Around the Ness – the Watchstone
“When on the way to the Bridge of Brogar, attention is at once arrested by a singly giant monolith … standing erect, like a giant sentinel, called the Watch Stone”
By Sigurd Towrie
The Watchstone, one of Orkney’s most imposing standing stones, dominates the south-eastern end of the Brig o’ Brodgar – the place where the Harray and Stenness lochs meet.
The monolith, between the Ness excavation site and the Stones of Stenness, stands 5.6 metres high (18 feet 6in), is 1.5 metres wide (5ft) and 40.6cm thick (16in).
Although it has attracted the attention of antiquarians and archaeologists for centuries, there is little that can be said about the Watchstone with any degree of certainty. We don’t, for example, have a date for its erection.
Given its location and geology, however, there is little reason to doubt it belongs to the Neolithic – probably the final centuries of the fourth millennium BC or the first of the third.
While in no way conclusive proof, in May 1892, members of the Orkney Natural History Society heard an account of the megalithic quarry at Vestrafiold, Sandwick, by Orcadian historian George Marwick.
There he had encountered: “…three or four large blocks of stone … similar in size and shape to the Watchstone … and those of the Stenness circle.”
In 1930, the base of a broken megalith was discovered 13 metres (42 feet) to the south-west of the Watchstone.
The find led to the two megaliths being declared a pair. While this is indeed possible, particularly given the presence of stone pairs in the area, we can’t say this was definitely the case.
That there was another standing stone in the vicinity of the Watchstone’s location is beyond doubt. What we don’t know is whether the two were actually contemporary.
Measuring 1.45 metres (4ft 9in) wide, 12.7cm (5in) thick, and 90cm (3ft) high, the second stone was aligned exactly north-east and south-west, at an obtuse angle to the Watchstone. Based on the stump’s dimensions, the megalith was much thinner than the Watchstone, but almost as wide.
The stone had been erected in a socket “cut into the shaly rock to receive it and was packed at the base with small stones.”
Obviously we can’t tell the height of the stone but the fact the socket contained the 90cm stump beneath the ground places its depth on par with those investigated at the Stones of Stenness. Compared to the shallow examples encountered at the Ring of Brodgar it suggests the stone was meant to endure – it was put up and meant to stay up.
The stump was removed, and presumably destroyed, in 1930 so we don’t know whether the megalith came from the same quarry as the Watchstone nor how far it travelled.
The date and circumstances of the stone’s destruction are also unknown. Because details of the socket and stump were not recorded in any detail, all we can say for certain is that the megalith was gone by 1693, when the first detailed account of the area was penned by a Kirkwall minister:
“Betwixt [the Stones of Stenness] and the Bridge are two stones standing, of that same largeness of the rest, whereof one hath a round hole in the midst of it.”
Rev James Wallace. A Description of the Isles of Orkney (1693)
The holed stone mentioned by Wallace was the Stone of Odin, which was destroyed in 1814, and the other, unnamed, megalith is clearly the Watchstone.
The second stone may have been a handy source of stone in the early historic period. The fact it was a third of the thickness of the Watchstone might have made it a good candidate for toppling and breaking up.
On the other hand, the destruction may have been much earlier.
Excavation of one definite socket and a suspected second in the vicinity of the site of the Odin Stone showed that that not only were there perhaps two megaliths close to the fabled perforated stone but that both were dismantled in prehistory – either the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age.
In these cases, however, the stones were completely removed, leaving no stumps in place.
The presence of a second stone by the Watchstone prompted the suggestion that: “If, therefore, the level of the Loch has risen, it is just possible that we may have here the remnant of the south-eastern arc of a great [stone] circle…”
As yet no evidence to back this up has been found, but that is perhaps not surprising – if it existed the evidence lies beneath the water of the Loch of Stenness.
For centuries before the discovery of the second stone (and years afterwards), it was considered that the Watchstone was part of a grand, stone-flanked avenue between the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar:
“On the eastern side of the channel [between the Harray and Stenness lochs] one column still remains, bearing the name of the Watch Stone … which may possibly be the only relic of the avenue once connecting the circles on each side of the loch.”
Daniel Wilson. The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Orkney (1851)
“… from the Watchstone’s position at the entrance to the early causeway which joined these necks of land, may it not be the sole relic of a huge or incompleted (sic) avenue, whereby the lesser Circle of Stenness would be connected with the greater one immediately beyond?”
James Macbeath. The Orkneys in Early Celtic Times (1892)
This explanation for the standing stones between the two henge monuments was repeated from the late 18th century until geophysics surveys produced no evidence for a stone-lined route along the Ness of Brodgar.
Instead, based on present archaeological evidence, it seems that pairs (or groups) of standing stones may have been the order of the day – much like the two visible outside Ness dig HQ, a short distance to the south-east of the site entrance. Not only did the Watchstone perhaps have a twin, but, as we’ve seen, the Odin Stone was also one of a pair (or perhaps three).
These pairs have been likened to the door jambs of Late Neolithic Structures and therefore may have represented symbolic doorways – perhaps marking, or controlling movement, through the landscape around the Ness.
With the Watchstone, it has been suggested that it, and its possible companion, may have marked a formalised route between the entrance to the Stones of Stenness and the lochside area, or perhaps controlled movement in the area outside the stone circle.
