The Stones of Stenness
I recently visited the Orkney islands, a long planned holiday to see the many megalithic monuments there- the standing stones, burial chambers and cairns. The Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe were all well worth the trip, but it was good too to experience the scene of so much folklore that I’ve read.
The islands are quite bleak and treeless and are covered in lochs (mostly fresh water but a few salt water). The grey, cold water under grey cold skies (the weather wasn’t brilliant) made it very easy to imagine kelpies and tangies (the Gaelic speaking Highlanders’ each uisge or water horse) emerging from the waters and roaming the land in search of prey.
One day we crossed from the mainland to the island of Rousay, using the ferry Eynhallow from Tingwall jetty. Eynhallow (the first syllable is pronounced like ‘eye’) is one of the two islands inhabited by the fin folk, or selkies. Formerly it was called Hildaland, and was often hidden from human eyes whilst the fin-folk lived there during the summer months.
A man called Thorodale, who lived in Evie on the mainland, just across the sound from Eynhallow, lost his wife one day when she was abducted by a fin-man. He planned revenge and sought the advice of a wise ‘spae-woman’ on the island of Hoy. She told him how to see the hidden island of Hildaland. For nine moons, at midnight when the moon was full, Thorodale went nine times on his bare knees around the great Odin Stone of Stenness (this was a huge holed stone that no longer exists). For the duration of nine moons, he looked through the hole in the stone and wished for the power of seeing Hildaland. After repeating this for nine months one beautiful summer morning, just after sunrise, Thorodale looked out on the sea and saw that, in the middle of Eynhallow Sound, there lay a pretty little island, where no land had ever been seen before. Armed with salt and crosses to dispel the faery glamour, Thorodale rowed across to the revealed isle. He fought off the fin-men, rescued his wife and then sowed salt around the whole island, banishing the fin-folk forever and claiming it for men. Eynhallow is deserted today, but it is still protected- by a fearful tidal race of white crested standing waves.
I also visited Hoy, not to meet the spae-wife but to visit the stunning Dwarfie Stane, a burial chamber hollowed out of a massive boulder. It lies on a bleak hillside, just near the end of the Trowie Glen (the fairy valley). That anything like this was carved with stone tools alone is deeply impressive. The sound effects achieved by a single voice inside are also remarkable.
The last notable fae site was a burial chamber on Cuween Hill on the mainland, called the Tomb of the Beagles because of the dog bones found inside, but also known locally as the Fairy Knowe. It was a steep climb up to the site and a tight crawl along the entrance passage to get in, but it was very still and mysterious within. Outside the wind was blowing; inside there was thick silence and a sense of contact, not just with the Neolithic farmers who had been buried there but with the faes whose dwelling it subsequently became.
Lastly (on one of the coldest and wettest days of our trip!) we visited the farm museums at Kirbuster and Corrigall. These were especially interesting as they preserved traditional Orkney farm houses and it was fascinating to see the open peat fires in the centre of the main rooms, with the smoke curling up through the hole in the roof, and to imagine those many stories I’d read in which a changeling child was placed in a basket in the smoke from the hot peat flames and driven to fly up through the ‘lum’ (the smoke hole), forcing the trows into returning the stolen human infant.