Around the Ness: the Comet Stone

“The old track now passes by a small, solitary standing stone slab, encircled in green for some distance around its base and finally merging again into heather.”

George Marwick. The Standing Stones of Stenness – Traces of the Ancient Road from the Quarries (1892)
The Comet Stone. August 2020. (Sigurd Towrie)

The Comet Stone. August 2020. (Sigurd Towrie)

By Sigurd Towrie

On low ground 140 metres (153 yards) east of the Ring of Brodgar is the monolith now commonly known as the Comet Stone.

The 1.75-metre-high (5ft 9in) stone stands on a low, oval mound to the north-east of a Bronze Age barrow cemetery and at the bottom of the ridge straddled by the stone circle. At right angles to the Comet Stone, often obscured by vegetation, are two stumps, long presumed to be the remains a pair of megaliths.

For well over a century the most common explanation for three stones has been that they were part of a processional avenue between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. In truth, we simply do not know how the trio related to the stone circles. We have no date for their erection, so whether they pre-date, post-date or were contemporary to the Brodgar ring is unknown.

The Comet Stone and the two stone fragments, looking out towards the Harray loch. (Sigurd Towrie)

The Comet Stone and the two stone fragments, looking out towards the Harray loch. (Sigurd Towrie)

Because there has been no excavation, we also have no idea what the three stones represent. Again, there have been various suggestions, including a dilapidated (and extremely small) stone circle, a cove/dolmen or a structure. All these interpretations, however, assume the three stones are contemporary and part of a single monument – something we just cannot say with any certainty.

Given their dimensions and position, it does seem likely the stumps were a pair. But are they actually the remains of standing stones? Or are they orthostats representing an earlier structure or phase of activity? If so, is the Comet Stone a much later addition?

The Comet Stone, looking south-east towards Mid Hill. (Sigurd Towrie)

The Comet Stone, looking south-east towards Mid Hill. (Sigurd Towrie)

The scale of the mound, which has a diameter of 14m (45ft), together with recent geophysics scans suggests that something may lie beneath – a tomb? A house? These questions can only be answered by excavation.

In the early 1970s, the Comet Stone was declared an integral part of a megalithic landscape that was used as an astronomical observatory [1].

This theory is far from universally accepted but to Professor Alexander Thom the stone was a backsight for a notch on Mid Hill, to the south-east, that marked the rising point of the moon at a minor lunar standstill [1]. The axis of the two stumps, he proposed, aligned to the rising midsummer sun [2].

It was around this time that the “Comet Stone” name also became firmly affixed to the monolith.

The Comet Stone and Ring of Brodgar in 2000. (Sigurd Towrie)

The Comet Stone and Ring of Brodgar in 2000. (Sigurd Towrie)

Antiquarian notions

The evidence suggests the stone’s grandiose title was coined by 19th century antiquarians, perhaps because they saw the megalith as orbiting [3] the “Temple of the Sun” – an equally dramatic name for the Ring of Brodgar, which had become the moniker of choice for the stone circle from the late 18th century onwards [4].

A search of the literature suggests the earliest occurrence of the name is an 1899 map of the Stenness monuments, and their proposed alignments, by Henry Scharbau. On it, the megalith is simply marked “Comet”.

The Comet Stone and stumps sit on top of a large mound. (Sigurd Towrie)

The Comet Stone and stumps sit on top of a large mound. (Sigurd Towrie)

But even at this time, there seems to be no agreement as to a name. The Orcadian Magnus Spence (c1853-1919), who plotted the same alignments around the Ness of Brodgar in 1899 [5], declared: “The one near the Sun Circle no doubt represents Venus, following the great sun-god in his fiery chariot… [6]

Spence’s designation undoubtedly influenced a 1901 sermon in the Stenness Church, where the visiting minister not only informed his congregation of the “Venus Stone”, but threw the stones of Mercury, Saturn and Jupiter into the mix! [7]  

In 1902, in a later article on his proposed alignments, Spence makes no mention of the monolith.

Comet Stone” appears again in 1925, when John Fraser, the Orcadian author of a paper presented to the Orkney Antiquarian Society, pointed out that the name was comparatively modern. In his 1952 guidebook to the islands’ ancient monuments, the Orkney historian Hugh Marwick describes the stone but does not name it [8].

