Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Solstice stones

The north east of Scotland is rich in Neolithic and Bronze Age megalithic monuments.  There are many hundreds of standing stones and stone circles, including around forty of a type found only in this corner of Scotland and known as recumbent stone circles.

The Winter solstice seemed an appropriate time to visit one of the circles just a few kilometres from home, Cothiemuir Hill.

This circle is approximately 75 metres in diameter and remains almost complete.  Now hidden in a wood on a low hill, it would originally have been a prominent monument with an open outlook.  The circle stones (orthostats) are of granite, mostly red but occasionally grey.

The defining feature of a recumbent stone circle is the great recumbent itself, flanked by two pillars (the flankers).  The recumbent and flankers are always at the south of the circles, and almost always at the south-southwest.  Where both flankers survive, one is always slender, the other stout - and they are of different heights.  The flankers are usually angled into the recumbent to emphasise the circle. Often the orthostats are graded in height toward the flankers. 

Viewed from the centre of the circle at Cothiemuir Hill, the west flanker (the taller of the two) is aligned exactly to the midwinter sunset.

The flankers are 2.9 and 2.7 metres high, and the great recumbent is a 4.2 metre long slab of dark basalt weighing 20 tons.  This stone has been brought to the circle; the work must have been an immense undertaking for a community before wheel and animal power was in use.  Radiocarbon dating for this circle places its construction at around 2700-2500 BC, contemporary with most other recumbent circles.

At the centre of the circle is a large slab with a pit underneath it.  There is also evidence of a paved area leading from the centre to the recumbent.  There was probably a timber circle here before the stones - evidence seems to be emerging that the stones are the closing moment in a long period of use.

It's clear that these circles were places of great importance to the folk who raised them, and beyond.  Most were in use for well over a thousand years after construction for burials and ceremonies- indeed to this day there are sometimes small tokens left at circles, flowers, ash and the like.

It's almost certain that one of the functions of the circles was to mark out the important lunar events of the year - particularly the midwinter solstice.  In this present spell of unbroken intense frost, it isn't hard to empathise with those who looked to the stones to mark the returning of the light and the retreat of the bitter, dark winter.

A visit at this time of year seemed significant, the stones seem to fit their place, to exude permanence and a faint resonance of the meaning they were raised to convey.  And strange, though I've visited many of the circles, I've never once touched any of the stones - I don't know why, other than superstition; which is perhaps part of their power to this day!


  1. very cool. Thanks a lot for sharing!

  2. Interesting post. A local community near me has recent put up a stone circle, carefully aligned etc I think as a tourist attraction, so the concept lives on, albeit in a different context!
    BTW, be careful near the stones. You have read the 'Outlander' series haven't you...? ;-)

  3. Thank yoy Lee & Michael,

    The stone circles are so atmospheric - there's a feeling of peace and antiquity around them all. I've never felt uneasy near them at all. Interesting to hear that new circles are being erected, the continuation of a long tradition

    Kind regards


  4. Really interesting Ian. I love visiting some of the circles "down South". The Merry Maidens in Cornwall and Castlerigg in Cumbria being favourites that I return to time and time again. I love to walk around each circle, stroking each stone; almost like returning to basics and cleansing the soul...

  5. Hi Andy, the circles and standing stones are really special places. Perhaps it has something to do with the sheer age of these monuments, or perhaps a faint hint of their original purpose. Castlerigg certainly has both those qualities

  6. Did you know that the stones form the center of Cothiemuir Hill natural burial ground?

  7. Hi James, Yes, the natural burial ground is a hundred or so metres to the east of the circle, just at the edge of the wood. I must admit to having mixed feelings about the use of an ancient monument for this, not because of the burial aspect but because it's a commercial enterprise. The site and car park are at least unobtrusive at Cothiemuir

    Kind Regards