The Stones of Via
By Sigurd Towrie
We mentioned it briefly last week, but one of the most puzzling prehistoric features on the Orkney Mainland goes by the name of the Stones of Via.
Most accounts over the past two centuries slotted it into one of two categories – a toppled dolmen  or a denuded chambered cairn. But, as always, it is not that simple.
The feature took its name from the nearby farm of Via. Little of it remains visible today but in the 19th century the antiquarians had no doubt what it represented – a “cromlech” or dolmen.
Writing in 1989, however, Davidson and Henshall described the “totally baffling” site as a “group of six large blocks of stone, which are difficult to interpret.” 
They added: “They appear to be the remains of a megalithic structure of some kind which has been greatly disturbed…”
To get an idea of the site we need to go back to the earliest accounts.
The earliest account I have found dates to 1831. In it, the parish minister, Rev Charles Clouston, wrote:
Twenty years after Clouston penned his description, Orkney was visited by Lieutenant F. W. L. Thomas, the commander of the Royal Navy survey ship Woodlark. Thomas’ surveyed and documented a number of Orcadian sites, including the Stones of Via:
Although the 19th century accounts had no doubt the Stones of Via represented a dolmen, this probably owes more to the authors’ desires than actual evidence.
Although they were certain the Halykirk structure was a “greatly altered” stalled cairn, Davidson and Henshall were not so sure about the Stones of Via, conceding that not only its condition, but the nature of the remains, made understanding the site difficult:
Because of their size:
The stones, they wrote, had not changed in appearance since Lt Thomas’ 1851 illustration.
The most obvious feature was a large, flat slab resting on two substantial stones. West of them were three stone blocks of stone, with two more to the east and north-east. Several smaller stones lay in the vicinity.
Geophysical surveys of the site in 2005 did not shed much more light on the nature of the Stones of Via.
Although showing nothing clearly associated with the stones themselves, the results suggested they lay on the southern edge of an area of increased magnetic response, which may have been archaeologically significant. Several anomalies were also detected west of the stones, which may also be connected to the monument.
The enclosure mentioned by Clouston in 1831 cannot be seen today but the geophysics picked up apparent traces – but it was unclear whether it was a ditch or bank. A topographic survey, however, suggested that the enclosure bounded the shallow, bowl-shaped hollow in which the stones lie.
Clouston’s “small tumulus” south of the Stone of Via produced the best geophysical results, the survey showing a clearly defined ditch anomaly, c 6m in diameter, which correlates with the location of the ploughed-out mound.
A second cist/barrow, investigated around 1860, lies to the north-west of the Stone of Via.
The stones took their name from the nearby farm, Via – but according to Hugh Marwick the earliest mention of that placename dates to the 1830s. 
Via is missing in the 1739 rental. Instead we find a farm Fea (from Old Norse fjall meaning hill) appears and Marwick suggested, very plausibly, that Via was a corruption of this.
It is possible, however, that the rentals scribe mistook the name Via (which is found in other areas of Orkney) for the much more common Fea. If that were the case, the suggested root for Via has long been said to be the Old Norse vé, meaning a shrine, sacred enclosure or place with religious significance. This is how Lieutenant Thomas described the site in 1851.
-  Dolmen – structures consisting of a large, flat, stone resting horizontally upon three or more uprights.
-  Davidson, J. L. & Henshall, A. S. (1989). The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
-  Clouston, C. (1845) New Statistical Account Vol 15. 1845
-  Thomas, F.W.L. (1851) Account of some of the Celtic Antiquities of Orkney, including the Stones of Stenness, Tumuli, Picts-houses, &c., with Plans, by FWL Thomas, RN, Corr. Mem. SA Scot., Lieutenant Commanding HM Surveying Vessel Woodlark. Archaeologia, 34(1).
-  Marwick, H. (1952) Orkney Farm Names. W. R. Mackintosh: Kirkwall.