Standing Stones of Stenness
The Standing Stones of Stenness (HY311125) were originally a circle of 12 stones with a diameter of 30m and now comprise of 4 uprights, the tallest of which is over 5m high. The circle was surrounded by a rock-cut ditch 2m deep, 7m wide and 44m in diameter which has become filled-in over the years. Excavation has revealed a square setting of stones and bedding holes for further uprights, either stone or wooden.
Remains of domestic animals, including cattle, sheep and dog bones as well as a human finger were found in the ditch, as well as sherds of Grooved Ware pottery. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the circle was constructed about 3000 BC, which is older than many henge monuments further south in Britain.
Nearby, at the Bridge of Brodgar, stands the Watchstone, (HY305128 - 5.6m). At the winter solstice the sun sets into a notch in the Hoy Hills as seen from this stone, clearly marking the shortest day. A recent observation suggests that there is an interesting alignment from the Watch Stone at Old New Year - still celebrated in Shetland with Up Helly Aa. At this date at the end of January, the sun disappears behind the Hoy Hills just before sunset and then reappears from the other side, before finally setting into a notch in the skyline.
The stone destroyed in 1814 was used as lintels by the farmer at Barnhouse, who was incidentally an incomer. Apparently the part with the hole was used as the pivot for a horse mill but was destroyed after World War 2. Luckily the selfish farmer was stopped from demolishing the rest of the Standing Stones, but only after he had toppled two more of the menhirs, one of which he broke up. The threat of Court action finally stopped this 19th century vandal, and the fallen stone was re-erected in 1906. Luckily the vast majority of landowners over the millennia have had great respect for our antiquities.
The Odinstone had a hole through it through which lovers clasped hands and swore their everlasting love. The Oath of Odin was then said and the contract was binding thereafter. The Stone was also credited with healing powers, in association with the well at Bigswell (HY345105) and especially at Beltane and midsummer. Recently the probable sockets of both this stone and another were found between the Standing Stones and the Watch Stone.
BARNHOUSE SETTLEMENT On the shore of Harray Loch, near the Standing Stones, is the recently-excavated site of Barnhouse (HY308127). Ruins of at least 15 Neolithic houses were revealed. Unlike at Skara Brae, the houses appear to have been free-standing. Each house had a central hearth and beds were either set into or against the walls. Evidence for stone dressers like those at Skara Brae was also found.
Two of the buildings were larger than the rest, the largest one having a room 7m square and walls 3m thick, as well as a large central hearth. The entrance of this one faces towards the north west and at midsummer the setting sun shines down the rather grand passage. This building is similar in design to some of the chambered cairns, and it has been suggested that it may have been a meeting-hall used in conjunction with ceremonies at the Standing Stones rather than a dwelling house.
Grooved Ware pottery similar to that found at the nearby Standing Stones and Skara Brae was found here. Many flint and other stone artefacts were also found and even a piece of pitchstone thought to have come from Arran. It has been suggested that the houses may have been demolished rather than simply to have fallen down as only the basal courses remained of the buildings. It seems equally likely that farming activities, particularly modern ploughing, could have removed the rest of the buildings.
Unlike other recently excavated sites, Barnhouse has been preserved and opened to the public. The site is reached by a footpath from near the Standing Stones. Hopefully other interesting sites such as this will be left so that the public - who fund such excavations - may have the benefit of seeing them in future.