I’ve heard the Stone of Setter described as the finest standing stone in Orkney, now that’s certainly some claim given the lovely menhirs I’ve seen around the islands, so I was eager to put the claim to the test and hang out with the stone on my visit to Eday.
Anticipation built when the distant form of the stone appeared on the horizon as I walked north up the island’s main (well only really) road. The watery expanse of Mill loch borders the stone to one side, whilst the xanthous gorse filled slopes of the high ground of Vinquoy hill provide it with a suitably dramatic backdrop. The stone itself sits on a small saddle of land, raised and distinct from the surrounding landscape, and almost like a marker delineating the sacred area of tombs clustered at Eday’s high northern end, perhaps in a way analogous to the Watchstone on Mainland marking out the start of the Ness of Brodgar?
It’s always exhilarating when a place is in sight, and as the stone grows ever closer, I reach the Eday community shop, and stopping only to fuss a very cute cat hanging around outside, I turn left and follow the road by the loch. A sign pointing toward the stone indicated the start of the path for the Eday heritage trail, and this close up the scale of the Stone of Setter becomes clear. A great block of ruddy red sandstone standing fifteen feet tall rearing up before you, huge weathered grooves eroded into the top of the stone which is enshrouded with Orkney’s familiar lichens. It is both dramatic and beautiful.
I sit down at the base of the stone, so happy to be here, and tired after the walk. The sun is out, but with plenty of clouds about threatening to encroach on the day. I write my fieldnotes and eat my packed lunch, before embarking on the photographs. The stone takes on a different shape from each aspect. From the front on it seems to resemble a giant hand emerging from the earth ordering you to halt before it, whilst from the side it appears like a figure staring out over the loch.
Nearby are the low outlined remains of a handful of structures that the nearby information board ominously refers to as ‘de-fleshing’ chambers which may possibly have been used in rituals associated with the stone (ah the old ‘ritual use’ explanation again!) . It gets me wondering whether this was an excarnation site, similar to that postulated at the Tomb of the Eagles (although I know there is some debate as to whether excarnation did actually take place there). Given the proximity to the tombs which are scattered about Vinquoy hill, (indeed one of them, Braeside, is directly aligned with the stone) it doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility that the stone symbolised a transformative place where the dead were turned from their earthly fleshy form to the stone-like bones of their skeletal remains, then to be placed amongst the ancestors watching over them.
This is one of the things I love about visiting our ancient and enigmatic monuments, thinking about what role they may have played in the lives of our forbearers and their place amongst the landscape, it’s fun to speculate. If it was once the marker for a place of the dead there’s certainly no sinister atmosphere here, quite the opposite in fact though, it feels more of a joyful, transformational place.
So the best standing stone in Orkney? At present it’s indubitably the Stone of Setter, but I won’t take that as being set in stone!