‘I WENT to the Mound that afternoon carrying a basket of spring flowers to plant at the Summer seat. On the homeward journey my basket contained a skull.”

This macabre turn of events, complete with thunder booming at the moment of discovery, was told by the remarkable basket-bearer herself, Eliza D’Oyly Traill Burroughs. It all started innocuously enough, with the simple desire for a seat with a view.

Eliza’s husband, Frederick William Traill Burroughs, was the laird of the isles of Rousay and Wyre in Orkney. Frederick, known somewhat mockingly as the “Little General”, has secured a place as one of Orkney’s cruellest landlords due to his remorseless clearance of many people from Rousay.

Eliza, by contrast, is remembered fondly to this day. Her legacy includes a key role in Orkney’s arts and crafts movement including an influential relationship with May Morris, the first cinema screening ever held in Rousay in 1901, and an invaluable nine-page account complete with illustrations detailing her unconventional discovery of a chambered cairn.

The couple resided at Trumland House from 1873, a stone’s throw from a curious grass-covered mound called Taversoe Tuick. Eliza and Frederick called this mound Flagstaff Hill, and correctly identified it as a cairn – a stone-built chamber into which the ancients of Rousay interred their dead.

In her excavation report, Eliza recalled how she often amused her “southern friends” by asking them to “come and listen to the Picts whispering” beneath their feet.

A gap somewhere below created a soft whistling sound when the wind was up, which it very often was.

Loving the view over the Eynhallow Sound but less so the incessant wind, in the summer of 1898 Eliza and Frederick sought to carve a sheltered wedge “like a plum cake” into the mound’s south face.

A wedge was duly cut by several workmen, and Eliza and her friends retired for a lunch break.

On returning, Eliza immediately recognised a stone slab protruding from the earth as part of a burial cist. As suspected, this was no ordinary mound. “Munro’s face was dark,” Eliza wrote. “The inhabitants don’t much like finding these burials.”

Orkney lore is rife with tales of people being lured into these “fairy mounds” for what they believe to only be a few moments or hours, only to emerge and find that whole generations have passed.

Elderly people suffering from conditions such as dementia were said to be away “in the hill”, and goblin-like creatures called hogboons guarded such mounds and had to be appeased.

There were plenty of reasons why slicing into one was not something most locals were especially keen on.

Undeterred, Eliza encouraged the workers to continue digging.

At the exact moment that spades broke through to a subterranean chamber a thunderclap rang out and, if an observer’s account can be believed, one workman fainted on the spot.

On entering the chamber, they found a skeleton in a doubled-up sitting position and heaps of bones scattered all around. Eliza was absolutely thrilled, writing: “When I went to bed that night I could think of nothing else!

There had we sat, during many happy summers, stretched on the purple heather ... little dreaming that barely 8ft below us sat these grim and ghastly skeletons.”

An informal but dedicated student of antiquities, Eliza wrote in her notebook that she guessed the skeletons to be 2000 years old. She read every source she could get her hands on, and later scratched out her initial estimate and replaced it with 4000.

Modern radiocarbon dating proved her revision to be almost exactly correct, meaning these were no Picts but Neolithic Orcadians, contemporaries with the raising of standing stones and great cairns like Maeshowe.

Taversoe Tuick is one of only two multi-storey cairns known in Orkney and is in far better condition than the other, Huntersquoy in Eday.

Today it is possible to access the lower chamber from the upper chamber by way of a ladder – which admittedly requires a little bravery to descend – but the lower chamber was previously accessible only via a stone-lined corridor entered further down the slope. Like Maeshowe, this lower chamber receives a beam of sunlight at the winter solstice.

Taking a seat on one of the stone slabs in this lower chamber, flanked by small cells and facing a sliver of light coming through the passageway, it is easy for the imagination to conjure grand and morbid narratives.

One can only imagine the daydreams Eliza had after getting a glimpse into this underworld, having sat above it with curiosity already piqued for so long.

There is also a third chamber to the cairn, a very small compartment separate from the others. Archaeologists are uncertain of its exact purpose, but one theory is that it served as a subterranean communication link with the realm of the dead in which the living could whisper to, and listen for responses from, their ancestors.

This was not known to Eliza, making her comment about listening to the Picts whispering prescient, indeed.

Eliza’s own story and her discovery of Taversoe Tuick still resonates with Rousay residents today.

On October 29, 2022, I attended an event at Rousay Community School as part of the Orkney Storytelling Festival featuring a talk and film screening helmed by Dr Nela Scholma-Mason, an archaeologist and another Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

It was clearly the place to be, with the school’s hall packed with more than 50 attendees. As part of the Forgotten Stories project, Dr Scholma-Mason co-ordinated the filming of a dramatic retelling of the excavation and digitised an audio interview with Alexina Craigie, a servant in Trumland House who knew Eliza well. The latter especially, with Alexina’s fond words about Eliza, clearly stirred emotions among the crowd.

Taversoe Tuick now stands as one node in a line of cairns stretching along the upland-lowland boundary of Rousay’s southern slopes. Others can be entered too, including Blackhammer Cairn, the Knowe of Yarso, and – crawling on knees and elbows, at least – the Knowe of Lairo.

Several feature Historic Environment Scotland signs giving information about their use and history, and each has a very distinct atmosphere especially when visited after dark.

On my most recent visit, I spent midnight on Samhain inside Taversoe Tuick’s lower chamber, the whistling wind overpowered by the dark silence of the cairn’s inner workings.

While I can’t report any ghastly goings-on or well-timed thunderclaps, I like to think that Eliza, a scholar with a Gothic edge, would have relished doing the same.