Around the Ness – The Stone of Odin

“As we passed the Bridge of Brodgar, we could dimly descry the Standing Stones of Stenness on the eminence but today looming in the darkness like a regiment of grim spectres. As we approached the Stone of Odin, it appeared to be larger and more unshapely than usual and all the ghastly traditions surrounding it flashed through my mind.”

W. R. Mackintosh. Around the Orkney Peat Fires. 1898.
"View of a semi-circle of stones on the Banks of Stenhouse Lake" by John Clevely in 1772. The Odin Stone is visible in the middle distance to the right.

“View of a semi-circle of stones on the Banks of Stenhouse Lake” by John Cleveley in 1772. The Odin Stone is visible in the middle distance to the right.

By Sigurd Towrie

Our excursion around the sites in and around the Ness of Brodgar draws to a close with a monument that is no longer there. But given its role in Orcadian life until its destruction in the early 19th century, we cannot pass the Stone of Odin by.

Until the winter of 1814, the holed monolith stood to the north-west of the Stones of Stenness. But although its special role in the customs, traditions and folklore of the people of Orkney is well documented, we know remarkably little about the stone itself.

The early accounts by visitors to the stone are often contradictory, as are the few surviving illustrations depicting it. It is generally accepted to have been around 2.5 metres (8 feet) high with a breadth of just under one metre (3.5 feet) — placing it, in terms of height, between the Comet Stone and Barnhouse Stone.

The Odin Stone’s perforation was “almost certainly [not] a natural feature” and its creation probably “marked this stone as distinct” [1]. The hole was around 0.9 metres (3ft) from the ground and on the stone’s western edge. But as we will see the accounts also differ as to its size.

Location of the Odin Stone and its companions. (After Challands et al. 2005)

Location of the Odin Stone and its companions. (After Challands et al. 2005)

The exact location of the stone was also unclear until 1993, when geophysical surveys around the Barnhouse Settlement and Stones of Stenness revealed three standing stone sockets around 60 metres (66yds) to the north-north-west of the stone circle’s entrance. Excavation showed the long axis of all three sockets were aligned north-west/south east. [1]

Expecting to find a single socket for the Odin Stone, the presence of three came as something of a surprise to the archaeologists. What the excavation confirmed was that, in prehistory, the Stone of Odin probably did not stand alone.

The Odin Stone socket, the southernmost of the three, was 0.6 metres (23.6in) deep with the packing stones still in place. Based on their condition, it was clear the stone had been removed sideways. In addition, the fact the stone packing sloped into the socket ends suggested the base of the megalith was tapered [1] – something that some of the early illustrations also appear to show.

Thirty centimetres (12in) to the north-west was another socket – one that had contained a standing stone that had been removed in antiquity – the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age [1].

Plan of the Odin Stone socket (bottom) and its two companions. (Challands et al. 2005)

Plan of the Odin Stone socket (bottom) and its two companions. (Challands et al. 2005)

At some point after this megalith’s removal a fire was kindled in the socket — but how long after is not known. The presence of a suspected post-hole at the base of the socket suggests the stone was preceded by a timber post. While this could represent a marker for positioning the stone, the depth of the post-hole led the excavators to suggest the timber feature was “something more permanent and enduring” [1].

The northernmost socket was around seven metres to the north-north-west of the Odin Stone and 0.75 metres (29.5in) deep. The impression at its base suggested the stone it once held, which was c1.15 metres (3.8ft) wide and 0.22 metres (8.7in) thick, had been inserted upside down with the angled, sloping end — typical of the megaliths at Stenness and Brodgar — downwards. This deliberate act that may have meant the standing stone had a flat top [1].

Confirmation that the Odin Stone was once one of a pair fits a pattern noted with other megaliths in the vicinity. Based on present archaeological evidence, it seems that pairs (or groups) of standing stones may have been the order of the day – much like the two visible outside Ness dig HQ, a short distance to the south-east of the site entrance. Not only did the Odin Stone have a twin, but the Watchstone was also one of a pair.

These pairs have been likened to the door jambs of Late Neolithic Structures and therefore may have represented symbolic doorways – perhaps marking, or controlling movement, through the landscape and the monuments. Structure Twelve at the Ness of Brodgar site has a pair of standing stones flanking its eastern entrance.

August 2016: The eastern entrance to Structure Twelve, resplendent with flanking standing stones. (ORCA)

Although its companion was removed in prehistory, the Odin Stone remained for millennia. Then, in the early 19th century, its destruction took less than a day.

