Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Dwarfie Stane

This article was originally published in SPIN number 64 Autumn 2012 - SPIN is the journal of the Pagan Federation of Scotland and Ireland.


The southern island of Hoy has a different geology to much of the rest of Orkney; its twin hills are the highest points and they visually dominate the landscape, particularly the Neolithic ceremonial centres of the West Mainland, so much so that it is likely that the relationship between these hills and the setting midwinter sun entered into the mythology of the earliest farmers.  The Dwarfie Stane (HY 243 004) is situated on the road between Rackwick and Quoys, in a steep-sided glaciated valley, right between these twin hills.  Looking west from this monument, the hills look as if a giant fist once kneaded into their centre and they stayed as they were, like a massive lump of stiff dough.

The Dwarfie Stane is a large block of red sandstone which has been cut into to form a rock-cut tomb – an architectural form that is unique to Orkney and possibly to the British Isles.  The original stone is most likely a glacial erratic, left by retreating glaciers after the last Ice Age; there is another one, uncut, about 200 metres along the valley named the Partick Stane.  The Dwarfie Stane is 8.6 metres long, 4 metres wide and about 2.5 metres high.  

Its construction has been dated, by analogy with similar monuments in the Mediterranean area, to about 3000 BCE, although its internal plan is not dissimilar to other Orkney tombs.  There is an entrance on the west side which is 1 metre by 1 metre and inside the tomb is a passage that is 2.2 metres long with two side cells at the end, one to the right/south and one to the left/north, each measuring 1.7 metres by 1 metre, all to a height of 1 metre.  The work was skilful and careful and the hollowing out would have been carried out using only stones and antlers, the marks from the tools can still be seen on the roof of the southern cell.  Both cells have a low stone threshold to cross to gain entry to them and the southern cell has a "pillow" of uncut rock at its inner/eastern end.  

With the thresholds and the pillow it is easy to compare these cells with the beds that are visible at Skara Brae and Barnhouse and thus to draw links with death and sleep, although only a very short person (such as a dwarf?!) would be able to lie down fully stretched out in either cell.  But people do attempt to sleep overnight in the beds – I have heard local stories of folk who have spent the night in the Dwarfie Stane only to wake in the peedie hours, leave their beds, and find themselves in the Otherworld – like this one but shinier and with more vibrant colours – walking directly into a living dreamscape.  

And if you lie in the "beds" and sing or hum, you can get the stones to "vibrate" - this works particularly well with deeper male voices but is an amazing feeling.  Auditory phenomena such as this are capable of inducing alternate states of consciousness and this may have been one of the original functions of this site.

Immediately outside the entrance is another large piece of sandstone, which was originally used to seal the opening.  The entrance remained sealed up until at least the 1600s but was crudely broken into through the roof, leaving a hole that remained until it was filled with concrete (sympathetically) in the 1950-60s. Frustratingly, but quite usual for antiquarian investigations, there are no records of whether any human remains or grave goods were found inside ... so it can only ever be speculation that the original function of the Dwarfie Stane was as a tomb.

The name of this monument appears to have derived from Scandinavian mythology surrounding dwarfs, or dvergar, who were fabulous smiths who lived in stones or in cliffs on the sides of the mountains.  The surrounding cliff faces are known as the Dwarfie Hammars.  The echo from the mountainside in Orkney is called “dwarf talk” – dwarfs had a reputation for being garrulous – which is sometimes invoked in Orkney place-names as Dwarmo, possibly deriving from the Old Norse dverg-mál.  Local legends tell how the dwarf "Trollid" lived in the Dwarfie Stane, although giants are also involved in folk legends of its construction.   The place-name Dvergasteinn (Dwarf-stone) is also recorded in Norway and Iceland.

There is a range of graffiti on the Dwarf Stane, much of it dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.   On the southern end is an inscription in Persian calligraphy: "I have sat two nights and so learnt patience" that was most likely carved by Major William Mounsey who left many similar intriguing carvings in Cumbria, usually also incorporating his own name written backwards in Latin, as here.  This inscription has been interpreted as a reference to the local midges but I think there is a spiritual lesson here: the place insists on patience.  The stunning geology is the fruit of patience on a scale known only to creator deities; likewise, whoever carved the rock out would have had to have worked diligently and patiently.  To get to the site today you need patience: to book an available place on the busy ferry, to take the ferry as it chugs over Scapa Flow, to drive (or be driven) along the slow narrow twisting road, stopping often to allow others to pass, to park and to walk up along the wooden track-way which can be slippery and tricky in places. 

I am three years into my Orkney “adventure” now and Orkney does have a tendency to force patience onto its inhabitants – living on a remote Scottish island means there is often a wait for vital replacement parts to arrive, you learn quickly to always have a “back-up plan” or to get by without for a while – but I am no more patient now than I was when I arrived here and I observe how frustrated I still get with others’ more serene acceptance of the ways things just are.  Things happen slowly in Orkney, it is the way it is, you can accept this or fight it, but it won’t change.  Too many times I choose to fight and I always lose, I am still working through this lesson.

I am not a patient person and never have been.  One of the banes of my life is a nagging doubt that tells me I am not doing what I should be doing.  It is loudest when I am asked to do something which I consider “menial” at work (I admit to a lot of resentment in general at “having” to work for a wage) but it is fairly constant.  It is a disquieting emotion which plagues me even when I am having fun with friends – I find myself being internally nagged into finishing and getting on with something “more productive”.  Yet I am also an excellent procrastinator – whole weeks go by when I have neither read nor written anything, and when I certainly haven’t achieved what I had planned to do.  I realise that I spend much of my emotional time feeling I am wasting my life and feeling guilty about doing so.  I procrastinate equally as much when it comes to regular (and any!) spiritual practice such as meditation and visualisation.

Having tried and failed again to win the Lottery this week, I was intrigued by my responses to the inevitable “when I win the lottery I will ...” game.  The first item was: not go into work on Monday.  The second was: move away from Orkney.  I observe that I am now an expert in knowing what I don’t want to do, but still ignorant in identifying what I do want to do.

Ironically, when I moved to Orkney it was partially in search of spiritual growth and the cultivation of “virtues” such as patience, thinking (mistakenly) that I would be more likely to nurture these things in a secluded place than in a bustling metropolis.  When I think back about the number of different “spiritual paths” I have experimented with in the past three years (and in my life previously), yet how I have not persevered with any of them, it is a reminder to me of how impatient a person I am.  I want it now, I want immediate results, or my fickle ego will take its religious custom elsewhere!  Yet the voice in my head (the Female one that laughs a lot) has provided two persistent messages recently: “pick a path, any one, and stick at it” and “wake up!”

It is late July as I write this and I know that winter is coming on because it gets fully dark at night now, for just a couple of hours at present but this will increase until there is far more enveloping dark than light.  The year turns and I feel myself turning too, turning inwards, feeling a need more than ever in my life to be still and contemplative, receptive and open.  I have a strong and certain sense that I am already what I am meant to be, already have what I am meant to have, I just need to awake to realisation of these things: to remember that this is already so.  This is Lammas, harvest time, time to harvest my life, and to do so with patience.

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