In the Ladykirk of South Ronaldsay is a stone showing a pair of carved footprints. Each print is around 10 inches/25cm long and about an inch/2.5cm in depth.
The Romans often carved pairs of footprints on a stone with the inscription pro itu er reditu which reads “for the journey and return,” it was used as a protective right by people about to travel. Placing their feet on the stone would mark the beginning or end of their journey.
Here in Orkney, our stone is also known as St Magnus’s Boat, and there are two traditions attached to the stone though they are a variation of the same. One tradition has Magnus placing his feet on the stone before he went aboard his vessel for crossing the treacherous Pentland Firth, following the theme given above. The second – and more pervasive – is that Magnus actually sailed across the Pentland Firth on this stone, with his feet firmly planted within the footprints.
In Ireland and northern Europe, rock footprints were closely associated with kingship or chieftainship, and in Willie Thomson’s New History of Orkney he tells us that stones of this kind were set on a mound and a ceremony performed – originally pagan but subsumed by the Christian tradition – and the ancestry of the new king was recited. He then set foot on the stone and literally into the footsteps of his ancestors. The best known footprints are cut into the rock near the summit of Dunadd, where the kings of Dalriada were inaugurated. He even suggests that stones existed at Clickimin Broch in Shetland and in Caithness, though I’ve not researched these.
Despite standing on the stone myself, I didn’t recite any ancient traditions so I won’t be taking up my throne just yet.
- Read the stone’s entry on Canmore
- In 2017 to mark the 800th anniversary of the death of St Magnus a catalogue of events were arranged. One included an artist’s journey with a carved stone. Read the story via The Orcadian website, and then read her own story (choose For the Journey and Return, the weblink won’t take you directly to the page) .