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Orcadian stones

Though the Orkneys are on the northern frontiers in Europe, they nevertheless form an integral part of the European megalithic civilisation – and are on par with monuments in the heartland of that civilisation. What was it that made the Orkneys exceptional?

Philip Coppens


The Orkney Islands sit on the northern tip of the British mainland. It is rumoured that one inhabitant once wrote “Bergen, Norway” as his nearest train station, rather than Edinburgh – let alone London as the nearest capital. The islands seem remote and yet they are the centre of a megalithic community whose traces remain clearly distinguishable in the landscape.
The Ring of Brodgar, one of the highlights of any visit to the islands, has an area of 90,790 square feet (8,435 m2) and thus ranks third in size after the Outer Circle at Avebury and the Great Circle at Stanton Drew, in what many consider to be the true heart of the Megalithic World, the coastal areas of south-western England and French Brittany. Though Europe’s western facing Atlantic coasts, from Orkney down to Morocco, are known to have communicated throughout Megalithic times and are considered to be “one”, the question remains why this civilisation stretched so far north. Or to rephrase the problem: it is not odd to find megalithic monuments in the Orkneys, but why are they so monumental – on par with monuments found in the heartland of this civilisation? For some, it has lead to theories that suggest that the Orkneys were a staging post for ancient sea routes to the Americas – in Megalithic times – which is not that farfetched as the islands were indeed such posts in post-Columbian days. Today, it is known that this megalithic civilisation, from at least 3000 BC onwards, used the boat as the main means of transport and communication. Though it is thus possible that Atlantic crossings occurred, what is missing so far is proof that they did.

Why the Orkneys? What are the Orkneys? The name has been traced to the Picts, where the name is believed to come from Insi Orc, the islands of the tribe of the wild boar. This may be a clue – then again, it may not be.
What is known, is that the islands lacked timber, which meant that the houses were made in stone. Hence, settlements such as Skara Brae have survived across the millennia and provide us with a unique insight in the life of the megalithic builders in 3000 BC. But precisely because they had to build in stone, it should not be taken for granted that their lifestyle reflected that of communities elsewhere in Europe. Though Skara Brae is the most popular, the earliest house site was at Knap of Howar in Papa Westray. Skara Brae itself was inhabited from around 3100 to 2500 BC, an impressive 600 years. It now sits on the edge of the beach, but in olden days, would have been more inland and thus offered more protection from the elements that so often do not look benign on the Orkneys – the god of wind being the one that toys most with the islanders. The stone structure must have offered some protection, even though the weather in 3000 BC is believed to have been a few degrees warmer.
The rooms of the Skara Brae houses contained cupboards and storage spaces, large dressers, seats and even box beds made from split stone. As the houses were interconnected, it was suggested that the people had a communal way of life – which is largely typical of island communities. In winter, when life is played out more indoors then outdoors, it must also have meant that the families were not tortured by the elements to meet each other – or keep the homes warm – a more difficult task than elsewhere because of the absence of wood.
For everything else, the Orkneys were a wonderful place to live: the community fished, collected shellfish, oysters, etc., as well as grow barley and wheat, and had domesticated cattle, such as pigs, sheep and goats. Bone dice and jewellery were found as well, suggesting life was not all work, but also play.

The finds at Skara Brae are so remarkable that some believe it is too good to be true. Did average Joe Bloggs really live like that? Some observers have therefore wondered whether these houses were perhaps not intended for the gods – not physical beings, but spiritual presences, very much like “ghosts”, residing there. Along a similar vein, Euan MacKie suggested that Skara Brae was no peasant village, but a “palatial structure” housing wise men engaged in astronomical and magical work – a college of priest. Though these theories have found a willing ear in some corners, the archaeological evidence on the ground does not correspond with these conclusions. Of course, it does not exclude the likelihood that amongst the people in Skara Brae some were indeed priests.
The reason why some believe Skara Brae is a priestly compound is because they are relatively close to the megalithic monuments. Though the Orkneys are by no means vast, the actual concentration of megaliths is in an even smaller area – a neck of land between the lochs of Harray and Stenness. Here sits the Ring of Brodgar, the Ring of Stenness that is a mile south-east, and the less well-known Ring of Bookan, the same distance north west. The conical mound of Maes Howe is 1 ½ miles to the ESE.
It suggests that this small area was somehow religiously important to the community, and no doubt it has something to do with the lay of the land and their mythology. Despite the composition of the three rings somewhat resembling Orion’s Belt, it may be more likely that the site was special because of the manner in which it played with the surrounding landscape on key calendar days – something we will return to later.

