Visit a Place

The Giants of Orkney

Rachel Pickering, Senior Cultural Resources Advisor, relates an Orcadian legend

Sunset at the Ring of Brodgar standing stones

Orkney is one of my favourite parts of Scotland and I have many special memories associated with those islands. Perhaps not surprising for an archaeologist! One thing I particularly love is the rich tapestry of folklore that adds an extra dimension and sense of magic to the landscape and its monuments.

Many of Orkney’s prehistoric monuments are associated with Norse tales of giants – such tales have been used to explain the origins of Orkney’s many standing stones. Some monuments are said to be the remains of giants turned to stone, others were formed of stones thrown by giants, perhaps during fights or contests and now stand as a testament to their strength.

The two lochs at the centre of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney – Harray and Stenness – are said to have been created by a giant who scooped up two handfuls of earth forming two large hollows which then filled with water to form the two lochs. The Ring of Brodgar is said to be formed of a ring of ‘fearsome giants’ who got so carried away dancing one starry night that they were caught in the morning sun and immediately turned to stone on the spot – the fiddler among them stands alone several metres away, now known as the Comet Stone.

And perhaps the most famous giant in all of Orkney, Cubbie Roo, is associated with many of the island’s archaeological sites. Orcadian tradition links him with the Norse chieftain, Kolbein Hrúga, and his castle on Wyre. Rumour also has it that workmen clearing out the ruins of the adjacent St Mary’s Chapel found the bones of a giant beneath the chapel floor!