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Stone Circles

In northeast Scotland, there stands a series of reminders of our prehistoric past. Some 4000 years ago, nomads began to herd animals in the clearings they created from tilling.  In northeast Scotland, these nomads erected mysterious monuments, which are now classified as Recumbent Stone Circles. What are these structures, of which surprisingly many still remain? Around 90 recumbent stone circles to have survived in Aberdeenshire

 

Map.Distribution of Recumbent Stone CirclesAberdeenshire is particularly rich in stone-circles.   No fewer than 175 of them have been recorded as existing in the district. Unfortunately many of them entirely disappeared when the sites were turned to agricultural uses ; others have been mutilated, and owing to the removal of some of the stones, stand incomplete; a few have been untouched, and from these we may judge what the others were like. One of the best preserved is that at Parkhouse, a mile south-west of the Abbey of Deer. A circle of great blocks of stone, irregular and of unequal height, some standing erect, some evidently fallen down, is the general feature. Sometimes inside the circle, but more usually in the circumference of the circle itself, there is one conspicuously larger stone, in a recumbent position. This it has been usual to call the rostrum or altar stone. It is well marked at Parkhouse, being 14 feet 9 inches long, 5 feet 9 inches high, and estimated to weigh 20 tons. The so-called rostrum is usually on the south side of the circle and the stones facing it on the north are of smaller size.  The size of the circles varies, the largest being over 60 feet in diameter, the smaller ones less than 30. Parkhouse measures 50 feet. They are found all over the county, in the valley of the Dee, in the valley of the Don at Alford, Inverurie and Dyce, as well as in Auchterless, Methlick, Crimond and Lonmay. The Recumbent stone is invariably a feature of the larger circles. One of the largest is in the circle at Old Keig in Alford a huge monolith computed to be 30 tons in weight. Other good examples are at Auchquorthies, Fetternear and at Balquhain near Inveramsay.

They all follow a similar pattern. A huge block of stone, weighing around 20 tons, lies prostrate in the southwest 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, which descend in height towards the northeast. The diameter of the circle is usually around 12 to 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 during these thousands of years. Few of its uprights still stand; most lie partly submerged in the boggy ground.  Of course, there are many tales of dancing, ritual, fires, and sacrifices that have been handed down. There are complex theories about 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?

The Clava Cairns Seen from the South WestLouden Wood - The interior had been levelled prior to the erection of the stones and later the ground was burnt over by setting fire to a pile of willow twigs. On the area so consecrated, eight small ringed burial cairns were built, five of which yielded burnt human bones and charcoal, a few shards of pottery and 3 worked flints. The finding of oak charcoal in 5 cairns and hazel in 1 could indicate not all deposits were contemporary. Central cairn is largest at 3.5m in diameter, it is the only one to have a double kerb; this and 6 other cairns have 11 kerbstones. When J Logan described this circle in 1820 he referred to 9 other smaller circles of similar dimensions situated to SW of circle but no trace of these remain.

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

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 12 graded upright stones around the outside, and central burial pits. Apart from the missing Recumbent, these graded rings are identical to those found in Aberdeenshire, 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.


 

Tyrebagger Nr Dyce
Probably THE stone circle in Aberdeenshire, this large recumbent circle sits high above the airport with views over Aberdeen and the sea. You can only dream what the view was like 4000 years ago. The Circle is composed of large stones with seams of quartz running through, and the remains of a Cairn in the centre. Some restoration has occurred, and 1 stone is obviously cemented together. The recumbent, now slumped backwards is truly colossal weighing over 20 tons.