That the Watchstone was an integral part of the landscape around the Ness of Brodgar is beyond doubt, but to the antiquarians of yesteryear, it was also directly linked with the Ring of Brodgar and the Barnhouse Stone, approximately half a mile to the south-east of the Stones of Stenness.
The evidence of this link was an apparent alignment:
“If the visitor takes up his position in the centre of the [Ring of Brodgar], and looks towards the Watch-stone, he will detect another stone at a greater distance, in the exact same line, at a place called Tormiston. This, of itself, is evidence of a connexion between the outlying monoliths and this central circle which, with measurements and bearings, has been the subject of a recent astronomical theory of some merit …”
Proceedings of the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland (1899)
The meritorious astronomical theory mentioned above was probably that of Orkney man Magnus Spence, who, in 1893, suggested a number of solar alignments for the Stenness megaliths and Maeshowe.
The Ring of Brodgar – Watchstone – Barnhouse Stone line marked, he wrote, the midwinter sunrise and midwinter sunsets, while a line drawn between the Watchstone and the entrance to Maeshowe related to the equinox sunrise and sunset.
Writing in 1906, the astronomer and physicist Sir Norman Lockyer wasn’t convinced by Spence’s arguments although he appropriated his suggested alignment line. To Lockyer, the significant times represented by the Brodgar-Watchstone-Barnhouse line were sunset at Beltane (May 1) and sunrise at Hallowmas (November 1).
More recently, a connection between the Watchstone and the midwinter sunset was proposed. According to Charles Tait, ten days before and after the winter solstice, the sun disappears behind Hoy’s Ward Hill before briefly reappearing off its northern side. To Tait, the stone marked a viewpoint for measuring the shortening days gauge the approach of the solstice.
The question of the name
A regular question asked by Ness of Brodgar visitors each year is why the lochside megalith is called the Watchstone.
When it comes to the names of the megaliths in the Ness of Brodgar area there is a major problem – we can’t assume that any are genuine and not the fanciful creations of antiquarians, e.g. Temple of the Sun, Stone of Power and Comet Stone.
The earliest surviving account in which “Watchstone” is applied to the monolith dates to 1823. In it, Samuel Hibbert, the secretary to the Scottish Society of Antiquaries, categorically states: “…there is a bridge; and at the place where we commence crossing it, there stood (or perhaps may still stand) a stone. It was called the watch-stone.”
He then goes on to wax lyrical about the Temples of the Sun and Moon – terms that first appear following the 1772 visit to Orkney by Sir Joseph Banks and which became widely repeated (in 18th and 19th century academia at least) thereafter.
Banks and Hibbert’s accounts differ, however, when it comes to the Watchstone.
The Banks expedition map of the area proclaims it the “Stone of Power” while Hibbert was adamant it was called the “Watchstone”. This is made clear when he reproduced a “rude woodcut” of the area around the Stones of Stenness produced by Rev Dr Robert Henry in 1784. In Hibbert’s version of the drawing’s key, he changed the name of the megalith from “Pillar Stone” to “Watch-stone”.
Most accounts after Hibbert’s refer to the Watchstone name, but the majority of these were penned by visitors to Orkney, who may – like the Temples of the Sun and Moon – have been repeating the terms used by their contemporaries and predecessors.
However, writing at the end of the 19th century, the Orcadian George Marwick – who lived in neighbouring parish of Sandwick – repeatedly referred to the Watchstone by name in his papers and lectures.
Although it is possible Marwick was also copying previous academic accounts, in other papers he is keen to point out the “old names” for both the Ring of Brodgar and the Comet Stone. If the Watchstone had a different name, why didn’t Marwick document it?
So, is it a traditional name? I tend to think it was, or at least an attempt to anglicise its Orcadian pronunciation.
Returning to Hibbert, the name meant one thing:
“Its name of a watch-stone may possibly have been derived from the circumstance that it was situated on the brink of the ford, which commanded the passage to the great temple of the sun, where a watch would naturally be placed to preserve the rites of sacrifice from interruption.”
Samuel Hibbert. The Tings of Orkney and Shetland. Archaeologica Scotica VIII (1823)
He wasn’t the only writer over the centuries to take the name literally and suggest an origin involving viewing or watching. The probable answer, though, is far simpler and, like most of Orkney’s placenames, simply describes the stone’s loch-side location.
A recent suggestion is that the name relates to the monolith’s position at the crossing point between the lochs and stems from the Old Norse vaðs-steinn — ford stone. This is particularly interesting because the same root is found at another crossing across the Stenness loch, the Brig o’ Waithe, to the south-west of the Watchstone. Before the construction of this bridge, the area was simply Waithe, from vaðs – ford or wading place.
Although the Waithe placename closely followed the original, other ford names from the same root survive as Waa or Va, e.g. Waaswick, and in the dialect term for ford, Waddies.
However, although the vaðs idea is interesting — particularly when we bear in mind Waithe nearby — one can’t help but wonder why two placenames from the same root, mere miles apart, would a) develop such a different pronunciation and b) have developed differently (the Brig o’ Waithe not only retained the ð but is pronounced Wayth and not Wath).
Instead of the stone’s position by a crossing point, it seems more likely that its name derives from its loch-side location. And in this case, the Orcadian historian Hugh Marwick had it covered.
To Marwick, the answer was clear. “Watchstone” derived from the Old Norse vatz-steinn — loch stone.
This suggestion certainly fits the location and the Orcadian pronunciation of the name and, until a better suggestion comes along, is the one for me.