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).
A 19th century reproduction of Pococke's 1760 watercolour showing the view from the northern end of the Brig o' Brodgar. The Odin Stone is pictured left, along with the Watchstone and Stones of Stenness.
A 19th century reproduction of Pococke’s 1760 watercolour showing the (not at all accurate) view from the northern end of the Brig o’ Brodgar. The Odin Stone is between the Watchstone and Stones of Stenness.

By Sigurd Towrie

Our excursion around the sites around the Ness of Brodgar now focuses on a monument that is no longer there. But considering the Stone of Odin’s significant role in Orcadian life, until its destruction, we cannot ignore it.

Until the winter of 1814, the holed monolith stood to the north-west of the Stones of Stenness. But although its special place in the customs, traditions and folklore of the people of Orkney is well documented, actual details of the stone remain unclear.

The remains of the holed stone outside Structure Ten. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
The remains of the holed stone outside Structure Ten. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The early visitor accounts present frustratingly contradictory information on the monolith, as do the few surviving illustrations.

It is generally accepted that the stone was approximately 2.5 metres (8 feet) high and had a width of just under one metre (3.5 feet) – placing it, in terms of height, between the Comet Stone and Barnhouse Stone.

It was perforated by a hole around 0.9 metres (3ft) from the ground and on its western edge. But as we will see, the accounts also differ as to its size.

The Odin Stone’s perforation was “almost certainly [not] a natural feature” and its creation probably “marked this stone as distinct”. [1]

This comment, however, predates the discovery of the Ness of Brodgar and we now know that one of the two megaliths flanking Structure Ten‘s entrance was also holed – although, as the photograph shows, its perforation is much smaller than that of the Odin Stone.

The precise location of the monolith was 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.

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)

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 their excavation confirmed was that, in prehistory, the Stone of Odin 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 megalith tapered towards its base [1] – corroborating some of the early illustrations.

A mere 30 centimetres (12in) to the north-west was another socket – one that had contained a standing stone removed in antiquity – either 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 this socket also suggests the megalith was preceded by a timber post. Although this could simply represent a marker for positioning the stone, the depth of the post-hole led the excavators to suggest that 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 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 Stenness and Brodgar megaliths – downwards.

This deliberate act may have meant this inverted standing stone had a flat top. [1]

Stone pairs

Confirmation that the Odin Stone was one of a pair fits the pattern noted with other megaliths in the vicinity.

Orthostatic pairs inside the Midhowe chambered cairn in Rousay. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Orthostatic pairs inside the Midhowe chambered cairn in Rousay. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Based on current 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 stone 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.

Something similar has been proposed for the multiple pairs of “standing stones” found within Orkney’s stalled cairns. These not only divided the chambers into distinct compartments, but may have defined a path of “doorways” leading to the end cells. [1b]

At the Ness of Brodgar complex, Structure Twelve has a pair of standing stones flanking its eastern entrance, while the pair of standing stones outside dig HQ may have formed part of an entrance arrangement.

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

Excavation of the southern boundary wall – one of two monumental walls that bounded the complex – revealed that at its north-eastern end it stopped abruptly.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the two Lochview standing stones are just over ten metres to the north of the wall.

Did they form part of a south-eastern entrance to the complex? Unfortunately, the area around the megaliths has been badly disturbed in modern times, meaning further geophysical survey cannot help answer that question.

The Lochview standing stones.  (📷 ORCA)
The Lochview standing stones. (📷 ORCA)

The destruction of the Stone of Odin

“More to be regretted is the disappearance, since 1814, of a stone which stood some 150 yards nearer the bridge. This stone was pierced by a hole three or four feet from the ground, and was known as the Stone of Odin.”
J. Gunn. Orkney: The Magnetic North. (1932).
"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.

Although its companion was removed in prehistory, the Odin Stone stood for millennia. Then, in December 1814, it was destroyed.

As part of his plan to remove the megaliths from his land, the tenant farmer, Captain W. MacKay, toppled the holed monolith before turning his attention to the Stones of Stenness – 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.

The December date of its destruction is interesting, given the account written by Rev Robert Henry in the late 18th century:

“Upon the first day of every new year the common people, from all parts of the country, met at the Kirk of Stainhouse … they continued there for [four or five days] dancing and feasting in the kirk.” [2]

As we’ll see below, Henry then introduces the “rites” to be carried out at the Odin Stone and the two stone circles. Henry’s ambiguous text implies these also took place around New Year’s Day. However, although he had no doubt that the custom of gathering at the kirk had entirely died out by 1784, I would argue that the traditions surrounding the stones had not.

If they were part of a New Year custom, it goes some way to explain why the standing stones were targeted in December. According to the Orcadian historian Ernest Marwick, one of the reasons MacKay gave for his actions was that his pasture was being ruined by visitors to the stones! [2]

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 penned by Rev James Wallace in 1693. [3]

Although he did 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, wrote:

“125 yards to the east of [the Watchstone] is another [stone] 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). 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 in any other accounts of the time, is this artistic licence or did Pococke make a mistake?

The Odin Stone as it appeared in the ornately illustrated title to Walden's
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 of his illustration (pictured above).

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 perforation is clearly offset to the western side of the standing stone and the picture also appears to show a worn area between the hole and the edge of the monolith.

In 1780, a naval surgeon, Lieutenant Ker, visited Stenness in 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]

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 “Stone of Power” drawn in 1789.

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 repeated that it was large enough for 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.

In 1805, the Orkney minister Rev George Barry did not name the stone but highlighted the worn edge of the perforation:

“Near the circle, there are standing stones that seem to be placed in no regular order that we can now discern; and as near the semi-circle are others of the same description.

“In one of the latter is a round hole, not in the middle, but towards one of the edges, much worn as if by the friction of a rope or chain, by which some animal had been bound.”

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, Rev 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.” [2]
Rev Henry’s 1784 illustration showing the Odin Stone (labelled D) and the other monuments in the Stenness area.

Unfortunately Henry’s drawing also gets the location of the Odin Stone completely wrong,  stating that it 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

“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).
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”.
“Though the perforation in this stone was now used for a very different purpose — for lovers to clasp each other’s hands in while plighting their troth — it was only the harrowing associations connected with it that forced themselves upon me.”
W. R. Mackintosh. Around the Orkney Peat Fires. (1898).

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 best-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 are 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 considered to be 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 pictured left. (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, newborn 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 a 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 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 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.

Although local tradition maintained that the fragments of the Odin Stone were used for building material, in the 1950s, Orcadian antiquarian Ernest Marwick foundno evidence that this was the case. [2]

However, he did discover that the holed segment of the stone survived until the 1940s, before it too was completely destroyed. Marwick learned that this section had been used as an anchor for a horse-powered mill-shaft 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, including the Odin Stone fragment, lay around 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 reduced it to dust. His unwitting destruction of the Odin Stone fragment marked the end of a chapter in Orkney’s history.

But it also incurred 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!”


  • [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.
  • [1b] Richards, C. (1993) An Archaeological Study of Neolithic Orkney: Architecture, Order and Social Order.
  • [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.
  • [5b] Barry, G. (1805) The History of the Orkney Islands.
  • [6] Principal Gordon (1792) Archaeologia Scotica Vol I.

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