First, a deeper look into the rings themselves is required. In 1694, James Garden wrote to the famous “archaeologist” John Aubrey about “two rounds set about with high smooth stones or flags about twenty foot above ground, 6 foot broad and a foot or two thick, and ditched about: whereof the largest [Brodgar] is 110 paces diameter, and reputed to be high places of worship and sacrifice in Pagan times… the ancient Temples of the Gods.” Though Garden could probably have never fathomed it, it is believed to date from 2700 BC. Of this Ring of Brodgar, only 29 of an original sixty stones remain, with a small stone in the middle. As to a “Temple of the Gods”, Dr Robert Henry in the 18th century stated that the stones were known as the Temple of the Sun, and Stenness was known as the Temple of the Moon.
In the late 20th century, Alexander Thom believed that the circle was laid out using the megalithic yard (0.829 metres), with Brodgar having a diameter of 125 megalithic yards. If true, it underlines that the builders of these structures were indeed part of the larger Megalithic Culture – which no-one really doubts to begin with. Intriguingly, Thom also said that the structure was perfect for observations of the sun and the moon, thus underlining the old name chosen for the ring – Temple of the Sun.
To quote another famous 20th century archaeologist, Aubrey Burl: “Brodgar could comfortably have accommodated 3000 men, women and children. Even if this number is halved to allow space for the ceremonies, this still permits an assembly of 1500. This is not unlikely. With known settlements such as Skara Brae only five miles away, with Rinyo village on Rousay, the Knap of Howar homesteads on Papa Westray, with the cluster of houses at Barnhouse hardly a mile to the south-east of Brodgar, and with other hamlets and farms as yet undiscovered, a population of two or three thousand on Orkney and its outlying islands is not an improbability.” Burl thus concluded that the ring was used as “a church”, where the community convened to partake in religious ceremonies. Where did this leave the other rings?

The Ring of Stenness is less known, if only because only four massive standing stones remain, even though the tallest is an impressive five metres tall. In Britain, only Stonehenge exceeds their height. Built between 3100 and 2700 BC, the ring originally consisted out of twelve stones. At the centre of the ring was a large hearth (very similar to those at Skara Brae) with a post hole beside it. Some believe that it may have held some form of totem pole.
The third ring, the Ring of Bookan, is even less known than Stenness. Though it is also a massive earthwork made up of an enclosing ditch surrounding an oval raised platform, measuring about 44.5 metres by 38 metres (almost identical to that of the Stones of Stenness), it lacks an entrance causeway and outer bank, present in its two neighbours. Within the ditch are a number of stones and a rough mound. It has been suggested that this is the remains of a cairn, but this remains speculation and others argue for the presence of a platform.

We should not concentrate just on the rings. There are intriguing standing stones nearby, such as Barnhouse Stone. The most intriguing stone, the Stone of Odin, was holed, but destroyed in 1814. It was known as the Stone of Sacrifice and was used by young couples who plight their troth by clasping hands through the stone.
Most interesting of all is the Watchstone, a stone giant at the southern end of the neck of land between the two lochs. Like a number of other solitary standing stones in Orkney, local tradition has it that the Watchstone dips its “head” to drink from the loch at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Just over 5.6 metres high (around 19 feet), the Watchstone was originally one of a pair of standing stones, outliers to the main Ring of Stenness, that perhaps marked the approach to the entrance to the Ness o’ Brodgar.
We know there are two, as in 1930, the stump of the Watchstone’s companion was unearthed in the bank by the side of the road. The stump was 1.45 metres (4 ft. 9 in) wide, 12.7cm (5 in) thick, and at least 90 cm (3 ft) high. It was aligned exactly north-east and south-west, at an obtuse angle to the Watchstone. This led to the theory that the two stones were the remnants of a south-eastern section of a large stone circle, the rest of which has disappeared.
However, it is more likely that the two massive megaliths were once part of a stone-flanked ceremonial route between the Brodgar and Stenness complexes. The other stones, such as the Odin and the Comet Stone, were also believed to be part of this processional way. The possibility of a ceremonial route connecting the two rings is intriguing, but a series of geophysics surveys carried out across the Ness o’ Brodgar have found no evidence of any such stone avenue. Therefore, it is now believed that the twin stones may have represented a symbolic “gate” between the two stone circles. Similar “gates” have been found in the Lake District, in Kirksanton (the Giant’s Grave).

The rings, it is now accepted, have astronomical alignments, to the sun and the moon. The two wide causeways of the rings are aligned with the rising of the sun on the summer solstice, and the setting of the sun on the winter solstice, underlining the astronomical connection. But that is not all.

The Watchstone

A local man, Charles Tait, has highlighted an interesting connection to the Watchstone and the midwinter solstice. At this time, the sun sets in its most southerly position. From the Watchstone, viewing the winter solstice sunset, the sun disappears behind Ward Hill on Hoy for a few minutes. But that is not all: it then becomes visible again, as if “reborn”, at the bottom of the hill’s northern slope, before finally setting for the night. On the midwinter solstice, from the Watchstone, we can thus witness a double sunset. As the date marked the death and revival of the sun king – the shortest day of the year, which in these northern latitudes is very short – such “rebirth”, his victory over death, must have been an impressive visual display, which may have been one of the primary reasons why the site was selected for religious worship: the myths were imprinted on the landscape.
But though primary, it is not the sole reason. A few days after the solstice, the sun sets behind Ward Hill, but this time reappears in a horizon “notch” formed by the island’s hills. This phenomenon prompted the idea that the stone was perhaps a marker for watching the sun’s progress as it sets further and further south – hence its name “Watchstone”? The various marker points afforded by the Hoy hills would allow the watcher to gage the approach of the solstice – thus making sure that the main event itself would not be missed.

