The Riddle of Dwarfie Stane, Ancient Tomb of Orkney

There is something about Orkney that evokes a great deal of mystery in any visitor. It’s an ancient place – just a ‘stone’s throw’ north of Scotland – and has a rich history that stretches back far into the past. One of its ancient relics is the Dwarfie Stane, a rather enigmatic prehistoric tomb located in the solitude of Hoy Island. We do not know who carved it or whose remains lay within. But this puzzle just opens up a whole world of possibilities and quickly stimulates the imaginative mind.

The Dwarfie Stane is one of Orkney’s most prized ancient relics

If you happen to be wandering the desolate landscapes of Hoy Island, Orkney’s second largest island, you might stumble across a wide, glaciated valley roughly in its middle. Located between the small settlements of Rackwick and Quoys, it is a green and barren place with steep slopes and a sparse mist that sweeps across the landscape. This valley is a truly lonely place – little more than barren moorland, but fascinating nonetheless. And right at its center lies the sleeping dwarf Stane, who has slept undisturbed for thousands of years.

The stone is in fact a fairly large and almost naturally rectangular piece of ancient red Devonian sandstone, placed there by the creative hand of Mother Nature millions of years ago. And some of Hoy’s ancient residents saw it as an ideal place for a grave. The stone is a glacial boulder – ie a stone deposited glacially and differs from the rock native to the area. This is precisely why it seems to “stick out” from the landscape. It measures 8.6 meters (28 feet) in length and 4 meters (13 feet) in width. Slightly inclined, it is about 2.5 meters high at its highest end.

Dwarfie Stane, Hoy, Orkney, Scotland. Southern cell. (Otter/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

One could easily overlook the fact that it is a chamber grave. On one of its wider sides is a small hand-carved entrance – a 1 meter (3.3 ft) square that opens into a very small burial chamber. From the entrance there is a small passage, 2.2 meters long, with two cells on the sides. The cells measure approximately 1.7 meters by 1 meter (5.6 ft by 3.3 ft). The ceiling height is only 1 meter, meaning anyone wanting to enter would have to be either on their knees or really bent over.

The final resting place of an unknown prehistoric person

To this day it is not known who could have rested forever in this unique tomb. The burial chamber was carved with great patience and precision – its sides are perfectly smooth, with small ridges and grooves in the space where the deceased would be laid. The cell on the right even has a “pillow” – a small piece of rough rock at its inner end. Either way, it is certain that the tomb builders took great care and attention in carving the tomb. But it must have been tedious and grueling work, as the Old Red Sandstone has been described as “extremely compact” and hard. And the only tools available at that time were made of stone and deer antler. This fact makes the creation of Dwarfie Stane a feat of impressive proportions!

The Dwarfie Stane is associated with many legends. As the name suggests, one local legend has it that a dwarf named Trollid lived in it, while another – in quite comical contrast – says the tomb was built by giants. Of course it was not the work of dwarves or giants, but of Orkney’s Neolithic inhabitants.

The age of the tomb has been estimated at 3,000 years or more. Who it was for is not known, perhaps an old chief of Hoy – or a Bronze Age chief of the local tribes. After the deceased was placed inside, the tomb was sealed with a large square slab that now lies against the face of the rock.

Unfortunately, at some point over the centuries, the tomb became a target for tomb robbers. Instead of pushing the large slab aside, they cut a hole in the tomb ceiling and looted everything inside. This hole has been repaired in modern times.

So simple – and yet so unique

Dwarfie Stane’s simplicity hides his true uniqueness. A curious aspect is its resemblance to tombs in southern Europe, in the Mediterranean region. Many scholars have suggested that this was an attempt to “imitate” Mediterranean tombs, but this theory has been dismissed. There is agreement that the tomb is locally inspired, and there is no evidence that it has direct links to Mediterranean-type tombs. Nevertheless, the Dwarfie Stane is considered the only example of a Neolithic rock tomb in all of Britain. That fact alone makes it very unique. Despite this uniqueness, the Dwarfie Stane still conforms to the Orkney Cromarty type of chamber tombs found on Orkney. But all other tombs consist of many stones stacked on top of each other, instead of being carved out of a single slab of stone as here.

The Dwarfie Stane has always been a popular attraction in the area. Over the centuries, many visitors have carved crude graffiti, few of which can be read today. A notable visitor was Captain William Mounsey, who visited in 1850 and left an inscription in Persian:

“I sat for two nights and learned patience that way.”

This is an inscription in Persian left by Captain William Henry Mounsey of Castletown and Rockcliffe, who encamped here in 1850, and reads:

This is a Persian inscription left by the captain William Henry Mountainy of Castletown and Rockcliffe, who encamped here in 1850, and reads: “I have sat two nights and so learned patience”. Above the Persian, his name is written backwards Latin. The full text is “YESNVOM SVMLEILVC”. See “ELMVS MOVNSEY” here; in mirror writing: “YESNVOM SVMLE”. (Bruce McAdam/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )

And while it may seem a bit simple at first glance, the Dwarfie Stane is nonetheless an incredibly important piece of Orkney’s distant history and a fascinating relic of the Stone Age people who lived there.

Picture above: ‘Dwarfie Stane’ (Dwarf Stone) on the Hoy Island , Orkney Islands Scotland Source: Grovel at English Wikipedia/ CC BY 3.0

By Aleksa Vuckovic

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