The 5,000-year-old monument known as the Dwarfie Stane lies in a steep sided valley between Quoys and Rackwick on the island of Hoy.
A huge block of hollowed-out red sandstone measuring about 8.5 metres (28 feet) long, the Dwarfie Stane is thought to be Britain’s only example of a rock-cut tomb. It should be stressed, however, that not all archaeologists share this opinion.
It is thought the chamber was carved out sometime between the Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age. Basing their dates on similar tombs found in the Mediterranean, archaeologists have settled on a date of around 3,000 BC.
Although it has been suggested that the rock fell, or was cut, from the rocky outcrop on the rock face above - known as the Dwarfie Hammars - this appears unlikely. The sheer height of the cliff face would surely have broken the rock in its descent.
The presence of another similar rock slab - the Partick Stane - about 200 yards along the valley would indicate that both stones were dropped by retreating glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age.
What makes the Dwarfie Stane remarkable is the fact that the massive stone was hollowed out using nothing but stone, or antler, tools, muscle power and patience.
An opening, three feet square, is cut into the middle of the stone's west face and leads into the inner chamber.
This chamber contains two rock-cut spaces resembling bed-places, both of which are too short for anyone of a normal stature. These were undoubtedly responsible for the origin of the dwarf folklore that surrounds the site.
The chamber’s resemblance to a hermit's cell led to the stone being identified in the past as being the residence of a monk or hermit. At the time, proponents of this idea claimed that their theory was strengthened by the fact that visitors to the stone were in the habit of leaving offerings.
Lying outside the entrance is a large sandstone block (see picture right), which was originally used to seal the opening. We know that the tomb was still sealed in the 16th century.
At some point, it appears that someone attempted to break into the stone via the roof. This left a hole that remained until it was filled with concrete. There is no record of any archaeological excavation being carried out on the Stane, nor do we know what, if anything, was found inside.
A giant's residence?
According to an ancient Orcadian fable, the Dwarfie Stane was said to be the handiwork of a giant and his wife.
A third giant, who wanted to make himself the master of Hoy, imprisoned the gargantuan couple inside the stone. But his evil plans were thwarted, when the imprisoned giant gnawed his way out through the roof of the chamber.
This piece of folklore neatly explains the hole in the roof mentioned above.
Cave in the cliffs
In his memoirs, Hoy, the Dark Enchanted Island, Rackwick resident, John Bremner, documented the discovery of a cave high up in the cliff terrace behind the Dwarfie Stane.
During his exploration of the cave, Bremner came across an “egg-shaped” object that has been likened to some of the relics found in Skara Brae.
Could it be that the cave itself, although not necessarily the dwelling place of the workers, was somehow involved in the rituals surrounding the stone?
"The area round about the Stane is very bleak and rugged, the soil being boggy, and always wet, even in the dryest weather, providing no shelter of any kind. Also, the remoteness of the Stane from the nearest human abode - even at that distant time - lends to the belief that the prehistoric craftsman must have had his abode in close proximity to the scene of his labours, as to travel from either Hoy or Rackwick in bad weather, would, I think, be asking too much, even from our ancestors.
"The answer lay in the cliff terraces, and when home on holiday in the old place, I put my theory to the test; and I am glad to say that I succeeded in proving that such was the case. In these cliff 'terraces' there are a number of natural caves, and in the only one I entered - for lack of time -1 found the floor was strewn with many layers of decayed heather; how many I had no means of discovering, nor had I any idea of at what depth the real bottom of the cave lay - for I naturally concluded that there had to be a stone flooring at some depth.
"Among the debris on the 'carpet' of long decayed heather and grass, I found a beautiful egg-shaped stone, of hard-grained sandstone, and quite heavy for its size - six inches long, with a circumference of five and a half. It was polished, and was, to my idea, a 'symbol' stone - to the ancients the egg was the symbol of fertility."
Although I have no doubt Bremner's cave exists, I have been unable to find it. I have searched the area fruitlessly. However, the one thing my searches of the area lead me to believe is that it is unlikely workmen scaled the sheer faces every morning and night.
It seems much more likely that they came from the region of the prehistoric settlement on the Whaness Burn, approximately one mile directly to the north of the Stane.