Another important reason why this neck of land was chosen can be found in the nature of the lochs: there is the salt water Loch of Stenness and the fresh water Harray Loch. The neck of land thus keeps the salt and fresh water apart. Little is known of megalithic mythology, but it is my firm conviction that much of the creational mythology is common to mankind across the world – and thus dating back to our earliest ancestors, before their migration began. In many creation myths, as reported in Giorgio De Santillana and Hertha Von Dechend’s Hamlet’s Mill, specific emphasis is placed on the separation of salt from fresh water, symbolising chaos and order respectively. Where salt and fresh water met, religious centres came about that formed part of a ceremonial landscape (for discussion of this symbolism, see Hamlet’s Mill, but specifically my own The Canopus Revelation). The same seems to apply to the Orkneys, and the connection with the creator god, visualised by the sun god, is equally present.

These creation myths also speak of a land of the first time, an island, in the form of a conical hill. And the ceremonial landscape of the Orkneys has just the thing: Maes Howe. The conical mound of Maes Howe was broken into by Norsemen and Viking crusaders in the mid 12th century. Afterwards, the chamber top collapsed, filling the main chamber wit hearth and stones. When the Rings began to become appreciated, the mound was lagging behind in receiving its due attention. It was not inspected until 1852, when it was referred to as M’eshoo or Meashowe. It was broken into in 1861 by J. Farrer, who has been described as “an assiduous if by present standards unscientific digger of mounds”. What they found was a seven metres high hill, containing a chamber. No mortar was used, yet the stones fit so well together that a knife cannot be inserted between them.
Today, it is believed to have been built in ca. 3000 BC from local sandstone, with some of the slabs weighing up to thirty tonnes. It makes the construction older and more impressive than the nearby rings. There is a nine metres long inner passage that gently slopes up to the chamber, which is about 4.6 metres square. Like the rings, the mound incorporates astronomical knowledge, as the passage points roughly to the midwinter sunset. The winter sun strikes the back wall of the chamber near the shortest day of the year, though the sun shines directly into the chamber for forty days on either side of the solstice. As such, Maes Howe is often labelled as one of the finest examples of prehistoric architecture – yet in remains a second-rank citizen in Orkney’s megalithic list of fame.

Placing Maes Howe in its surrounding landscape, we find that it predates the rings, but postdates – by about a century – the construction of Skara Brae. This is, of course, logical: people would first need a space to live, before beginning the construction of a conical mound, followed by the construction of the rings. As the conical mound, in my opinion, is an expression of the “mound of creation”, it would seem logical to construct this first.
Like the rings and standing stones, Maes Howe is incorporated into the ceremonial landscape. As early as 1894, a local schoolmaster, Magnus Spence, found that the passageway of Maes Howe was not only “roughly” orientated to the winter sunset, but also aligned with a standing stone at Barnhouse. This stone, together with the Watchstone, and the centre of the stone circle of the Ring of Brodgar, were aligned to the axis of the setting sun on the winter solstice. It is definitive proof that we should not look towards each structure in isolation, but see the entire area as one religious centre. Spence eventually found other alignments and argued that the annual movement of the sun was encoded in the landscape; the stones tracked the movement of the sun – and creator – god.

There are clear parallels between the Orkneys and the megalithic concentration in the area of Wiltshire, where we find the two major circles of Avebury and Stonehenge relatively closely together. There is a further parallel, between Silbury Hill and Maes Howe – though the parallel is in its appearance, namely that of a conical mound in an otherwise relatively flat landscape and – again in my opinion – in its symbol as a representation of the mound of creation.
This is not the only connection. As early as forty years ago, a link between the two areas was suspected, because both contained a type of pottery known as “Grooved Ware”, found in both sites – and for some time believed to be found only in those two sites. Though since found elsewhere in and near Neolithic monuments, it remains a fact that the largest concentration of this pottery is located in two widely separated areas, in the far north and northwest of Scotland on the one hand and in southern England and East Anglia on the other – each of which had the Orkneys and Wiltshire respectively as its inner core.

Though the Orkney and Wiltshire were constructed in roughly the same era, they did not share the same fate. The Wiltshire landscape continued to be added to for much longer, whereas in the Orkneys, “shortly” after the completion of Stenness in ca. 2700 BC, by ca .2600 BC Skara Brae was abandoned – and any new additions to the ceremonial landscape stopped. After building for 400 years, it was only used for a century. Why? No clear answers are given, and archaeologists call in “possible climate changes”, but no clear evidence is at present available. These people came here to build – on an island in the far north – a visual representation of the “Island of Creation”… but almost as soon as it was created, they abandoned it. Perhaps they were more interested in origins, rather than destiny.