An interesting antiquity is the circle of 12 upright stones, standing upon a low mound on the side of Tyrebagger Hill, and upon the farm of Standingstones, which takes its name from the circle. The stones vary in height from 3 to 9 feet, and the centre of the mound is hollowed out somewhat, like a saucer. The "altar stone" now occupies a sloping position, and when struck emits a metallic sound. Two cairns formerly stood in the same locality, but one was demolished in 1896. They are believed to have been connected with the above circle.  The stone circles of the north-eastern counties had probably been erected by earlier inhabitants for the purpose of worship. The frequency with which they occur near the sea and river sides suggests that they belong to the period when the inhabitants had to depend upon fishing and the chase for a subsistence. It has to be noted that in many cases single upright stones appear in exact line, and form a connecting link between the circles, thus proving that all the stones had been placed according to a carefully prepared plan.  The presumption is that each circle and stone had had its specific purpose i.e., some for special feasts and forms, and others for general worship. The sculpture upon the stones in many instances is very fine; and when one reflects upon the rude implements then at command, the long distances which many of the stones had to be carried before being set up, the primitive method of transport, and the lack of roads and paths, it will be realised how intensely earnest the people had been in their worship, and in providing its necessary adjuncts.


Aikey Brae Mintlaw The most complete recumbent stone circle in the north-east, it includes a massive recumbent stone weighing some 22 tons.

Like Aberdeenshires other recumbent stone circles (ie, stone circles whose largest stone is lying down), Aikey Brae was built by a farming community some time around 4,000 years ago. It was probably built as a means of charting the passing of the seasons by plotting the lunar cycle. The usual pattern was for these circles to fall out of use within a few 100 years, then for later generations of residents to use them as cremation cemeteries, eventually building a cairn in the centre of the circle. It is not clear whether that happened here, because although the circle itself is relatively undisturbed, the same cannot be said of the area within it. A dig in the centre of the circle by Charles Elphinstone-Dalrymple in the 1800s revealed little of value and probably removed any evidence that might be available to later archaeologists.

The circle itself comprises 10 stones and covers an area of 14.4m in diameter. The recumbent (probably) weighs 21.5 tonnes, and like its flankers, the upright stones standing at either end of it, is made of whinstone that must have been transported here from some distance away. The remaining stones are made of local granite and are graded in size, with the largest being next to the Flankers and the smallest opposite the Recumbent


Easter Aquhorthies

 The Stone Circle from Outside the Surrounding Fence Bestand:Easter Aquhorthies Stone Circle 02.jpg

The stone circle at Easter Aquhorthies measures some 19.5m in diameter, and is close to circular in plan, probably making it one of the earlier stone circles to be built in Aberdeenshire.  The builders of many of these circles chose superb locations for them. Easter Aquhorthies is no exception, and it offers extensive views to the east.  The recumbent stone measures some 3.8m in length and is thought to weigh around 9 tons. It is made of reddish granite that was probably brought here from Bennachie, a mountain a few miles to the west. The Flankers are made of grey granite, some 2.3m height. Two large blocks project into the ring from the Recumbent stone, making this side of the ring feel even more than usually "altar-like".  Most of the individual standing stones in the circle are made of porphry, a reddish rock. There is one exception, a rock made of a hard substance called jasper. They decline in size from about 1.8m high next to the Flankers to 1m on the opposite side of the circle. The centre of the circle rises slightly, and it is thought this could indicate the site of a ring cairn.

 

The Circle from the EastSunhoney Recumbent Stone Circle.

This is a stone circle of some 25.4m diameter comprising nine standing stones plus a large horizontal (or "recumbent") stone which has an upright flanking stone at either side of it.  As with most of these stone circles, it seems that the original use of Sunhoney was no longer relevant to those who lived here by the middle of the second millennium BC. Nonetheless, as a place built by the ancestors it must still have been a place of reverence. Digging in 1865 suggests that the circle became the location of cremation burials and over time one or more cairns developed in the centre of the ring. What is particularly interesting at Sunhoney is that it seems to have remained a place of reverence ever since. The circle itself and the copse of trees that surround it suggest an complete absence of disturbance by agriculture. 

 

Yon Staens hae a familiar ring tae em!
A free-standing block of granite, c.9 to 10 feet in height, believed to be a Bronze Age standing stone. It stood in the grounds of Hilton School and may have been moved when the school was built (Anon 1949), but if so it was replaced in its original position (information from Dr W Douglas Simpson, Librarian, Aberdeen University). Anon 1949. This standing stone is situated on a gentle East North East facing slope at an altitude of about 80m. It stood within a verge adjacent to the gates onto Hilton Drive but never mentioned to the pupils as being pre-historic nor did it have any description or dating information.

