Stones of Stenness and Scott

Hear Walter Scott marvel and conjecture after he visited the Stones of Stenness in 1814

The enormous Stones of Stenness are all that remains of a great stone circle on an ancient ceremonial site in Orkney. At over 5000 years old, it may be the earliest henge monument in the British Isles.

Walter Scott described the Stones of Stenness in August 1814, mere months before one of the stones was destroyed.

Scott describes a stone ‘perforated with a round hole’. Known as the Odin Stone, it was blown up that winter by Captain W. Mackay. Annoyed at people crossing the land he leased, he resolved to dynamite the whole monument. Fortunately, the local community prevented him from doing further damage.

Scott supposes the flat stone was used for human sacrifices. No evidence supports this, but the circle, and heath at its centre, would likely have been a ceremonial space.

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Listen to ‘Superstitious Reverence’

Hear Walter Scott marvel and conjecture after he visited the Stones of Stenness in 1814

Read ‘Superstitious Reverence’

Upon the tongues of land which, approaching each other, divide the lakes of Stennis and Harray, are situated the Standing Stones…. The highest of theses stones may be about sixteen or seventeen feet and I think there are none so low as twelve feet. At irregular distances are pointed out other unhewn pillars of the same kind.

One, a little to the westward, is perforated with a round hole, perhaps to bind a victim; or rather, I conjecture, for the purpose of solemnly attesting the deity, which the Scandinavians did by passing their head through a ring….About the centre of the semi-circle is a broad flat stone, on which human victims were sacrificed...

Mr Rae seems to think the common people have no tradition of the purpose of these stones, but probably he has not inquired particularly.

He admits they look upon them with superstitious reverence; and it is evident that those which have fallen down (about half the original number) have been wasted by time and not demolished. … How they were raised, transported and placed upright, is a puzzling question.

Sir Walter Scott - Celebrating 250 Years

In 2021-22, Scotland celebrates the 250th anniversary of one of its most famous sons, Sir Walter Scott. This online exhibition and audio trail of his legacies is part of the celebrations.

'Superstitious Reverence' has been performed by Edinburgh actor Gavin Paul, who is looking forward to visiting some of these important historical sights.