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Hoy, Dwarfie Stane

Chambered Cairn (Neolithic)

Site Name Hoy, Dwarfie Stane

Classification Chambered Cairn (Neolithic)

Canmore ID 1597

Site Number HY20SW 8

NGR HY 2430 0043

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Orkney Islands
  • Parish Hoy And Graemsay
  • Former Region Orkney Islands Area
  • Former District Orkney
  • Former County Orkney

Archaeology Notes

HY20SW 8 2430 0043.

(HY 2430 0043) Dwarfie Stane (NR)

OS 6" map, Orkney, 2nd ed, (1900)

The Dwarfie Stane, unique in the British Isles, consists of an entrance-passage and two flanking cells cut in a huge flat block of sandstone. The squared stone which originally plugged the entrance now lies near by. A hole cut in the roof of the north cell and passage is probably to be associated with the removal of this 'plug'. Miss Henshall regards the Dwarfie Stane as being the ultimate devolution within the Bookan sub-group of Orkney-Cromarty chambered cairns, rather than evidence for direct contact with the Mediterranean, where similar tombs exist.

A S Henshall 1963; RCAHMS 1946

The Dwarfie Stane is as described and planned by Henshall.

Visited by OS (NKB), 15 June 1967

This was the monument most frequently mentioned by early travellers in Orkney, beginning with Jo Ben in the sixteenth century; it was most successfully popularised by Sir Walter Scott in 'The Pirate'. Johnston's paper is a good source for early references. The Stone, a natural sandstone block at the foot of the hamars S of the Rackwick road, is Britain's sole example of a rock-cut Neolithic tomb. An entrance in the S face opens into a short passage giving access to two small chambers. A stone lying immediately outside the doorway is the right size and shape to have originally closed the passage; a hole made at some time in the passage roof has recently been made good by Scottish Development Department (SDD).

Most writers retail versions of folklore relating to the Stone; a particularly detailed account, of uncertain provenance appears in Chambers Journal for 1864. Eighteenth-and nineteenth-century graffiti are a notable feature, prominent being those by Major William Mounsey, a former British spy in Afghanistan and Persia (Iran); his name with the date 1850 appears on the south face, above a line of beautiful Persian calligraphy which reads ' I have sat two nights and so learnt patience' - in reference to Mounsey's experience of the Hoy midges when he camped at the Stone. The translation has kindly been provided by Dr G R Sabri-Tabrizi, Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Edinburgh.

30m ESE of the Stone is another big boulder which seems to have been intended as a closing stone; it measures 1.55m by 1.05m by 0.8m and is shaped at one end into a 'stopper' form more neatly than the shaping of the closing stone now in front of the doorway. In a line downslope N by W from the tomb, at 11m, 17m and 19m from it, are massive edge-set boulders. The positioning of these may be fortuitous, but they could conceivably be remnants of an alignment running up to the Stone.

G Barry 1805; J Wallace 1700; M Martin 1716; W Scott 1822; anon 1864; A W Johnston 1896; C S T Calder and G Macdonald 1936; RCAHMS 1989, visited July 1985


Publication Account (1996)

As the only chambered tomb known on Hoy, it is perhaps fitting that the Dwarfie Stane should be an oddity. Its builders, or rather carvers, used a huge isolated natural block of sandstone to hollow out of the solid rock a small chamber, with two sidecells entered over projecting sills. A large boulder lying outside the entrance is the original blocking stone, which is recorded as having been seen in position in the 16th century, but nothing is known of the contents of the tomb. Hollowing out this tomb must have been a gruelling task for just a few people at a time, and the marks of their stone tools can be seen on the roof of the south cell.

This is the only rock-cut tomb in Britain, but the construction of other Orcadian tombs has involved cutting into bedrock (eg Cuween, no. 71), and at Sand Fiold near Skara Brae an extraordinary cist was built within a rock-cut pit. The Dwarfie Stane has always caught the imagination of visitors,including Sir Waiter Scott who incorporated it into his novel The Pirate. The earliest of the many names carved on the tomb is that of H Ross in 1735, but the most intriguing is that of Major W Mouncey who in 1850 not only carved his name in Latin backwards but added an inscription in exquisite Persian calligraphy to the effect that 'I have sat two nights and so learnt patience'.

Major Mouncey was a former British spy in Persia, but it is thought that his ordeal at the Dwarfie Stane may have been caused by midges rather than anything more sinister.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Orkney’, (1996).

Project (14 May 2009 - 18 May 2009)

HY 2450 0050 (A), HY 2350 0060 (B), HY 2070 0100 (C), HY 2060 0170 (D), ND 2060 9990 (E), HY 2130 0230 (F)

A walkover survey was undertaken on 14–18 May 2009 in the Rackwick and South Burn valleys in Hoy to provide a baseline for future work.

Six areas or transects (A–F) were walked and 37 sites were recorded. These included 31 previously unrecorded sites mostly consisting of post-medieval peat tracks and banks and WW2 remains. Transects (B–D and F) were walked across the broad U-shaped valleys to investigate upland glens, the valley floor and NMRS sites.

D Lee 2009

Field Visit (14 May 2009 - 18 May 2009)

Hoy and South Walls Landscape Interpretation

Area A around the Dwarfie Stane (HY20SW 8) included the plateau of moraine below the Dwarfie Hamars. No new prehistoric sites were found and the area has been extensively exploited for peat extraction.

D Lee 2009


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