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Stone Circles (Grampian)

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Prehistoric sites in Scotland. Stone circles, cairns, standing stones, and hill settlements with archaeological and astronomical significance.

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      01.01.2001 04:36
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      Aberdeen offers a gateway to a tour of prehistoric discovery unique in these Isles. For those with an interest it the mysteries of our forefathers, the Recumbent Stone Circles of the North East of Scotland well merit exploration.

      Some 4000 years ago, our nomadic forefathers were beginning to till the soil. Instead of hunting the wild creatures of the forests, they began to herd animals in the clearings they created. And in this North East corner of Scotland they erected the most mysterious monuments – now classified as Recumbent Stone Circles. What are these structures, of which surprisingly many still remain?

      They all follow a similar pattern. A huge block of stone, sometimes weighing in the order of 20 tonnes, lies prostrate in the south west of the circle. It is wedged to ensure that the upper surface is level. This is the “Recumbent Stone”. On either side of this are two upright stones (the “flankers”), touching the Recumbent. These are frequently taller than a man, and they are the tallest of the perimeter stones. Around the circumference of the circle other upright stones are placed, carefully descending in height towards the north east. The diameter of the circle is usually around 12 – 18 metres.

      Near the renowned Abbey of Deer, some 35 miles north of Aberdeen, is a forestry plantation called Loudon Wood. The heart of this wood is a dark and eerie place, and here lies one of the best preserved and most imposing circles in the area. Only its anonymity and inaccessibility have preserved it these thousands of years. Few of its uprights still stand; most lie, partly submerged in the boggy ground. But enough of it remains intact to generate a discomfort; an uneasiness. The imagination takes over as you stand among these stones, guessing at the past and the activities which may have taken place here.

      Of course the tales have been handed down. Tales of dancing and ritual, fires and sacrifices. T
      heories are offered which are complex, regarding solar or astral or lunar alignments. Were the circles positioned in accordance with the midsummer sunrise? Were they a primitive calendar for a society experimenting in agriculture?

      Cremated bone has been found buried in most of these circles, but only in small quantities. They do not appear to be burial grounds or crematoria. It is suggested that the burnt bones may reflect some dedication ceremony at the time of construction.

      And what is the origin of such peculiar monuments? Near Inverness stand some impressively preserved structures known as Clava Cairns. They consist of a central cairn, with a ring of graded upright stones around the outside. Apart from the missing Recumbent, these graded rings are identical to those found in Grampian, but they are of an earlier date. Eastwards along the Moray coast there are traces of movement of people around this time, so it is reasonable to assume that they brought their concept of stone rings with them.

      Around the same time as Clava Cairns were being built, passage graves were being constructed in Ireland which had a large Recumbent stone to mark the entrance. There is clear evidence of migration of people from Ireland to North East Scotland at that time – relics are found en route by Loch Lomond and up into the Grampians. So it would seem that our Recumbent Stone Circles may be a fusion of ideas and customs from Inverness and Ireland.

      But many, many questions remain as to the true purpose of these stone circles. And while they remain unanswered, the popular tales of sacrifice, dancing in the moonlight, and rituals by funeral pyres will flourish . . .

      This is a big, big subject. I have offered only a precis here. Enough, I hope to stimulate interest.

      For anyone seeking more detail, about these unique North East circles, and similar prehistoric structures throughout the UK, I would recommend “The Stone Circles
      of the British Isles”, by Aubrey Burl. More a reference book than a “good read”, it’s worth persevering with for the wealth of information it contains.

      I mentioned only one specific circle above, for illustration. But if you’re thinking of hopping in the car and leaving Aberdeen on a day’s circle spotting, here are a few of the most accessible. Only a few – because there are historical records of 175 in the area, of which 74 are still in at least partial existence!

      Loudon Wood (NJ 962497) Near Mintlaw. Access via forest tracks.
      Strichen (NJ 937545) Excellent access by public footpath from the village of Strichen.
      Aikey Brae (NJ 959471) Access from an unclassified road north west of the village of Old Deer.
      Berrybrae (NK 028572) Visible, and very accessible, from an unclassified road north west of the village of Crimond.


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