The Dwarfie Stane – ‘one of the wonders of the Orkney Islands’

“One extraordinary monument, the Dwarfie Stane, has attracted the attention of visitors and the speculation of antiquaries since the sixteenth century, and indeed its classification as a chambered tomb is periodically questioned.”
Audrey Henshall. The Prehistory of Orkney. (1985)
The Dwarfie Stane, Hoy.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
The Dwarfie Stane, Hoy. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Part One
By Sigurd Towrie


The second largest of Orkney’s islands, Hoy is also the highest, its hills dominating the skyline from large swathes of the archipelago.

The island boasts some of the county’s most spectacular scenery, so it is perhaps fitting that it is also home to one of our most enigmatic monuments.

Described by Sir Walter Scott as “one of the wonders of the Orkney Islands” [7], the Dwarfie Stane, or Dwarrie Stane [1], is a huge block of hollowed-out sandstone.

But although writers have waxed lyrical about it for centuries, not all were overly impressed:

“Few monuments of antiquity are to be found in this island [Hoy]. The Dwarfie Stone, of which so many ridiculous tales have been so often told, has perhaps no just claim to be ranked in that number.” [1b]
“In short, the Dwarfy-Stone of Hoy, the fame of which has been resounded in every account of Orkney, ancient or modern, is quite an inferior effort to that at Gilmerton, near Edinburgh…” [1c]

Lying in a steep-sided valley between Quoys and Rackwick, the Dwarfie Stane has been considered to be Britain’s only example of a rock-cut prehistoric tomb since 1936:

“But I am prepared to go further than either Johnston or Dietrichson, and to claim that the Dwarfie Stane is the first and only example in the British Isles of a completely rock-cut tomb of the late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age.” [2]

Based on similar structures in the Mediterranean [2], archaeologists have settled on a Neolithic date between 3500 and 3000BC.

From James Wallace's 1693 illustration.
James Wallace’s somewhat minimalist 1693 illustration.

Measuring around 8.5 metres long, the roughly rectangular stone is c. 4.47 metres wide at the southern end, tapering to c. 3.96 metres at the north.

Lying at a slight angle, the height varies from around two metres (south) to c. 0.91m (north).

An opening, 91cm square, cut into the west face leads to a chamber hewn from the solid rock using stone tools, muscle and patience. Measuring just 76cm high, this chamber is divided into three parts – a central “passage” flanked by recessed cells.

The layout of the Dwarfie Stane. (Calder. The Dwarfie Stane, Hoy, Orkney: its period and purpose. 1936)
The layout of the Dwarfie Stane. (Calder. 1936)

This gives the interior a layout reminiscent of the lower chambers of the Taversoe Tuick, in Rousay, and Eday’s Huntersquoy. These Neolithic chambered cairns, however, have features running along the rear wall between the two end compartments.

The Dwarfie Stane’s side compartments are both defined by low sills rising from the floor. The southernmost is the more elaborate, with a more prominent sill and with replica “door jams” fashioned at either end.

The two cells have long been compared to bed-spaces, primarily because the east end of the southern cell features a shaped, raised platform (c. 20.32cm wide and sloping back from c. 9cm at the front to c. 14cm at the rear). This is commonly compared to a pillow.

However, both compartments are too short for anyone of average stature to lie straight – a fact that undoubtedly played a role in the development of the dwarf lore now surrounding the site. But more on that later.

The rock-cut chamber was beautifully finished, with pick-dressing still visible on the smooth interior walls and features. Interestingly, the fact that the southern cell was more intricately fashioned and dressed has intriguing parallels with passage grave decoration elsewhere in Orkney and in Ireland, where greater emphasis was placed on the right side. [3]

That the stone was hollowed where it lay is clear. Although it lies at an angle, the chamber floor is level.

Directly outside the entrance is the large sandstone block originally used to seal the chamber and which remained in place until at least the 17th century.

Akin to those thought to block the side cells in Maeshowe, this “ponderous” stone is estimated to weigh approximately 1.5 tonnes and measures between 1.27m and 1.55m in length, 81cm wide and 63cm high. [2]

Maeshowe. (📷 Jim Richardson)
The interior of Maeshowe. (📷 Jim Richardson)
“It must have taken an enormous amount of labour and power to have quarried and transported this huge block from the top of the precipice to where it now lies.”
George Marwick. Kissic Cairns, Hogmany and Dwarfie Stone. (1901)

Marwick’s quote (above) is an example of a narrative repeated over the centuries – that the stone fell, or was quarried, from the Dwarfie Hamars – a towering, rocky outcrop some 275 metres to the south. This seems unlikely. Given the height of the cliff face, the falling rock would surely have broken in its descent. It’s also improbable that it tumbled almost 300 metres away from the bottom of the Hamars to reach its final resting place.

