Unconventional chambered tomb
The Dwarfie Stane has to be the most unconventional prehistoric chambered tomb in the British Isles. Hollowed out from a single block of red sandstone, 8.5m long, 4m wide and 2m high, it lies on the heather-clad valley side exactly where ice sheets left it thousands of years ago.
The entrance on the west side of the massive block gives access to a short, narrow passage, off which open two small, rounded cells. Each cell opening has a distinct kerb forming a carefully squared door. The right-hand cell also has a stone ledge or ‘pillow’ at its eastern end.
In the heather, beside the tomb entrance, lies the large stone block that originally sealed the tomb. It was displaced long ago by tomb robbers, who forced an entry by breaking through the top of the left-hand cell (the hole they made has since been built up).
This peculiar monument has attracted curiosity for centuries. The very name conjures up images of giants and dwarves. Walter Scott, in The Pirate, alludes to it being the favourite residence of Trolld, a dwarf famous in the northern sagas.
The Dwarfie Stane is categorised as a Neolithic tomb solely on the basis of its form and design, for no bones or artefacts are recorded as having been found in it.
If not a Neolithic tomb, could it perhaps have been the retreat of an early Christian hermit? The right-hand cell, with its stone ‘pillow’ is paralleled elsewhere (for example, in the saints’ beds to be found in northern Italy).
In more recent times, visitors have slept in the cells, as graffiti cut into the soft sandstone shows. They included a British spy, Major W. Mouncey, in 1850, who carved an inscription in beautiful Persian script which translates as: ‘I have sat two nights and have learned patience.’ He also carved his name in Latin – backwards!
A few years earlier, there had been a more famous visitor. Hugh Miller, the Cromarty stonemason and geologist, carved his initials and the year he slept there (1846) in the right-hand cell. Could the ‘pillow’ be his handiwork, perhaps?
- The Dwarfie Stane’s setting – in a stunning, remote valley.
- Mouncey’s Persian calligraphy – beautifully carved.
Region – Orkney
Towards the North end of Hoy, 3.5m from Rackwick. Reached via Orkney Ferries Ltd from Houton Terminal.
Grid reference - HY 244 005.
Tel: 01856 811 397