Sunday, 12 July 2015

Stonefest 1

Prehistoric stone circles are not everyone's cup of tea, but I like 'em, and it's my blog, and I'm going to have a stonefest. Turn away now with a shudder (or a yawn) if you'd prefer to read about something else.

Although keen to see them, I'm actually a mere dabbler where standing stones and stone circles are concerned. I'm mostly interested in the atmosphere they generate - and their photographic potential. For example, this set of fangs on the island of Anglesey last year:

In reality they looked like this - still wonderfully photogenic, though:

The Scottish examples, mostly in Aberdeenshire (a happy hunting-ground for stone circles, trust me), were less dramatic but still well worth the effort of finding. They were mostly deep in the countryside, some with views - a perfect excuse for touring about in the sunshine on little-frequented roads, in between pit stops for refreshment. Did I say sunshine? Well, I mostly left them for the cloudier days, on the basis that when the sun had got its hat on, and was coming out to play, I'd prefer to visit the coast and the towns.

Know then that in days of old, thousands of years ago, when the north of Britain was rather warmer than it is now, and the lonely bits of it rather more populated than now, the people were inspired to erect large stones in a circular formation for purposes that may have had something to do with celebrating important moments in the yearly agricultural cycle - perhaps the start of spring (plant those crops!), or the start of winter (batten down the hatches!). So they chose suitable stones, set them up, and watched the way the sun fell on those stones, and where shadows went, until the position of sunrise, or the shadow cast, told them that it was time for a tea break, or their summer holidays, or a harvest festival, or a ritual orgy, or whatever.

Some types of circle had a definite focal point - a Very Big Stone, an obvious place before which to conduct a ceremony (such as ritually devirginising the young girls who had come of age). Or, at night in winter, to light a fire, for a midnight cremation perhaps, the surrounding circle forming a magical protective fence against the darkness beyond, a bright oasis of flickering light in which the people could gather and chant.

Aberdeenshire has a speciality: recumbent stone circles. These feature a large stone, set upright on its long edge, flanked by two taller and more slender companions; then the rest of the circle, the stones graded in height so that the tallest are nearest to the big stone lying on its side, and the smallest furthest away. I visited two good examples near Inverurie, one of them, the Loanhead of Daviot Stone Circle, being the very best. Here it is. It dates from around 3,000BC.

I expect I was very naughty to carefully step into the centre part and take a selfie! But no thunderbolt punished me.

The whole thing reminded me of a very large round bed, with big stone pillows at the head. The woodland beyond, through which you approached the stone circle, didn't exist when it was first built and used. The recumbent stone, over which a clear view of the far horizon could be had, was positioned at a point just to the west of south. Exactly where there would be a Significant Sunrise at one of the equinoxes, I'm guessing! If I have a criticism of this site, it is that the mysterious prehistoric atmosphere was badly compromised by the presence of a weekend scout camp in the woods. It wasn't peaceful. It was also difficult to take photos without also capturing a brightly-coloured tent, or teenage people milling around, or cars starting up, somewhere in the background.

Not so very far away, but in a much more isolated position, is the Easter Anqhorthies Stone Circle, the other good example of a recumbent stone circle, this time not so old because the layout seems to show some development lacking in the other. However, there are also woods nearby that weren't there originally, and the big recumbent stone points just west of south. I went there on one of the few wet days I experienced. On the way there was a road sign I'd never seen before, clearly meaning 'This is the way to the prehistoric stone site':

There was a tidy little car park, empty, where I left Fiona with firm instructions not to drive off, as I wouldn't be overlong, not in the steady rainfall:

Then I made my way up a track. In a certain kind of dim light, and certainly at dusk, this might be a rather spooky thing to do. It was very lonely countryside.

The circle was tightly fenced in, but once inside I thought the stones were more interesting than at Loanhead of Daviot. For one thing, the recumbent stone was more dramatic, its supporters on each side looking taller and more fang-like. If the trees weren't there, it would be like looking at the distant horizon through a big wide gunsight.

Another thing, you'll notice that the recumbent stone and its adjacent stones form a definite inner enclosure, a bit like a hearth to contain a fire, or the focus of a shrine. Each stone had its own individual personality, either in shape or colour.

One, close to the big recumbent stone, stood out because it displayed a bright patch of red jasper - the colour of blood. Was it forever bleeding?

Southwards now, east of Strachan, in a secluded forest glade, was a hidden-away stone circle called the Mulloch Stone Circle, alias The Nine Stanes. I doubt if many people know it's there, or if they do, can be bothered to tramp over to inspect it. But I did. This one isn't in the care of Historic Scotland or Aberdeenshire Council. The onus has fallen on the Forestry Commission. Another circle that would be spooky to visit at dusk. You approach through whispering trees, and long grass. No birds sing. Something, someone, is watching you all the time.

I was reminded of petrified beasts, and men buried up to the neck, so that only their weathered heads showed, half-covered by moss and encroaching bracken. Unsettling. I did not feel welcome. I was an intruder for sure. I got my shots and fled.

Next time, two friendlier circles much further south - and some very impressive Pictish standing stones.


  1. There is something awesome about stone circles - mysterious connexions with a long-lost past.

    You didn't mention it, but is the Mulloch circle also a recumbent? A couple of your photos give that impression, with one fallen stone and one standing, flanking a recumbent one.

  2. No, it's a bog-standard stone circle, so far as I know.



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