Comet Stone and Ring of Brodgar. 2000. (Sigurd Towrie)

Comet Stone and Ring of Brodgar. 2000. (Sigurd Towrie)

The Ulie Stane

Plans and sections of the Comet Stone by H. Dryden and G Petrie in 1857, and copied by W Galloway in 1868. http://canmore.org.uk/collection/1327212

Plans and sections of the Comet Stone by H. Dryden and G Petrie in 1857, and copied by W Galloway in 1868. http://canmore.org.uk/collection/1327212

Given its prominence in the Brodgar landscape, early chroniclers paid surprisingly little attention to the Comet Stone.

An exception was Captain F.W.L. Thomas, who surveyed and planned the monument during a visit in 1848. In his account of Orkney’s antiquities, however, he does not name the stone [9].

Almost 50 years later, neither did the Orcadian George Marwick – at least not a name by which he knew it. Writing in 1892, Marwick stated that he remembered “old men” refer to the monolith as the “Ulie Stane” [10] – dialect for “oil stone”. In this case “ulie” probably referred to fish oil.

“The road passes the stone standing by itself to the eastwards of the large circle [Ring of Brodgar] called by the old people the Ulie Stane,” he wrote, adding: “…old men about 50 years ago took off their hats or bonnets on passing this stone.”

Marwick’s account suggests the Comet Stone, while apparently uninteresting to the antiquarians, was held in some – probably superstitious – regard, at least by the older generation, up until the 1850s.

While we cannot be certain, the fact “oil” was associated with the stone hints that traditions recorded elsewhere in Britain and Europe were once also found in Orkney. The megaliths of Brittany, wrote Baring-Gould, were: “…beplastered with oil and honey and wax, and this anointing of the stones was condemned by the bishops.” [11]

In Sweden, stones known as elf-stenar (elf stones) were anointed with fat or butter and offerings, including pins, copper coins and rags, left at them [12]. In Orkney, although traditions of milk being poured on, or into, mounds to placate the supernatural were recorded, nothing has survived connecting megaliths to oil. The elf stone offerings, however, were akin to those regularly deposited at the Odin Stone, before its destruction in 1814.

According to Captain F.W.L. Thomas: “… it was customary to leave some offering on visiting the stone, such as a piece of bread, or cheese, or a rag, or even a stone [13].”

Although the other standing stones in the vicinity feature heavily in Orcadian tradition, the Comet Stone does not. Its sole appearance in folklore explains that it is the petrified remains of a giant fiddler, who, along with his companions dancing in a ring nearby, were turned to stone by the light of the rising sun.

Notes

  • [1] Thom, A. and Thom, A.S. (1973) A megalithic lunar observatory in Orkney: the Ring of Brogar and its cairns. Journal for the History of Astronomy, 4(2), pp.111-123.
  • [2] Thom, A. and Thom, A.S. (1975) Further work on the Brogar lunar observatory. Journal for the History of Astronomy, 6, pp.100-114.
  • [3] Ritchie, A. (1995) Prehistoric Orkney.
  • [4] It should be noted that earlier accounts do describe the stone circles as temples of the sun and moon but the adoption of “Temple of the Sun” (Ring of Brodgar) and “Temple of the Moon” (Stones of Stenness) as “traditional” names seems to have followed Sir Joseph Banks’ visit to Orkney in 1772.
  • [5] Spence, M. (1904) Maeshow and the Standing Stones, Stenness: Their age and purpose. In Saga Book of the Viking Club Vol III.
  • [6] Patricia Long. Pers comm.
  • [7] The Orcadian. July 20, 1901.
  • [8] Marwick, H. (1952) Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings. Orkney Official Guide. HMSO. Edinburgh.
  • [9] 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), pp.88-136.
  • [10] Marwick, G. (1892) Howastedgarth, The Standing Stones, Stennis. In Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian. Kirkwall.
  • [11] Baring-Gould, S. (1891) A Book of Brittany.
  • [12] Cups and Circles. (1882) Nature.
  • [13] 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), pp.88-136.

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