Chasing the ‘Brodgar road’ – the claimed route of the stone circle megaliths

“Whence came they? Old tradition says there was a road made from Vestrafiold for the purpose and I have traced the road most of the way thence; and indeed, where the ground has not been broken up, this can be easily traced.”
George Marwick. Howastedgarth, the Standing Stones, Stennis (1892)

By Sigurd Towrie

Few have probably heard of it today, but for many years I have been fascinated by an “old tradition” concerning an eight-mile-long, prehistoric track known as the “Brodgar Road”. [1]

This, it was claimed, marked the route of the megaliths bound for the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness from the quarry site at Vestrafiold.

I have found only two accounts of this so-called road. The earliest was penned by Sandwick man George Marwick, who, in 1892, described it as “a tradition handed down from bygone ages”. [2]

Although most of the “road” had been obliterated by agricultural improvements, Marwick had no doubt there were still traces in parts of Sandwick and Stenness. So much so that he plotted his suggested route on an Ordnance Survey map of the time. Unfortunately, however, this document has been lost.

But before we get too excited about the prospect of a huge Neolithic, stone-dragging highway running from the north-west of the Mainland all the way to the Ness of Brodgar, there is a major caveat…

I have mentioned the problem with some of George Marwick’s ideas elsewhere. Although his writing often contains nuggets of useful information, these are usually enveloped in utter nonsense. Unfortunately, this certainly applies to his two surviving papers dealing with the “Brodgar Road”.

In both these accounts, much is made of nonsensical placename etymologies fabricated to fill in the gaps between what he considered to be physical evidence of the prehistoric routeway. [9]

According to Marwick, the most southerly trace of the “road” lay at the edge of the Stenness loch “about six chains” (c121 metres) south-east of the Ring of Brodgar. [3]

Likening it to 19th century road construction, he wrote:

“In the first place large flat stones are laid down on their sides in the form of pavement, and on the top of this is placed about eighteen inches of broken stones or clean quarry refuse or chippings.” [2]

This, he said, applied only to the low-lying, soft ground. In the drier, high areas “the surface has merely been levelled down”.

“The road, so far as it is ascertainable at present, seems to have been laid off with a considerable degree of engineering skill as regards following the level parts of the route, so as to obtain the full advantage of a level surface.”

He explained that contemporary farmworkers tasked with removing vestiges of the road from agricultural land, as well as those “of the last generation”, declared “it was worse to cut through than a stone quarry, being so hard packed.” [2]

Marwick added that a similar track lay on the south slope of Vestrafiold, the hill north of the Bay of Skaill, which we know, from excavation, was the source of some of the megaliths in the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness. [4]

But it is at this point that we run into major problems – namely, Marwick’s attempts to use placenames to connect his Vestrafiold track to the one by the Stenness loch.

To do this he created etymologies to tie into his vision of the movement of megaliths across the landscape (using, among others, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and Hebrew for the suggested origins). Needless to say, the results are gibberish. [9]

By the time we return to his claims of physical evidence, we have reached the north-western end of the Ness of Brodgar, where the “road” was “distinctly visible” in the “south-east quarter of the township of Wasbister”. [2]

“The [Wasbister] farmers there now-a-days, when draining or breaking up the land, always find when they come into contact with this old road that it costs as much labour to cut across it as if it had been solid rock; the soil and stones are so hard packed.” [1]

Beyond the Ring of Bookan:

“…the road, or track, now takes a direction along the shores of the Harray loch. The features of the road now get to be more marked or distinguishable, perhaps owing to the natural softness of the ground in general, consequently more stones and other hard, enduring substance has had to be used in its construction.” [2]

According to Marwick, the track then roughly followed the shore of the Harray loch, past “Farrer’s Knowe” (undoubtedly Fresh Knowe) before turning and passing the Comet Stone. Prior to this point, however, the modern road cut across the prehistoric routeway “thereby laying bare a sectional view of its construction”. [2]

It then headed south to end at the edge of the Stenness loch, where:

“Tradition says that the large stones of Stenness were finally put on rafts. Perhaps they may have been rafted here; they had to be floated to their present position any way.” [2]

Before we consider the evidence for the route proposed by Marwick, let us jump forward to the 20th century where we find another mention of the “road”.

From Clumly to Brodgar

In 2009, Orcadian farmer Geordie Chalmers wrote of his 1963 encounter with the “Brodgar Road” on the land of Fiddlerhouse, Sandwick. [5]

Fiddlerhouse sits on the western slope of the hill Lingafiold. The view from land east of the farm looks down across the Ness of Brodgar.

