My love-hate-relationship with Old Red Sandstone

My readers might have noticed that I do post the occasional photo of stone, not necessarily always with runes carved on it. Now, one good reason for it is that I really like looking at beautiful rocks and cliffs. The main reason, however, is that the typical Orcadian Old Red Sandstone is really important for my work.

Now you might think that a bit of a no-brainer, with stone obviously being an important medium for every runologist, and you are not wrong there. Our local sandstone is crucial for understanding the Orcadian corpus of runic inscriptions, its preservation and some of its “quirks”.

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Cliffs at Birsay Northside, demonstrating the layering of sandstone in Orkney

The sandstone of Devonian origin which you can find in Orkney has some remarkable features, which should make it quite ideal for producing runestones: It is fairly soft and easy to carve, as witnessed, for example, by the huge amount of graffiti on any stone monument in Orkney, from the Norse runes in Maeshowe to the Antiquarian and modern carvings of Unstan. Indeed, you can “carve” in this type of stone with almost any somewhat sharp instrument and do not need to be a master stonemason with specialised tools to produce an inscription.

Another advantage is that due to the layering of the rock in Orkney, clearly visible on the various cliff faces, it is relatively easy to cut flagstones from the bedrock, and these lend themselves quite well to carving on them. So, by all means, runologists should love this type of stone.

And yet, my relationship with Old Red Sandstone is more of a love-hate-affair. And why is that? Well, precisely because these positive features, which make it easy to produce runic inscriptions on it, don’t make them last particularly long. Unfortunately, we do not have any still-standing runestone in Orkney, and all our inscriptions which appear to contain the classic memorial formula are only preserved as fragments. Most, if not all, of them seem to have been re-used as building material at some point in their history.

One inscription which shows how destructive the combination of soft stone and Orcadian weather is can be found on the church ruin on the Brough of Birsay. Only some staves remain of the runes, no branches can be made out any more. Who knows how many inscriptions we have lost to the elements entirely?

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Can you spot the remaining staves? That’s what happens if you combine Orcadian weather and soft stone …

The same obviously goes for any other carvings, such as Pictish symbol stones – although it needs to be said that, compared to the Picts, the Norse have left us with a wealth of carvings in Orkney, thanks in particular to the protected environment inside the tomb of Maeshowe where weathering is neglectable.

So, in short: Our beautiful Orcadian sandstone is great for producing runic inscriptions – and bad for preserving them.

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