Saturday, 25 October 2008

The Manners Stone


'Remember the two that stood here?' whispered the old wise stones.
'We recall,' said the tree and the bird that sung; 'They had no need of anyone.'
'Lovers,' mused the cave, 'from the way they sat with only the sound of the sea.'
'It was me; 'the Manners Stone replied, 'the magic that I have inside.'
'It was they,' the gulls cried back, 'their laughter and their fun;
Their eyes that met, the hearts that beat as one.'
'They never knew,' called the seal in the bay.
'Oh they knew,' said the waves, 'but they dared not say.'
'Remember the two that came,' said the stones, 'that loved, then went away?'


The Manners Stone sits on the grazed turf near a crumbled field wall. It is unremarkable in a landscape dotted with boulders and outcrops, and you would never know it for what it is if you weren't shown. Once there was a sizeable village looking out across Loch Dunvegan, but now there is just a nearby croft, and a scatter of humps and brackened ruins.

The tourist brochures, if they mention it at all, say that the Manners Stone is reputed to give good manners to those who sit on it. This limp interpretation probably comes from a book 'Place Names of Skye', written by the Rev.W H Forbes in 1923. But it's not what I heard. Someone - I can't remember who, but it was someone local - told me that whoever sat on the stone would have good luck and fertility - but only if they sat on it bare-arsed.

The writer and recorder of legends Otta Swire, who was descended from generations of Skye folk, was told a different story, which came from a man of Galtrigal, where the stone lies. The Galtrigal man said:

"The Manners Stone's real name was the Bowing Stone, and it stood in 'the Field of Bowing'. At the proper season everyone came and walked round it three times and bowed. It was the stone of the ancient gods, and if you bowed to it you would bring good fortune to the harvest.

"Then came a minister who was angry and forbade the 'worship' of the stone, for he said it was a pagan practice and the stone an idol. So he had the stone moved into the churchyard as being sacred ground. But the people still visited it and bowed. Then the minister said that it was accursed and ordered it to be thrown out.

"Now, the man on whose land it was thrown had six strong sons, and when his crops were trampled down and ruined by people visiting and circling the stone he grew angry and told his sons to remove it. They did, and threw it into the ravine [there is a deep ravine close by] and it broke.

"Sheriff Nicholson came from Husabost and was angry and said, "Replace the stone as it was or on rent day you'll lose your croft." So the six sons tried to and it was then they found that the stone was broken. They collected the smaller pieces and laid them close together in the stone's old place and then laid the largest piece on top of them, and Sheriff Nicolson accepted that. There it still lies and people still bow to it. But I think there are other stories too."

In her introduction to Otta's book, Dame Flora Macleod noted that, "In olden days the Church did much to forbid and to destroy the ancient beliefs", and I am sure that is what has happened in this case. The good manners explanation, itself recorded by a minister of the church, seems to derive from association with the stone's name, and is a conveniently anodyne substitute for anything earthier or more challenging to the Church's authority. But the name of the Manners Stone must surely pre-date the arrival of english language, which completely undermines the theory.

I wondered whether perhaps the name had a biblical root, as 'Manna'; an association of good harvests with the 'divine sustenance' of the Israelites in the Book of Exodus. Then I looked in a Gaelic-English dictionary and found an obvious clue that seems to have been missed; 'Manadh' in gaelic (the 'dh' at the end isn't pronounced) means 'an omen', good luck'. What better name for a stone that could bring fortune to a harvest? The Manadh Stone.


  1. Gorgeous poem, Brother T, and a wonderful meander through distant history and speculation... it's got me "outside of myself" today and that's a blessing. Cheers.

  2. BT you truly do have the soul of a poet! No wonder you're not currently languishing in town planning. Have heard the word "mana" in context of essence or aura ("Ellen Terry's stage dress was said to be imbued with her mana") - presumably a similar etymology?

  3. Steve - Thank you; I'm glad it distracted you for a bit. Today, I recommend drawing the curtains against the rain, a mug of hot cocoa, and a DVD...although perhaps that's not an option with the children at the moment.

    Lucy - Bless you...I wish it were true (although my committee reports did sometimes stray into the lyrical!). How interesting about Ellen Terry's 'mana'. Apparently that came from Polynesian roots, where 'mana' is an impersonal force that resides in people, animals, and inanimate objects. People or objects that possess mana are accorded respect. Seems uncannily relevant. Evidence of cultural links? The Picts as a migrated race from Micronesia?

    Pebbles - Thank you (I'm still drawn by the idea of a flint-knapping course like the one you tried, although there is something bizarre about looking for one on the Internet!)

  4. Your poem speaks more than words - thank you. It gives me peace in a world full of labyrinths, riddles and puzzles.

  5. Aloha Greetings!
    A beautiful poem and some very interesting lore. Thank You, Brother Tobias.
    In Hawaii stones (pohaku) have always been regarded as repositories of power (mana)- and not just the volcanic ones.
    Here in Waikiki we have 3 'wizard' stones said to have been laid in honor of 3 healers from Tahiti. Before returning south, the 3 'blessed' the stones, leaving their mana for healing therein. Today folks still leave lei & offering gifts...Just one example of MANY! Warmly, Cloudia

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  7. Extra Virgin - I'm glad. It's that kind of place, isn't it?

    Cloudia - Ciamar a tha sibh! Thank you for you comments. I think of myself as a sceptic, but there is something about the endurance and nature-shapedness (!) of stones that provokes reverence, and I have a small collection of pebbles that people have brought back from around the world. Please pass my respects to the wizard stones when you next visit them.