Conversations with Magic Stones

By Bernie Bell

Three is a magic number

To complete the trilogy of exhibitions which come under the name of ‘Conversations with Magic Stones’, Mike and I went the Tankerness House museum in Kirkwall on a wet Thursday afternoon – museums are A GOOD THING on a wet afternoon.

It’s hard to know where to start – the visual stimulation is over-whelming.  As someone in ‘Alice’ said – I’ll begin at the beginning, go on to the end, then stop.

I worked round the room, clockwise, and soon realised that a lot of the information on the walls, was about the collectors – antiquarians and ‘educated’ folk who took an interest in the stones and objects which they found in and on the land around them.

There is one cabinet in the far right-hand corner which is about the ‘ordinary’ working folk who liked to pick up bits and pieces and take them home – and still do, but I’d say a lot of the collectors written about , are the ones who had a good idea of what they were looking for, and what they were finding.

It really is hard to write of this, as there are so many layers and possibilities. I would say that, the stones in the Stromness museum were mostly handled, found, handed on, by working folk – they came into the hands of collectors later on – their travels were due to working people, travelling.  The  collectors in the Kirkwall museum are…….a different kind of collector – mostly.

I have to admit, I wasn’t all that interested in them. Mostly quite well-off people, collecting stuff. We wouldn’t be able to see and connect with these things now without them, but I have to admit that, as people, they didn’t interest me.  What they found – what they collected – that’s a different matter.

glass axes

Photo B Bell

I walked around the corner of the first central cabinet, and – they took my breath away – Glass Axes – Class Act.

The label says ’The Collectors Axes- casts in glass & bronze of a Scandinavian Neolithic square sectioned axe and a replica Neolithic flint axe made by Mark Edmonds’.

My photos simply don’t do these objects justice – you have to see the light on them and through them. Some might niggle that they aren’t ancient objects – why are they there?  Because…..they are things of beauty – as were, and are, their ancient counterparts.  They a have their place in the exhibition – as I said –the visual stimulation is over-whelming.

I then moved on to the next cabinet, and met some old friends who I know from the National Museum in Edinburgh

carved stone balls

Photo B Bell

Much has been written of these, by folk who know more about them than I do.  It’s just good to see them, all there, together, in a friendly sort of way.

Then….I turned round…and saw another old friend, in a new guise.  Babette Barthelmess has cast the Extra-Ordinary-A-Symmetrical- Six-Nobber  found at the Ness of Brodgar in 2014, in bronze.  Her creation is there, next to the original – glowing quietly.  Babette did a lot of work at The Tomb of the Eagles  – which is described in her book ‘A Celebration of Sunrise at the Tomb of the Eagles’.

stone balls

Photo B Bell

All I can say about the bronze beauty is….…look at it, look at it, look at the E.O.A.S.S.N. next to it – think about the mathematics involved in the structure of this object, think about what that tells us about the breadth of knowledge of the  peoples who carved it.  Take time to look, and think now, but you’ll also need to think and think and think, later.

The E.O.A.S.S.N. is a wonder and Babette’s Bronze Beauty – is a beauty, which still holds the mathematics of the carved stone ball.

Why do I call it the EOASSN? Because  – turn it one way, there are 3 ‘nobbles’, turn it another way there are 4.  I’ll leave that one with you to play with.

Flint Cobbles

Photo B Bell

The other side of this cabinet, gives a better angle on the pleasing little heap of split flint cobbles found at Barnhouse, in Stenness.  It’s labelled as ‘The Gift of Stones’, and is…..pleasing, simple but very pleasing – the best gifts, are.

And now, I’ll finish off with a very human aspect to these stones – myth, superstition, belief in fairies and pixies and other fey folk.  There’s a tale of an old chap who wore a flint arrow-head round his neck  all his life. It had been an heirloom and he firmly believed that it would preserve him from evil.  On his death he left strict instructions for it to be buried with him.  The full tale is there, on the wall – an extract from James Mainland Macbeath’s ‘Orkney’s Early Celtic Times (1892)’.

And some folk  still do the same thing………


Photo B Bell

This isn’t an old arrow head, it’s a ‘new’ one made from flint – the techniques are the same – the pleasing shape is the same.

I’ve had conversations with folk who argue that it matters whether these objects, and even standing stones,  are ‘genuine’ or ‘new’ – it does to some extent – especially if you’re working on a dig! But – when folk made  these things originally, they were just people, making them for whatever reasons.  And people are still making them, and still wearing them.

I fear I’ve rambled of a bit.  I said I’d start at the beginning and go on ‘til the end, then stop.

bannister end

Photo B Bell

As we walked down the curving stairway to leave the museum, I noticed a similar motif on the end of the bannister, as what is on one of the carved stone balls in the row of three, in the cabinet upstairs. Continuity.

The three exhibitions are quite different – each has layers and layers – they do weave together beautifully.  It’s a good idea to see all three, and see what you make of  them  yourself. Do you see the Pier Arts Centre  one as more ‘arty’? The Stromness one as more workaday – centred on ‘ordinary’ folk?  The Kirkwall Museum one as more to do with the big collectors, and the exceptionally exceptional things they collected?  How I see these exhibitions will be coloured by my way of seeing and being.

I can only ,strongly, suggest that you go and see for yourself, and talk about the exhibitions with folk – be part of the weave.

I really could, easily, go onandonandon about these three exhibitions. I won’t though – I’ll just say that they are more than the sum of their parts, even though each of those parts, gets you well and truly stoned.

There is a book to accompany the exhibitions, which is full of solid information and wonder-full images.  Many of the images are of hands, holding the stones.  Without the hands, and the minds to guide them, the shapes wouldn’t be made.  Hands. Minds. People.

Bernie Bell is a regular contributor to The Orkney News. If you would like to contribute to our community based newspaper then you can e:mail

8 replies »

Leave a Reply