A Particularly Interesting Stone At Barnhouse Neolithic ‘Village’

By Bernie Bell

Some years ago I had a discussion with a very patient archaeologist about a big stone which is lying down in the Barnhouse Neolithic settlement.

The discussion ended with him maintaining that the stone had not been a standing stone, and Mike and I maintaining that it had!  We agreed to differ – and had enjoyed the discussion.  It occurred to me that some Orkney News readers might enjoy it too – might also not agree – but might like to play with the ideas.  Here goes……

The stone in question is over towards the right hand side of the re-constructed area, a bit outside the ‘tidied up’ bit, more towards the lumpy bits which are structures, but which have been left to be tunnelled by rabbits!   

When I first saw it I wondered why it hadn’t been raised again.  It looks very like it was a ‘standing stone’, and it must be possible to assess where it may have stood, or even work out precisely where it stood.

I would say that this is obviously a significant stone – one of a series of standing stones in the area which aren’t part of a circle – stones which serve an individual purpose – the (other!) Barnhouse stone, the Watchstone, the Comet stone, etc.  I thought it would be a very good idea to raise it, and to see what it might line up with, and see if any lines of light ‘clipped’ it at any time through the year.

Having read this by Dr. Euan Mackie …..

“Furthermore the right slope of Cuilags marks sunset one on eighth of a year before and after the solstice, at about Nov, 2nd and Feb, 2nd.  These of course are the dates of the old Celtic festivals of Samhain and Imbolc.  Unfortunately there isn’t an indicator stone towards Cuilags now but the whole Hoy horizon makes sense as a series of accurate markers for five points of the prehistoric solar calendar, and Maeshowe’s position must have been carefully selected to take advantage of them.”

……….it came into my head that the, now recumbent, stone might be the right stone to act as an indicator for the Cuilags?

Maybe purists would say that we shouldn’t raise the ones which have fallen, but, why not, if we can work out where they used to stand?  It could be illuminating for further alignments.  Maybe.

What I’m pretty sure of is that it’s a significant stone, and was placed there for a reason, as they all are/were, and that if it was raised again it would line up with some thing, if not a number of things.

I asked Euan what he thought about it, and he replied that, to be a plausible Quarter Days foresight to the West end of the Cuilags the stone would have to lie on a straight line between Maeshowe and that feature.  

Mike and I went to Barnhouse ‘village’, and took some ‘photos……….. 

The first picture is to give a general idea of where it is.  That’s Harray Loch in the background, and the lump to the right of the stone is one of those structures which has been left covered over.

The second picture is to give an idea of size.  I’m 5ft. 1, and Mike paced out the stone and says it’s about 3 metres. (I’m not that stout – it was a cold day – many layers!)

The next one is to show where it is in relation to the Big Building in Barnhouse (aka Structure 8), and the Cuilags, and – if you think of the Odin stone being where it was, and also the nearby Watchstone. 

The last one is because Mike noticed that if it was standing it would line up between two of the buildings in the ‘village’ – straight across to the Watchstone.

Mike then did things with a compass ( he’s a much more precise person than I am), and this is what he had to say about it …………………….

“No alignment on a line from Maeshowe to Cuilags – standing where we think the stone would have had its base, Maeshowe is at a bearing of approx. 85 degrees relative to magnetic north, whilst Cuilags is at a bearing of 240 degrees (v. approximate – we don’t have a prismatic compass…).  It does look like you could draw a straight line between Maeshowe, the base of the stone and the Watch Stone – the Watch Stone is at a bearing of 265 degrees from magnetic north. Interestingly, the line passes between two of the Barnhouse structures, so there would have been a sightline even when the buildings were there – see picture 4.”

The more we looked at the stone, and looked about us,  the more it seemed like that stone must be something – it has the look and position of a significant stone, along with the others dotted about the area, connecting up, pointing out alignments, etc.   In fact, maybe connecting with our friends at the Ness of Brodgar and their goings-on…… https://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/

Euan went to have a look for himself, and his preliminary measurements and photographs suggested that it was pretty well due West from Maeshowe and therefore could be an equinoctial sunset marker as seen from there; in other words there was a possible fourth marked date on the prehistoric solar calendar as seen from that mound.  

On a following visit, his companion noticed that…the stone wobbled when stood on!

