Vestrafiold – the megalithic quarry

“Outcrops jutting from the slope at places like Vestrafiold would have indicated the presence of suitable bands of material. Some slabs were probably available on the surface, but access to others required digging to remove overburden and loose, weather-fractured rock.”
Mark Edmonds. Orcadia: Land, Sea and Stone in Neolithic Orkney (2019)
Vestrafiold, Sandwick. (Map courtesy of National Library of Scotland)
Vestrafiold, Sandwick. (Map courtesy of National Library of Scotland)

By Sigurd Towrie

Sandwick parish map.

Vestrafiold is the highest hill in the parish of Sandwick and stands on the north-western coast of the Orkney Mainland. A mere 129m high (423ft), the hill’s summit lies around 3.75 miles to the north-east of Skara Brae.

From at least the early 19th century, Vestrafiold was considered to be a source of the megaliths found in the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar.


Although several quarries were traditionally said to have produced standing stones, Vestrafiold had the proof in situ – quarried, but abandoned, megaliths scattered across the hillside.

In 1845, the Orkney minister Rev Charles Clouston wrote that:

“About sixty yards nearer the summit [of Vestrafiold] is a quarry with enormous blocks of stone detached, so similar to the Standing Stones of Stenness in size and shape that I suppose this to be the bed from which they were taken, as I know of no other quarry from which they could be procured, and no other purpose for which people would detach such blocks as these, from 13 to 18 feet long.” [1]

Visiting Orkney a few years later Lieutenant F. W. L. Thomas, the commander of the Royal Navy survey ship Woodlark, viewed the site:

“Upon the south side of Vestrafiold, which is about six miles to the westward of Stenness, the flagstone of this formation crops out at the surface in parallel ridges of several hundred yards in length, and from these enormous blocks may be detached without any excavation. There are at present several massive stones set free and ready for transport, and, if I am not deceived, their style is that pertaining to the Ring of Stenness rather than to the Ring of Bro[d]gar.” [2]

Around 40 years later, delivering a talk in nearby Quoyloo, George Marwick informed his audience that:

“Numbers of very large blocks of stones are lying quarried in the hill of Vestrafiold about a quarter of a mile north-west from [Helyaekirk].” [3]

Marwick was familiar with the prone stones because he had broken at least one of them up:

“About 30 years ago I and other two men were employed … to cut a footstone for a threshing mill … from one of these large blocks of stone quarried by these ancient quarriers. There was one there exactly the size and shape of the large stone standing at the east end of the bridge of Brodgar [4], viz. four feet wide, 16 inches thick and 25 feet long. We cut off about eight feet of it and it made a smash of everything nearly, especially cartwheels and axles. It took a whole day to take the third of this stone about three miles with all our boasted modern mechanics.” [2]

At the Ring of Brodgar, a geological study of the surviving stones pointed to at least seven different quarry sites. One of which we now know was Vestrafiold.

One of the rock outcroppings on Vestrafiold exploited for megaliths in the Neolithic. (Colin Richards)
One of the rock outcroppings on Vestrafiold exploited for megaliths in the Neolithic. (📷 Colin Richards)

Excavation between 2001 and 2003 not only confirmed that megaliths were being extracted from outcrops on the hill but provided an insight into the Neolithic quarrying process and onwards transportation. [5]

The Vestrafiold outcrop, which is on private land, not only provided stones up to six metres in length, but its angled fault lines produced megaliths with the angled tops typical of the Stenness standing stones. In short, it was “ideally suited to the requirements of quarrying Neolithic stone monuments.” [5]

Excavated megalith and pit. (Colin Richards)
Excavated megalith and pit. (📷 Colin Richards)

Within the uppermost trench it was clear that the rock face had been used for megalith extraction. Not only was the area littered with stone fragments, but excavation revealed the remains of a large, broken monolith.

During the quarrying process, it seems this stone fractured into at least four pieces. The quarriers had attempted to break up the pieces for removal but apparently abandoned the task before completion.

The stones at Vestrafiold were procured by hammering wooden wedges into the natural fissures in the rock faces. These were then soaked with water, their expansion splitting the stone along the fault lines.

This comparatively simple procedure goes some way to explain the lack of tools in the area examined – hammerstones would only be needed to drive in the wedges, while the used flint encountered was suggestive of working with ropes and animal hides. [5]

Around 75 metres to the north-east, and downslope, was an area where large stone slabs lay beside a semi-circular depression in the hillside. Here, three groups of megaliths lay side-by-side beneath an exposed rock face. [5]

The eastern group contained two huge, prone stones, one of which had been “roughly wedged up as if in readiness for removal”. Those to the west had the typical angled tops but were much smaller – measuring a maximum of three metres long. This, however, may relate to more recent interference.

As we saw above, Vestrafiold was a useful source of stone as late as the 19th century and, given their exposed location, this group may well have been those targeted by George Marwick (and others) for the threshing mill.

Plan of the second trench, showing the two abandoned megaliths and the elongated pit. (Building the Great Stone Circles of the North 2013)
Plan of the second trench, showing the two abandoned megaliths and the elongated pit. (Building the Great Stone Circles of the North 2013)

A second trench focused on the two larger megaliths in the eastern group – one of which was akin, in size and shape, to those seen within the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness. Both lay at 90 degrees to the adjacent rock face, which showed evidence of having been repeatedly quarried. What surprised the excavators, however, was that neither stone had been extracted from that face. [5]

Instead, they had been quarried upslope and dragged to the lower area. There, one had been positioned on a pair of stacked stone supports at either end of an elongated pit.

The pit, suggested the excavators, allowed a wooden “sled” to be inserted beneath the megalith, attached and dragged forwards to allow onward transportation.

But in this case the operation had not gone to plan.

Excavation of the pit beneath the abandoned standing stone under way. (Colin Richards)
Excavation of the pit beneath the abandoned standing stone under way. (📷 Colin Richards)

The weight of the stone had been too much for the supporting trestles and the megalith slipped sideways, crushing the supports. This, perhaps inauspicious, event saw the work halted and the undamaged stone abandoned where it lay.

As we have seen something similar was encountered at the quarry face upslope, where the stone broke while it was being extracted.

It seemed clear to the excavators that the Vestrafiold megaliths left on the hill were the result of processes gone wrong.

But there was perhaps more to the quarry site than practicality. Among the conclusions drawn from the fieldwork was that specific quarries were exploited for megaliths – perhaps places imbued with a special significance or role in the cosmology of the local communities. [6]

Clearly Vestrafiold was selected because the geology allowed the extraction of suitably large megaliths, but it may also have had, or acquired, special significance – one that perhaps the quarried stones were thought to represent or embody.

A clue to this may lie with an enigmatic long cairn that was raised near one of the quarry faces. We’ll look at this next time.


  • [1] Clouston, C. (1845) New Statistical Account Vol 15.
  • [2] 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), pp.88-136.
  • [3] 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.
  • [4] The Watchstone.
  • [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.
  • [6] Richards, C., Downes, J., Ixer, R., Hambleton, E., Peterson, R. and Pollard, J. (2013) Surface over substance: the Vestrafiold horned cairn, Mainland, Setter cairn, Eday, and a reappraisal of late Neolithic funerary architecture. In Richards, C. (ed) Building the Great Stone Circles of the North. Pg 149-183.

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