The Dwarfie Stane – talking Trolld, echoes and cliffside caves

“But I would rather think, seeing it could not accommodate any of a gigantic stature, that it might be for the use of some dwarf, as the name seems to import…”
Rev John Brand. A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithness. (1701)
The west side of the Dwarfie Stane.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
The west side of the Dwarfie Stane. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Part Two
By Sigurd Towrie

And so we’ve reached the start the second article having seen no mention of the eponymous dwarf.

But fear not. Here we go…

It is only in the 19th century that we start seeing this character becoming firmly attached to the Dwarfie Stane (in the written records at least).

Putting pen to paper in 1884, Fergusson declared:

“[T]radition has been busy. It has cast its mantle around the Dwarfie Stone, which is said to have been the residence of a strange dwarf and his consort.” [11]

What led to a dwarf supplanting giants as the former inhabitants of the stone? I lay that squarely at the feet of Sir Walter Scott. Tradition hadn’t been busy. Scott had, in particular his 1822 novel The Pirate:

“The Dwarfie Stone has been immortalised by the magic pen of the ‘Wizard of the North’, who tells of the superstitious feelings with which it was still regarded in the beginning of the present century. One of the most interesting scenes in The Pirate takes place around this stone.” [11]

This episode recounts an attempt to raise the spirit of Trolld – the “necromantic dwarf” – who, according to the novel, frequented the area around the Dwarfie Stane.

Describing the chamber as “a relic of antiquity, which strangers look on with curiosity, and the natives with awe,” our heroine, Norna, explained:

Trolld sketch.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
“The inside of the rock has two couches, hewn by no earthly hand, and having a small passage between them. The doorway is now open to the weather; but beside it lies a large stone … [which] once had served to open and to close this extraordinary dwelling, which Trolld, a dwarf famous in the northern Sagas, is said to have framed for his own favourite residence.
“The lonely shepherd avoids the place, for at sunrise, high noon, or sunset, the misshapen form of the necromantic owner may sometimes still be seen sitting by the Dwarfie Stone.”

Later, inside the chamber, Norna pondered:

“Had it been really the work of that powerful Trolld, to whom the poetry of the scalds referred it? Or was it the tomb of some Scandinavian chief, interred with his arms and his wealth, perhaps also with his immolated wife, that what he loved best in life might not in death be divided from him?
“Or was it the abode of penance, chosen by some devoted anchorite of later days? Or the idle work of some wandering mechanic, whom chance and whim, and leisure, had thrust upon such an undertaking?” [7]

He may have been “famous in the Northern Sagas” but who was this Trolld? The answer is simple. He was Scott’s fictional creation.

In his Dwarfie Stane note at the end of The Pirate, Scott states:

“The Orcadian traditions allege the work to be that of a dwarf, to whom they ascribe supernatural powers, and a malevolent disposition, the attributes of that race in Norse mythology.” [7]

I suggest it was Scott’s interpretation of the stone’s name that spawned Trolld. Makes sense. It was called the Dwarfie Stane after all, so it stands to reason that it must surely be associated with a dwarf…

Track to the stane...  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Track to the stane… (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

But while it is not difficult to see why the diminutive chamber could be associated with a dwarf, it should be remembered that the earliest account was clear (however improbable) that it was the abode of giants – something repeated over the centuries:

“The common tradition among the people is that a giant with his wife lived in this Isle of Hoy, who had this stone for their castle.” [15]

Based on on surviving folklore from across Orkney, it’s very unlikely the Dwarfie Stane wasn’t considered the haunt of something otherworldly, particularly when we consider the nearby Trowie Glen (see below).

But the problem is that dwarven mythology is somewhat scarce here.

As the Orcadian folklorist Ernest Marwick pointed out in 1975:

“In Orkney, dwarfs are remembered in a few placenames, but they have not survived recognisably in the folklore of the Northern Isles.” [16]

As we’ve seen, Jo Ben doesn’t actually name the stone in his 16th century account, but we know it had its current moniker by1693. [10]

And it’s here we find ourselves in a chicken-and-egg situation. We have the Dwarfie Stane and, some 275 metres to the south, the “vast amphitheatre of cliffs” [12] known as the Dwarfie Hamars.

Which came first. Did the rockface take its name from the stone or vice versa? I suspect the latter and that it was the Hamars, perhaps, that were originally considered to be the abode of something otherworldly.

The Dwarfie Stane with the Dwarfie Hamars in the background.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
The Dwarfie Stane. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The placename’s dwarfie element is self-explanatory, while hamars derives from the Old Norse hamarr, meaning rock face.

That the area was, in the historical period at least, considered to be the domain of preternatural beings is clear. Not only do we have a clear reference to the dvergr [1] but the deep gully cutting through the Hamars goes by the name of Trowie Glen – an abode of the dreaded, mound-dwelling trows of folklore.

