Spirits of the Standing Stones
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 Daniel 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:
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”.
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:
A glance at any old map will show numerous “Pict’s Houses” dotted across the landscape.
As the Orcadian antiquarian George Petrie noted in 1863:
This class, he suggested, was “chambered tombs”.
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.
-  For example, Brand, J. (1701) A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithness.
-  Lamb, G. (1988) Orkney Wordbook: An etymological dictionary of the dialect of Orkney. Kirkwall Press: Kirkwall.
-  Wallace, J. (1693). A Description of the Isles of Orkney. W. Brown.
-  Petrie, G., 1863. The Picts’-houses in the Orkneys. Archaeological Journal, 20(1), pp.32-37.