Probing next to the stone, Euan found another large chunk of flat stone beside and below it, with small fragments lying around.  Everything wobbled quite markedly, which meant that my idea wobbled a bit, too!

Euan concluded that it is inconceivable that a stone that has been lying there for many centuries would not by now be thoroughly embedded in the ground, and that it looks very much like pieces of a monolith from the nearby Stenness Stone circle might have been dumped there – maybe by a farmer not many generations ago. The Stenness circle has suffered terrible damage in the past.  

And also that – if it does lie on the equinoctial sunset line from Maeshowe – this is likely to be a coincidence.

Just for the sake of argument, and because this is how I still see it, I’ll ramble a bit about the stone…………..

First thing that occurs to me is…..if it had fallen over/been knocked over in the 18th or 19th centuries, it would be likely to be well embedded, anyway, by now.  So, it could have been dumped there from elsewhere, or have fallen/been knocked over more recently, in situ, which could mean that it might wobble, anyway.

When Mike and I first visited Barnhouse over 20 years ago, the information board said that it was a village in which some of the buildings may have had a ‘ritual purpose’.  I thought then – no, it’s a religious community.  The people there looked after the stones, and could tell folk who came to visit what they should do, what observances to ….observe!  This is now a more accepted view, especially since the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar have revealed a similar thing, only bigger!  I also felt, at that time, that that was a significant stone.  A standing stone, which had fallen or been pushed over.  I felt, and still feel, that it stood not far from where it now lies. In that position, it does lie neatly along interesting lines. 

So, yes, it wobbles, which could mean that it’s not been there long – tho’, even if it has only been there for a couple of hundred years, wouldn’t it be embedded, by now? 

All that Euan observed is valid, and he is/was a man who knew what he was talking about in reference to such things!

But………just being cussed…….. I and Mike both still feel that it was originally placed at or near to where it now is.  That’s mostly just a feeling though, and doesn’t count as any kind of proof.

Either way……even if it has been brought there from elsewhere, maybe even the Stones of Stenness, I’d say it’s very clearly a standing stone – just look at it!   So, it still matters, even if it’s out of its original context – it could have been another large standing stone, and worth investigating further.

Some years later, when a standing stone was found in the ‘plaza’ at the Ness https://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/dig-diary-monday-july-11-2016/, I  wittered at Nick Card  (Director of the dig at the Ness) about another possible significance of the  Barnhouse Stone……

“Here’s the idea…………..

Barnhouse Neolithic ‘village’ – or whatever it was called then – a group of buildings, around a standing stone.  It doesn’t look like the stone is central to anything, now, but, thanks to Colin Richards we know for sure that there were/are other buildings there.

Along the way, the Ness Pilgrimage Centre/religious community, on a much bigger scale, but also with a standing stone, centrally placed, and lining up with some of the buildings there.”

Just some thoughts to conjure with while the digs aren’t happening!

Please stay clear of the actual Ness site, as it is work in progress, and needs to have them as knows present to supervise access.

But, if you’d like to keep up with the Ness of Brodgar dig – as well as checking the website for the NOB Trust – you can also sign up to receive their Newsletter……….


All good stuff!!!!

Barnhouse, Stenness Stones and The Ring of Brodgar are still accessible – the individual Standing Stones can be seen in the surrounding area, as detailed in Sigurd Towrie’s most excellent blog https://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/orkney-prehistory/around-the-ness/.

Happy Hunting!


Readers may also be interested in some additional views of Barnhouse village

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2 replies »

  1. Hello Marie-Claire
    I’m not on Facebook, so I’ll respond to you here.
    Yes, a very good idea.
    I couldn’t do it, partly because I’m knackered, and partly because I should imagine that only a bona-fide archaeologist would get permission. A very appealing idea though.
    I mainly put this article together because I re-read my email exchange with Euan, as I was sending it to someone. I thought it might stir up some interest in the stone, keep Orkney archaeology in the public eye when the digs aren’t happening, and…… inspire folk to walk about and look at the individual stones in the landscape – which mostly don’t get a lot of attention.
    Just generally to stir up interest, really. Someone actually taking on a solid excavation, and maybe coming to some solid conclusions, would be very interesting indeed.

    You never know………..

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