History & Mystery: Exploring Celtic Standing Stones
Standing stones and stone circles are full of history and shrouded in mystery. The purposes these Bronze and Iron Age structures served are hinted at by their alignment to the sun and / or moon, and through artifacts uncovered during archaeological digs. But scholars still aren’t completely sure why these structures were built, what they represented, or even who actually built them. Still, there is an allure to them. Stonehenge in England annually draws crowds of over 800,000 people and has fueled the imagination of writers and dreamers. But it’s not the only circle of stones in Britain. In fact, these monuments—whether single stones, rows, or circles—can be found throughout the British Isles and Ireland. In Diana Gabaldon’s novel, Outlander, Claire Beauchamp, a 20th century nurse, touches a standing stone at Craigh na Dun in Scotland, and travels back in time to the 18th century. Craigh na Dun is fictional but the setting and the megalithic structure are said to have been based on the stone circles at the Clava Cairns in Inverness or the Calanais Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis. Today’s post explores some of the other intriguing stone circles in the Celtic lands. If you visit any of these sites, I can’t promise you literally will be transported back in time. Then again, I can’t guarantee you won’t.
Beltany Stone Circle in County Donegal is a Bronze Age structure approximately as old as the famous passage tombs at Newgrange. Built at least as far back as the 8th century BC, perhaps even earlier, it is composed of 60 stones. Scholars believe there originally were 80 but some were pilfered by local farmers during the 18th or 19th century AD for use in farm buildings or as boundary markers. Its name suggests it was used in relation to the fire festival of Beltane (May 1st). This theory is supported by the alignment of a set of stones which, in early May, point to the rising sun. Another set aligns with sunrise on or about the winter solstice (December 21st or 22nd).
Ballynoe Stone Circle in County Down is reputed to be one of the most complex and impressive circles in Ireland. It is made up of 50 stones and its origin is dated to around 2000 BC. A burial mound was added within the circle sometime later. A 1930s excavation of the mound found cremated bones inside.
The Athgreany Stone Circle in County Wicklow is believed to have been a site dedicated to the observation of the sun, particularly at the solstices and equinoxes. This thesis is based on a translation of the name “Athgreany” from the Irish “Achadh Greine,” which means “Field of the Sun.” This site dates from somewhere around 1400 to 800 BC and has 14 boulders of granite. Just to the north of the circle is a single standing stone. According to legend, the single stone was a piper and those in the circle were dancers. All were petrified for dancing on the Sabbath. A Hawthorn tree on the edge of the circle is also the subject of folklore. In Celtic culture, any
tree growing alone is said to be a faerie tree which should not be disturbed. Hawthorns, in
particular, are to be treated with extreme respect as they are believed to be portals to the
Otherworld which are guarded by faeries.
Other notable stone circle sites in Ireland include the Drombeg Stone Circle in Co. Cork and the Uragh Stone Circle on the Beara Peninsula in Co. Kerry.
The Ring of Brogdar, located in Orkney, is made up of 36 stones but scholars estimate it originally had 60. The main ring is thought to have been constructed between 2600 and 2400 BC but the site has never been excavated, so the date is uncertain. The site may have been built as a moon observatory. A large ditch encircles the stones and 13 burial mounds have been found on the site. Also on site is the 5,000 year old Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, which is aligned with the setting sun of midwinter and is acclaimed as one of the finest chambered cairns in Europe.
Older than Stonehenge, the Calanais Standing Stones site, on the Isle of Lewis, is considered one of Scotland’s best preserved Neolithic monuments. Built about 5,000 years ago, it is thought to have been an astronomical observatory and a place for ritual activity for over 2,000 years. Sometime between 1000 and 500 BC, the circle was leveled and, eventually, covered by peat. The stones were discovered in the 19th century while the peat was being cut for use as fuel. Currently, the site consists of a center stone of about 17 feet in height. Smaller stones radiate out in lines from the center to the east, west, and south. There is an avenue nearly 300 feet in length which runs from the center towards the north. Rows of stones line both sides of this avenue and its width decreases as it nears the center of the circle. A small chambered tomb lies within the circle. There are 11 smaller stone circles surrounding the main one, indicating this was a significant site.
Machrie Moor, on the Isle of Arran, is a massive complex of stones circles, standing stones, cairns, and an extensive field system. It dates back to at least 1500 BC but excavations have also found timber circles, dating from 2500 BC, under the stones. Only a small part of the moor has been excavated so archaeologists believe there is much more to be discovered beneath the surface.
There is a bit of folklore associated with the site. One of the stone circles is called Fingal’s Cauldron Seat. In both Scottish and Irish folklore, Fingal is a Scottish giant who gets into an insult contest with Finn MacCumhail, Ireland’s most legendary hero. Fingal stands on the coast of Scotland and Finn on the Irish shore. The two hurl insults back and forth across the North Atlantic. This escalates into them throwing stones which ultimately result in the creation of Giants Causeway. On Machrie Moor, in the stone circle called Fingal’s Cauldron Seat, there is one stone that has a hole in it. According to legend, whenever the giant sat down to a meal, he would tie a rope though the hole and tether his dog to the rock as he ate.
Other sites to explore on your visit to Scotland are the standing stones at Kilmartin Glen and the Clava Cairns.
CORNWALL and WALES
Like Scotland and Ireland, Wales and the English county of Cornwall (which is steeped in Celtic culture and history) have their fair share of standing stones as well as folklore associated with these mysterious places.
Near Nacleara, Cornwall, there is a single standing stone known as the 12 O’Clock Stone. Folklore claims that children with rickets can be cured there—as long as they weren’t conceived illegitimately. Alternatively, parents can bring a child to Penzance where there is a ring-shaped stone reputed to cure children of rickets—or any other disease. The cure is said to be accomplished by passing the child through the hole in the stone nine times. Please note: I’m not advocating this, just sharing the lore.
But just as Claire in Outlander discovered, you have to be careful around standing stones. In St. Nicholas, Glamorgan, Wales, there is a group of standing stones which, legend says, were cursed by the Druids. According to the lore, if you sleep near these stones on May Day’s Eve (April 30th), St. John's Eve (June 23rd), or Midwinter’s Eve [about December 20th or 22nd], one of three things will happen. You will become a poet, go mad, or die! You could try it and find out…but I wouldn’t risk it.
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