Around the Ness: The Stones of Stenness – part two
Destruction and reconstruction
By Sigurd Towrie
“Each of the remaining pillars is about 18 feet above ground: one was lately thrown down, but has not been broken; three were, in the month of December 1814, torn from the spot on which they had stood for ages, and were shivered to pieces.” 
In December 1814, disaster struck at the Stones of Stenness. A tenant farmer took it upon himself to demolish them.
After he had “barbarously destroyed” the Odin Stone, 140 metres to the north of the Stones of Stenness, the farmer, Captain W. MacKay, turned his attention to the remains of the stone circle. Before he was stopped, he had toppled one megalith (Stone Five) and obliterated another (Stone Six).
On Christmas Day 1814, festivities at the Kirkwall home of the historian Malcolm Laing were interrupted by news of the destruction in Stenness. Among Laing’s guests was Sheriff Substitute for Orkney, Alexander Peterkin, who was urged to act.
When MacKay’s assault on the standing stones occurred is not known but was presumably in the week leading up to December 25, 1814. MacKay’s reasons are equally unclear. In his account of the incident, Peterkin stated that MacKay’s “unfortunate act of destruction was thoughtlessly perpetrated” to secure building material for new cattle byres.
In a letter dated December 30, 1814, however, MacKay claimed his actions were “for the purpose of strengthening the fields.”
The tone of this letter, in which MacKay urges the authorities to “prevent any further steps being taken that my operate to [his] prejudice” was presumably the result of the furore his actions had stirred up.
“He has indeed suffered a sort of mean persecution ever since,” wrote Peterkin.
“The peasantry, who were removed by his landlord when he entered to his farm, availing themselves of the prejudice which had arisen against him, partly at least as a Ferry Louper – the name by which all persons not natives of Orkney are designated by the vulgar – were loud in their complaints against him. Various conspiracies were basely formed to injure him, and two different attempts made to set fire to his dwellings and his property, happily with little effect.”
Peterkin dropped legal proceedings after MacKay swore “to desist from his operations.”
“Had it not been for the interference of Mr Malcolm Laing, the historian, the whole group of Stennis would have been broken down as building materials for the ignorant Goth’s cow-sheds. The act was the less culpable, perhaps, as the perpetrator was a stranger who had only recently taken up his abode in Orkney.”
Why were the locals so incensed by the destruction of the stones? In a nutshell, the Stones of Stenness, the Odin Stone and the Ring of Brodgar played major roles in Orcadian tradition. The Odin Stone was believed to have curative and preventative powers and was the site where binding oaths were sworn – both business and romantic.
Although these traditions were said to be dying out in the late 18th century, perhaps they were not entirely gone in 1814. According to the Orcadian historian Ernest Marwick, another reason MacKay gave for the destruction was that his pasture was being ruined by visitors to the stones! The fact the stones did not actually stand on pastureland in 1814 need not be commented on here.
Although MacKay was thwarted, the Stones of Stenness were not left untouched. In 1906, Magnus Spence lamented the damage inflicted in on the monuments by the “scores of visitors” who had “attempted to render themselves immortal by hewing their names, in full, as near the tops as possible to avoid obliteration.”
But that was not all: “In addition, there is the silly craze for mementos of local visits, which results in bits of the more friable stones, covered with lichen, being carried off ad libitum.”
“These practices,” he added, “are not yet stopped, but we are on the fair road thereto.”
During this operation another, smaller, megalith was uncovered – “a large, ill-shaped stone, lying in a position with its end in proximity to the next socket, as if it were the next monolith of the circle.”
It was raised in the socket-hole but the inclusion of the 1.8-metre-high (6ft) megalith was contentious. Surely this crooked specimen – half the size of its neighbours – did not belong in a stone circle dominated by towering, arrow-straight megaliths.
“Its shape and uncomeliness makes one doubt what the position suggests,” wrote Spence, clearly not a fan of the latest addition.
“The three tall, shapely, imposing monoliths, from 16ft to 18ft above the ground, and then a malformed specimen! One would fain not believe it. It suggests three giants and a hunchback.”
Although he conceded the bottom of the stone fitted the socket it lay beside, he still questioned its inclusion: “We have doubts as to whether it is a genuine monolith. It looks such a dwarf amid these huge monoliths. Sir [Walter] Scott, who visited this circle, or semi-circle, before it was vandalised, makes the statement that none of the stones were less than 12 feet above the ground. This one is about 6½ feet. Mr Cursiter considers it is the broken part of the original stone, which is a likely explanation.”
Spence’s concerns are understandable but while it is clear the stone is conspicuously different, anyone viewing the surviving stones at the nearby Ring of Brodgar will see megaliths of varying height, thicknesses and shapes.
