Spirits of the Standing Stones

“[I]n many places of the Countrey are found little Hillocks, which may be supposed to be the Sepulchres of the ancient Pights…”
J. Wallace. A Description of the Isles of Orkney. (1693)
The Standing Stones of Stenness. (From James MacBeath. The Orkneys in Early Celtic Times. 1892)
The Standing Stones of Stenness. (From James MacBeath. The Orkneys in Early Celtic Times. 1892)

By Sigurd Towrie

The early antiquarians who documented Orkney’s ancient monuments often overlooked, or paid little attention to, the local beliefs surrounding the sites.

It was a delight, therefore, to come across a 19th century account in which the author actually spoke to, and recorded, a brief encounter with a young lad from Stenness.

The account was written by James Wilson and appeared in the second volume of his 1842 A Voyage round the Coasts of Scotland and the Isles.

The boy was sitting on one of the toppled Stones of Stenness when Wilson and his entourage visited the site:

“A little bare-headed shoeless boy, watching a flock of nibbling geese, was sitting upon it when we approached. We asked him if he knew anything of the history of these stones.
“He said they were brought there from a distance long ago by the mytes, but who these mytes were he could not say, but rather thought they were ‘a kind o’ speerits’.
“We think that none of our inquiries or researches elsewhere educed a more reasonable answer.”
The Stones of Stenness. (D. Wilson. 1842)
The Stones of Stenness. (D. Wilson. 1842)

The fact that Wilson used “speerits” – the Orcadian pronunciation of “spirits” – dispels any notion that the meeting was a literary invention. But who, or what, were these “mytes”?

There is no dialect word myte or even a possible candidate for it. Instead, I suggest either Wilson misheard the word or it was transcribed incorrectly. I would argue that word was “pights”.

Pight is a dialect word that, although is equated to Pict [1], was generally used to refer to a spirit, usually in a mischievous context. [2]

In Orkney, the Pights/Picks/Picts/Pechts were believed to be responsible for most of the islands’ ancient monuments.

This interpretation wasn’t restricted to Orcadian tradition, although to the early historians the Pights were firmly grounded in reality:    

“The first Planters and Possessors of [Orkney], were certainly the Pights, as the generality of our Historians do affirm, who moreover call Orkney, Antiquum Pictorum regnum, the ancient Kingdom of the Pights.
“There being yet in this Countrey, several strange antique Houses, many of which are overgrown with Earth, which are still called Pights Houses, and the Firth that runs between this and Caithness, is still from them called Pightland Firth.” [3]

A glance at any old map will show numerous “Pict’s Houses” dotted across the landscape.

The term was a broad one that encompassed a wide range of prehistoric structures, including Neolithic chambered cairns, Iron Age brochs, and everything in between.

As the Orcadian antiquarian George Petrie noted in 1863:

“The name Picts’-house, or Pights’-house, is indiscriminately applied in Orkney, as in other parts of Scotland, to all remains of buildings of great antiquity. This occasions much confusion in the accounts published from time to time of the discovery of such ruins, and renders it necessary to limit the appellation to a particular class.” [4]

This class, he suggested, was “chambered tombs”.

The site of a Picts House, Ness of Brough, Sanday, Orkney. (National Library of Scotland)
1882 map showing typical Picts House – this one on the Ness of Brough, Sanday, Orkney. (National Library of Scotland)

But although we now know that the Picts had nothing to do with Orkney’s Neolithic monuments, this is a fairly recent development. During his excavations at Skara Brae in the 1920s, for example, the archaeologist Gordon Childe believed the settlement to be Pictish and dated from the early centuries AD.

As a youngster in the 1970s, this writer was still being told that Maeshowe was built by the Picts!

Returning to the Stenness herdie-boy, he was probably repeating the age-old belief that the Pights raised, among other things, the Stones of Stenness. To him, and the people who lived and worked around these monuments, the Pights were “speerits” belonging to the supernatural realm.


Orkney’s historical Picts had begun slipping into folklore as early as the Middle Ages. As time went on, the line between fact and fable continued to blur and by the 12th century, the Picts were regarded as a semi-mythical race with fantastical attributes.

For example, the Historia Norvegiae, a Latin document written around AD1200, described the Picts as small beings who possessed the ability to “perform miracles in the building of walled cities.”

According to this account, they lost their strength and courage completely at the middle of the day. This, it claimed, forced them to hide themselves away in little underground houses.

While this narrative lacks historical credibility, it clearly demonstrates that by the 12th and 13th centuries AD, the Picts of Orkney were well on the way to becoming figures of myth.

As the centuries passed, the Pights/Picts became increasingly entangled with elements of folklore – particularly that of the mound-dwelling trows and fairy-folk.


  • [1] For example, Brand, J. (1701) A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithness.
  • [2] Lamb, G. (1988) Orkney Wordbook: An etymological dictionary of the dialect of Orkney. Kirkwall Press: Kirkwall.
  • [3] Wallace, J. (1693) A Description of the Isles of Orkney. W. Brown.
  • [4] Petrie, G. (1863) The Picts’-houses in the Orkneys. Archaeological Journal, 20(1), pp.32-37.

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