The Stones of Stenness – part two
Antiquities, Scenery and Customs of those Islands. (1822)
Destruction and reconstruction
By Sigurd Towrie
In December 1814, disaster struck the Stones of Stenness when a tenant farmer took it upon himself to obliterate them.
Before he was stopped, he had toppled one megalith (Stone Five) and smashed 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 the Sheriff Substitute for Orkney, Alexander Peterkin, who was urged to act.
Exactly 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 might 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:
Peterkin dropped legal proceedings after MacKay swore “to desist from his operations.”
Why were the locals so incensed by the destruction of the stones?
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, it is clear that by 1814 they were not entirely gone.
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 megaliths did not actually stand on his pastureland in 1814 need not be commented on here.
But although MacKay was thwarted, the Stones of Stenness were not left untouched.
Almost a century later, in 1906, Orcadian Magnus Spence lamented the damage inflicted on the monuments by the:
But that was not all:
During this operation another, smaller, megalith was uncovered:
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 new addition.
Although he conceded the bottom of the stone fitted the socket it lay beside, he still questioned its inclusion:
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.
including the Stones of Stenness, Tumuli, Picts-houses, &c. 1851.
The crooked Stone Seven was not the only controversial addition in 1906.
Today, roughly midway between the central hearth and the entrance causeway are two angular, flat-topped, stones, standing side by side, with a large prone slab beside them.
These are the remains of the so-called “dolmen” – a feature “reconstructed” despite there being no evidence it had ever existed.
Prior to the construction 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:
With “no tradition of the purpose”, Scott was free to let artistic licence reign when he used the site in his novel, The Pirate:
He took this a step further in his memoirs:
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 dolmen toppled!
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.
The 1906 restoration had seen the two original stones concreted into place, thus obliterating their sockets, and a bed of concrete installed to support the additional, modern, dolmen leg.
This damage meant the excavators were forced to conclude that:
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 definitive proof 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.