Destruction

It was in December 1814 that the Stone of Odin fell.

As part of his plan to remove the megaliths from his land, the tenant farmer, Captain W. Mackay, toppled the Odin Stone before turning his attention to the Stones of Stenness.

At the time, the Odin Stone and the two stone circles still played a part in Orcadian traditions. Although these were said to be dying out in the late 1700s, perhaps 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! [2]

He began with the Odin Stone, which he destroyed – an act that did nothing to improve his reputation locally. By the time he was stopped, Mackay had already toppled one of the Stones of Stenness and obliterated a second.

Early accounts

"View of a small Druid Temple" by Richard Pococke. Dating from 1760, it is the earliest known illustration of the Odin Stone.

“View of a small Druid Temple” by Richard Pococke. Dating from 1760, it is the earliest known illustration of the Odin Stone.

One of the earliest descriptions of the Odin Stone was by Rev James Wallace in 1693 [3]. Although he does not name the monolith, he explained that:

“Betwixt that round [Stones of Stenness] and the bridge are two stones standing, of that same largeness with the rest, whereof one has a round hole in the midst of it.”

A few years later, in 1701, Rev John Brand visited Stenness. His account is incredibly similar to Wallace’s:

“On the other side of the loch, over which we pass by a bridge laid in the manner of a street, the loch there being shallow, are two stones standing, of a like bigness with the rest, whereof one has a round hole in the midst of it.” [4]

In July 1760, Richard Pococke, Bishop of Ossory, visited the stone. He wrote:

“125 yards to the east of [the Watchstone] is another with a hole in it on one side towards the bottom, from which going towards the circle is another 73 yards from the fossee…”

Anyone familiar with the area will immediately notice that Pococke’s sense of direction was somewhat lacking. The Watchstone lies to the north-west of the Stones of Stenness and we now know the Stone of Odin was around 76 metres its south-east, approximately 60 metres to the north of the stone circle.

Fortunately, however, Pococke made the earliest known illustration of the Odin Stone (pictured right). The artwork, although crude, shows a view from the northern end of the Brig o’ Brodgar – but also introduces a mystery.

The Stones of Stenness are clearly visible, as is the Watchstone. But Pococke shows two apparently holed megaliths. Based on its location, the round-topped megalith between the stone circle and the Watchstone must be the Odin Stone, which begs the question what is the slab-like stone apparently close to the Harray loch? Because it is not mentioned by other accounts of the time, did Pococke make a mistake?

The Odin Stone as it appeared in the ornately illustrated title to Walden's "A plan of the Circle of Loda in the Parish of Stenhouse". 1772.

The Odin Stone as it appeared in the ornately illustrated title to Walden’s “A plan of the Circle of Loda in the Parish of Stenhouse”. 1772.

Another depiction of the Odin Stone came after Sir Joseph Banks 1772 excursion to the islands. In this case, however, the Stones of Stenness were the focus of John Clevely’s attention and the Stone of Odin appears in the background (pictured at the top of the page).

The 1772 Walden map of the area shows a position for the Odin Stone, which it declares was the “Stone of Sacrifice” [5]. It is in the map’s ornately illustrated title, however, that we get a clear glimpse of the monolith’s form. The hole is offset to the western side of the standing stone and the picture appears to show a worn area between the hole and the edge of the monolith.

In 1780, a naval surgeon, Lieutenant Ker, visited Stenness is the company of a Kirkwall doctor. In his diary he noted that the Odin Stone, was:

“perforated with a hole near the edge large enough to admit a Man’s Head, thought to have been used to bind the Victims to and called therefore the Stone of Sacrifice.” [2]

Stanley's "Stone of Power" drawn in 1789.

Stanley’s “Stone of Power” drawn in 1789.

In 1789, another visitor, John Thomas Stanley, produced a fine drawing of the megalith, which he recorded as being 2.4 metres (8ft) tall, 1.1 metre (3ft 6in) wide and with the hole 0.9 metres (3ft) from the ground. Stanley’s illustration (right), although very similar to the Walden map version, showed a more rectangular profile with the perforation more central to the stone than near its edge.

One of Stanley’s companions stated that the hole was “would admit a hand” but a 1795 account by the minister of Firth and Stenness was clear that it was large enough to admit a man’s head [2]. This account also confirmed that the hole and the edge of the stone had the appearance of being worn – tying in with Walden’s 1772 illustration.

