On a dark and stormy day in May 1898, workmen were digging into an ancient hillock on the island of Rousay, Orkney. The laird and his wife had commissioned a summer seat to be built there, but work came to a sudden halt that afternoon. The laird had proposed that work should be stopped if antiquities were discovered, and it was the keen eye of his wife, Eliza, that spotted the structural remains. Her curiosity was sparked, and an investigation started. It did not take long until a dark void was discovered. That moment, a sudden thunderclap, followed by lightning, burst from the sky.
For a split second, something from the depths below reflected the bright light – unexpectedly, an ancient burial chamber had been opened. By nightfall, the islanders were convinced that supernatural forces were at play.
You cannot make this up.
Well, I suppose you could. But in this case: it isn’t. Every detail described above is based on Lady Burroughs’ report of events that took place between the 2nd and 5th of May 1898.
Lady Eliza D’Oyly Burroughs (née Geddes) is as much of an enigma as the site she discovered. She was born in 1849 and spent most of her early life in Edinburgh. Aged 19, she married Lieutenant-General (then Colonel) Frederick William Traill-Burroughs, who was 20 years her senior. Together, they moved to Rousay, Orkney, where he had taken on the role as laird. With her keen interest in art, politics and charity, she was strongly involved in life on Orkney. In spite of this, she remains a lesser known character.
By discovering the chambered cairn of Taversoe Tuick, Lady Burroughs made a noteworthy contribution to the studies of Prehistoric Orkney. She carefully recorded the findings from the site and her own observations in a tidy, gracefully illustrated report, along with a number of her own sketches in pencil and ink. In the weeks following the discovery, she did extensive research, studying the pottery and grave chambers from Europe, the Americas and Asia to contextualise the site and its artefacts. She furthermore provided artefact illustrations for Turner’s 1903 publication of the findings. In her writing she shows an intuitive understanding of stratigraphy and context, and her report remains invaluable for present-day studies of the site.
Taversoe Tuick is unique in that it has a two-storeyed construction (of which there is only one other example on Orkney – Huntersquoy on Eday), as well as an adjacent ‘mini chamber’. There are still open questions regarding the phasing of the whole site. However, owing to Lady Burroughs’ records, present-day archaeologists have a decent understanding of the site’s chronology. This has not been the case for all chambered cairns on Orkney: many earlier investigations into ancient hillocks across the archipelago were done with little to no recording.
Lady Burroughs later refers to the excavation as
“…one of the most interesting events of my life: a pursuit I can cordially recommend to anyone in search of excitement!”
Not merely the quality of her report, but above all the enthusiasm that leaps from its pages show that she was a true archaeologist at heart.
Guest Post by Nela Scholma-Mason
References and further information
I am currently carrying out biographical research into the Life of Lady Eliza D’Oyly Burroughs (1849 – 1908).
All citations (including image captions) are from Lady Burroughs’ report as published by Reynolds 1985.
Davidson, D. A. and Henshall, A. S. 1989, The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. An inventory of the structures and their contents, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
Reynolds, D. M. 1985, ‘How we found a tumulus; a story of the Orkney islands – The Journal of Lady Burroughs’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 115, 115-24.
Thomson, W. P. L. 1981, The little General and the Rousay crofters: crisis and conflict on an Orkney crofting estate, John Donald Publishers Ltd., Edinburgh.
Turner, W. 1903, ‘An account of a chambered cairn and cremation cists at Taversoe Tuick, near
Trumland House, in the island of Rousay, Orkney, excavated by Lieutenant-General Traill-
Burroughs, C.B., of Rousay, in 1898’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 37 (1902-3), 73-82
Nela Scholma-Mason (drawn illustrations)
Orkney Photographic Archive (photographs) [aka the photo archive of the best library on twitter]
Edited by Brenna