Instead, the presence of a similar rock slab – the Partick Stane – about 180 metres to the west strongly suggests both are glacial erratics. The Dwarfie Stane also lies at the end of an Ice Age moraine deposit. [4]

Track to the Dwarfie Stane.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Track to the Dwarfie Stane. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

There are no surviving accounts of human remains within the “tomb”, but, writing in 1901, Orkneyman George Marwick stated that he collected lumps of “‘smeethow cramps’ or vitrified bone ashes or cinders” outside. [5]

Cramp is a vitreous, lightweight material that is “vesicular in texture and generally of a light grey colour” [6]. Because it is often found stuck to burnt bone, cramp is usually associated with Bronze Age cremations.

But cramp is also found in Neolithic contexts, with large chunks found in the Stones of Stenness central hearth and the roughly contemporary, open-air fireplace about 150 metres to the south-west of the Barnhouse settlement. In 2019, a large spread of cramp was encountered in Trench X at the Ness of Brodgar. Associated with this deposit were pottery sherds with incised decoration and a macehead.

How Marwick’s cramp related to the Dwarfie Stane – if at all – is now lost to us. While I have no doubt that he found cramp (he was familiar with the material and had recorded it at other locations) it may be much later in date.

Marwick also referred to “stones here and there cropping above the surface of the ground in the vicinity [of the Dwarfie Stane], to which the natives give the names of lintlics”. [5]

There are “numbers of such stones bearing this name in the vicinity of the various smees and hows [howes] through Orkney”, he added. [5]

Whether these are related to the “massive edge-set boulders” noted by the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments to be running “in a line downslope, north by west from the tomb, at 11m, 17m and 19m from it” is not clear.

The RCAHMS surveyor suggested:

“The positioning of these may be fortuitous, but they could conceivably be remnants of an alignment running up to the [Dwarfie] Stone.”

In a similar vein, the author Sir Walter Scott (more on whom later), visiting Orkney in the early 1800s, wrote:

“I observed, that commencing just opposite to the Dwarfie Stone and extending in a line to the sea-beach, there are a number of barrows, or cairns, which seem to connect the stone with a very large cairn where we landed. This curious monument may therefore have been intended as a temple of some kind to the Northern Dii Manes, to which the cairns might direct worshippers.[7]

Although Scott doesn’t record where his party disembarked, the “very large cairn” is likely to have been Greenhill broch, on the southern shore of Burra Sound. The mounds are likely to be those clustered around the Whaness Burn to the north-east – an area of prehistoric features between the Dwarfie Stane and the coast that includes a huge banked enclosure.

Archaeologically, that’s about all we can say about the Dwarfie Stane.

The earliest account…

Our earliest surviving reference comes from a 16th century Latin account of Orkney.

Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum, by the enigmatic Jo Ben, is commonly said to date from 1529. However, given some of its contents, it is more likely to be much later, probably between 1586 and 1607 [8].

Describing the monument as a “stone worthy of admiration” lying between two “mountains”, you will note there’s not a single mention of a dwarf:

It is large and high, being constructed by a giant and his wife.
One stone is chambered, in which a bed is artfully made in the stone for a man and wife; at the time of the hollowing out of the stone the woman was pregnant, as the bed testifies, for that part of the bed where the woman lay bears the resemblance of a pregnant belly. In the stone a pillow was made with two hollows in the raised part of the stone; yet, they are not joined together by any material of adhesion, but is one.
The doorway has a stone for blocking it; who made this I know not.
It is said that another giant hated this one, therefore he fashioned a stone the length and breadth of the doorway to shut them in, so that they might perish with hunger. Then, finally ruling the island himself, he would have the stone for his own use.
Finally, he brought the stone he had fashioned to top of the mountain, and with the strength of his arms, thrust it into the door.
“The giant, waking up, unable to escape, made a hole in the roof with his hammer [9], through which he got out.”

Ben’s account, in which he described himself as living in Orkney, suggests the folkloric association with dwarves was a later addition. It is also tells us that the chamber was still sealed in the 16th century. Although the translation of his text given above is somewhat ambiguous, going back to Ben’s original Latin – “ostium habet obtrusum lapide” – we see that “the door is blocked with a stone”.

Over the years it was regularly suggested that the roof hole – which has now been filled in – was the result of attempts to lever out the blocking stone from above. From Jo Ben, however, we can see it was also present in the 16th century and must have been there long enough for the tradition of the escaping giant to become attached.

