Standing Stones: OS Grid Reference – NR 436 483
Also Known as:
Also known as the ‘Stones of Islay,’ these two old stones can be found on the west side of the road between Port Ellen and Ardtalla, up the steepish wood-covered slope, just south of the conical fairy hill of Cnoc Rhaonastil.
Archaeology & History
In recent years, the Scottish Royal Commission commented that “they do not appear to be of prehistoric date,” yet include it in the Argyll survey (vol.5:65), just in case! The larger of the two monoliths is nearly 6 feet long (it was on the floor when I came here, many years back), and its smaller companion about 3 feet long (also on the deck!).
In 1794, in the Statistical Account of Scotland, it was said that these two curious standing stones marked the grave of Yla or Yula, “a daughter of one of the kings of Denmark,” which is most unlikely. Between these two stones, folklore tells, is known as the Tomb of Yla – a Danish princess whom legend tells gave Islay its name.
The hill above these old stones was long known to be the place of the faerie-folk. Indeed, the Queen of Faerie herself lived here. Otta Swire told a fascinating old folktale of this place, whose nature will be know to some:
“The Queen was much troubled by the stupidity of human women, for in the fairy world wisdom is chiefly possessed by the women, since it is they who hold the Cup. After much thought, She decided to try to improve matters, so she sent out an invitation to all the women of the world to visit Her in Her hall in the knoll on a certain date. The invitation spread over the wide Earth – it was carried by the winds and the sea waves, by birds and by fish, even the leaves of the trees whispered it. And the women of the world were very much interested and they talked eagerly together. Some laughed at it, some said they were wiser by far than the Little People, some held that the Little People were cleverer and more powerful than they and that this might be a trap. Indeed, the word of women ‘heaved like hive of bee or hill of ant or byke of wasp.’ Soon, women from all over the isles began to arrive in Islay. Some came to see, many more to be seen, and a few came truly seeking wisdom.
“When the day dawned the hill opened, and into the wonderful hall within streamed the women. And a very wonderful hall it was, hung with bright cloths woven from nettles and fairy lint and dyed with blood of shell-fish and sap of plants in such colours as only the Little People can achieve. Skins of beasts were spread on floors and seats, a banquet set on shells of pearl lay ready on the many tables of wood and stone, and for each guest there was placed ready a beautiful cup formed from a blue-eyed limpet’s shell. A soft green light pervaded the hall. When all were ready and the watchers saw no more coracles on the waters or maidens climbing the green slope, the doors to the outer world were closed and in walked the Queen Herself. She was smaller than any of Her guests but far, far more impressive. She wore a dress of long ago but it suited well Her gentle, kindly dignity and Her face shone with a strange and lovely light. She carried in Her two hands a wonderful flagon and after her came her maids, each holding a similar one. Other maids hastily distributed the cups of shell and then the Queen walked slowly by, pouring into the cup of each of those who, in her heart truly desired wisdom, a few drops of the precious fluid from Her flagon, which held the distilled wisdom of the world throughout the ages. And as each woman drank those few drops she suddenly grew wise and saw and understood much she had never known before. Some were able to see much, others but a little, yet all benefited in their degree. At last, all who sought wisdom had received it and the elixir was finished. Just as the ceremony ended there came a hammering on the walls and the doors. The Little People looked out and, behold!, their hill was covered with late-comers who had arrived after the doors were closed and so had been unable to enter and were now too late to receive the gift. There is still a saying in Gaelic about a stupid woman: ‘She was out on the knoll when wisdom was distributed.'”
A saying I remember my old grandad telling a few folk a few times when I was young!
Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, Argyll – volume 5: Islay, Jura, Colonsay and Oronsay, HMSO: Edinburgh 1984.
Swire, O.F., The Inner Hebrides and their Legends, Collins: London & Glasgow 1964.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian