

You’ll never guess how you access the Tomb of the Eagles – anyone for skateboarding? Just one reason why it’s great for kids…

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Jock Tamson, Charlie Girl and Granny – the skulls

The amount of history on Orkney is simply staggering. We actually started getting choosy between our stone circles, ‘Will we stop at this one darling? There’s a much bigger, better one up the road’. For a small cluster of islands in the north of the UK it punches way above its weight in terms of historical significance. Cairns, tombs, settlements, chambers and stone circles are liberally peppered around. Historical sites can be dry for little ones but we discovered some absolute gems in Orkney.

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Accessing the Tomb of the Eagles

The Tomb of the Eagles is the most child friendly historical site we’ve visited in Scotland. That is praise indeed. Independently run, owned by two sisters, it has everything you need to experience jaw-dropping history with kids.

The Tomb of the Eagles is an ancient burial site. It’s believed that the bodies of the deceased would be laid out and birds would pick the bones clean, hence its title, before the remains were ceremoniously placed within the chamber. The farmer who discovered the mound clambered within it, lit a lighter, and saw a room full of skulls staring back at him. I would have lost it at that point!

We arrived at the Visitor Centre and entered the first room where a talk was underway. The children weren’t given an activity book to faff about with (these books can sometimes be more hassle for parents than they’re worth) but in the corner of the room was a box containing the stuff tots are hard-wired to, it’s their drug, brightly coloured plastic toys. The kids played with toys and I listened to the ENTIRE talk from the tour guide. I repeat – the ENTIRE talk. Skulls, affectionately named by the farmer who discovered them (‘Jock Tamson’, ‘Charlie Girl’ and ‘Granny’) told the stories of the humans through their wounds, injuries and decay. Objects, tools and jewellery, thousands of years old, were passed around the room for us to handle. It’s hard to describe the feeling holding a piece of jewellery somebody wore going about their business in Neolithic Orkney 4000-5000 years ago. Rather than dull info boards it really helped listening to someone informally chatting about this incredible site: I really took the information in. Meanwhile my kids held a rally with toy cars.

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The Bronze Age Settlement

We separated our tots from the toy box by promising them new shiny plastic in the next room. Lo and behold there was another box of toys awaiting their grubby paws. Genius. In this second room the Bronze Age Settlement was explained to us: in Orkney a Neolithic burial chamber isn’t enough, they have a Bronze Age settlement next door!

Most of the tour guides were local girls or women so you got a real sense of South Ronaldsay knowledge and pride. It’s hard to explain but we also experienced quite a maternal instinct from the guides. When my husband dashed off with Mr Toddler halfway through the talk for a toilet-stop I instantly apologised and said to carry on without him. The guide’s reaction was to tell me she had grandchildren that age herself and knew what it was like. Not only did she ensure my husband didn’t miss out but she also put me at ease. Sometimes I feel I’m cramping other grown ups’ historical experience by bringing my children along to a ‘serious’, ‘important’ historical site. History should be for everyone. Bringing kids to such attractions can feel like you’re being naughty and talking out of turn in class. That was definitely not the vibe in Orkney.

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Coastal Walk to the Tomb

From the Visitor Centre it was a walk (with buggy) or drive to the Bronze Age Settlement. Because Orcadians didn’t have trees they couldn’t build in wood, instead they built in stone which has certainly helped with preservation. Within the settlement you could see the hearth and the midden and begin to imagine Bronze Age life here.

From there it was a walk through wild flowers to the cliff tops. Whilst the photo looks like we’re walking next to a gut-wrenching sheer drop the path was actually set well back from the cliff edge. We kept an eye on Mr Child (aged 3) but it felt safer than walking next to a busy road in town.

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Using the trolley/skateboard to access and escape the tomb!

Finally we arrived at the tomb itself. The entrance is narrow and dark. There’s a wheeled trolley/skateboard apparatus that you can lie on, then pull yourself into the tomb using a rope overhead. My tots and I crawled in, they then whizzed about on the trolley a bit. Other tourists actually sent them back out to fetch cameras that they’d left outside so my kids were actually useful! I didn’t feel too claustrophobic within the tomb and it was hugely atmospheric. You can stand up once you’re inside which helped, and no bones remain so don’t panic about that. It was an eery space and, whilst I wouldn’t want to visit on my own at night, it was fascinating to see by day. All the details and history you hear at the Visitor Centre help visitors understand the space and bring it to life. In some ways the interior of the tomb itself isn’t that exciting, but the stories, the state of mind you’re in by the time you squeeze into the narrow entrance, make it come to life. I loved it.

After leaving the tomb tourists are invited to complete a circuit of the coastal walk to return to the visitor centre. We opted to return through the fields and wild flowers just to be on the safe side.

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Mr Toddler hunts for bones

Back at the centre I noticed that within the toilets was a change table, a potty, a stool to help wee ones reach the toilet/sink, and baby wipes. I never thought an attraction with the headline of ‘skulls picked clean by eagles’ would have been so child friendly. Motto – Never judge a tomb by its contents.

OUR STORY – We sailed direct from Aberdeen to Kirkwall with NorthLink ferries. After four nights at the Ayre Hotel we drove to South Ronaldsay to overnight at Wheems Organic Farm which offers self-catering, glamping pods, yurts and camping. From there we drove roughly 20 minutes to The Tomb of the Eagles.

If you like what you read then don’t miss a post, enter your email address in the ‘Follow’ box then click ‘Follow’ or join the conversation on Facebook. For any queries or opportunities please email tots2travel@hotmail.com.  We ventured to Orkney courtesy of Northlink Ferries. We were guests of Wheems Organic Farm, and received courtesy passes to The Tomb of the Eagles for review purposes. 

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