Culture

Civil Disobedience in Stenness

Text by Fiona Grahame   Images By Martin Laird

The Standing Stones of Stenness by Martin Laird

Caithness man, Captain John Mackay was haughty and overbearing. Returning to civilian life he leased the farm of Barnhouse in Orkney but soon became deeply unpopular with the local crofters. This was to come to a disastrous and destructive head in the winter of 1814.

Included in the lands leased for Barnhouse were the ancient and immense Stones of Stenness. The monoliths had been erected by a once great civilisation on Orkney, over 5000 years ago. Today the stones are part of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney – a world heritage site. People travel from all over the world to visit the stones and in 1814 they were still held in great reverence by  Orcadians.

The Standing Stones of Stenness consist of a raised henge and a circle of stones with a large central hearth . Quarried and put in place by Orcadians thousands of years ago they are made from single blocks of sandstone up to 6 meters in height. Once 12 great stones stood  but today only 4 remain. Another great stone ‘The Watch Stone’ stands nearby where today’s road takes you between the lochs of Stenness and Harray and onwards to the impressive Ring of Brodgar.

The Watch Stone of Stenness by Martin Laird

Sir Walter Scott on his visit to the Stones of Stenness in August 1814 was so inspired by them that he used them in his book ‘The Pirate’.

‘These immense blocks of stone stood around the pirate in the grey light of the dawning, like the phantom forms of antediluvian giants.’

The book is based on tales Scott heard of the Orkney  pirate John Gow captured off the island of Eday in 1725 and hanged in London. Thora Gordon, having married the pirate by handfasting at The Odin Stone in Stenness, walked to London to clasp his dead, decaying hand so that she could be released from her marriage vows.

In the early 19th Century Orcadians were still travelling to the Stones of Stenness which held a magical draw for them. Lovers would drink of the waters of the nearby well at Bigswell. From there they would go to The Odin Stone. This standing stone was just to the north of the ring at Stenness. It was said to be 2.5 meters high and 1 meter wide but its most important feature was a hole bored through it. The Odin Stone was believed to contain great healing and positive powers.  New born babies would be passed through the hole to insure they had good health. People visited the stone and left offerings at its base. For lovers, the ceremony of handfasting joined them in a binding marriage.

In The Orcadian newspaper of 1860 a local writer tells us:

‘My grannie minds one upright stone

Where lovers took their stand

Twas b’rd quite through, and in the bore

Hand met with loving hand.’

‘A solemn grasp it was for oft

I’ve heard my grannie say,

The hand that falsified the pledge

Was sure to rot away.’

If husband and wife no longer wished to be married they would enter the nearby Stenness church and dissolve the marriage by leaving through separate doorways.

Stenness Kirk by Martin Laird

Stenness Kirk as it is today

The 19th Century landowners and emerging middle classes were not impressed by Orcadians continuing with the pagan practices of the past but what was to happen next shocked even them to the depths of their  Presbyterian souls.

Captain Mackay was so fed up with ploughing around the great stones and of people traipsing onto his farmland to visit them that he decided to get rid of these ancient monuments. His relationship with the locals had already broken down to such an extent that in one incident they took all his farm implements and sank them in the Stenness Loch.

In December 1814 John Mackay destroyed The Odin Stone. He then went to the nearby ring at Stenness, obliterated one and toppled another one over. When news of this got out, Orcadians descended on his farm and attempted to burn down his house. On Christmas Day,  Kirkwall lawyer and historian  Malcolm Laing, a friend of Sir Walter Scott’s, took out an interdict to prevent more damage being done to the stones. Captain John Mackay fled back to mainland Scotland in fear of his life.

Today, if you visit the four remaining stones you can see the holes in them where Captain John Mackay would have placed the explosives.

Odin Stone anarchaeology by Martin Laird

This article first appeared in Issue 61 of iScot Magazine

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