Nestled deep in the Valley of the South Burn, between Ward Hill and the Dwarfie Hamars in the north part of Hoy, lies one of Britain’s most enigmatic sites. Known as the Dwarfie Stone, from a distance it appears unremarkable: a huge block of sandstone brought by the travelling ice sheets millions of years ago among similar examples along the valley.
But unlike that of its neighbours, the solid rock of the Dwarfie Stone has been painstakingly hollowed out inside. The 8.5m long block has been carved to form a chamber with two compartments, one of which has a ‘pillow’ cut into one end. If you look carefully, you can still see the marks from the original tools which chiselled out the rock.
Its first mention dates from 1529, when a traveller known as ‘Jo Ben’ visited Orkney. He pronounced the Dwarfie Stone as the home of a giant and his pregnant wife, and claimed that the two cells gave the couple a bed each.
Later stories relate it as the home of dwarfs rather than giants and it was known by its current name from at least the late 18th century. In Walter Scott’s 1822 novel, The Pirate, the Dwarfie Stone features as the home of ‘Trollid, a dwarf famous in the northern Sagas’. In the 18th and 19th centuries, graffiti was not considered the vandalism it would be today and many visitors felt compelled to leave their mark at the Dwarfie Stone. The earliest carving is by H. Ross, 1735, a factor for the Melsetter Estate, whose name is carved on the pillow next to that of a P. Folster, a local Hoy carpenter who left his mark in 1830. Also on the pillow is the name of H. Miller with the date 1846. Hugh Miller was one of the leading geologists of the 19th century, who specialised in his studies of the Old Red Sandstone and discovered many previously-unknown fish fossils.
‘The pillow I found lettered over with the names of visitors; but the stone,—an exceedingly compact red sandstone,—had resisted the imperfect tools at the command of the traveller,—usually a nail or knife; and so there were but two of the names decipherable,—that of an “H. Ross, 1735,” and that of a ” P. FOLSTER. 1830.” The rain still pattered heavily overhead; and with my geological chisel and hammer I did, to beguile the time, what I very rarely do,—added my name to the others, in characters which, if both they and the Dwarfie Stone get but fair play, will be distinctly legible two centuries hence. In what state will the world then exist, or what sort of ideas will fill the head of the man who, when the rock has well-nigh yielded up its charge, will decipher the name for the last time, and inquire, mayhap, regarding the individual whom it now designates, as I did this morning, when I asked, “Who was this H. Ross, and who this P. Folster?” I remember when it would have saddened me to think that there would in all probability be as little response in the one case as in the other; but as men rise in years they become more indifferent than in early youth to “that life which wits inherit after death,” and are content to labour on and be obscure.’Hugh Miller, ch15, Rambles of a Geologist, 1889
Major William Mounsey, who camped at the stone in the 19th century carved a Star of David above a back-to-front Latinised version of his name and the date AD 1850. Below this, and most curiously of all, he carved in Arabic a script which reads ‘I have sat for two nights and found patience’.
Just outside the entrance is a blocking stone, which would have originally sealed off the chamber. When Jo Ben visited in the 16th century, this was still in place in the doorway, but had been moved into its current position by at least the 1790s. The first recorded visitors entered through a large hole in the roof (since repaired), which Jo Ben said was made by an imprisoned giant breaking through the stone with his hammer. The hole was probably made by grave-robbers, but whether or not there was actually ever anything worth robbing we can never know, as no artefacts have ever been recovered from the stone itself. There is however a curiously carved and shaped stone, like a giant decanter ‘stopper’, located in the heather just to the south-east. It seems probable that this is associated with the Dwarfie Stone, but its purpose is yet another mystery.
In a certain hollow between two mountains on this island lies a stone, called stone of dwarfs (in the vernacular the Dwarfie Stane), twelve feet long and six wide; many people gather to see it, and in it places giving the appearance of beds are perceived, in which male and female, if they are of damaged reputation, and alone, are commonly said to give attention to procreating children.Blaeu Atlas of Scotland 1654
The Dwarfie Stone has never been the subject of detailed archaeological study. Although some texts have claimed it was an early monk’s hermitage, this seems unlikely. The blocking stone indicates that the Dwarfie Stone was meant to be sealed, rather than regularly entered. This factor and its similarity to monuments elsewhere in Europe have led to its interpretation as a rock-cut tomb dating to the late Neolithic period (c3,000-2,000BC).
The Dwarfie Stone now has legal protection as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, as it is unique in Britain and certainly one of Orkney’s most important prehistoric sites. In a time long before metal or machines, the Dwarfie Stone was carved out using only tools made from stone and antler, a feat of considerable patience and dedication which continues to fascinate visitors to this day.
written by Dr Antonia Thomas
note: The Dwarfie Stone is also called The Dwarfie Stane, locally in Hoy it is known as The Dwarfie Stone and more widely in Orkney as The Dwarfie Stane.
The folklore of the Dwarfie Stane.
Rev Wallace’s 1700 drawing of the monument, believed to be the first published illustration.
Detail from William Aberdeen’s 1769 map. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland