True Highlands Blog
The iconic image of Stonehenge is famous the world over. There is no doubting it is an impressive sight, but the fact that English Heritage have turned the visitor experience into something akin to a theme park, (with a price to match) where you still can’t get close to the stones themselves, has led to a resurgence of interest in Scottish alternatives.
Although not as well known internationally, visiting stone circles in Scotland is completely different. It’s atmospheric, it’s interactive and it’s free. To wander around without restriction on spiritual sites with such a curious history, to run your fingers over grooves that druids carved thousands of years ago and to do so in stunning locations without the throng of cash registers or queues of souvenir hunters, is truly a special experience.
There are at least a dozen sites of interest around Callanish on the Isle of Lewis, all estimated to be around 5,000 years old and all definitely worth a visit. The main stone complex contains around 50 stones in a cross-shaped setting. The impressive inner circle comprising 13 stones, the tallest of which is 4 metres high, and a small chambered cairn. Part of the appeal is the mystery of the site.
Nobody knows for sure just what it means or why it was built. Was it for some kind of ritual, worship or a lunar observatory? No matter, because as you wander freely around this bleak and treeless landscape, you can almost feel the connection to the past. This is a popular spot for pagans and druids to visit for equinoxes or at the solstice, but you don’t have to be a believer to feel the spiritual pull of the stones. For an even more authentic experience you can organise a boat trip and arrive by sea, the same way that the original builders could have done in the days long before roads were built. Despite its strong Christian tradition the islanders are, quite rightly, proud of this monument, and although the visitor centre is closed on Sundays you are free to walk around the stones themselves at any time, day or night.
The Ring of Brodgar on Orkney is an incredibly atmospheric spot. In the summer when the days are long and the simmer dim goes on forever, it is a truly absorbing time to stroll among these giant megaliths. This spectacular stone circle, surrounded by a large circular henge is now a world heritage site and free tours are given by the local Historic Scotland Rangers. Only 27 of the original 60 stones remain, in contrast to the nearby Standing Stones of Stenness, which tower at over 6 metres tall. These are much more restrained, but the location more than makes up for that and the circle itself has a diameter of over 100 metres making it one of the biggest in the UK.
Machrie Moor on the Isle of Arran is home to no less than 6 stone circles, dating from the Neolithic period and the early Bronze Age. The most impressive of these features three striking, upright, red sandstone pillars, the tallest of which is over five and a half metres tall. The second circle of note is a double ring of squat granite boulders called Fingal’s Cauldron Seat. This name is most likely derived from the Irish Warrior God Finn MacCumhail. According to the tradition, Fingal used the stone with the hole in it, which you can see in the outer circle, to tether his dog Bran, while he ate a meal within the inner ring. It is believed that these circles were the focus of ritual activity, perhaps only accessible to an elite priesthood, but nobody really knows for sure. As with many stone circles they may have also served some form of astronomical function. It has been suggested that the stone circles are in general alignment with a notch on the skyline, that divides Machrie Glen into two, and which is intersected by the sun on Midsummer’s morning.
Clava Cairns has enjoyed a huge surge of interest of late due to its featuring in the popular Outlander TV series. This well preserved site, conveniently close to Inverness, features 3 Neolithic burial tomb cairns and stone circles. The orientation of all these structures provides tantalising titbits of evidence to explain the motives behind the construction. The three cairns form a line running north east to south west. The passages of the two cairns are also similarly aligned, suggesting that the builders had their eyes on the midwinter sunset. The standing stones around the cairns also point to this, for they are graded in height with the tallest facing the setting sun in the south west and the lowest on the opposite side. Even the colour and texture of the stones seems to have been carefully selected to highlight the sunset on the shortest day of the year. Visit at the winter solstice and watch the sun send rays of light along the passages to illuminate the back wall of the ancient burial mounds. It’s easy to see why Diana Gabaldon was enchanted with this place and inspired to feature it so prominently in her bestselling books.
Aberdeenshire and the north east of Scotland has over 100 different stone circles that you can explore at your leisure. The recumbent stone circle at Tomnaverie is typical of the type to be found in this area. The characteristic features being a large stone set on its side, flanked by two upright stones, usually on the south-west arc of the circle. Within the 17 metre diameter stone circle are the remains of a low cairn. At midsummer, the Moon would have been framed by the recumbent stone and its flankers. Could this have been used by farmers to plot the movement of the seasons? It is also possible that these monuments were built to frame sacred landscape features. Tomnaverie, for example, provides spectacular views to the south and west.
It’s an eerie experience to walk in the footsteps of the residents here 5,000 years ago. What is also impressive is just how intact portions of the landscape seems to be. You could ramble for hours and lose yourself in the awe-inspiring views of Lochnagar and the Grampian peaks without having your reverie interrupted by reminders of the modern world like gift shops, fast food outlets or motorways.
And this is where Scotland really wins. The atmosphere, the mystery, the locations and the natural, unpoliced access to our countryside gives you an extra level of appreciation of these magnificent structures that you could not have anywhere else. It’s like when you learn more in a classroom when you are doing something rather than being told something. It’s about interacting with your environment rather than looking at a picture. It’s about living and breathing and feeling, rather than reading about. Come and see for yourself, immerse yourself in history, touch the past.
Tags: cairns, callanish, clava cairns, diana gabaldon, druids, film locations, lochnagar, machrie moor, orkney, outlander, pagan tradition, ring of brodgar, Scotland, scottish history, solstice, standing stones, stone circles, tomnaverie