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The Comet Stone, Stenness

The Comet Stone: Picture by Sigurd TowrieStanding around 140 metres to the south-east of the Ring of Brodgar is the monolith now known as the Comet Stone.

Measuring 1.75 metres high (5ft 9in), the Comet Stone stands on a low, oval platform around 14 metres (45ft) in diameter.

The monolith appears to have once been part of a group, the only surviving evidence of which are the stumps of two broken stones.

Whether these stumps represent the remains standing stones or whether it was part of a structure of some sort is unclear.

It has been suggested that the Comet Stone was once part of a table-like "dolmen" construction, similar to the one once thought to stand in the centre of the Standing Stones of Stenness.

The stone's position in relation to the Ring of Brodgar's south-eastern entrance has led to the suggestion that it had a part to play in a hypothetical processional way between the Brodgar ring and the Standing Stones of Stenness.

It is also marks a superb vantage point for viewing the entire Brodgar ring and the expanse of landscape and sky surrounding it. (Click here for a selection of panoramic photographs.)

Poetic title or corruption?

The monolith's rather poetic name - Comet Stone - is fairly modern, coined by antiquarians who saw the outlying standing stone as "orbiting" the Ring of Brodgar, or the Temple of the Sun, as they called it.

For more on these names, click here.

The Ulie Stane

Whether the stone was known by any name, at least in the late 1800s, is open to debate.

Writing in the 1890s, local man George Marwick stated that he had heard “old men” refer to the monolith as the “Ulie Stane” - a dialect term literally meaning “oil stone”.

Marwick, however, makes no mention of any name by which he, himself, knew the monolith. He wrote:

“The road passes the stone standing by itself to the eastwards of the large circle [Ring of Brodgar] called by the old people the Ulie Stane . . .”

He added:

“. . . old men about 50 years ago took off their hats or bonnets on passing this stone.”

If Marwick’s account can be trusted (unfortunately, his paper on the area includes some outlandish placename claims and theories), this would indicate that the Comet Stone was held in some regard up until the 1840s - at least by the older generation.

The use of the word “oil” in connection with the stone hints at traditions found elsewhere.

We know, for example, that, despite edicts against the anointing of standing stones with oil - a tradition that remained elsewhere in Europe until the early 20th century, where stones were smeared with wax, oil and honey.

In Sweden, for example, certain stones, known as elf-stenar, were believed to possess curative powers. The locals said prayers and made vows at them, as well as anointing the stones with fat or butter.

There, it was believe that the elves inhabited the stones, or the ground beneath them. If their quiet was disturbed, their dwelling-place desecrated, or if due respect was not paid to them, they would seek revenge by afflicting the perpetrators with diseases or other misfortunes.

This has interesting parallels with the Comet Stone, which, it should be remembered, was once believed to be the remains of a petrified giant fiddler.

Was the doffing of the cap part of the respect due to these otherworldly beings? And were offerings of butter and fish oil left to placate them?