The worn area was undoubtedly behind the belief that sacrificial victims were once bound to the stone. In a drawing of the area presented to the Society of Antiquarians of Scotland in 1784, Dr Robert Henry showed two people beside the Odin Stone and described it as: “A stone which is supposed to have been used for tying the sacrifice to…” [2]

The megalith, he wrote, had a “round hole cut artificially through it, six inches in diameter and three feet from the ground.”

Rev Henry’s 1784 illustration showing the Odin Stone (labelled D) and the other monuments in the Stenness area.

Unfortunately Henry’s drawing gets the location of the Odin Stone completely wrong,  stating that the monolith stood “about 100 yards” to the north-east of the Stones of Stenness.

The illustration, however, shows two people apparently joining hands through the perforation – an act that relates to one of its major roles in Orcadian tradition. The Stone of Odin was a place where binding oaths were sworn.

The Odin Oath

A section of the 1772 Walden map showing the position of the "Stone of Sacrifice".

A section of the 1772 Walden map showing the position of the “Stone of Sacrifice”.

“At a little distance stands a solitary stone of great size, having, about two or three feet from the ground, a round perforation in it. This round hole, it has been supposed, was intended for tying the sacrifices offered at this rude, but magnificent temple, in times of Druidism. The common people still attach a good deal of veneration to it.”

Dr Patrick Neill. A Tour through some of the Islands of Orkney And Shetland (1806).

As can be gathered from the reaction to its destruction, the people of Orkney believed that the potency of the Odin Stone was unparalleled. Of all the powers attributed to it, the megalith was well-known for its role in sealing agreements and binding marriages.

Orcadians would trek out to the ancient Stenness stone to make their vows absolute by clasping hands through the hole and swearing the “Odin Oath”. This oath was an utterly unbreakable pact, the words to which are now unfortunately lost.

But although the words may be gone, the extremes people would go to before breaking their vows is well documented.

In Rev Henry’s 1784 account, we learn:

“This ceremony was held so very sacred in those times that the person who dared to break the engagement made here was counted infamous, and excluded all society.” [2]

Another case, recorded in 1781, involved a young man who had seduced a girl under promise of marriage. The girl, who fell pregnant, was subsequently deserted:

“The young man was called before session; the elders were particularly severe. Being asked by the minister the cause of so much rigour, they answered: ‘You do not know what a bad man this is; he has broke the promise of Odin.’

Being further asked what they meant by the promise of Odin, they put him in mind of the stone at Stenhouse, with the round hole in it; and added, that it was customary, when promises were made, for the contracting parties to join hands through this hole, and the promises so made were called the promises of Odin.” [6]

The Odin Stone, recorded by Elizabeth, Marchioness of Stafford, in 1805.

The Odin Stone, recorded by Elizabeth, Marchioness of Stafford, in 1805.

A fine example of just how binding the Odin Oath was once considered appears in the folklore surrounding the Orkney pirate, John Gow.

While Gow was in Stromness, he supposedly fell in love with a Miss Gordon, the daughter of a local merchant. Keeping with Orcadian tradition, Miss Gordon took Gow to the Odin Stone, where they pledged their troth. A few months later, however, Gow was captured off Eday, and subsequently executed in London.

Distraught at the death of her lover, Miss Gordon is said to have travelled to London in order to touch the hand of Gow’s corpse to release herself from their binding oath.

The procedure to be followed was documented by Rev Henry in 1784 [2]:

“There was a custom among the lower class of people in this country which has entirely subsided within these twenty or thirty years. Upon the first day of every new year the common people, from all parts of the country, met at the Kirk of Stainhouse, each person having provision for four or five days; they continued there for that time dancing and feasting in the kirk.”

This meeting gave the young people an opportunity of seeing each other, a practice which seldom failed in making four or five marriages every year; and to secure each others love, till an opportunity of celebrating their nuptials, they had to recourse to the following solemn engagements — The parties agreed stole from the rest of their companions, and went to the Temple of the Moon [Stones of Stenness], where the woman, in presence of the man, fell down on her knees and prayed the god Wodden (for such was the name of the god they addressed upon this occasion) that he would enable her to perform all the promises and obligations she had and was to make to the young man present, after which they both went to the Temple of the Sun [Ring of Brodgar], where the man prayed in like manner before the woman, then they repaired from this to the stone [known as Wodden’s or Odin’s Stone], and the man being on one side and the woman on the other, they took hold of each other’s right hand through the hole, and there swore to be constant and faithful to each other.”

