Recently, I returned to the Neolithic chamber tomb of Unstan at the shore of Stenness Loch, intending only to show a visitor this often-overlooked amazing site. It holds many inscriptions from Antiquarian times after the cairn was re-opened in the 19th century. One set of “runes” was even registered as an official runic inscription, “OR 2 Unstan” for a while before it was shown to have been carved after the tomb was excavated.
To my surprise, when I entered the tomb this time with my visitor, who happens to be interested in epigraphy, too, we almost instantly saw a runic inscription on the opposite wall. I had never noticed it before and it was very clear, not overgrown with algae or moss, so it seems impossible I had overlooked it at my last visit, and thus I would, just from the circumstances, judge it to be very recent.
Picture copyright: C. Johnson
Indeed, a closer inspection showed that the runes are Anglo-Saxon with the diagnostic double- barrelled “H”. These runes were not used in Viking Age or medieval Orkney, so that would have been another giveaway for a modern origin. On a portable object, which could have traveled via trade routes from Anglo-Saxon England, they would have been slightly more plausible, but then I read what they said: “ANNETTE:PHILIP:HELLIN”.
So it appears that some people simply carved their names into the tomb, as travelers have done for millennia.
However, I would like to stress that, despite me enjoying a little runic riddle from time to time, damaging ancient and protected monuments with modern carvings is not acceptable. In Orkney, we are lucky that we can access many sites unsupervised and at any time we want. I would ask both locals and tourists to respect these monuments so that future generations can enjoy this privilege, too. There are plenty of other options for carving one’s name in runes that are less damaging to Orkney’s heritage.