The Staneyhill stone (and round about)

“There is also the Stane o’ Hindatuin to be seen, an upright monolith standing on the top of a brae between Bimbister and Grimestown, about 8 feet high and 2 feet wide.”
Rev A. Goodfellow. Birsay Church History (1903)
The Staneyhill stone. (Sigurd Towrie)
The Staneyhill stone. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

By Sigurd Towrie

A solitary megalith towers over a Neolithic quarry about 350 metres to the south-east of the Staneyhill horned cairn.

Dryden’s 1880 century illustration of the Staneyhill stone, based on measurements recorded by George Petrie. (

In 1865, the Orcadian antiquarian George Petrie referred to it as the “Stone of Gramiston” [1], while, in 1903, we find it called the “Stane o’ Hindatuin”. [2]

Today it is best known as the Staneyhill stone.

Situated on private land, the pointed megalith stands over two metres high [3],  is around one metre at its widest and 30 centimetres thick.

In 1923, Fraser described it as a “well-defined landmark about ten feet in height and is situated about forty yards east of the Harray to Stenness road.[4]

He added: “The stone points edgewise to the south-west, but not exactly towards any definite object in the neighbourhood of the Brodgar circle.”

Although the monolith stands above an exposed rock face, it was not quarried from it. Instead, geological examination suggests it was sourced from a rocky outcrop adjacent to the Staneyhill horned cairn. [5]

This has intriguing parallels with the known megalithic quarry at Vestrafiold, where standing stones were extracted from an outcrop also associated with a horned cairn. [6]

But although it wasn’t the source of the Staneyhill stone, the quarry it marks was probably used for monumental construction – in this case Maeshowe, just under two miles to the south.

The wedge-shaped blocks of fine-grained sandstone characteristic of the outcrop match those within the chambered cairn’s central chamber.

“Each quarry produced physically distinctive monoliths that were discernible through differences in shape, colour and texture of the stone strata. Such places undoubtedly held local significance in some cases as being traditional sources of stone for chambered cairns and houses.”[6]
Staneyhill Map

A saint’s cortege

In the 12th century, the remains of Earl Magnus Erlendsson (Saint Magnus) were moved from Birsay to Kirkwall. As a result there are numerous locations traditionally said to be the resting places of the saint’s cortege.

According to the Orcadian folklorist and historian George Marwick one of these stops was at Grimeston, in Harray, where a “large stone” was raised in commemoration. [7]

The Staneyhill stone and quarry face. (Sigurd Towrie)
The Staneyhill stone and quarry face. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

In his 1902 paper on Birsay traditions, Marwick does not specifically pinpoint the Staneyhill stone and appears not to have known its location:

“I have heard that there is a large stone standing erect somewhere between Bimbister and Grimeston.”

By 1903, however, the Staneyhill stone had been firmly linked to the relocation of the saint’s remains.

Citing George Marwick in his Birsay Church History, Rev Goodfellow declared:

“[A]ccording to Mr Marwick’s folklore it was at this stone that the [overseer] became so elevated and eloquent, if not insolent, through ‘St Margaret’s guid ale’, that his own men were glad to get rid of him by sending him home. From this circumstance it is said that the very stone received its name [8], ‘Hin’ meaning shame, and ‘tuin’ meaning going back – as the people were verily ashamed of this man in his ways and sayings.” [2]

Stone circle?

Aerial view of the Staneyhill stone (highlighted) showing the adjacent quarry face. (Bing)
Aerial view of the Staneyhill stone (highlighted) showing the adjacent quarry face. (📷 Bing)

Among the ideas attached to the Staneyhill stone over the years is that it was part of a stone circle.

Its position, a few metres back from a rock face, makes this unlikely, though not impossible. It could have been part of the south-western arc of a small circle on the high ground above the quarry.

Although the area has not been excavated, it has been studied on numerous occasions and it is doubtful that socket holes of missing megaliths would be missed.

Instead, the stone circle connection may be due to an early 20th century account of the area:

“In the near vicinity of this standing stone, on the west side of the road, are several large irregular-shaped stones that are worth notice, as some think they may be the beginning or ruins of a stone circle.” [4]

More megaliths…

The area around the Staneyhill megalith is packed with archaeology – not only numerous mounds and barrows, but other possible standing stones.

At Feolquoy, south of the monolith, there was a “standing stone of small dimensions”, which had been removed by 1923 [4]. West and north-west of this area is a cluster of tumuli, probably Bronze Age barrows.

Half-a-mile to the north-east of the Staneyhill stone, near the farm of Appiehouse, is a huge mound crowned by a triangular-shaped megalith.