Perhaps the Stenness stone’s distinctive – somewhat unique – crooked shape marked it as special and this was a significant factor in its selection and position by the entrance causeway. We will never know if it was matched on the opposite side by a stone of similar proportions – that megalith (Stone Eight) survives only as stump.
“This ring is peculiarly interesting from the presence of a Cromlech within the area, but it is not placed at the centre. Though the cromlech is overthrown, it is sufficiently perfect to understand its former shape.”
Stone Seven was not the only controversial addition in 1906.
Today, roughly midway between the central hearth and the entrance causeway are two angular slabs, standing side by side with a large prone stone beside them.
These are the remains of the so-called “dolmen” – a feature “reconstructed” despite the fact there was no evidence it had ever existed.
Prior to the addition of the dolmen, one of the angular stones still stood. Its companion lay on its side, with the slab resting on top. Although there was no evidence these related to a dolmen, it was tentatively suggested in 1805 that “the large broad stone now lying on the ground” might have been “raised and supported on pillars”
By the late 19th century the concept of the Stenness dolmen had become popular. This was no doubt inspired by the musings of Sir Walter Scott, who had visited the Stones of Stenness mere months before MacKay’s destructive spree.
In his account of his visit, Scott explained: “Mr Rae seems to think the common people have no tradition of the purpose of these stones, but probably he has not enquired particularly. He admits they look upon them with superstitious reverence; and it is evident that those which have fallen down (about half the original number) have been wasted by time, and not demolished.”
With “no tradition of the purpose”, Scott was free to let artistic licence reign when he used the site in his novel, The Pirate: “[Minna] attained the centre of the circle, on which, in the midst of the tall erect pillars of rude stone that are raised around, lies one flat and prostrate, supported by short stone-pillars, of which some relics are still visible, that had once served, perhaps, the purpose of an altar.”
He took this a step further in his memoirs: “About the centre of the semi-circle is a broad flat stone, probably once the altar on which human victims were sacrificed.”
When the time came to “repair” the Stenness stones it seems there was no doubt that there should be a dolmen. So up it went. The fallen stone was raised again, a third support added and the prone slab placed on top.
The creation became known as the “Altar Stone” and was the subject of debate for decades.
“The altar-like construction, which disfigures the interior, is a modern and wholly fanciful addition.”
The dolmen remained until September 1972, when it was toppled – officially explained away as the result of a drunken prank. Local talk at the time, however, was that the dolmen had no place within the monument.
Over 60 years after it was raised, the dolmen’s place within the monument remained contentious. Discussions as to whether it should be restored resulted in the 1973/74 excavation of the Stones of Stenness.
The 1906 restoration had seen the two original stones concreted into place, obliterating their sockets, and a bed of concrete installed to support the additional, modern, dolmen leg. The damage meant the excavators were forced to conclude that: “No completely satisfactory interpretation can be offered for the three original stones of the dolmen.”
However, based on historical accounts and illustrations, they did feel the original stones – those still visible today – had been righted in their original locations. The flat slab used to form the dolmen top may have stood to the east of the stone pair, all three forming part of a stone feature, the nature of which was unclear.
With no evidence that a dolmen ever stood within the ring, the stone pair were left alone, with the “altar top” prone again beside them. And there they remain to this day.
-  Peterkin’s account of the destruction is puzzling. He refers to one stone being “thrown down” (Stone Five) and three “torn from the spot … and … shivered to pieces”. Including the Odin Stone, which he mentions later, this means that Peterkin states four stones were destroyed. We know Stone Six was broken up but that leaves two unaccounted for. Going on historical accounts of the Stones of Stenness, we know that prior to MacKay’s intervention, four megaliths were standing and a fifth lay prone. We can only assume that Peterkin made a mistake.
-  Wilson, D. (1851) The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland.
-  Peterkin, A. (1822) Notes on Orkney and Zetland: Illustrative of the History, Antiquities, Scenery and Customs of those Islands.
-  Ritchie, J.N.G. and Marwick, E.W. (1975) The Stones of Stenness, Orkney. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 107, pp. 1-60).
-  Spence, M. (1906) Reports of District Secretaries – Renovation and Preservation of the Standing Stones, Stenness. Saga Book of the Viking Club.
-  Thomas, F.W.L. (1851) Account of some of the Celtic Antiquities of Orkney, including the Stones of Stenness, Tumuli, Picts-houses, &c., with Plans, by FWL Thomas, RN, Corr. Mem. SA Scot., Lieutenant Commanding HM Surveying Vessel Woodlark. Archaeologia, 34(1).
-  Barry, G. (1808) History of the Orkney Islands.