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Another selection from Everything Quests: Places to visit in Ireland and the UK

What and Where is the Dwarfie Stane?

The enigmatic Dwarfie Stane is arguably the only extant rock-hewn monument in all of Britain. Essentially a large, excavated slab of sandstone, the Stane is located in a glen beneath the Dwarfie Hamars on the northern half of Hoy (one of the Orkney islands), close to the B9047 between the villages of Rackwick and Quoys.

The Dwarfie Stane is a singularly eerie place, with nothing around it but an endless expanse of wind-blown grass and jutting rocks. This extreme isolation gives the Stane an unearthly quality that transcends other ancient monuments like Stonehenge, which by comparison are located in more populated areas.

Perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of the Dwarfie Stane is that it was made with the most primitive of tools: stones and antlers, meaning that its construction was a very laborious and lengthy process. The rock is roughly 8.5 m (28') long, 2 m (about 6.5') high, and 4.5 m (about 14.5') wide, with a 3' high opening to the inner chamber on its western face. The inner entrance chamber has two offshoot chambers, each not quite long enough to accomodate a full-grown adult. In the 1500s the entrance was blocked by a smaller sandstone block, which now lies directly in front of the western face.


The archeological consensus, based on the method of carving, points to work on the Dwarfie Stane commencing circa 3000 BC, during the transition from the Neolithic Age to the Bronze Age, making the monument roughly 5,000 years old. It is believed that the sandstone block was left behind by the diminishing glaciers of the Ice Age, not, as had been previously suggested, dropped from the Dwarfie Hamars above by Neolithic workers.

The Dwarfie Stane's actual use is another topic of controversy: Though found sealed, there is little evidence that it was used as a cairn or tomb. No artifacts have ever been retrieved from inside (or, to put it another way, no relics from the Stane have ever been documented). Early speculators suggested that it was the residence of a hermit, though its creation is hardly justified by such a use.

With such scanty details on its history, it is perhaps inevitable that the Dwarfie Stane figures heavily in the folklore of Hoy. One legend states that the Dwarfie Stane was the residence of a dwarf (whence the monument gets its name) named Trolld or Trollid. This was mentioned by Sir Walter Scott in his book The Pirate. According to a second legend, however, the Dwarfie Stane was created, paradoxically enough, by the giant ruling Hoy. Another giant, in an effort to usurp the island, locked the regent and his giantess bride within the Stane. He was thwarted by the couple's escape, which involved the Stane's inmates chewing their way through the roof. The hole formed by their tooth-cracking exit can still be found today.

Though not as famous as some of its more southern cousins, the Dwarfie Stane is still a source of much speculation and rumor. John Bremmer, a longtime Rackwick native, claimed to have discovered a cavern in the Dwarfie Hamars where the Stane's ancient artificers lived. In his book Hoy, the Dark Enchanted Island, Bremmer mentions his finding an egg-shaped artifact, which experts have linked to Skara Brae. Hopefully, as interest in the monument grows, research into its mysterious past will shed light on its original purpose and construction. Whatever it was used for, a great amount of human effort went into its creation (unless, of course, others made it).

The Dwarfie Stane Experience

The Dwarfie Stane experience can be summed up in video shot by my brother Josh during his trip to the Orkney Isles, where he went shortly after I visited him at the University of Stirling last year. What follows is a rough transcript:

The camera pans over from a glen of shaggy grass to an oblong, almost art deco-looking rock.

Josh: Well, there it is.

Cut to the western face and the entrance, which, despite its miniscule height, still manages to loom menacingly as Josh climbs inside.

Josh: Hello?

Utter blackness.

Josh: Hello!

We hear a shallow, loud echo, which seems to drag out just a little too long.

Josh: Screw this, I'm out of here!

Cut to the camera rapidly jolting up and down as Josh runs away.

Sources: Orkneyjar (www.orkneyjar.com), www.stonepages.com.

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