Looking like “an assemblage of ancient druids, mysteriously stern and invincibly silent and shaggy” according to Scottish geologist Hugh Miller, who visited the world famous site in 1846, Orkney’s massive Ring Of Brodgar and its awe-inspiring setting on an isthmus between lochs Stenness and Harray is no less impressive today. Consisting of 36 standing stones – there were originally 60 – it has stood for 5000 years and is enclosed by rock-cut ditch three metres deep, nine metres wide and a whopping 380 metres in circumference. The stone circle itself forms the centrepiece of a larger Neolithic site which also includes at least 13 burial mounds and it’s hard to underplay its archaeological, historical and cultural importance. Unsurprisingly nobody tries, especially not UNESCO which has named it a World Heritage Site.
The Twelve Apostles
Located between the villages of Newbridge and Hollywood in Dumfries and Galloway, the Twelve Apostles are actually only 11 in number, one having been removed some time between 1789, when English antiquarian Francis Grose surveyed them and another survey in 1837. It’s the largest stone circle on the Scottish mainland and the best guess at a date puts it in the late Neolothic of early Bronze Age, between 3000 and 1500 BC. Finds at the site include a four inch bronze statue of St Norbert, dating from the 12th century, though in the time of the Druids it’s thought to have had astronomical significance as well, and may once have stood in a forested area.
The Callanish Stones
Once known by the islanders on Lewis as fir bhrèige, the false men, the stones date from the late Neolithic period. Consisting of 13 stones in a rough circle with a monolith near the centre, the site also features an avenue of 19 further stones leading to the north-east and three other rows of stones radiating outwards. Given their reputation as one of the most beguiling sets of Neolithic monuments in Scotland – there’s any number of myths associated with them and both 1980s synth band Ultravox and former Teardrop Explodes frontman Julian Cope have used images of the stones on album covers – it’s no surprise the Callanish Stones now have the obligatory visitor centre. There visitors can learn about the history of the site – and buy a souvenir or two.
The Standing Stones Of Torhouse
Nobody needs an excuse to visit Wigtown, Scotland’s book town, but if one is required then this stone circle consisting of 19 granite boulders on a raised platform is as good as any. Dating (possibly) from the Bronze Age, it hasn’t been as pored over by people with toothbrushes and ground-penetrating radar as other better known sites, but there’s plenty of local lore associated with it to keep anyone busy. One story is that the three stones in the centre mark the burial place of Galdus, the semi-mythical king mentioned by Tacitus as having fought the Romans under Gnaeus Julius Agricola in AD 83 or thereabouts. Another local tradition involves placing a gift in the deep cavity of a nearby stone in order to ensure safe passage. Give it a go.
The west coast of Arran is the site of six stone circles, some in granite, some in sandstone. The last was discovered as recently as 1978, though it’s the one known as Machrie Moor 2 which draws the eye. It consists of three intact stones, the tallest of which is nearly five metres in height. An ossuary, or cist, was discovered in the centre of Machrie Moor 2 in 1861, one of many which have been found across the sites. The stone circles date back to as early as 3500 BC but prior to that there were timber structures on the site, a discovery which has caused archaeologists to factor in another millennium’s worth of activity prior to the erection of the stone slabs.