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  • Stephen Jennings

Site in Focus - Kevin's Mystery Stone (with later update)

It’s not often we take a leisurely group stroll through a mixed-use landscape looking for a particular Latin-inscribed mystery stone an Archaeology Shetland member found as a teenager, yet on the weekend of April 13th we did just that descending from Stugger Hill through Valla Dale near Urafirth.

The stone, seen to the left, very clearly has the words ‘MAXIMUM POST LABOREM CONFECERUNT’ carved neatly in the face followed by an ‘A’, possibly ‘D’ and finished with ‘XVIM’.

Using a Google translator, the literal transcription is something along the lines ‘after the work is finished greatest by nineteen’ which is largely nonsensical. Perhaps a more reasonable interpretation would be ‘after the greatest work finished’ or ‘greatest effort’ followed by the date of ‘16’. Thus, the stone may mark a point where great effort to accomplish something was finally completed.

Due to the script appearing more modern and carved with something like a pen knife, the stone wouldn’t appear to be something of antiquity. The date itself may allude to 1916, one might stretch it to 1816. The Latin inscription is not quite fitting right either and, as far as some quick research will take us, does not appear to be part of a larger quote such as something Biblical in nature.

To add to our minor mystery, the supposed date of ‘XVI’ with the superscript ‘M’ is most peculiar. Also, as seen below,

there was more to it either at one time or never finished. Below the main inscription other letters can be seen, possibly ‘KAI’, and still more evidence alongside and below. The same is true above where the letter ‘H’ is very visible with still more carvings on either side of that.

Just what the effort was we may never know. Although we have some long-abandoned agricultural structures – krubs, krus, a horizontal mill and maybe a rather simple and much degraded croft house – the site, seen below, is dominated by prehistoric buildings. At least three, and as many as five, well-defined dwellings dot the landscape one of which is structurally associated with the Neolithic and most of the field divisions appear to originate in prehistory.

And if anyone has an idea to help us solve the mystery of Kevin’s stone then by all means let us know!

*Update on the above.

We received a number of responses to the mystery stone and, though the mystery does continue, we thought we'd share what we know.

In this area near Urafirth there has been a folklore tradition regarding the 'Valladale Folk'. The origins and reference is dependent upon with whom you speak but there are two principal sources and both relate to the stone.

The first is an account of a family resident in Valladale in the 1690s. During a time of widespread crop failure, fishing collapse and the resulting famine the family slowly starved to death. The people of Hillswick, also deeply mired in the deprivation, mounted an effort to row over with what little food they could spare but by the time they reached them the family was all but gone. A priest attending their last dying moments carved the stone in their memory and the people were buried on the land.

A second account, with much research by the local landowner, is of a family who were among eight families evicted from the Ness of Hillswick during clearances sometime between 1820 and 1830. Settling in the rather marginal lands of Valladale, the family, quite aged at the time with the youngest sons in their 50s, tried to eke out a living. The last surviving member committed suicide in the 1850s, was buried at the doorstep to his crofthouse and the stone put there as a memorial to him.

As with any folklore, like we see in the first account, you proceed with caution even though there is often a kernel of truth buried in there. And though we have no verifiable evidence of its occurrence the plausibility is certainly there. This time period during the Little Ice Age did see widespread crop failures and famine throughout the Scandinavian region and beyond. Yet, it is problematic for a couple reasons. Firstly, there is no detail as to why they would be buried there and who did the burying. The location of the stone itself, steeply downslope and on the banks of a burn, doesn't even account for possible slippage over time. There is also the issue of the message syntax as it's being conveyed. It's garbled text, what we can discern, and one would expect better Latin from a priest.

The second account has far more merit as it would relate to the stone. In the first instance the facts are verifiable - the events did occur and are a matter of record. Even the burial, a suicide being denied sanctified ground, makes sense in this tale of the Valladale Folk. However, who then etched the message into the stone and, despite its garbled message, it does clearly refer in the plural, to a group, rather than an individual which circumstantially refers back to the first tale. It is, of course, within the very real realm of possibility it was carved by a layperson as a memorial to the tragedy as it befits the whole family and the eviction which only culminates in the suicide of the last remaining member. The location of the stone, well away from the crofthouse, is an added issue even here.

In the end, as the landowner himself speculates, it very well may be a 'hoax'. Not in a malicious way, perhaps just a student practising their Latin. It could be just about anything as mundane as this because despite its 'rediscovery' every few years, his own father recollects the stone first appears and becomes a topic of conversation at some point between the wars. It doesn't remove the possibility that slippage of some sort uncovers it but that likely would have been noticed. As he remarks, that - and mass burials - are not something that goes unnoticed especially when the crofters are on the land almost daily.

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