That said, it may well have gone on to serve that purpose. As we’ll see, its dimensions increased over time…

When the Dwarfie Stane’s blocking stone was removed is not known, but it was recorded as lying outside by the end of the 17th century:

“There is in Hoy, lying betwixt two Hills, a stone called the Dwarfie stone. Thirty-six foot long. Eighteen Foot broad, Nine Foot thick; Hollowed within by the hand of some Mason, (for the Prints of the Mason Irons are to be seen on it to this very Hour) with a square hole, of about two foot high for the entry, and a stone proportionable standing before it for the door.” [10]

The remainder of this 1693 account shows that by this time the roof hole had been assigned a purpose:

“Within at one end, is a bed excellently Hewn out of the stone, with a Pillow, wherein Two Men may conveniently at their full length, at the other end is a couch, and in the middle a Hearth for a fire, with a round hole cut out above for the chimney.”
The Dwarfie Stane, as illustrated in Pockocke's Tour through Scotland. (1760)
The Dwarfie Stane, as illustrated in Pockocke’s Tour through Scotland. (1760)

While I would dispute that anyone could “lie conveniently at their full length” inside the compartments, Wallace’s account shows that by the end of the 17th century the notion that the stone had been the residence of “some melancholy Hermit” had taken root. By the late 19th century this idea was considered to be the most plausible explanation for the chamber’s creation. [11]

But still no mention of dwarves…

A not-very-accurate representation of the Dwarfie Stane from James Wilson's 1842 publication A Voyage round the Coasts of Scotland and the Isles..
A not-very-accurate representation of the Dwarfie Stane from James Wilson’s 1842 publication A Voyage round the Coasts of Scotland and the Isles..

Rev Charles Clouston, the minister from the West Mainland parish of Sandwick, considered the fact that “in former days, the natives were in the habit of depositing offerings on it” was proof of a Christian connection. [12]

The problem with that is that similar customs were recorded elsewhere, including the Odin Stone, where people left food and ale. Offerings did not have to relate to religion but were equally applicable to tradition and superstition.

Across Orkney we have accounts of people leaving food, milk and ale at sites known to be the haunts of supernatural beings. The reason was usually to placate them and I suspect the situation at the Dwarfie Stane was no different.

The Dwarfie Stane shared another “tradition” with the Stenness megaliths – the “silly craze for mementos” [13] that saw bits of the standing stones broken off and taken away.

The hole on top of the Hoy monument suffered the same way, “every year, being made larger by the curiosity-collecting cads chipping off portions to carry away.” [12]

This practice seems to have carried on well into the 20th century. Writing in 1965, John Bremner, a former resident of Hoy, lamented:

“Every time I visit this haunt of my boyhood, I cannot fail to observe that the hole is becoming even wider.
“What the elements started, vandalism is aiding and abetting. [O]nce the stone had been pierced, it was an easy matter for the vandals to chip pieces out, to carry away as ‘souvenirs’.”  [14]
The Ross 1735 graffiti.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
The Ross 1735 graffiti. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

But despite some voicing concerns about those damaging the monument, for centuries few batted an eyelid at the graffiti cut into the stone, inside and out, by visitors.

The handiwork of H. Ross, to which he helpfully added a date, shows that the interior was accessible by 1735.

But perhaps the best known examples were inscribed by the former British spy William Mounsey in 1850:

“This gentleman, who was of a rather eccentric turn, slept a night or two within the Dwarfie Stone, and, with his Persian slippers and long flowing robe, astonished the inhabitants of Hoy…” [11)
William Mounsey's graffiti outside the Dwarfie Stane.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
William Mounsey’s graffiti outside the Dwarfie Stane. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Mounsey, a solicitor from Cumbria, England, and an ancestor of the much-missed archaeologist Caroline Wickham Jones, spent some time either camped by the stone or in it. During this time he carved his name in Latin – Guilemus Mounsey – backwards on the southern exterior end and beneath, in Persian calligraphy, inscribed:

“I have sat two nights and so learnt patience.” [14a]
Hugh Miller's 1846 inscription (bottom). (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Hugh Miller’s 1846 inscription (bottom). (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Among the many others was Hugh Miller, a stonemason and geologist from Cromarty, Scotland, who carved his name on the “pillow” in 1846:

“The rain still pattered heavily overhead, and with my geological hammer I did, to beguile the time, what I very rarely do – added my name to the others.”

Recounting his exploits, Miller was of the opinion that, with a pick and a chisel, he could create a chamber, akin to that in the Dwarfie Stane, in between three and four weeks. [14b]

As far as I’m aware, he never put that boast to the test.

Part two


  • [1] “In former times the name of this stone was pronounced ‘Dwarrie Stone’ – so I heard an old native say”. Marwick, G. (1901) A name deriving from Old Norse dvergr, meaning dwarf. See [5].
  • [1b] Barry, G. (1805) The History of the Orkney Islands.
  • [1c] Neill, P. (1806) Tour Through Some Of The Islands Of Orkney And Shetland.
  • [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.
  • [14a] Macsween, A. and Sharp, M. (1989) Prehistoric Scotland. Batsford: London.
  • [14b] Miller, H. (1858) The Voyage of the Betsy.
  • [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.

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