Tag Archives: Orkney

The Dwarfie Stane

?Neolithic 4000 -> 1800 BC


Beautiful Hoy

The Dwarfie Stane is an enigmatic rock-cut tomb located on the beautiful island of Hoy in the Orkney Islands.  Hoy is the second largest of the islands at 57 square miles and has a wonderfully unspoilt feel to it.  The north and west of the island are hilly and reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands and the landscape quite takes your breath away when you first encounter it, particularly on a sunny day when the light and colours look quite magical, as they did on the day I visited.  Hoy, meaning ‘High Island’ from the old Norse ‘Haey’, is reached by ferry from Houton on the mainland.  A short drive, taking in Betty Corrigall’s grave en route (see link below), brings you to a small, signposted area of off -road parking and across the road a short walk through the heather, much of it boarded, brings you to a large and conspicuous lump of sandstone.


The archaeology bit

The Dwarfie Stane

The Dwarfie Stane

The sandstone block measures 8.5 metres long by 4 metres wide and 2 metres high. It is potentially the only example in Britain of a rock-cut tomb.  I say ‘potentially’ because its actual origin and purpose is much debated, although the Historic Scotland interpretation sign in situ favours its Neolithic credentials. Unfortunately, there are no reported finds from the site and no excavation has been recorded. Typologically it resembles examples elsewhere in Europe of Late Neolithic rock-cut tombs, such as those in Portugal and Sardinia.  Equally though it is thought it could perhaps result from Bronze Age endeavours, and another possibility is that it was a much later Christian hermit’s retreat.  Location-wise it would seem to suit all of the above as it is situated alone within a valley amongst imposing hills and beneath a large rocky outcrop known as the Dwarfie Hammars. Its size and stony form stand out within the surrounding expanse of heathland and the Dwarfie Stane would have been easy to locate and impressive within the landscape in prehistoric times, as it is now.  Equally, its isolation would have served a hermit well.

Side chamber with 'pillow'

Side chamber with ‘pillow’

Whatever the original purpose of the chamber, it comprises an entranceway measuring around 1 metre square off which there are two chambers, one one either side. The one on the right-hand side notably contains a built-in stone ‘pillow’ resembling those seen in saints’ beds in Northern Italy.  It is not known whether all the features of the Dwarfie Stane are contemporary and it has been suggested that the ‘pillow’ was the work of a 19th century stonemason and geologist called Hugh Miller who carved his initials in the right-hand cell during a visit. There is also a large slab of sandstone outside the entrance which previously blocked it and indeed there are records of the tomb having been sealed in the 16th century. Of course, we can’t be sure when it was first blocked or how many episodes of sealing and unsealing there may have been over the centuries or millennia. It is certainly a sizeable block of stone though and moving it would not have been something undertaken lightly (as it were).

The Dwarfie Stane & Dwarfie Hammars behind

The Dwarfie Stane with the Dwarfie Hammars behind

If the Neolithic origins are given credence it would have been a hugely impressive feat to have hollowed it out with nothing but stone and antler tools. A supporting view for a Neolithic origin of the stone comes from Audrey Henshall who in the 1950s and 60s, in conjunction with Hampshire-born Professor Stuart Piggott (mentioned in my previous entry on Petersfield Heath), conducted an extensive survey of the chambered tombs of Scotland. She described the Dwarfie Stane as ‘the ultimate devolution within the Bookan sub-group of Orkney-Cromarty chambered cairns, rather than evidence for direct contact with the Mediterranean, where similar tombs exist’.

Historic graffiti

Over the years many people must have visited the Dwarfie Stane for one reason or another. As well as Mr Miller the stonemason, another known visitor was Major W Mounsey, a former British spy in Afghanistan and Persia, who spent a couple of days and nights there and left his mark in the form of Persian graffiti that can be seen to this day saying, ‘I have sat two nights and so learnt patience’ along with his name in Latin. The stone is even mentioned in Walter Scott’s novel The Pirate.

More recently, the Dwarfie Stane has been included in a study of the acoustics of Neolithic monuments by Dr Aaron Watson and the Monumental Creative Heritage Interpretation team with some interesting results. People listening on the roof of the stone perceived the stone itself to be shaking at some sound frequencies generated within but it is thought this was illusory. Furthermore, loud sounds produced outside the stone echoed ‘like thunder’ in the surrounding landscape. These findings open up fascinating possibilities for how such experiences may have been understood and exploited in the Neolithic and their role within their surroundings. More information on the project can be found via the link below.