In the words of Eric Linklater:

When the medieval giant who chiselled the stone turned into the Dwarf who gave it his name, is not known; but it can hardly be doubted that, in one or other of his malignant shapes, the Norsemen thought he took his exercise in the [Trowie] Glen.” [17]

Dwarven voices?

The Dwarfie Stane with the Dwarfie Hamars in the background.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
The Dwarfie Stane with the Dwarfie Hamars looming in the background. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Throughout the historical accounts we find repeated references to the acoustics of the area (and Hoy in general):

“There is said to be a very fine echo under the Dwarfie Hamars.” [12]
“There are many curious echoes among the hills of Hoy, the best of which I had one day an opportunity of observing when a fowling.[18]
“In some parts of these glens, the sound of the human voice or the report of a musket, reverberates from the rocks and sides of the mountains in such a manner as to form a most pleasant echo that will distinctly repeat many syllables.” [1b]

This is particularly intriguing when we consider another of Orkney’s rare dwarf placenames. At Dwarmo, in the West Mainland parish of Evie, there is a notable echo from a north-facing rocky outcrop.

This phenomenon prompted the Orcadian historian Hugh Marwick to propose the name derived from the Old Norse dverg-mál, meaning dwarf talk and that the echoes were considered to be voices from dwellers within the rock face. That said, it’s equally possible, and more probable, that the name stems from the less-exciting dverg-mór, or dwarf moor.

That said, it’s clear that Dwarmo, like the Hamars, was associated with, at some point, with dwarves.

But dwarf-talk or not, an archaeological project looking at the acoustics of British Neolithic monuments confirmed that dramatic effects could be experienced in and around the Dwarfie Stane:

“Loud sounds generated around the Dwarfie Stane, such as beating a drum, generated powerful echoes that echoed like thunder around the surrounding cliffs and hillsides. While the choice of location was determined by the availability of a sufficiently large stone, the spectacular setting and imposing echoes contribute to the experience of this unique monument.” [19]

The conclusion:

“While this effect would occur in any comparable natural setting, this particular locale was chosen as the site of a tomb, and it is possible that these echoes played a role in activities there. In addition, there are few comparable arcs of cliffs elsewhere in Orkney, and the presence of a monument at their vicinity would seem to be an intriguing combination.” [20]

Within the chamber itself intense sounds could be created a single voice:

“While standing wave resonances could be created inside by singing or humming, some effects were not confined to the chamber. At certain frequencies, listeners outside perceived the stone to be shaking. This was an illusion, and it is more likely that the listeners themselves were resonating. But it does raise some interesting questions as to how such experiences were understood in the Neolithic.” [19]
View from the interior, across the blocking stone, and westwards along the valley.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
View from the interior, across the blocking stone, and westwards along the valley. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The caves in the cliffs

In his memoirs, John Bremner, a former resident of Rackwick, Hoy, told of a cave he found high in the face of the Dwarfie Hamars. [14]

During its exploration he found an “egg-shaped” object that has since been likened to some of the worked-stone arfefacts found at Skara Brae.

“In these cliff ‘terraces’ there are a number of natural caves, and in the only one I entered – for lack of time – I found the floor was strewn with many layers of decayed heather; how many I had no means of discovering, nor had I any idea of at what depth the real bottom of the cave lay – for I naturally concluded that there had to be a stone flooring at some depth.

“Among the debris on the ‘carpet’ of long decayed heather and grass, I found a beautiful egg-shaped stone, of hard-grained sandstone, and quite heavy for its size – six inches long, with a circumference of five and a half. It was polished, and was, to my idea, a ‘symbol’ stone – to the ancients the egg was the symbol of fertility.”

Bremner exhibited his artefact at a meeting of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, where “some of the learned professors…pronounced it as being a ritualistic object.”

Unfortunately, there are no illustrations of the artefact and its present location is not known.

The Dwarfie Hamars.  (📷 Jo Bourne)
The Dwarfie Hamars. (📷 Jo Bourne)

To Bremner, the cave was the dwelling of those who hollowed out the Dwarfie Stane:

“The area round about the Stane is very bleak and rugged, the soil being boggy, and always wet, even in the driest weather, providing no shelter of any kind. Also, the remoteness of the Stane from the nearest human abode – even at that distant time – lends to the belief that the prehistoric craftsman must have had his abode in close proximity to the scene of his labours, as to travel from either Hoy or Rackwick in bad weather, would, I think, be asking too much, even from our ancestors.” [14]

Having explored the area many times, I have my doubts that prehistoric stonemasons scaled the sheer faces every morning and night.

Instead, given what we now know about the archaeology of the area, it seems far more likely that they came from the suspected prehistoric settlement on the Whaness Burn, approximately one mile directly to the east.

Bremner concluded his account with:

“I am fully convinced that these caves are worthy of exploration; the only drawback is the difficulty of access, especially when one has to carry his equipment to that height.” [14]
Dwarfie Hamars and stone.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Dwarfie Hamars and stone. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

In 2009, Dan Lee and Gavin Lindsay, from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), surveyed the area around the Dwarfie Stane.