Chalmers wrote:

“At some time after the 1939-45 war, as hand-powered farm implements were being superseded by power-driven machines, the higher uncultivated land was ploughed out and fields enclosed. In the spring of 1963 one of my first tasks was to plough out the higher field which had been in neeps [turnips] and oats the previous year.
“In one part of the field there was a diagonal strip about 7-8ft in width consisting of clay and completely different to the rest of the field. On remarking on this to Jock [Marwick], he replied that it was said to be part of a track over which the stones had been transported from the Loch of Clumly to the Ring of Brodgar.”[5]

Chalmers’ version of the tradition differs from Marwick’s in that his “road” only ran from the Clumly loch, over Lingafiold and presumably down to the Ness of Brodgar.

It related to a “story in … Sandwick that has been passed down through the generations, saying that the stones were originally quarried from the Loch of Clumly” [5]

He explained:

“Jock [Marwick] was an expert quarryman, being the third generation of the Marwick family to work at the millstone quarry of Quoy Ayre at Yesnaby.
“He said that on days when the water in the Loch of Clumly was clear, earlier quarry workings could be seen where very long horizontal stones could be easily levered out, many of them having one edge sloping at about 45° and similar to those at the Ring of Brodgar.” [5]

So do we have an eight-mile-long prehistoric “road” running from Vestrafiold to the Ness of Brodgar? Or for that matter one running from the Loch of Clumly?

I’m afraid, based on the current archaeological evidence, we probably do not.

We can completely dismiss Marwick’s fanciful placename links. As the 20th century Orcadian historian and folklorist Ernest Marwick wrote at the bottom of his transcription of his namesake’s handwritten document:

“I have transcribed the complete paper despite the absurdity of much of its philology & speculation characteristic of its period, for the sake of the value of the old lore which is buried away in it.” [1]

The placenames debunked, we have nothing to work with until reaching the Ness of Brodgar, where George Marwick documented all of his surviving “road” sections.

The sticking point here, however, is that the isthmus was geophysically surveyed between 2002 and 2011. Had there been a large track running its length – particularly one constructed from huge flagstones and over a foot of rubble – it would have showed up in the survey results.

It didn’t.

Even if sections of this monumental construction had been lost to agricultural work, we would expect to see some clear evidence appearing in the geophysics plots.

Admittedly the surveys did not always extend right to the edges of the lochs, where Marwick states it was possible to trace the “road”, but the inland route he proposes, for example around Fresh Knowe and the Comet Stone, revealed nothing indicative of a large prehistoric construction.

A section of Lt Thomas' 1851 map showing two tracks running SE-NW along the Ness.
A section of Lt Thomas’ 1851 map showing two tracks running SE-NW along the Ness.

What the geophysics did show, however, was a track running past Fresh Knowe and the Comet Stone that co-incidentally followed the route proposed by Marwick.

This track is one of two shown in Lieutenant Thomas’ 1851 map of the Ness and also one of a number appearing on the late 19th century Ordnance Survey maps. It continues past the Comet Stone and to the south-eastern end of the Ness.

To my mind, George Marwick was clearly following visible sections of historical tracks. A second path, running south-west, on the OS map could well account for his section of the “Brodgar Road” that supposedly ran southwards towards the Loch of Stenness.

It is also interesting to note that the 1881 OS map of Vestrafiold also shows a trackway south of the megalithic quarry that may account for Marwick’s north-western section of the “Brodgar road”.

Ness of Brodgar Old Map
Ordnance Survey 25in map of Ness of Brodgar showing tracks around the south-east of the Ring of Brodgar. (National Library of Scotland)

But what about the stone features Marwick interpreted as surviving sections?

The Ness of Brodgar isthmus, and the landscape around it, is covered in archaeology. From his vague description, we must question whether Marwick was looking at a paved area covered in rubble? There’s no shortage of them around the Ness. Or perhaps a rammed stone surface akin to those known from outside prehistoric dwellings?

Unfortunately, without knowing their exact location, and without excavation, we simply can’t say for sure.

Geordie Chalmers’ clay band is also difficult to explain, but does bring to mind excavation evidence found across Orkney.

Ploughing often reveals clay layers that represent the remains of Neolithic settlement and occupation, so the diagonal strip revealed by Chalmers is intriguing. The field had clearly been worked before and the 2-2.5m clay band (or something very similar) encountered then. But, again, without seeing it firsthand it’s difficult to say much more.

Presumably it related to unrecorded archaeology in the area?

We don’t know exactly where it was, other than on the upper slopes of Lingafiold. The lower slopes of that hill, and its environs, are also rich in archaeology – including an extensive Bronze Age barrow cemetery on its south-eastern side. It may be that the upper slopes are too.

Hilltop archaeology is generally lacking in Orkney. Not because it isn’t there but because, historically, hilltops were understudied areas.

Real or invented?

The tradition recounted to Chalmers in 1963 was clear that the “Brodgar Road” ran from Clumly to Brodgar. If this was indeed a genuinely old belief, it confirms my suspicions that Marwick’s westward extension to Vestrafiold, using placenames, was pure invention.