View of standing stone. Glass half-plate negative captioned: 'Standing Stone Remains of Circle at Hilton, Woodside, Feb 1906'.

Judging by the close ploughing induced by urgency of greater Harvest adjacent to this stone it may well have suffered damage at the hands of the farmer and any associated adjacent stones towed away, further quarried or broken up.

In the smaller and simpler circles, there is no recumbent stone, and the blocks are of more uniform height.  What the circles were used for is still a matter of dispute. They have for long been called " Druidical " circles, and the received opinion was that they were places of worship, the recumbent stone being the altar.  But there is no certitude in this view ; and, indeed, the fact that several exist at no great distance from each other (more than 12 are located in Deer) would seem to be adverse to it. They were certainly used as places of burying, and some antiquarians hold that they were the burying grounds of the people of the Bronze Age. A later theory is that they were intended to be astronomical clocks to a people who knew nothing of the length of the year, and who had no almanacs to guide them in the matter of the seasons. The stone-circles, however, still remain an unsolved problem.

Hilton Academy, 1932 - 1975


Earth Houses & Crannogs

Another form of archaeological remains found in the county is the Eirde or Earth-Houses. These are subterranean dwellings dug out of the ground and walled with un-hewn, un-mortared stones, each stone overlapping the one below until they meet at the top which is crowned with a larger flag-stone, or sometimes with wood. The probability is that in conjunction with the underground chambers there were huts above ground, which, being composed of wood, have now entirely disappeared. At many points in these earth-houses traces of fire and charcoal are to be seen, stones blackened by fire and layers of black ashes. In one at Loch Kinnord a piece of the upper stone of a quern as well as an angular piece of iron was found. It may be inferred that the inhabitants, whoever they were, were agriculturists, and that the period of occupation lasted down to the Iron Age. Specimens of these houses, which usually go by the local name of Picts' Houses, are found in the neighbourhood of Loch Kinnord on Deeside, at Castle Newe on the Don, and at Parkhouse, not far from the stone circle. The common notion of the purpose of these underground dwellings was that they were meant for hiding places in which the inhabitants took refuge when unable to resist their enemies in the open, but if, as has now been discovered, they were associated with wooden erections above ground, they could not have served this purpose. On the surface beside them were other houses, cattlefolds and other enclosures; once an enemy was in possession of these, he could hardly miss the earth-houses. Moreover, the inhabitants, if discovered, were in a trap from which there was no escape. It is more probable that the dwellings were adjuncts of some unknown kind to the huts on the surface. The fact that pottery and bronze armlets have been unearthed from these underground caverns proves that the earth-dwellers had reached a certain advancement in civilisation. They reared domestic animals, wove cloth and sewed it, and manufactured pottery. They used iron for cutting weapons and bronze for ornament, and must have possessed a wonderfully high standard of taste and manual skill. . Perhaps the accommodation design was a result of severe Climate Change

Along with the earth-houses at Kinnord are found crannogs or lake-dwellings. Artificial islands were created in the loch by forming a raft of logs, upon which layers of stones and other logs were deposited. As fresh materials were added the raft gradually sank till it rested on the bottom. The sides were afterwards strengthened with the addition of stones and beams. In this way was formed what is called the Prison Island on Loch Kinnord. In all probability the other island in the same loch, the Castle Island, may also be artificial, although it has usually been regarded as natural. Crannogs in pairs 1 large and the other small occur in several lochs.  A number of hill-forts, more or less disintegrated, are traceable in the higher ground in the vicinity of Lochs Kinnord and Davan. These show concentric lines of circumvallation, with stronger fortifications at various points. Vitrified forts, where the stones have been run together by the application of heat, are found at Dunnideer near Insch, and on the conical summit of Tap o' Noth near Rhynie. The Barmekin at Dunecht encloses an area of more than 2 acres, and consists of 5 concentric walls, 3 of earthworks and 2 of stone.  Numerous cairns, barrows or tumuli exist all over the county, at Aberdour on the coast, at Birse, Bourtie, Rhynie, Turriff, and elsewhere.  Human remains have been found in most of these; and as a rule flint arrowheads and other implements are also associated with them.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013