The Merry Maidens weren’t what I was expecting: the stones are only a few feet tall, and they stand completely accessible in an open field, grassy tracks leading through and around the circle.
Local guidebooks said the stones are believed to be original, though their current configuration is unlikely to be. They also outlined the ‘explanatory’ story in which a group of women lost track of time as they were dancing, failed to observe the Sabbath, and were turned to stone as a result. There didn’t seem to be much to say about their original meaning or contexts.
There was no explanatory signage at the site, and nothing to indicate what the protocol here was – how to show appropriate respect. When I mentioned this to a friend who lived for a while in NZ, but has strong connections to Cornwall, he said you don’t have to worry, they’re ours, part of us, you don’t have to worry about getting things wrong. I still felt uneasy, though. While I was thinking about this discomfiture, a German couple came over the hill and the woman trotted around the circle, touching each stone on the head. It felt to me like a misreading of their stature.
(On the head – not maidens, clearly; but anthropomorphic, apparently…)
The absence of signage had positive aspects, though. Uncertainty seemed fitting.
Having written this, I was flicking through a borrowed book and discovered George Mackay Brown’s ‘Brodgar Poems’. In each poem a stone is erected, the circle in Orkney taking several generations to create.
The Twenty-sixth Stone
The man from the shipwreck said
‘We have seen stone clusters
Far south, in Lewis, Wessex, Brittany.’
Withered soon in the circle of the hills.
The Twenty-seventh Stone
Sunset, midsummer. Who
Reads the riddle,
The dance, the torches of celebration?
Corn whispers, wonders, urges. Ah, gold kiss.
George Mackay Brown, The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown (John Murray, 2006), p310.