Monday, 28 January 2019

The Dwarfie Stane

Situated on the island of Hoy in Orkney, the Dwarfie Stane is believed to be a tomb dating to the third millennium BC.

Orkney is one of the most important Neolithic locations in Britain, and perhaps the world. It’s increasingly believed to have been the heart of British culture during the third and fourth millennia BC. Tombs, stone circles, villages and huge ritual buildings are linked in a vast and complex web, a mere glimpse of the complexity of the culture archaeologists are only beginning to discover.


Hoy is an island characterised by lofty peaks, sheer cliffs and swathes of bleak heather moorland, one of the wildest islands in Orkney. There was little habitation in the Neolithic or any other period compared to the other islands. Scraping a living from this unforgiving island would have been near impossible.

The Dwarfie Stane is unique on Orkney and in Britain. It comprises a single huge block of stone, carved out to form an entrance and two side chambers, each about a metre wide. It was broken open long ago and no burials or anything else are known. As such there is nothing to confirm it was even a tomb.

The interior of the Dwarfie Stane.

Legend tells that the Stane, or stone in local dialect, was the home of a (dwarfish) giant and his wife. A third giant imprisoned them inside to make himself master of Hoy, but the imprisoned giant smashed his way through the roof. This explains the now-repaired hole in the roof, probably made by ancient tomb-robbers.

The tomb is situated on a flat stretch of moor between the hills, and it faces the dramatic and sweeping slopes of Hoy’s highest peaks. It’s hard to believe this wasn’t intentional. Most of Orkney’s tombs face out to sea; perhaps the purpose of the Dwarfie Stane’s orientation was to absorb the powerful spirit of Hoy.

The Orkney people’s spiritual beliefs have been barely examined, but there is no doubt their complexity equals the complexity of their material world. The tomb has intriguing similarities to tombs in the Mediterranean, where the first farmers in Britain are believed to have arrived from. Perhaps time will tell us more about this enigmatic construction.

The view from inside the Stane.

Monday, 21 January 2019

St Cuthbert’s Cave

St Cuthbert’s Cave or Cuddie’s Cave in Northumberland is a natural rocky overhang rather than a true cave.

St Cuthbert was a Christian monk who spent years living on the island of Lindisfarne or Holy Island, off the Northumberland coast near Berwick-on-Tweed. His remains were kept there until AD875, when marauding Danes attacked the island. The monks carried the precious relics to Durham, resting for a night at this cave, thus giving it its name.

Other local traditions link the cave to a Border Reiver or robber, who camped in the cave and whose ghost haunts the area. Also associated with the area is a mischievous being called the Dunnie, who amongst other things would overturn furniture in the night and shapeshift as a horse, to the chagrin of the ploughman who mistakenly harnessed him.

The long walk to this place today, through empty woodland and fields, certainly has a slightly sinister feel to it. It’s easy to see how those traditions developed.

View from St Curhbert’s Cave.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Wayland’s Smithy


This intriguingly named long barrow in Berkshire was built by some of the earliest Neolithic farmers. The many long barrows in this part of Britain were one of many new concepts introduced by the people who brought agriculture to this land.

It is one of the Cotswold-Severn class of barrows, commonly found in southwest Britain, and is sited on the ancient trackway called The Ridgeway, close to the Uffington White Horse. Its present appearance is a result of restoration in the 1960s. Before then, it was an overgrown ruin.

A timber-chambered barrow was built around 3550BC, and the remains of fifteen individuals were placed inside, fourteen of them male. Around a hundred years later, the mound was incorporated into a larger structure. A stone-chambered tomb, consisting three burial chambers and an entrance chamber in a cruciform layout, was built. The remains of eight people were found inside. Six huge sarsen stones were erected in front of it, four of which survive, and an earthen barrow, 56m in length and 13m wide at its entrance, was built over it. The stone revets used to support the mound are visible; they were originally covered with earth.

The interior chambers.

No long-lasting constructions have been found in Britain prior to the appearance of these tombs, and it is a long time before the same amount of effort was made to house the living.

Agriculture bound people to an area. It was a long-term investment, requiring the clearance of rocks and mature trees to give cultivatable soil, and needed a close understanding of how best to cultivate and manage that specific tract of land, which could take a lifetime to learn. It was perhaps now important to have the ancestors close at hand.

The long barrows are not overly prominent; they are not intended to be a statement to the living as later Bronze Age barrows, standing clear on the skyline, appear to be. To me they seem to be about blending with the land, incorporating the gifts and knowledge of people’s forebears so they could aid the coming generations, as well as reinforcing the fact that, for these people, this land was home.

The folklore of the site is no less intriguing. Wayland, also known as Vรถlundr, is an important figure in Germanic culture, and the name was probably applied by Anglo-Saxon settlers. The first recorded use of the name dates to 955AD. Wayland was a fabled smith of unmatched skill, and like many smiths, such as the Greek Hephaestus, he was lame. In an Icelandic saga, he was captured by a king who cut his hamstrings and forced him to work for him. He eventually killed the king’s sons, forged himself wings, and made his escape.

Local tradition stated that if a traveller’s horse lost a shoe, he could leave it at the Smithy with some coins, and when he returned the money would be gone and the horse newly-shod. Wayland was also said to shoe the nearby Uffington White Horse.

A local shepherd’s rhyme recorded in 1859 states that:

They say in this cave did dwell,

A smith who was invisible.

At last he was found out, they say,

He blew up the place and flew away.

An intriguing similarity to the Icelandic story recorded 600 years earlier.