Legend has it that two giants were imprisoned in the Dwarfie Stane by a third one who wanted to be master of the island of Hoy. However one of the imprisoned giants ate his way out (and in fact the roof has been repaired with concrete, it is thought following a break-in rather than break-out) thus foiling the third giant’s plan. The name Dwarfie Stane has parallels with ‘dwarf stones’ in Iceland and Norway.

Further reading









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Wideford Hill

Neolithic 4000 -> 1800 BC

The chambered cairn on Wideford Hill is situated a little way outside Kirkwall on the Orkney mainland, just off the Old Finstown Road. It is clearly signposted and easy to find, particularly if you have your resident Orcadian brother with you, as I did (he regularly walks his dog past the cairn; even more enviably the other place they walk is the Ring of Brodgar).

Entry hatch

Entry hatch

The cairn is a distinctive sight as the original earthen covering was removed when the cairn was taken into the care of the state in the 1900s, exposing its stonework terraces. There is a nice Historic Scotland interpretation board outside and also a sign pointing out the entry hatch along with a box usefully containing a torch to take with you as there is no lighting inside other than the daylight from the open hatch. Descent is via a metal staircase down 2.7 m to the floor.  The space is rather restricted although this has the advantage of making it difficult to fall as you are fairly wedged-in as you climb down.

The archaeology bit

Inside looking up (with graffiti)

Wideford chambered cairn consists of a  main chamber measuring 3 m by 1.5 m at ground level (although this narrows as it goes upwards) with three side chambers.  Its form and construction make Wideford, in effect, a mini-Maeshowe and both monuments were built at around the same time, c.3000 BC and, along with a further eight cairns in Orkney form the so-called Maeshowe-type. Wideford was excavated in 1849 when it was found to contain only rubble representing deliberate, perhaps ritualistic, end-of-use infill along with some animal bones and teeth which are now thought to have resulted from more recent mammal incursion. It is probable that Wideford was capped with clay as a form of weatherproofing.  Interestingly, it also contains a chimney-like structure which was likely to have been the conduit for the infill and it has also been suggested that, prior to this final act of deposition taking place, it may have functioned as a ‘light slot’ for communicating with the dead. Further reading about this, Wideford cairn and Orkney archaeology generally can be found on the excellent Orkneyjar website (link below).

Would you trust these three not to close the hatch?

Wideford Hill is also notable as the location of one of three Neolithic habitation sites recently investigated by Professor Colin Richards of Manchester University and Dr Richard Jones of Glasgow University.  Settlement at Wideford has been traced back to the Early Neolithic period and evidence has been found here of timber roundhouses with central scoop hearths.

It has been noted that the entrance passage of the cairn on Wideford Hill faces the nearby cairn on Cuween Hill; a similar observation has also been made regarding Taversoe Tuick cairn on Rousay and the cairn on Gairsay, as well as the cairns of Eday Church and the Holm of Huip. It is suggested that these alignments may indicate a ‘community of the dead’ or perhaps symbolise claims to the land (Garnham, 2004). This certainly seems feasible when you consider the monumental landscape of the Orcadian Neolithic farmers but, as with many aspects of prehistory, there are many and varied possible explanations for apparent patterns and observations in the archaeological record and it is unlikely a definitive explanation will ever be arrived at – which is what makes it so endlessly fascinating!


Wideford Hill chambered cairn

Orkney abounds with folklore and it is believed that much of that which has been passed down through the ages survives as a combination of Norse beliefs merged with those of the earlier inhabitants of these mystical isles.  ‘Hogboons’ or ‘mound dwellers’ were the spirits of the dead believed to inhabit the ancient mounds.  They were thought to provide a protective presence and hence dwellings have long been built alongside these prehistoric monuments. Offerings were made by inhabitants of farming settlements to appease their resident ‘mound-dwellers’ and comprised such things as milk from the first cow that calved or the first beer that was brewed and these were poured over the mound. Such beliefs continued into the 19th century and beyond.


After my somewhat gusty and soggy underfoot walk across the heather-clad hill to Wideford Cairn I partook of a coffee at my brother’s house just down the road. However, later in the day I sampled a Raven Ale or two from the Orkney Brewery. This 3.8% quaffable bitter is refreshingly palatable and comes highly recommended.

Further reading

Garner, T. 2004 Lines on the Landscape, Circles from the Sky Stroud: Tempus


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