Scotland is a land steeped in mystery and ancient history, and one of the most fascinating relics of this past can be found on the enchanted island of Hoy. Here, on this windswept and mysterious island, stands an enigmatic 5,000-year-old rock-cut tomb known as the “Dwarfie Stane.” Carved entirely from a single piece of red sandstone, this massive structure has puzzled archaeologists and historians for centuries. Despite extensive study, no one knows for certain who created this mysterious tomb or what its original purpose may have been.
This large stone is a natural rectangular shape made from Devonian old red sandstone. It was placed there by nature millions of years ago, and some of the ancient inhabitants of Hoy considered it to be a perfect location for a tomb. The stone is known as a glacial erratic, meaning it was moved by a glacier and is different from the rocks found in the area. This is why it stands out among the landscape.
Based on similar graves found in the Mediterranean region, experts has estimated that: between the Neolithic and the Early Bronze Period, most likely around 3,000 BC, the chamber was hollowed out.
What makes this enormous slab so unique? Someone once hollowed out the “Dwarfie Stane” using only a few basic tools, persistence, and a lot of physical might.
The stone slab is up to 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) high and measures roughly 8.5 meters (28 feet) long by 4 meters (13 feet) wide. The west face of the stone had an entrance that was 1 meter (3.3 ft) square and went into the inner chamber.
Seeing it, one could easily overlook the fact that it is a chambered tomb. On one of its wider sides, there is a small hand-carved entrance – a 1 meter (3.3 ft) square, that opens into a very small tomb space. From the entrance is a small passage, 2.2 meters (7.2 ft) long, with two cells at the sides. The cells measure roughly 1.7 meters by 1 meter (5.6 ft by 3.3 ft). The height of the ceiling is just 1 meter (3.3 ft), meaning that anyone entering would have to either be on their knees or really bent over.
Despite extensive research, the identity of the person interred within this unique tomb remains a mystery to this day. The space within the tomb was meticulously crafted with great patience and precision, resulting in perfectly smooth sides with subtle ridges and grooves in the area where the deceased would have been laid to rest.
The right cell even contains a primitive “pillow” made from an uncut piece of rock situated at its innermost end. It is apparent that the builders of this tomb demonstrated great care and attention to detail during its creation. However, the task would have been incredibly arduous since the Old Red Sandstone, which was used as the building material, has been described as extremely dense and tough. Moreover, the only tools available to the builders were crafted from stone and deer antlers. This fact makes the creation of Dwarfie Stane a feat of awe-inspiring proportions!
The Dwarfie Stane is steeped in numerous folklore tales. As one might infer from the name, a popular local legend claims that the stone was the dwelling place of a dwarf known as Trollid. Both “bed-places,” which are oddly too little for someone of average height, are the subject of numerous folktales and legends about dwarfs, and these ancient tales are said to encircle the location.
Another legend suggests that the tomb was constructed by towering giants. However, the truth is far less fanciful; according to scientists, the structure was actually crafted by the Neolithic occupants of Orkney.
The age of the tomb has been estimated at 3,000 years old or more. Who was it for is not known, perhaps an ancient chieftain of Hoy – or a Bronze Age leader of the local tribes. Once the deceased was placed inside, the tomb was sealed with a great square slab, which now lies at the front of the rock.
Unfortunately, at some point over the centuries, the tomb was subject to theft by grave robbers. Rather than moving the heavy slab, they opted to cut a gap in the ceiling of the tomb and pilfered any treasures contained within. The hole in the roof has since been fixed in recent times.
An old Orcadian mythology claims that a giant and his wife created the Dwarfie Stane. The gigantic pair was imprisoned inside the stone by a third giant who desired to become the ruler of the island of Hoy. His malicious schemes, however, were foiled when the giant who was being held captive was able to escape through the chamber’s roof.
The simplicity of Dwarfie Stane hides its true uniqueness. One curious aspect is its similarity to tombs in Southern Europe, in the Mediterranean. Many scholars proposed that it is the attempt “at imitation” of Mediterranean tombs, but this theory has been dismissed.
It is agreed that the tomb is of local inspiration, and no proof exists that it has any direct links to Mediterranean-type tombs. Still, the Dwarfie Stane is considered the only example of a Neolithic rock-cut tomb in the whole of Britain. This fact alone makes it very unique.
Still, despite this uniqueness, the Dwarfie Stane is still consistent with the Orkney-Cromarty type of chambered tombs that are found on Orkney. But all the other tombs are made of many stones stacked, rather than carved out from a single stone slab as here.
The Dwarfie Stane was always a popular attraction in the region. Over the centuries many visitors carved crude graffiti, few of which can still be read today. A notable visitor was Captain William Mounsey, who visited in 1850 and left an inscription in Persian: “I have sat two nights and so learnt patience.”
In conclusion, the Dwarfie Stane on the Enchanted Island of Hoy is a fascinating piece of history that has captured the imaginations of many people over the years. Despite its simple appearance, it holds great significance as a 5,000-year-old rock-cut tomb and as a testament to the Stone Age people who once inhabited Orkney.