Case Study: Tote Cairn, Skye

Susan Kruse

Tote Cairn (MHG5134) is a large grass cairn situated on the shore towards the end of Loch Snizort Beag excavated by T.C. Lethbridge in 1922 (Lethbridge 1920). At the bottom was a rude cist formed of stones, suggesting a possible Bronze Age date. No bones were found, but a remarkably large number of flints as well as charcoal. Whether these were on the ground surface before the cairn burial was constructed is unclear, but the lithic material clearly has a wide date range, with some said to be Mesolithic in date. The finds were later in the possession of Lethbridge, but two cores and five flakes of chert are in Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; the whereabouts of the rest of the lithic material is unknown. The Cambridge objects are labelled ‘Smaller Cairn by large one at Tote, Skeabost, Skye’, suggesting that there may also have been two cairns at the site.

What makes this cairn unusual is that thousands of years later another grave was inserted at the top, this one for a Viking. The end of a femur and a few fragments of charred bone were all that remained of the body. Grave goods consisted of an iron axe (still preserving wood in the haft); a sandstone hone, hammerstone or possibly even a Neolithic axehead (see below); a bead of ivory or bone (probably lost); a copper-alloy ringed pin; iron fragments, possibly part of a casket or sickle blade; possibly a knife tang; an iron ring; and a rivet. It is one of the few Viking cremation burials in Scotland, and a rare survival of evidence of a box. The axe when compared to other Viking examples suggests a date of around the 10th century (pers comm Caroline Paterson).

Sketch of Tote Cairn showing its height and width at the time of excavation.
Figure 1: Elevation of the cairn, Letherbridge 1920.
Fragment of bone with label reading 'smaller cairn by large one at Tote, Skeabost, Skye'.
Figure 2: Fragment of bone from the cairn, now in Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Note inscription suggesting there were two cairns on the site. ©Susan Kruse
Nearly complete, but corroded iron axehead.
Figure 3: Iron axe from Viking burial. ©Susan Kruse

There is some confusion about the site, as Lethbridge published it in the Archaeological Journal for 1920, but states that the cairn was excavated in 1922; research by James Graham-Campbell (pers comm) shows that the journal was actually published several years later, probably early 1924. Some of the labelling on finds suggested there may have been a second cairn (see above), or perhaps this too is in error. Lethbridge’s published account mentions a stone hone, but the Cambridge Museum catalogue has listed it as a stone axehead. This object was not available for examination in 2020, but should be checked again. If it is a stone axe, it is unusual to find a Neolithic axehead in a Viking burial.

The cairn is important for showing multi-period use, and important evidence of the Viking presence on Skye. The preservation of wood allows the possibility of radiocarbon dating in the future, and if some of the charcoal from the original burial can be traced, the possibility of dating this earlier phase.


Thanks to Caroline Paterson and James Graham-Campbell for discussing the Viking burial finds, in advance of publication in the Pagan Norse Graves project, and Caroline’s re-identification of some of the Viking Age material. The chert lithics and iron axehead were examined in January 2020, but other finds in the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology collection were not available to view. The finds are catalogued as 1951.1058, 1951.1064 and Z 20850.