Standing Stones of Stenness

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The Standing Stones of Stenness

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. They are looked after by Historic Scotland.

Layout and location[edit]

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 (0.75 mi) 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 (0.75 mi) 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.

The Stenness Watch Stone stands outside the circle, next to the modern bridge leading to the Ring of Brodgar.

The stones are thin slabs, approximately 300 mm (12 in) thick. Four, up to about 5 m (16 ft) high, were originally elements of a stone circle of 12 stones, laid out in an ellipse about 32 m (105 ft) diameter on a levelled platform of 44 m (144 ft) diameter surrounded by a ditch. The ditch is cut into rock by as much as 2 m (6.6 ft) and is 7 m (23 ft) wide, surrounded by an earth bank, with a single entrance causeway on the north side. The entrance faces towards the Neolithic Barnhouse Settlement which has been found adjacent to the Loch of Harray. The Watch Stone stands outside the circle to the north-west and is 5.6 m (18 ft) high. Other smaller stones include a square stone setting in the centre of the circle platform where cremated bone, charcoal and pottery were found, and animal bones were found in the ditch. The pottery links the monument to Skara Brae and Maeshowe, and the site is thought to date from at least 3000 BC.

Traditions[edit]

A sketch from the Odin Stone

"Let us imagine, then, families approaching Stenness at the appointed time of year, men, women and children, carrying bundles of bones collected together from the skeletons of disinterred corpses–skulls, mandibles, long bones–carrying also the skulls of totem animals, herding a beast that was one of several to be slaughtered for the feasting that would accompany the ceremonies."

Aubrey Burl, Rites of the Gods, 1981.[1]

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.[2]

In December 1814 Captain W. Mackay, a recent immigrant to Orkney who owned farmland in the vicinity of the stones, decided to remove them on the grounds that local people were trespassing and disturbing his land by using the stones in rituals. He started in December 1814 by smashing the Odin Stone. This caused outrage and he was stopped after destroying one other stone and toppling another.

The toppled stone was re-erected in 1906 along with some inaccurate reconstruction inside the circle.[3]

Natural features[edit]

There is significant birdlife present in the lochs on either side of this site. About two miles (3 km) to the south is the Burn of Ayreland as it discharges to the Clestrain Sound.

World Heritage status[edit]

UNESCO World Heritage Site
Heart of Neolithic Orkney
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Standing Stones of Stenness.jpg
Type Cultural
Criteria i, ii, iii, iv
Reference 514
UNESCO region Europe and North America
Inscription history
Inscription 1999 (23rd Session)

‘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.[4]

References[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Burl 1981. p. 15.
  2. ^ Orkneyjar – The Odin Stone
  3. ^ Orkneyjar - The Standing Stones of Stenness
  4. ^ "The Heart of Neolithic Orkney". Historic Scotland. Wayback archive of 5 September 2007 retrieved on 14 October 2012.

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 58°59′38″N 3°12′28″W / 58.99398°N 3.20775°W / 58.99398; -3.20775