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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August 18, 2017
August 28, 2017

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16 Comments

  1. Reply

    Eamon

    August 23, 2017

    Fab article

    Sent from mobile device

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      August 24, 2017

      Thank you!

  2. Reply

    Plutonium Sox Blog (@PlutoniumSox)

    September 1, 2017

    Oh I would love to go to Orkney. My husband would happily move us all there if I’d let him! Tomb of the Eagles looks amazing, love that it’s so child-friendly. #culturedkids
    Nat.x

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      September 1, 2017

      Lovely people too so I can see why your husband is keen on it. I can see it would be a great place to raise a family.

  3. Reply

    Lisa - FlipFlopGlobetrotters.com

    September 1, 2017

    Haha, at ‘skulls picked clean by eagles’ I would not have thought of a family friendly attraction either! It’s always great when attractions ‘understand’ kids and just have a bucket of toys so kids can play, although I also love it when there are some themed kids’ activities. Sounds like a great place to visit! #culturedkids

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      September 1, 2017

      This attraction went for the ‘let kids be kids’ approach which certainly worked in my favour as I heard an entire presentation by the tour guide.

  4. Reply

    pigeonpairandme

    September 1, 2017

    I’m impressed you managed to listen to the whole talk at the Visitor Centre. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me! With the trolley and the stories of skulls, it just goes to show that ancient tombs can be natural playspaces (with the help of some plastic toys 🙂 ) Thanks for linking up with #CulturedKids

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      September 1, 2017

      At first thought I would never of thought the kids would have been so easy at a sight like this. Usually there’s an element of cajoling and encouragement but here everything was easy – and it was all down to toys and natural exploration.

  5. Reply

    WanderMum

    September 1, 2017

    Absolutely genius having the cars! So simple it sooo helpful to help parents. I often feel like I’m missing out on a lot of the detail of places because I’m running after kids. What a fascinating place to visit and how handy there were no trees so the stone structures have lasted.

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      September 4, 2017

      They did engage with the tomb itself, but during the talks I was so delighted they were thoroughly occupied.

  6. Reply

    Cultural Wednesday

    September 1, 2017

    Impressed that you heard the whole talk! I think that I might freak out on the little rope pulled trolley things but it all sounds amazing #CulturedKids

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      September 4, 2017

      It’s not as dramatic as it sounds, more quirky, novel and fun. I know, A WHOLE TALK!

  7. Reply

    daisythebus

    September 4, 2017

    Absolutely wonderful article on what looks like a fascinating place. Hurrah to no activity book, I say!! Nine times out of ten my kids do the first 2 or 3 things then chuck them into my rucksack and run away to jump off rocks or something. Beautiful place, historically fascinating and brilliantly written: I love coming to #CulturedKids and finding articles like this. Greetings from Luxembourg!

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      September 5, 2017

      Thanks so much. What a glowing response! A really unusual destination that worked really well as an intriguing family day out. Greetings from Scotland!

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