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Britain's Landscape Symbols and Mysteries: The Standing Stones of Stenness

Stone circles and standing stones have always fascinated me, their symbolism and astronomical study undoubtedly render an extra quote to it's complex ritualistic landscape.

The Standing Stones of Stenness is a Neolithic monument on the mainland of Orkney, Scotland. Various traditions associated with the stones survived into the modern era and they form part of the "Heart of Neolithic Orkney" World Heritage Site, and inscribed as a World Heritage site in December 1999.

The surviving stones are sited on a promontory at the south bank of the stream that joins the southern ends of the sea loch Loch of Stenness and the freshwater Loch of Harray. The name, which is pronounced stane-is in Orcadian dialect, comes from Old Norse meaning stone headland. The stream is now bridged, but at one time was crossed by a stepping stone causeway, and the Ring of Brodgar lies about 1.2 km (3/4 mile) away to the north-west, across the stream and near the tip of the isthmus formed between the two lochs. Maeshowe chambered cairn is about 1.2 km (3/4 mile) to the east of the Standing Stones of Stenness and several other Neolithic monuments also lie in the vicinity, suggesting that this area had particular importance.

Other megaliths in the vicinity, now thought to have been part of the original complex, are the Watchstone , a massive slab of stone that towers over the Brig o' Brodgar, and the Barnhouse Stone , a solitary stone to the south-east, between Maeshowe and the Standing Stones.

Until the beginning of the 19th century, the complex contained at least one other significant monolith - the Odin Stone of Orkney legend.

The Standing Stones o' Stenness were originally laid out in an ellipse. Although it is commonly written that the monument was once made up of 12 megaliths, excavations in the 1970s suggest that the ring was never "completed", with at least one - possibly two - of the 12 stones were never erected.

Radio-carbon dates from the excavation show that the site dates from at least 3100BC, making the Standing Stones complex one of the earliest stone circles in Britain .

Like the Ring o' Brodgar, the Stenness ring has been classed as a henge monument. The stone circle was originally surrounded by a rock-cut ditch (four metres across and 2.3 metres deep), outside of which was a substantial earth bank.



The layout of the Standing Stones o' Stenness.
The surviving stones are sh
own in black, with the sockets in grey.
Doubt remains whether St
one 12 existed, and possibly Stone 9.
(as published by Orkneyjar)

With an approximate diameter of 44 metres (144 feet), the earth bank had a single entrance causeway on the north side, facing the Neolithic Barnhouse settlement on the shore of the Harray loch. Little remains of the bank, or ditch, today, although traces remain visible around the stone circle.

Today, at the centre of the ring, the visitor will see a large stone hearth, similar to those found in Skara Brae and other Neolithic settlements.

The hearth was constructed from four large stone slabs, and, according to Dr Colin Richards, the excavator of the nearby Barnhouse Settlement, an earlier hearth was transplanted from Barnhouse to the centre of the stone ring.

Close to the hearth stand two angular slabs, standing side by side, with a large prone stone beside them. This is the remains of the "dolmen" rebuilt in 1907 - although doubt remains that it was ever part of the original complex.

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Ritual Associations

Ring O' Brodgar was supposedly known as "the Temple o' the Sun", with the Stenness henge being "the Temple o' the Moon".

James Wallace, in 1684, states: "Several of the inhabitants have a tradition that the sun was worshipped in the larger, and the moon in the lesser circle."

Even in the 18th century the site was still associated with traditions and rituals, by then relating to Norse gods. It was visited by Walter Scott in 1814. Other antiquarians documented the stones and recorded local traditions and beliefs about them. One stone, known as the "Odin Stone" was pierced with a circular hole, and was used by local couples for plighting engagements by holding hands through the gap. It was also associated with other ceremonies and believed to have magical power.[1]

In 1814, shortly after the Standing Stones were visited by Sir Walter Scott, disaster struck. A tenant farmer, tired of ploughing around the stones, began to demolish them.

In August 1814, the novelist Sir Walter Scott visited the Standing Stones o' Stenness. There, he rather naively proclaimed that the central stone slab was: "probably once the altar on which human sacrifices were made"

Scott's description of the Stenness ring read:

"The most stately monument of this sort [circles of detached stones] in Scotland, and probably inferior to none in England, excepting Stonehenge, is formed by what are called the Standing Stones of Stenhouse, in the island of Pomona in the Orkneys, where it can scarcely be supposed that Druids ever penetrated.

In 1907, Scott's "altar" was reconstructed to form just that - a table-like dolmen structure in the centre of the stone circle (see pictures right).

The 'altar' in a picture from 1957

This construction remained standing until September 1972, when the dolmen was toppled - officially explained away as the result of a drunken prank.

In 1906, the Stones o' Stenness were taken into state care and the toppled stone re-erected. While this was being carried out, another, smaller, stone was found under the turf and raised using an existing socket-hole.

At the time, doubts were raised as to whether this small stone (pictured right, alongside the remains of the "dolmen") belonged in a circle that contained such huge megaliths.

‘The Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ was inscribed as a World Heritage site in December 1999. In addition to the Standing Stones of Stenness, the site includes Maeshowe, Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar and other nearby sites. It is managed by Historic Scotland, whose 'Statement of Significance' for the site begins:

The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places. They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt (first and second dynasties), the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China. Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkably rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early peoples away from the traditional centres of civilisation...Stenness is a unique and early expression of the ritual customs of the people who buried their dead in tombs like Maes Howe and lived in settlements like Skara Brae.


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