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  Orkney's Standing Stones

"The romance of Orkney's past has its memorials in the many great standing stones that thumb the heavens from vantage points all over the islands."

Jutting skywards from Orkney's gentle landscape are a number of ancient standing stones, each a stark reminder of our prehistoric heritage.

Standing Stone. Illustration by Sigurd TowrieFirst cut from Orkney flagstone and erected before the Egyptians had begun constructing their pyramids, Orkney's stone sentinels have withstood rain, wind and sun for thousands of years.

The reason the ancient Orcadians went to the considerable effort of raising these stone monuments is still unclear. To our modern minds, the society of Neolithic man is difficult to comprehend - a society where everyday life, religion and ritual were inextricably linked.

Theories abound as to their purpose - astronomical observatories, territorial markers or calendars - each specialist having his own personal thoughts on the subject.

Whatever the reason for their construction, they remain every bit as awe inspiring and powerful today as they must have appeared when an active part of the islands' culture.

Although a number of standing stones have inevitably vanished from the landscape over the years - pulled down to provide building materials, or simply to clear a field - quite a number were untouched by man and are still standing.

Setter Stone, Eday. Illustration by Sigurd TowrieThe most famous of these stones are within the Ring o' Brodgar and the Standing Stones o' Stenness but these are just the tip of the iceberg.

Most visitors venture no further than the Stenness complexes - the heart of prehistoric Orkney - which is a pity, because there are a number on the outer islands that deserve a visit.

Away from the Mainland are stones such as the Fingersteen and the Yetnasteen. These megaliths wait the passing of each day, alone and silent, ignorant of the daily coachloads of tourists that flock to view their seemingly grander cousins at Brodgar and Stenness.

Many of the stones, past and present, had their legends attached to them.

The most common by far is the tradition that some of the monoliths come to life on New Year’s Eve (Hogmanay) and walk to a nearby body of water where they dip their heads and drink. Others were thought to be giants, trolls or witches, transformed to stone and frozen in time by the rays of the Orkney sun.

Of all the legends and traditions surrounding Orkney’s megaliths, those surrounding the now-destroyed Odin Stone were by far the most potent and deep-seated. This holed stone held a particularly special part in the hearts of Orcadians until its destruction in the 19th century.

For more information on Orkney’s megalithic monuments, select from one of the links in the right hand menu.

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