Halykirk – dolmen or stalled cairn?

Location of Halykirk on 19th century OS map, with Moadie's Pillar to the west. (Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland)
Location of Halykirk on 19th century OS map, with Moadie’s Pillar to the west. (Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland)

By Sigurd Towrie

Sandwick parish map.

As regular readers may have seen noticed, 19th century antiquarians were very keen to find evidence of dolmens in Orkney.

They had no doubt the Stones of Via represented a dolmen and then there was the supposed example at the centre of the Stones of Stenness. A third suggestion was recorded by Lieutenant F. W. L.  Thomas in 1851:

“Another ruin of a cromlech of a far more complex character, called Holy Kirk, stands upon the brow of Vestrafiold … Mr W. Wall and myself puzzled for more than an hour over these remains without being able to divine its plan: there appeared to have been either two or three covers originally.” [1]

Haleykirk/Helyakirk/Halykirk/Holykirk [2] has the distinction of being the only claimed dolmen that we appear to have a scrap of, admittedly tenuous, evidence for.

It lies about a quarter of a mile to the south-east of the megalithic quarries on Vestrafiold, on the hill of Cruaday, in Sandwick.

In his 19th century account of the parish, Rev Clouston wrote:

“On the hill north of Quoyloo there is a standing stone, and also a curious collection of large and ancient stones, to which the name Haly Kirk is still applied; and a gentleman residing in that neighbourhood informs me that he recollects one of those, now prostrate, supported by those that are still perpendicular, thus completing that resemblance to an altar, which its name seems to indicate.” [3]

But a flat stone resting atop another could represent many things – including (much) later interference.

Halykirk, Hill of Cruaday.
Halykirk, Hill of Cruaday.

Perhaps the best surviving account of the monument came from Orcadian historian George Marwick, who lived in the parish:

“This place is situated about half-a-mile north of Quoyloo, Sandwick. Large flat stones have been laid down first for a sub-base, then a rough building has been carried up about a foot on an average, or, more properly speaking, the structure has been bevelled up to receive a cover of very thick large stones.
“It is circular in form or outline, with a diameter of about twelve feet. On the top of the upper cover stones there is about three or four feet of bone ashes; and vitrified ashes are to be seen scattered here and there all round. The soil for about a chain around is considerably mixed up with burnt or calcined stones.
“There is a small standing stone exactly due south from the centre of the mound and about twenty feet distant. It seems that originally there has been a raised course around the central circle about three feet wide.” [4]
Holykirk (after Davidson & Henshall 1989)
Holykirk (Redrawn after Davidson & Henshall 1989)

In the early years of the 20th century, four stones survived to a height to c0.76m. These were the orthostats that once supported a fifth. Nine other stones protruded through the turf, surrounded by a few more.

A 1981 survey recorded that among the standing orthostats were two parallel examples with a large, displaced slab lying between them.

The surveyor pondered whether this slab represented a roofing slab and was perhaps the supported stone mentioned by Clouston over a century before.

Following their re-examination of the site, Davidson and Henshall confirmed the stones lay within the denuded remains of a cairn and suggested it was a possible Neolithic stalled tomb that had been “greatly altered” during a secondary phase of use. [5]

Another 19th century Orcadian dolmen bites the dust…

While we are in this area it is worth noting a feature that once stood nearby.

In 1924, Fraser wrote that “about 150 yards westwards from the Haly Kirk, and higher up on the hill, is a small standing stone close by a small tumulus.” [6]

The stump of the megalith survived to a height of c0.76m but, based on the broken section lying nearby, was once at least 1.52m high. According to George Marwick, in 1892, this stone went by the name of Moadie’s Pillar and was a traditional site for leaving gifts:

“At no very distant date people resorted to this pillar and left something so that they might in return obtain strength for some imminent undertaking.” [7]

Moadie’s Pillar was also part of Marwick’s claimed “road” between the megalithic quarry on Vestrafiold and the Ness of Brodgar [8] – although it is interesting to note that (on two occasions) he applied the name to the mound rather than the standing stone. It may be that the collective name for both was Moadie’s Altar, a term he also used.

By 1946, however, the round mound was all but gone and the megalith was no more.


  • [1] 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).
  • [2] Other variants include Haelikirk, Hellyakirk and Helyaekirk. All simply mean “Holy Church” – the remains of prehistoric monuments often acquired kirk-related names.
  • [3] Clouston, C. (1845) New Statistical Account Vol 15.
  • [4] Marwick, G. (1897) Haelikirk or Helyaekirk. In Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [5] Davidson, J. L. & Henshall, A. S. (1989). The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • [6] Fraser, J. (1924) Some antiquities in Sandwick Parish. Proceedings of the Orkney Antiquarian Society. Volume 2, 22-29.
  • [7] Marwick, G. (1892) The Standing Stones of Stenness – Traces of the Ancient Road from the Quarries. In Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [8] 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.

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