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!
It’s only possible to get to Eday and back in a day on Saturdays, it’s also rather extortionately expensive to take the car. So since the island is only 8 miles in length, and I like a good walk, then an epic trek taking in as many ancient sites as I could in a day trip on the island was the plan. The downside of this of course is that time has to be carefully managed, one eye always on the clock lest you miss the ferry home (I had the misfortune to do that on island of Rousay once, and wasn’t keen to repeat it!). This also means you just don’t get long enough to spend at somewhere as good as Vinquoy.
Vinquoy is the highest point on Eday, and the mound atop the hill has been prominent for miles. This is the main event for me on today’s trip, so I’ve walked briskly nearly the whole length of the island, not having seen a single soul in the last three hours. After passing the wonderful Stone of Setter, I start on up the hill toward the tomb. Vinquoy hill, whilst not exactly a Munroe, is taking it out of me now, my rucksack feels as if the Trows have put a few rocks in it whilst I wasn’t looking, but as I approach the mound, atop the hill, the fine masonry of its entranceway enticingly visible, all the fatigue falls away.
I open the small gate which bars the passage, and stoop into the long, slightly curving entranceway. Wooden planks have been placed along the damp passageway to avoid having to shuffle through the mud, and soon I’m in the inner chamber and able to stand up. Inside it’s wonderful. A tall corbelled roof, and four side chambers, two to each side are visible. But it’s the atmosphere inside this place which is sublime. The warm red colour of the Eday sandstone used to construct the tomb, provides a russet glow, whilst ferns cascade from the upper masonry of the walls, and a strange white lichen almost glows in the gloom.
A circuar skylight admits some illumination, along with a small vent, which is visible from outside the tomb, sticking up like a little chimney atop the mound. This combines to give the inner chamber an airy quality, and lets the place breathe, much better than the stuffy concrete capped burial mounds you can see on Rousay, thank goodness Callender and Grant didn’t get their hands on this one!
I take a look into the side chambers, their entrances are very low, and trying to squeeze in with backpack, camera and assorted accoutrements, would leave me plastered with mud for the day, so I’ll leave that for next time, a valuable excuse to return, as if I needed one!
I spend quite some time inside. Vinquoy has one of the most special atmospheres of any tomb on Orkney. I think the combination of a well preserved internal structure, the warm coloured stone, and fantastic vegetation all combine to make it somewhere truly special. I really have to force myself to leave, it feels as if I’ve stumbled into one of those fairy entrances to the otherworld.
When I emerge back out I’m pleased to see that hundreds of years haven’t elapsed since I went in (although looking at the landscape, you’d probably be hard pressed to tell if they had, so unspoiled is it, only a handful of wind turbines letting you know you’re in the 21st century at all.) Looking around from atop the hill the views are great, the Stone of Setter still prominent below by Mill Loch, and islands scattered around to either side, a truly fantastic place. It may require some effort to get to, but Vinquoy stands there proudly with the best chambered tombs that Orkney can offer, it’s really something special.
This is yet another impressive tomb on the Eday Heritage trail in the Vinquoy area, the yellow of the gorse on the hillside contrasting with the blue of the sea ahead, and the denuded remains of the tomb are clearly visible as you head towards the hill.
Dug into but still large, the remains of the bank around it giving an idea of the size it would once have been, which would have been a substantial mound by the looks of it, a shame that only an adumbration of its form remains. A southern entrance passage is still visible which opens into a narrow stalled chamber, a couple of orthostats still standing to show where one of the compartments was. The entrance passage is particularly interesting in that is offset slightly, by 10° from the axis of the chamber, so that it aligns directly with the nearby Stone of Setter.
Standing in the entranceway you get a great sightline of the standing stone, or rather you would if someone in the past hadn’t built a stone byre directly in the way! It’s still possible to see the alignment though as long as you move yourself off centre slightly.
I manage to find a small information sign about the tomb attached to a post, which had fallen over and now lies prone in the grass. This indicated that there would have been three pairs of stalls within the chamber, and that it was excavated by Farrer in the 1850’s, probably leaving it in the state it’s in today.
Although battered it’s got a certain charm. In some way it reminded of a truncated version of the Cairn O’ Get in Caithness, not sure why as it’s different in layout, it just had that ‘feel’ to it that some of the tombs you find in Caithness have, I also find it interesting that on the slopes of Vinquoy hill we have three very different designs of tombs, the stalled cairn of Braeside, double-decker special of Huntersquoy, and mini Maes Howe style Vinquoy. I wonder why that is? It’s almost as if this part of Eday was like a chambered tomb showroom, where you could pick out the style of monument you’d like for your own Neolithic community! Or it could be I suppose a very special place where different communities came together, each bringing their own style of tomb to the area.
I still think it’s a very special place, and a nice appetizer for the delights of Vinquoy just atop the hill ahead.