Elsness & Quoyness Chambered Cairn

A short out and back walk to one of Orkney’s finest Neolithic chambered tombs, situated beyond a beautiful sandy isthmus.

Quoyness Chambered Cairn is a very special place. Built more than 5000-years-ago, the tomb sits on the Sanday coastline and offers the perfect opportunity to take a look back into the lives of ancient Orcadians.

There is an option to park closer to the cairn but this walk allows you to better appreciate the bird life and views around the tidal lagoon of Sanday’s Peedie Sea.

Grading: 2
Mainly good farm track, some rough, stony track along coastline.
Map description
OS Explorer 465; OS Landranger 5

Start the walk at Lady Kirk (HY67713996) making sure to park any vehicles tight against the wall to avoid blocking either the road or the gates to the graveyard.

The kirk itself is semi derelict and is no longer safe to enter, but carefully ascend the exterior stone staircase to see the Devil’s Claw Marks. The soft sandstone coping at the top of the wall has been deeply gouged with 6 parallel marks, supposedly left by Auld Nick himself.

Coming out of the kirkyard turn right to head along the road. After 100m turn right at the bend in the road onto a gravel farm track. Follow the track as it skirts around the edge of the Peedie Sea (‘Little Sea’ on the OS maps). Across the tidal sands you’ll see the farm of Elsness and, in the distance, the village of Kettletoft. Oystercatchers and redshank make their presence heard around the margins of this tidal basin.

After around 1km the track curves to the right, picking up the line of a narrow, sandy neck of land that connects the headland of Elsness to Sanday proper. On your left is the wide sweeping bay of Stywick. After around 700m you’ll come to a small car park where vehicle access ends.

Follow the sign which directs you to the left, or seaward side, of a small cottage where you pass through the first of a number of kissing gates. Take care to leave any farm gates as you find them and follow any advice given in signage by the landowner.

From here the track, stony in places, follows the curve of the coastline for 1km to reach Quoyness Chambered Cairn. It has the most imposing entrance of any of Orkney’s many chambered cairns. It still requires a squeeze on hands and knees to make your way into the inner chamber, which is every bit as incredible as the exterior of the structure.

Six smaller chambers open off the main chamber and the remains of at least ten adults and five children were uncovered during excavations, alongside stone and bone tools.

While the cairn is likely to have once stood as a grassy mound, much like Maeshowe, its current ‘stripped’ appearance is designed to give the visitor a better appreciation of the structure of a large chambered cairn. The sheer mass of the building is hugely impressive, as is the quality of the internal stonework.

This headland must once have been of great importance to our forebears. There are a number of Bronze Age mounds further out towards the point, while a little way beyond Quoyness lie the much-eroded remains of what’s thought to have been another Neolithic burial chamber.

Return to the start of the walk by your outbound route, with the option to keep right and cut along the beautiful sands of Stywick for part of way (another advantage of not taking the car as close as possible!)

Visit the Scottish Outdoor Access Code website for more information and advice on how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly.

Further information

  • Places of interest

    The natural environment is very much the main attraction in Sanday. The island's beaches are irresistable, with another glorious stretch of sand around almost ever corner. Tackle our Whitemill Circular walking route, and visit the beaches at Backaskaill, Doun Helzie and Lopness too.

    Sanday is full of wildlife habitats, with otters and seals present and plenty of birdlife, including lapwings, curlews and oystercatchers. The Sanday Heritage Centre and Croft House also offers a glimpse into generations of island life.

    There are a whole range of talented makers on the island's Craft Trail, with open studios and exhibitions on offer.

    You can even play a round of golf in Sanday, with a 2600 yard nine-hole course on offer. As you can imagine, experience of links play is an advantage!

  • Food & drink

    There are two excellent shops in Sanday. Sinclair General Stores offers everything from groceries to animal feed. The island's well-stocked Community Shop in Lady village also offers a Post Office service.

    The island has three excellent eating out options. The Belsair Hotel offers lunches and evening meals, with the Kettletoft Hotel also offering light bites and evening meals. 59 Degrees North serves the most northerly wood-fired pizzas in the UK in its stylish setting too.

  • Transport & services

    Daily ferries keep the island connected with Kirkwall. View timetables on the Orkney Ferries website. Loganair operates inter-island flights from Kirkwall Airport daily too, visit the Loganair website for more information.

    The on-demand Sanday Bus service can pick folk up from any public road in Sanday and bring them to the ferry terminal. Seats should be booked well in advance by contacting 07513 084 777 or posting a message on Facebook. Seats can be booked up to 6pm the day before travel, subject to availability.

    There is also a taxi service available - contact Ayres Rock on 01857 600 410.

    Petrol is available at Sinclair General Stores and at the Community Shop, where bicycles can be hired too.

    Public toilets are available at Loth Pier and in Kettletoft.

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