Stone Circles of Scotland
Written by: Stewart Borland
Published: 22nd September 2014
Long before the first stone circle was built, and the Achara Stone erected near Keil Hill (see The Story of Keil Hill and its people) the country we know today as Scotland was part of the prehistoric continent of Laurasia, destined to divide itself into North America and Europe. The spit of land we call England was very much part of the European landmass while Scotland stayed with the American continent. After a few more millennia Scotland eventually broke away from mainland America and bobbed across the primordial bouillabaisse to bump into the top of England, around 400 million years ago.
Scotland was in no hurry to attach itself to England. For countless millennia it (with many other bits of countries) wandered the planet like the ancient mariner, experiencing itself as a tropical swampland, a beautiful Equatorial region surrounded by azure seas and coral reefs. It even spent some time as an arid desert before cooling off again. In the last million years it has borne no less than 6 ice ages, the incremental ebb and flow of humongous glaciers carving out the distinctive mountains and valleys we know today.
Eventually England and Scotland became firmly welded together roughly along the line where Hadrian’s Wall was built (Geologists must find that a bit spooky). The impact helped to form the Hebrides. In 6000BC the whole caboodle began to break away from Europe as the English Channel rose. Early civilisations had already travelled west, so by the time Britain was an island there were people living on it as far north as Scotland.
From 9000BC we begin to find the first human evidence in Scotland. The oldest site we know of is on the Isle of Rum. Early settlers here were hunter-gatherers from the Mesolithic (middle Stone Age) period. The rise of the Neolithic (or Bronze Age) period began around 3000BC, when we have the beginnings of agriculture and the development of permanent villages. Around 3180BC, Skara Brae, in Orkney, a highly developed Neolithic village, was built. Older than the pyramids, older even than Stonehenge, it was used by generations of families for 600 years and then mysteriously abandoned.
Sea storms buried the village in sand, perfectly preserving Skara Brae’s stone walls, until the whole complex became hidden beneath a hill and forgotten for 5000 years. Then in 1850 during a fierce storm, the top of the hill was blown off revealing some of the stone dwellings, much to the locals’ amazement. Since then excavations have revealed much more.
Each dwelling, eight in all, had its own hearth, dresser, beds and stone boxes for storage. They were identically built and linking passages ran between the homes of this close-knit community.
At that time in history a new and unprecedented wave of building was taking place. Circular earthworks called henges were being constructed all over Britain, and some of the first were in Scotland. Not all henges contained timber or stone circles, but some did. The earliest are the Standing Stones of Stenness on Orkney, thought to have been begun around 3000BC. This was followed by the chambered cairn of Maeshowe in 2800BC, and the ambitious Ring of Brodgar around 2500BC. This last originally contained an impressive 60 stones in a perfect circle. It is likely that the family lineages of Skara Brae had much to do with the construction of both the cairn, Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.
No one knows the reason for these henges or stone circles. They seem to have astronomical significance, and it could be this was part of a new religion that swept Britain. Why the Neolithic people chose remote islands like Orkney and Harris to spend countless man hours on these arduous constructions is even more mysterious. As with Avebury and Stonehenge in the south of Britain, they often formed a central feature in a much larger area of building and landscaping. Pathways and other constructions linked them together. Today stone circles like these seem remote and isolated, but back then they were centers of activity. As to what that activity was, we can only make an educated guess!
The Neolithic Scots were shorter than their well fed descendants. They lived in harsh conditions; the average life-span lasted 30 years. Death and deformity by infections and broken bones were common, and it was a mark of great age and respect to make it to 50 years. They lived in coastal regions and steered their boats between the islands, trading wares with other communities. These boats, called currachs, were made by stretching waterproof animal skins over wooden frames. Knowledge of seamanship had been around since at least 4000BC. There is evidence to suggest that trade took place between Scotland and Norway as well as with other communities spread all over the British Isles. Their fortunes, their culture and a large part of their diet depended on the sea.
Historians are not entirely sure whether it was the Celts, who roamed through Europe, the Beaker people from the banks of the Rhine, or adventurous Scandinavians who got here first. Perhaps it was a combination of all three. But all these peoples laid the foundations for human survival in Scotland, forging their family trees for millennia, long before the Romans and Vikings came. The canyons of time between them and us means we can know very little about them.
The writer Rodney Castleden, author of ‘The Stonehenge people’ (1987) has suggested they had a more integrated and sacred view of life. The Neolithic mind may have seen “no real division between man and nature, nor between earth and heaven.” The road mankind has since taken has resulted in our losing that connection and lamenting its loss. Perhaps these ancient people have something to teach their great [x 300] grand children. They are the ancestors of all of us.