In search of Sanday’s lost ‘coronation stone’

Somewhere in Kettletoft Bay - a photograph of the Sanday "footprint stone" taken in 2008.

Somewhere in Kettletoft Bay - a photograph of the Sanday "footprint stone" taken in 2008.

The hunt is on for a possible Iron Age, carved stone in Sanday.

A visitor to the island, back in 2008, photographed the stone, which features a carved footprint. She has since reported it to county archaeologist Julie Gibson, who is of the opinion that the carving is genuine.

But unfortunately, the exact location of the stone was not recorded, although it is believed to be on the western shore of Kettletoft Bay — and perhaps only visible at very low tides.

The stone could be very significant, given the association of “footprint stones” with Iron Age kingship or chieftainship.

The Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus, noted, in the 12th century, that: “The ancients, when they came to choose a king, stood on stones planted in the ground to proclaim their votes, signifying from the steadfastness of the stones that the deed would be lasting.”

Stones marked with footprints were common in Ireland and Western Scotland and are generally regarded as inauguration, or coronation stones.

They were the places where a ruler, or chieftain, was crowned. In later tradition, the church often “hijacked” the legends and traditions surrounding these stones, so very often, these days, we find them associated with saints or other holy people.

Writing in the second half of the 16th century, the English poet, Edmund Spenser, remarked that he had seen many “footprint stones” in Ireland. These stones, he wrote, had been used in the inauguration of local chieftains.

The most renowned of these Irish stones was the Lia Fáil — the Stone of Destiny — at the ritual centre of Ireland, Tara.

Legend has it that the the Lia Fáil was one of the four treasures brought to Ireland by the magical Tuatha Dé Danaan. It was said to scream when the true king stood on it. It is intriguing to note that Irish mythology states that the Tuatha Dé Danaan brought the stone to Tara from “the Northern Isles” — the place where they had acquired their mystical knowledge and powers.

In Orkney and Shetland, two fine examples of footprint stones survive.

The Shetland stone can be found at the Clickimin Broch. The Orkney example is South Ronaldsay’s Ladykirk stone – a stone in Burwick, measuring 43 inches long and 24 inches wide, which features two foot-shaped hollows.

Two strands of legend are attached to this stone, although the idea that St Magnus used it to “sail” across the Pentland Firth is perhaps the best known.

According to John Brand’s A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland Pightland Firth and Caithness (1700): “on the surface of which stone there is the print of two feet, concerning which the superstitious people have a tradition that St Magnus, when he could not get a boat on a time to carry him over Pightland Firth, took this stone, and setting his feet thereupon, passed the Firth safely, and left the stone in this church, which hath continued here ever since.”

The Magnus legend, however, seems to be a later addition to the folklore as a 16th century account makes no mention of  the saint.

Instead, in the account of the stone by the enigmatic character, Jo Ben, which allegedly dates from 1529, it is written: “Old men narrate that a certain Gallus being expelled the country, for a place of safety, went on board a ship, when a great tempest arose and they were in peril, and suffered shipwreck. He at length, jumping upon the back of a monster, vowed, humbly praying to God, that if he was safely carried to land, in memory thereof he would build a church to the Virgin Mary.

“His prayer being heard, he was drawn safe to the shore by the support of the monster. The monster was afterwards changed into a stone of its own colour; he himself placed it in that church, where it remains as above described.”

In a paper on the Ladykirk stone, which appears in volume two of the New Orkney Antiquarian Society, the historian W. P. L. Thomson, writes: “It is an exciting line of enquiry to consider whether the legend that the footprints are those of St Magnus might preserve real knowledge that the Ladykirk stone has formerly been used for inauguration ceremonies.”

He adds: “Until links with Ireland and the Hebrides were broken, Orcadians were no doubt frequently present on memorable occasions when kings were installed on footprints.

“The stone was an object the purpose of which was probably fairly obvious to well-travelled medieval Orcadians. Even if their own stone was no longer used, they might readily come to the conclusion that in earlier times it had played a similar part in their own inaugurations.

“Until the publication of Torfaeus’ Orcades, the only leader who was at all well known was Magnus, so it is not surprising to find that it is his name which is associated with the stone.”

Mr Thomson concludes: “If Magnus came to be regarded as the archetypal king who had once stood in the footprints, it requires no great shift for that belief to be transformed into the legend that the prints had been miraculously left by his feet.”

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