by Chris Brooks, Heritage Action. All images © Chris Brooks.
Well, return I did. After a good night sleep I got up and drove straight back to Brodgar but again it was occupied by the maintenance team cutting the grass. Just checking my map, there were a couple of other places in the area I could visit and so drove down to the Barnhouse Stone.
This standing stone sits in a field near the turning onto the Brodgar road near Maeshowe burial tomb. Being quite close to the main road the traffic can be distracting and there is nowhere easy to park nearby. Although quite thin, the stone is top heavy, being quite broad at the top and narrowing significantly as it enters the ground. Its uppermost part is covered with a beautifully thick head of moss and yellow lichens form flashes down its lower sides. This stone aligns with the entrance to Maeshowe during midwinter sunrise. Access to the stone was limited as the field in which it sits was in early crop and the stone itself is surrounded with a low height barrier. I managed to get a few shots although I couldn’t get the alignment with the famous tomb it is associated with.
I returned to Stenness, but rather than going into the stones I followed the sign and walked to the close by Barnhouse settlement. You approach the small settlement via a short grassed track that passes alongside the standing stones.
One thing I like about Orkney is you never failed to be surprised at almost every site, and again this was not exception. On the ground before you lie the shape of what looks like a house. But at a second glance it becomes obvious that this is not a house at all… or at least not in the normal sense of the word. The floor plan is of a more or less square circle with a grass covered retaining wall around the outside. There is then an intermediate area which is entered through a ‘doorway’ in the outer wall. There is then a walled passageway entrance to the even more square inner area which contains a central hearth. Interestingly, there is a second hearth in the passageway entrance to this section also which is the first clue that this is not a home. The outer and inner entrances are not aligned either so you have to walk around the intermediate area to get to the inner section. The outer entrance has a couple of portal stone whereas the inner entrance is more grand and complex. Surely this is the reverse of what you would do for a home (well it is these days) and the fact that you would first have to traverse a fire to get into the centre points to an entirely different purpose maybe relating to some sort of ritualistic ‘rite of passage’.
There is another large square building in the complex which resembles a modern semi-detached home. This structure is split into two mirrored images in that it has two hearths separated from each other by a thin stone wall which goes across the centre. Around the hearths are what look like sleeping areas, again separated by thin walls. This building may be a home but I think not as many as the normal round houses on the site which are just that, normal. They are smaller, round and have a single hearth at their centre. The first impression I got was that this is all part of some sort of ritual procession that involves these structures and the Standing Stones of Stenness. The information boards more or less confirm this. The fact that there is a build containing two similar layouts suggests some sort of bonding ceremony, maybe, where each person is separated before the bonding. It could be marriage or it could be coronation related… but I am only guessing. The fact is that there is so much here to get you thinking, which is something I very much liked about the place. There are many structures here, enough to keep you busy for a good while anyway, and there is a small standing stone next to the loch which is a good place to contemplate when it get busy.
Again I returned to the standing stones where, as normal, it was quite busy; unnoticed by the crowd however were two seals sunbathing on the shores of Stenness Loch. I took a few shaky pictures from a distance and got back in my car.