Stone Circles and Sarah

In the second novel – A Megalithic Moon – our heroine, Sarah, finds herself transported back in time some five thousand years (ish).  For archaeologists and those with an interest in the past this is the Late Neolithic, a time of massive stone constructions, of megaliths, of stone circles.

For many years stone circles have fascinated me and so I was really very keen to weave these monuments into Sarah’s story.  There are some 1300 recorded stone circles in Britain and this is not the place to discuss each and every one of them.  Instead I wish to look at two stone circles in particular which feature in A Megalithic Moon, Boscawen Un and Loanhead of Daviot.  For those who want to find out more about stone circles I highly recommend Aubrey Burl’s The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany published by Yale University Press (2000).

In the very early pages of A Megalithic Moon the reader is introduced to one of my all time favourite sites – Boscawen Un – a stone circle in the heart of West Penwith, Cornwall.

Boscawen Un

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Boscawen Un on a very grey Cornish day…

Not a true circle the stone ring measures 24.9m and 21.9m in diameters making it more elliptical than circular.  The ring consists of nineteen stones varying in height from 0.9m to 1.3m and has two unique features.  Firstly there is a central stone which leans sharply to the north east.  Originally it was believed that the lean on the central stone was the result of people digging for treasure believed to be at its base but recent archaeological work has confirmed that the stone was deliberately placed in the ground at a lean.  Another interesting fact about the central stone is the presence of two faint, but real, carved axeheads near the base which can best be seen at the midsummer sunrise.

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The central stone with its deliberate lean.

Secondly all but one of the stones are of local granite, the odd one out is a solid chunk of white quartz.  For those of a pagan leaning, the quartz stone is significant as it serves to represent the feminine lunar deity (and thus the central stone is the male).  Quartz is often found on sites of ritual significance, the Duloe stone circle (also in Cornwall) is smaller but all of the stones are quartz.  Excavations at the Hurlers, a stone circle complex on Bodmin Moor, uncovered traces of a quartz pavement which highlights the importance of this material in the rituals of the past.  It is easy to imagine how the quartz in its freshly cut state might glow in the light of the moon.  The use of quartz is not restricted to Cornwal and much further afield in Aberdeenshire the recumbent stone circles often feature quartz.

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The single quartz stone in the circle.

The circle was restored in 1862 when three stones were re-erected and the hedge which originally cut through the ring was diverted around it.  Historically Boscawen Un was believed to be the Beisgawen yn Dumnonia named in the Welsh Triads as one of the ‘Three Principal Gorsedds’.  So much so, in 1928 the modern Cornish Gorsedd was inaugurated here.  Unfortunately recent academic work by Rachel Bromwich revealed that the Triads were in fact an eighteenth century forgery.

There is a west facing gap which may represent an entrance not unlike the one found at the Merry Maidens, another well known stone circle in West Cornwall, which can be seen from Boscawen Un.

 

Much later in A Megalithic Moon the reader is introduced to another kind of stone circle but much farther away, those of north east Scotland in Aberdeenshire.  Recumbent stone circles are so called due to a common feature of a large single stone lying ‘recumbent’ between two flanking uprights.  The recumbent always occupies a position on the circles arc between SSE – SW and the uprights are graded in size from the smallest on the northern arc and the tallest flanking the recumbent.  They are unique to this area of Scotland and are not found elsewhere except for in the south west of Ireland.

Unfortunately, agricultural practices of the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in many of the circles being destroyed.  Some well preserved examples which are worth a visit include Loanhead of Daviot, Easter Aquorthies, Sunhoney and Tyrebagger.

Loanhead of Daviot

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This recumbent stone circle is situated near the summit of gentle hill overlooking the village of Daviot and few miles from Inveruries.  Excavations conducted in 1934 provided evidence for the longevity of the site from the late Neolithic through to the Iron Age.  The site itself consists of two concentric rings of stone with a central cairn. In addition adjacent to the main stone circle is a late Bronze Age cremation cemetery.

The outer circle is 19.5m in diameter and is made up of ten upright stones and one recumbent.  Around the base of each upright a small cairn of stones were piled and in some evidence of burials were found.  Several of the uprights also have faint cupmarks engraved into the stones surface.

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The recumbent stone at Loanhead. Photo by M and K Grundy from geograph.co.uk.

The inner circle is 16.5m in diameter and forms a kerb of low stones to the central cairn which was built over a cremation pyre.  Here some 2.3kgs of burnt bone lay in the central space.  Interestingly the type of stone to be found in the central cairn consists mostly of quartz.

Just north of Loanhead a second recumbent is known, however all that remains is the recumbent itself and its two flankers.  A third circle was recorded in the 18th century to the south of Loanhead in the village of Daviot, sadly nothing remains of this circle.

 

Stone Circles and the Moon

A great deal has been written about the astronomical associations between megaliths and the night sky.  In relation to stone circles it was Aubrey Burl who pointed out that a circle is not the most efficient means to observe the night sky, rather a single line of stones would work considerably better.  Indeed there are scattered throughout the British landscape enigmatic lines of stones and often in association with stone circles, such as the previously mentioned Hurlers on Bodmin Moor.

So if stone circles are not for astronomical observations, what are they for?  Increasingly, there is a body of work which is leaning towards a lunar and/or solar explanation.  Often the emphasis is on the solstices, the rising and setting sun, midwinter and midsummer being the most popular.  However, there is some suggestion that the spring and autumn solstices were just as important if not more so, particularly in Cornwall where the people of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age were most likely to be pastoralists rather than agriculturalists.

In regard to the recumbents of Aberdeenshire it appears to be the procession of the moon which was important.  Thus the recumbent were laid in line with the southern moon but not as it rose or set but when it was actually up in the sky.

The majority of the recumbent lie in the arc between the moon’s major rising and setting…” Aubrey Burl p227 The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany.

 Another feature of these recumbent circles is the presence of both quartz and cupmarks and again an association with the moon could be made.  The quartz shining brightly in the moonlight perhaps representing pieces of the moon itself and the cupmarks themselves do seem to generally align with either the major or minor moonset or moonrise.

To the users of the circles it may have been the steady procession of the moon above the recumbent that was wanted rather than a particular moment, minutes of moonlight when quartz glowed luminescently and when nocturnal ceremonies where performed.” Aubrey Burl  p226  ibid.

 And so, all of these elements are woven throughout Sarah’s story and have become my inspiration for the Daughters of the Moon – the Myhres an Loor.

Please find below some links to interesting websites about stone circles and megaliths in general.  Enjoy!

Stone Circles of North East Scotland

The Megalithic Portal

Stone Circles.Org.UK

 

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