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  The Odin Stone

"As we passed the Bridge of Brodgar, we could dimly descry the Standing Stones of Stenness on the eminence but today looming in the darkness like a regiment of grim spectres. As we approached the Stone of Odin, it appeared to be larger and more unshapely than usual and all the ghastly traditions surrounding it flashed through my mind."
Around the Orkney Peat Fires

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

Until the winter of 1814, a holed monolith stood in a field by the Standing Stones of Stenness.

This stone occupied a particularly special place in the customs, traditions and lore of the Orcadian people.

Thought to have been erected around 3000BC, the Odin Stone, or Stone o' Odin, stood approximately 2.5 metres (8 feet) high with a breadth of about one metre (3.5 feet).

The location of the Odin Stone was unclear until May 1988, when archaeologists, surveying over 8,000 metres of land surrounding the Stenness stones, uncovered socket holes for several stones and finally the socket of the Odin Stone itself.

The holed monolith was shown to have stood approximately 140 metres (150 yards) to the north of the Standing Stones of Stenness - between the stone ring and the current house, aptly named Odin. A socket hole for a second megalith would indicate that the Odin Stone was once one of a pair.

But although the monolith had stood resolutely for millennia, the Odin Stone's destruction took less than a day.


In 1814, the man who leased the land on which the stones stood - an incomer by the name of Captain W. Mackay - waged an attack on the Stenness megaliths.

At the time, the Odin Stone, and the circles of Stenness and Brodgar, still played a major part in common Orcadian tradition. Because of this, large number of people visited the ancient sites regularly. According to Mackay, this was ruining his land., so he set out to tear down the stones.

He began with the Odin Stone, which he destroyed in December, 1814, allegedly using the stone fragments to construct a byre.

This misguided "ferrylouper" - the dialect word used to describe non-Orcadians living in the isles - was already not well-liked, and his destruction of the monolith did nothing to improve this.

The native Orcadians were so infuriated by Mackay's actions that various attempts were made to burn down his house and holdings.

Then, on Christmas Day, 1814, a local historian in Kirkwall heard of Mackay's plans and involved the law - who executed a "Sist and Suspension" against him.

By this time, however, Mackay had already toppled one of the Standing Stones of Stenness, and obliterated a second.

The monolith's fate

Though Orkney tradition maintained that the fragments of the Odin Stone were used for building material, in the 1950s, the local antiquarian, Ernest Marwick, could find no evidence to prove that this was actually the case.

He did, however, discover that the main portion of the stone - the holed segment - survived into the 1940s, before it too was completely destroyed.

This section of the stone, Marwick learned, had been used as an anchor for a horse-powered mill-shaft that moved around the parish of Stenness as the mill changed hands.

When it was finally decided to replace the horse-drawn mill with an engine-driven threshing machine, the old mill was uprooted and lay around, with the Odin Stone fragment, gathering moss.

Then, the day came that the owner's son decided to tidy up and remove the old machinery. Unable to move the stone segment, and ignorant of its history, he smashed it to dust.

His unwitting destruction of the Odin Stone fragment closed a chapter of Orkney history. But it also roused the fiery wrath of his father, who exclaimed:

"You had no damned business to break that stone: that was the Stone o' Odin that came from Barnhouse!"