In 1923 this stone was recorded as being “about 4 feet in height and 4 feet in breadth” [4]. In 1946, its dimensions, as documented by the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historical Monuments Scotland (RCAMHS), were “2ft 9in high, 3 feet wide at the base and about 6.5 in in thickness.”

The mound was considered to be natural until 2005, when structural features were partially exposed within. These may relate to a Maeshowe-type chambered cairn.

To the north-east of the Appiehouse mound/stone is the site of another possible standing stone.

The stone, “on the farm of How” had, by 1923, been “broken up and removed in the course of farm improvements”. [4]

Going by 1923 memories of its name – “Fa’an or Faal Stane o’ How” [4] – it may well have been a standing stone. “Fa’an” is dialect for “fallen”, suggesting the stone had once been upright. Unfortunately, we know nothing else about it, but the placename How/Howe strongly suggests the presence of a substantial mound in the vicinity.

…and a henge

The Staneyhill stone and quarry to the left, with the 'henge' to its east. (Bing Maps)
The Staneyhill stone and quarry to the left, with the ‘henge’ to its east. (📷 Bing Maps)

Around 250 metres to the east of the Staneyhill stone is what appears to be a large henge, bisected by a modern road.

Hailed the “archetypal ritual sites of the third millennium BC” [9], henges comprise earthen banks and ditches, enclosing circular or oval areas ranging from a few metres to 26.5 acres. [10]

Accessed via one or more entrances, the interiors sometimes feature timber or stone circles and the many different component arrangements inevitably resulted in monuments whose appearance varied as much as their size.

Aerial view of the 'henge'.
Aerial view of the ‘henge’. (

As with chambered cairns, a common assumption is that, because of the architectural similarities, all henges had the same purpose — a role generally relegated to the catch-all “probably somehow utilised as ritual monuments”. [11]

With an approximate diameter of 60 metres, the Staneyhill henge is defined by an inner bank, an outer ditch and an intermittent outer bank. The three-metre-wide inner bank encloses an oval area measuring c45 by 40 metres.

The width of the enclosing ditch varies from 1.5-13 metres, while the surviving sections of the outer bank are between two and five metres wide.

Although the henge has no visible entrance, it may have been in the south- or north-western quadrants and disturbed/covered by the construction of the road that cuts through its western side.

Alternatively, like the ditch/bank surrounding Maeshowe, there may have been no causeway leading into the Staneyhill henge.  At Maeshowe it has been suggested unbroken ditch and bank/wall was either meant to keep people out or contain something inside.

It will require further work before any light can be shed on this enigmatic enclosure.

Another aerial view of the area, showing the Staneyhill stone and 'henge' (Google Maps)
Another aerial view of the area, showing the Staneyhill stone and ‘henge’ (📷 Google Maps)


  • [1] Named from the general area, which is now known as Grimeston.
  • [2] Named from the nearby farm. In Goodfellow, A. (1903) Birsay Church History. W.R. Mackintosh: Kirkwall.
  • [3] The various accounts provide different measurements. E.g. Petrie: 7ft 6in (2.29m); Fraser: about ten feet (3.05m); RCAMHS: 8ft (2.44m)
  • [4] Fraser, J. (1923) Some antiquities in Harray Parish. Proceedings of the Orkney Antiquarian Society. Volume 1. 1922-3.
  • [5] Richards, C., Brown, J., Jones, S., Hall, A. and Muir, T. (2013) Monumental risk: megalithic quarrying at Staneyhill and Vestrafiold, Mainland, Orkney. In Richards, C. (ed) Building the Great Stone Circles of the North.
  • Oxford: Windgather Press, Th119-148.
  • [6] Richards, C., Downes, J., Ixer, R., Hambleton, E., Peterson, R. & Pollard, J. (2013) Surface over
  • Substance: the Vestrafiold horned cairn, Mainland, Setter cairn, Eday, and a reappraisal of later
  • Neolithic funerary architecture. In Richards, C. (ed) Building the Great Stone Circles of the North.
  • Oxford: Windgather Press, 149 – 183.
  • [7] Marwick, G. (1902) Birsay and its old traditions of places and of placenames, &c. In Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [8] A nonsensical placename etymology. Hindatuin/Hindatun is more likely to relate to Old Norse hindra-tun, in the sense of being a distant part of the tunship. Alternatively, it may be a contraction of the Scots “Ahint the tun” – behind the tunship. See Marwick, H. (1952) Orkney Farm Names. W. R. Mackintosh: Kirkwall.
  • [9] Harding, j. (2003) Henge Monuments of the British Isles. Tempus: Stroud.
  • [10] Burl, A. (2000) The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. Yale University Press.
  • [11] Darvill, T. (1987) Prehistoric Britain. Routledge.

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