“It was likewise usual, when a husband and wife could not agree, that they both came to the Kirk of Stainhouse (Stenness), and after entering into the kirk the one went out at the south and the other at the north door, by which they were holden legally divorced, and free to make another choice.”

Magical traditions

"The Standing Stones of Stenness" by James Fergusson. The Odin Stone is pictured (in the wrong location) at the left of the picture. (The Orkneys in Early Celtic Times. Macbeath. 1892)

“The Standing Stones of Stenness” by James Fergusson. The distances between the megaliths have been shortened considerably in this romantic interpretation of the area, with the Odin Stone is pictured at the left of the picture. (The Orkneys in Early Celtic Times. Macbeath. 1892)

“It was said that a child passed through the hole when young would never shake with palsy in old age. Up to the time of its destruction, 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.”

G. F. Black. County Folklore Vol III. Orkney and Shetland. 1903.

When visiting the Odin Stone, it was customary to leave offerings of food, or ale, and it was common for young people to stick their heads through the hole to acquire immunity from certain diseases. Along the same lines, new-born infants were passed through the hole, in the belief that this would ensure them a healthy future. Crippled limbs were also passed through in the hope of some supernatural cure.

The stone’s healing powers were often combined with the water of the nearby well at Bigswell. There, the afflicted would circle the well three times “sunwise” before drinking the water and heading off to the Odin Stone. Children were also bathed in the well before they too were taken to the holed monolith.

The Odin Stone also seems to have had the power to bestow some of its magic on to mortals. One surviving folktale tells how a farmer from the parish of Evie:

“[F]or nine moons at midnight, when the moon was full, went nine times on his bare knees around the Odin Stone of Stainness. And for nine moons, at full moon, he looked through the hole of the Odin Stone and wished he might get the power of seeing Hildaland.” [2]

Later in the tale, the farmer’s wish is granted and he drives the finfolk from their invisible island, claiming it and renaming it Eynhallow – Holy Island.

The fate of the Odin Stone

"Western Circle of the Stones of Stennis" by Elizabeth, Machioness of Stafford. 1805. In this exaggerated vision of the area, the Odin Stone is to the right with the Ring of Brodgar appearing just over the Brig o' Brodgar.

“Western Circle of the Stones of Stennis” by Elizabeth, Machioness of Stafford. 1805. In this exaggerated vision of the area, the Odin Stone is to the right with the Ring of Brodgar appearing just over the Brig o’ Brodgar.

Although local tradition maintained that the fragments of the Odin Stone were used for building material, in the 1950s, Orcadian antiquarian Ernest Marwick could find no evidence that this was the case [2]. He did, however, discover that the holed segment of the stone survived into the 1940s, before it too was completely destroyed.

This section, Marwick learned, had been used as an anchor for a horse-powered mill-shaft that moved around the parish of Stenness as the mill changed hands. In the early 1940s, when it was finally decided to replace the horse-drawn mill with an engine-driven threshing machine, the remains of the old mill lay around, including the Odin Stone fragment, gathering moss.

Then, the day came that the owner’s son decided to tidy up and remove the old machinery. Unable to move the stone segment, and ignorant of its history, he smashed it to dust.

His unwitting destruction of the Odin Stone fragment closed a chapter of Orkney history. But it also roused the wrath of his father, who exclaimed:

“You had no damned business to break that stone: that was the Stone of Odin that came from Barnhouse!”

Notes

  • [1] Challands, A., Edmonds, M. and Richards, C. (2005) Beyond the Village: Barnhouse Odin and the Stones of Stenness. In Richards, C. (ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 205–227.
  • [2] Marwick, E. (1975) The Stone of Odin. In Robertson, J. D. M. (1991) An Orkney Anthology: The Selected Works of Ernest Walker Marwick (Vol 1). Scottish Academic Press: Edinburgh.
  • [3] Wallace, J. (1693). A Description of the Isles of Orkney. W. Brown.
  • [4] Brand, J. (1701) A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth, and Caithness.
  • [5] A plan of the Circle of Loda in the Parish of Stenhouse, taken from an actual survey by Fred. Herm. Walden. In Lysaght, A.M. (1974) Joseph Banks at Skara Brae and Stennis, Orkney, 1772. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 28(2), pp.221-234.
  • [6] Principal Gordon (1792) Archaeologia Scotica Vol I.

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