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  The Standing Stones of Stenness

sir walter scott's 'sacrificial altar'

In August 1814, the novelist Sir Walter Scott visited the Standing Stones of Stenness. There, he rather naively proclaimed that the central stone slab was: "probably once the altar on which human sacrifices were made"

Scott's description of the Stenness ring read:

"The most stately monument of this sort [circles of detached stones] in Scotland, and probably inferior to none in England, excepting Stonehenge, is formed by what are called the Standing Stones of Stenhouse, in the island of Pomona in the Orkneys, where it can scarcely be supposed that Druids ever penetrated.

At least, it is certain, that the common people now consider it as a Scandinavian monument; and, according to an ancient custom, a couple who are desirous to attach themselves by more than an ordinary vow of fidelity, join hands through the round hole which is in one of the stones. This they call the promise of Odin."

In 1907, Scott's "altar" was reconstructed to form just that - a table-like dolmen structure in the centre of the stone circle (see pictures right).

This construction remained standing until September 1972, when the dolmen was toppled - officially explained away as the result of a drunken prank.

Although the destruction of the altar is often blamed on a Hallowe'en prank, it is clear from a report in The Orcadian newspaper at the time that the altar was toppled some time before Hallowe'en:

Altar stone displaced - for over a fortnight, people using the Brodgar road have noticed that the so-called "altar stone" at the Standing Stones of Stenness has been displaced and now lies on its edge against the supporting stones. Though spurious, it has become a familiar feature of the Orkney landscape. The police are making investigations."
The Orcadian. September 21, 1972

Local talk at the time, however, was that the dolmen had no place within the monument.

Discussions ensued as to whether the altar stone should be replaced, as there was actually no archaeological evidence that it belonged within the ring.

So, the archaeologists were called in and tasked to excavate around the base of the structure to find out, once and for all, whether there was any evidence of the "altar's" historical existence.

The excavations were inconclusive, but where the controversial "altar" had been raised, evidence was found that confirmed that some form of stone structure had indeed existed.

The form of this stone construction, however, was unclear, so it was agreed that the altar's two upright stones be re-erected and the "tabletop" slab left lying beside them.

And there they remain to this day.

A Maeshowe connection?

Archaeological evidence seems to indicate that pairs of standing stones were once situated around the Stenness complex e.g. the Deepdale Stones, the Odin Stone and its companion, the Watch Stone and its twin.

The two stones, once thought to form part of the dolmen, were perhaps part of this symbolism.

It is intriguing, although perhaps mere coincidence, that the nearby chambered cairn of Maeshowe, when viewed from the centre of the Standing Stones (click here for a photograph) is aligned to the gap between the two "dolmen stones".

This could indicate that the stones formed some sort of symbolic link, or connecting "portal", between the tomb and the stone circle.