A Standing-Stone Reveals Its Purpose?

By Bernie Bell

Pics by B&M Bell

I’ve previously written of a walk we did in South Ronaldsay, along Sand Wick Bay to Hune Bay and beyond…. https://theorkneynews.scot/2019/04/28/south-ronaldsay-west-coast-walks-part-two-or-a-walk-between-two-cairns/

It was a fine Sunday, and we decided to follow that path again.  I took my camera as you never know what might be different even on a familiar walk…….and something was.

When describing our original walk I mentioned a Standing Stone which we passed when driving down the road to Sand Wick Bay, but then we thought no more of it for the rest of our walk there.

This time, walking down the track to the beach we both noticed that the stone appears to be carefully placed facing out to sea, and wondered was it a marker stone for boats coming into the Bay?

Headlands, islands and big stones were often used as guides to navigation for thousands of years – was this such a stone?

It faces straight out to the sea-ways and stands out against the sky-line.

I think it’s now accepted that there was a lot of travel by water in the distant past – weather permitting it could be quicker, easier and safer than travelling by land. So, might there have been comings and goings by small craft to and from what is now known as Sand Wick?

Mike suggested that there could be links to the Scottish Mainland.  From Dunnet Head, if mariners took a bearing just to the North of the island of Swona, it would head them straight towards Sand Wick, and as they approached the Bay they would see the stone silhouetted against the sky-line.  From other bearings this isn’t so, as can be evidenced by walking round the curve of the Bay. For most of the way what you see is the stone merging into the land.

Quite a lot of the coastline of South Ronaldsay is high cliffs, so sheltered, accessible bays would have been a boon to travel.  And when you consider how much evidence there is of human occupation and activity in the area of Sand Wick Bay – cairns, burnt mounds, a broch – the picture can easily include boats.  Not necessarily a huge harbour – just folk travelling, visiting – as possibly happened at the Ness of Brodgar, the Bay of Ireland and how many other Orkney bays?   https://theorkneynews.scot/2021/08/26/more-about-boats-brodgar/

Another difference on this walk was that last time we were there in the Spring, this time we were there in early Autumn and standing on the little bridge which crosses the burn running down past the Stone, we saw Woody Nightshade in flower and berry…

Neither of us knew that this plant could be found in Orkney – a beautiful flower and tempting-looking berries – BEWARE! – they look luscious, but are poisonous!

Looking over the other side of the bridge, we saw a particularly fine patch of Willowherb…

Walking along the beach…

…..then up onto the cliff-top path, passing Weems Castle – or as labelled on the OS map ‘Broch rems of’….

….and seeing a flare bursting into flame on Flotta……

My increasing decrepitude meant that I couldn’t manage to get down into Hune Bay this time….

So we carried on a little bit along the – increasingly difficult to follow – path and sat on the cliff top to eat our sandwiches with fine views of the cliffs and islands along the coast both ways ……….

My aforementioned increasing decrepitude, and the path having just about completely disappeared into rough, tussocky grass, meant that I felt that I couldn’t manage continuing on to reach the tumulus as we did last time. Instead, we retraced our steps and paused to have a good look at the Burnt Mound above Hune Bay…..

….and I said if that isn’t an orthostat – I’m a Dutchman – are we still allowed to say that?

We wondered if this Burnt Mound has been excavated, so when we go home we checked with the ever-reliable Canmore and found…..


Walking back through the Maritime Heath – a mixture of Heather, Devils Bit Scabious and very Dwarf Willows – breathing in the scent and looking about us, over to Swona, caught in the rays of the sun….

Honestly – it looked like that – one of those magicy islands that appear and disappear.

And seeing the ferry, MV Alfred, passing a lighthouse, as the boats may have passed, all those years ago, being guided by the Standing Stone.

We also, finally, located the chambered cairn which is marked on the OS map, as being at the far end of Sand Wick Bay – it stands out as a tiny bump, right on the headland called The Nev.

Then back to the car, passing an unusual dog poo bin by the track.  Maybe the folk who live round there got fed up with people leaving plastic bags full of poo along the way!

We paused on the road on the way back up from the Bay and Mike took a picture of the Stone, facing out to sea – see what I mean?

I must admit, I don’t think I’ll be doing this walk again – a bit too uppy-downy this time – but for more robust folk, it’s a fine walk with much of interest.

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