About Orkney
 About the Site
 Search Site 
  Orkney's Underground 'Earth-houses'

The Grain earth-house, Kirkwall

To the west of Kirkwall Bay is the subterranean chamber known as the Grain earth-house.

Located in the middle of an industrial estate, these days the visitor is hard pressed to find the structure. From the outside, it is a small, green knoll in the midst of industrial buildings.

However, despite the modern surroundings, approximately six feet (two metres) beneath the surface lies a beautiful example of an Iron Age earth-house - constructed, and used, some time in the first millennium BC.

The earth-house was discovered in 1827, at which time it stood in green farmland, some way from the town of Kirkwall. Back then, the chamber was closed up and remained untouched until 1857, when two antiquarians, Farrer and Petrie, decided to explore the interior.

Access to the main "bean-shaped" chamber is by a flight of stone steps leading underground to a gently-sloping curved passage. Today, only the lower part of this stairway is original, the top section being rebuilt around 1908, when the site was taken into state care.

Plan view of Grain

The chamber and passage are both roofed by flat stone slabs. Inside, four massive stone pillars support the weight of the 4.92 feet (1.5 metres) high main chamber’s roof. This roof is 6.5 feet (2.03 metres) below ground level.

Although no detailed record of Farrer and Petrie's excavation was made, we know that they found the chamber empty. Above ground they encountered the remains of what was described as a "domestic settlement" and uncovered "a large pit of midden material".

In 1982, another smaller earth house was discovered about 20 feet (six metres) to the west of the existing one. Another Iron Age building was found overlying this structure, alongside the fragmentary remains of other buildings.

These discoveries led to the suggest that both earth houses were once part of a single domestic settlement.