What is not so clear is whether we actually have an authentic tradition or a more-recent introduction – one perhaps influenced by different archaeological features and later, erroneous interpretations.

Combing through centuries of old Orkney accounts, I have found no other mentions of the “Brodgar Road” – strange considering the antiquarian fascination with the Stenness megaliths. While the traditions of the various suspected quarries were regularly documented, the “road” is conspicuous by its absence.

All of this leads me to question whether the age-old “tradition” was as old as claimed and not the result of some antiquarian’s etymological jiggery-pokery.

This conclusion centres on an enigmatic prehistoric monument lying between the Clumly loch and Lingafiold – the Stones of Via.

Anyone familiar with Latin will know via, meaning way, is commonly applied to Roman roads.

It should be stressed at this point that the Sandwick placename has nothing to do with Latin and may actually date to the 19th century! The stones took their name from the nearby farm, Via, but according to Hugh Marwick (yes, yet another Marwick, this one an Orcadian scholar of Orcadian dialect and placenames) the earliest mention of the name dates to 1834. [7b]

I would push that back a few years because Rev Clouston’s account was originally written in 1831, but only published in 1845. Regardless, Via is also missing in the 1739 rental. Instead we find a farm Fea (from Old Norse fjall meaning hill) and Hugh Marwick suggested, very plausibly, that Via was a corruption of this. [7b]

In this case, however, did the rentals scribe mistake the name Via (which is also found in other areas of Orkney) for the much more common Fea?

The suggested root for Via, if it is was an old name, has long been said to be the Old Norse vé, meaning a shrine, sacred enclosure or place with religious significance. That was how Lieutenant Thomas described it in 1851:

“One of these is a cromlech, known by the name of the Stones of Veu (Ve signifying holy or sacred)” [7c]

Based on the current (admittedly scant) evidence, I would argue that someone with a leaning towards the classics tried to equate the “Via” placename with the Latin.  And the idea of a prehistoric trackway across the north-west Mainland was born.

That person may have been George Marwick.

After failing to find anyone else committing the idea to print I returned to George Marwick’s papers. And sure enough. There it was. Sort of.

He was considered “an uncommonly good Latinist” by the Orcadian historian Ernest Marwick [8], having translated 16th century church document in 1884. [8b]

And it was at Vestrafiold, the north-western end of his road, that George Marwick tried to introduce the Latin via.

In another impressive piece of etymological nonsense he claimed that the etymology of Vestrafiold (which simply means west hill in Old Norse) was something akin to the “Hill of the Dragging Road”.

Mashing together various languages to suit his narrative [9], George Marwick’s root for Vestrafiold was: “the hill (fiold) of the drawing (tra) way (vaes. Lat. via).” [6]

When he had what he believed to be a via placename staring him in the face, it is strange that he did not do the same to the Stones of Via. Instead, he resorted to another Latin origin (and a Sanskrit one, just to cover all the bases [9]), choosing instead “vieo, to bind, to fetter, to immolate”. Why? Because that fitted his story of sacrificial stones better. [6]

This is his only mention of the Stones of Via and in it he adopts a completely different name:

“There is another place in Sandwick called the ‘Via of Clumly’ that is worthy of notice”. [6]

Why is this strange?

Because every other account before Marwick’s called them the Stones of Via. It could be argued that, being a Sandwick man, he was using a local, or traditional, variation of the name,  but Rev Charles Clouston, who documented them in 1831 [7], also lived in the parish. Not to mention it would be akin to calling the Ring of Brodgar “the Brodgar of Stenness”!

It is pure speculation – perhaps worthy of George Marwick himself – but I can’t help but think that the idea of the “road of Clumly” was fermenting at the back of his mind.


  • [1] Marwick, G. (1892) Howastedgarth, the Standing Stones, Stennis. In Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [2] Marwick, G. (1892) The Standing Stones of Stenness – Traces of the Ancient Road from the Quarries. In Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [3] One chain = 66 feet or 22 yards (c.20.12 metres)
  • [4] 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. Windgather Press: Oxford.
  • [5] Chalmers, Geordie (2009) The Ring of Brodgar. Orkney Vintage Club Newsletter No 29.
  • [6] Marwick, G. (1888) The Language and Religion of our Celtic Forefathers in the West Mainland. In Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [7] Clouston, C. (1845) New Statistical Account Vol 15.
  • [7b] Marwick, H. (1952) Orkney Farm Names. W. R. Mackintosh: Kirkwall.
  • [7c] 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 WoodlarkArchaeologia34(1).
  • [8] A compliment the editors of George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller felt was “overgenerous”.
  • [8b] Marwick, G. (1884) Offices in the Church in Orkney in 1544. In Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [9] Marwick believed it was possible for a placename to contain elements from several different languages, and that those in Orkney contained elements of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Egyptian, and Sanskrit, as well as “Celtic” and Norse.

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