One of their aims, to look for caves in the Dwarfie Hamars, was successful:

“Visual inspection of the Dwarfie Hamars…identified a possible cave site in east end of the cliffs. The cave was visited the following day. It can be best described as a rock shelter, 7m wide 5m deep with the roof lowering to 1.35m high at the back. The roof stone is weathering off in slabs and the floor is littered with rubble. There are no obvious signs of inhabitation although occupation layers could feasibly survive below the rubble.” [21]

That caves played a role in life throughout European prehistory is without doubt. They served as dwellings, shelters, places for performance and ritual and burial sites. In the latter there is evidence of their use as venues for “rites involving the veneration and movement of human bodies and bones in, out of, and even between caves and other places in the landscape.” [22]

Was something similar happening in Orkney? We don’t have evidence – but that’s probably due to the majority of our caves have been the mercy of the sea for millennia. That said, what is a chambered cairn if not a man-made cave…

Whether the Dwarfie Hamars and its caves played any part in the activities in and around the Dwarfie Stane remains unknown – but it’s an exciting possibility!

We’ve also pondered the significance of the sea eagle to the people of Neolithic Orkney before. One can’t help but wonder if its pure coincidence that the Dwarfie Hamars was a breeding site for this species until 1873. Fortunately, they came back in 2015…

Bringing all these factors together it is clear we should not look at the Dwarfie Stane in isolation but step back and consider the landscape as a whole.

Today, the site still inspires a sense of awe, the scale of the surroundings dwarfing the visitor. Imagine how it would have appeared to the Neolithic inhabitants of Hoy – a huge, recumbent “megalith”, quarried by no mortal hand, lying exposed beneath the towering “place of voices”.

Truly a special place indeed.

The Dwarfie Stane.  (📷 Jo Bourne)
The Dwarfie Stane. (📷 Jo Bourne)


  • [1] “In former times the name of this stone was pronounced ‘Dwarrie Stone’ – so I heard an old native say”. A name deriving from Old Norse dvergr, meaning dwarf. Marwick, G. (1901) See [5].
  • [1b] Barry, G. (1805) The History of the Orkney Islands.
  • [2] Calder, C.S. and MacDonald, G., (1936) The Dwarfie Stane, Hoy, Orkney: its period and purpose. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 70, pp. 217-236).
  • [3] Bradley, R., Phillips, T., Richards, C. and Webb, M., 2001. Decorating the houses of the dead: incised and pecked motifs in Orkney chambered tombs. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 11(1), pp.45-67.
  • [4] Ballantyne, C.K., Hall, A.M., Phillips, W., Binnie, S. and Kubik, P.W. (2007) Age and significance of former low-altitude corrie glaciers on Hoy, Orkney Islands. Scottish Journal of Geology, 43(2), pp.107-114.
  • [5] Marwick, G. (1901) Kissic Cairns, Hogmany and Dwarfie Stone. In Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian. Kirkwall.
  • [6] Callander, J.G. (1936) Bronze Age urns of clay from Orkney and Shetland, with a note on vitreous material called ‘cramp’. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 70, pp. 441-452).
  • [7] Scott, W. (1822) The Pirate.
  • [8] Irvine, J.M. (2012) Jo: Ben Revisited. New Orkney Antiquarian Journal, 6, pp.48-58.
  • [9] Another version has the giant gnawing his way out of the chamber.
  • [10] Wallace, J. (1693). A Description of the Isles of Orkney. W. Brown.
  • [11] Fergusson, R.M. (1884) Rambles in the Far North. A. Gardner.
  • [12] Tudor, J. R. (1883) The Orkneys and Shetland.
  • [13] Spence, M. (1906) Reports of District Secretaries – Renovation and Preservation of the Standing Stones, Stenness. Saga Book of the Viking Club.
  • [14] Bremner, J. (1997) Hoy: The Dark Enchanted Isle. Bellavista Publications: Kirkwall.
  • [15] Brand, J. (1701) A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithness.
  • [16] Marwick, E. (1975) The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland. Batsford: London.
  • [17] Linklater, E. (1965) Orkney and Shetland. Robert Hale Limited: London.
  • [18] Low, George (1879) Tour through the islands of Orkney and Schetland in 1774. (Ed. Joseph Anderson) Kirkwall.
  • [19]
  • [20] Watson, A. and Keating, D. (2000) The Architecture of Sound in Neolithic Orkney. In Ritchie. A. (Ed). (2000). Neolithic Orkney in its European Context. Cambridge. McDonald Institute Monograph.
  • [21] Lee, D. (2010) Roeberry Barrow, Cantick, South Walls, Orkney. With additional walkover survey in Hoy. ORCA Data Structure Report.
  • [22] Mlekuž, D. (2012) Notes from the underground: caves and people in the Mesolithic and Neolithic Karst. In Bergsvik, K. A, Skeates, R. (eds) Caves in Context. The Cultural Significance of Caves and Rockshelters in Europe. Oxbow Books.

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