There are fewer enigmatic monuments created by our long lost forebears than the stone circles of the British Isles. Just less than a thousand have survived in one form or another through to the present day, at least that again are presumed destroyed over the intervening centuries, the victims of desire for land and stone. The circles were created over a two thousand year time frame emerging perhaps from the extended horned forecourts of cairns, growing through the Neolithic to the truly massive great circles as the bronze age took hold, then shrinking ever more to become family temples as cairn circles and finally falling into disuse with only a few in Ireland seeing use into the iron age.
We present here only the tip of the iceberg, designed to whet your appetite and introduce you to these survivors of a bygone age.
Situated on a remote island in the inner Hebrides, this amazing circle and associated avenues are in the shape of a Celtic cross. It was half buried in peat till 1857 when the landowner Sir James Matheson had the peat removed by labourers. The height the peat reached on the stones is still visible today at about waist height. This circle its renowned as circle of the moon goddess. Once every 18.61 years when the moon is at its major standstill you can stand at the end of the long avenue and watch the full moon roll along the horizon through the circle.
Even more amazingly certain stones in the circle have a local mineral embedded within them for use in sight lines, which if used correctly give months notice of the forth coming lunar spectacular. But Callanish or callanais in the local Gaelic does not stand alone. Within 2 miles of the circle another 5 circles were sited, 3 of which are memorably visible today. Within 10 miles an astonishing 9 circles surround clannish. Besides the moon the other major view from these circles is a hill formation in the form of a reclining woman known locally as sleeping beauty. Several circles focus exclusively on it including one at its base. The majority of these monuments are late Neolithic but saw use well into the bronze age and beyond.
Callanish is located on the isle of Lewis near the village of Breasclete. Hotels are available in Stornoway. Flights daily from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Stornoway.
Sporting the largest and fourth largest stone circles in the world, Avebury must be considered the most unique monument of its kind. Its so large that a village was built within it in medieval times of which a sizable amount remains. It is also the only stone circle in the world to have a pub inside it.
Excavated many times in living memory the circle at Avebury is surrounded by a truly massive ditch bank combination. When it was built the ditch was 11 metres deep with vertical sides and falling off the bank into it would be like falling off a 7 storey building. Leading out from Avebury were two serpentine avenues of stone, each made up of about 200 3m plus stones. Only one of these remains sadly but that one led to a stone circle made up of 5 concentric rings now also destroyed. Avebury was not alone in the landscape, Silbury hill is the most obvious companion, the largest man made chalk monument in the world rising an astonishing 40 metres high.
The village of Avebury is in the heart of Wiltshire. Buses run daily from Swindon, Chippenham and Marlborough where hotel accommodation can be found.
This is without doubt the finest setting for a stone circle bar none. Located on a small hill just to the south of Keswick, Castlerigg is surrounded on all sides by mountains. There are few experiences better than standing in the centre of Castlerigg at sun rise on a crisp clear summer morning, absolutely awe inspiring. The circle is located on this very spot for the geology but located in this wide pass for the geography. 15 miles to the south are the langdale axe factories, it is believed that the customers of these prestige items would have stopped here, a Neolithic trading post as it were.
Sunkenkirk playing a similar role to the south. The circle itself is very impressive 40 large stones, with at least two carvings on the stones. It also has a unique feature, a rectangle of stones poking into the circle, maybe a ritual nod to the Chambers in the cairns that perhaps once gave rise to stone circles.
Castlerigg is located in the lake district and is walkable from Keswickwhere plenty of accommodation is available.
The most famous of all stone circles and one of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world, Stonehenge is a site known by all. Originally a simple henge, Stonehenge has gone through many rebuilds in its life, the last being in the 1920s and 1960s when several stones were righted and their bases encased in concrete. What we see now is the remains of the last prehistoric phase, Stonehenge V.
This site is an oddity amongst circles, the only stone circle with lintels, each of which was carefully carved to curve slightly and fit on the pummels and with its neighbours with inch perfect accuracy. These were carved with wood working techniques, leading to speculation of similar wooden constructs perhaps at Woodhenge nearby or at the sanctuary near Avebury. The landscape about Stonehenge has been used by man for thousands of years before the henge was built, three postholes in the car park being tentatively dated to the later Mesolithic, a time of managed forest clearings and hunter gatherers. Several longbarrows dot the nearby hills attesting to Neolithic farmers as does the nearby cursus which marks out that this area has always been of ritual importance. With the tens of thousands who flock here every year for the summer solstice and the millions who come to admire the stones every year, Stonehenge is still an important ritual site.
Stonehenge is located in Wiltshire just off the a303. Accommodation is available in Amesbury or Salisbury.
Ring of Brodgar
This is a magnificent circle henge located between two lochs on Orkney. When complete its ring of 60 stones made the third largest stone circle in the British Isles, sadly only 29 orcadian sandstone pillars remain. Now denuded to nothing the massive ditch would have been accompanied by an external bank, presumably robbed completely to make the stone walls nearby.
Its been estimated that 300 people working 8 hour days would be able to build Brodgar in a month, its likely it was instead built over several seasons, perhaps the farming community coming together post harvest each year for a great celebration, part of which was contributing to this amazing monument. Like all great circles Brodgar does not sit in isolation, the equally impressive ring of Stenness and ring of Bookan circles litre less than a mile away in opposite directions, maes Howe, possible the finest chambered tomb in the UK its less than 2 miles away and several Neolithic villages have appeared from the sand dunes on the Orkney islands over the years.
Brodgar is on the isle of Orkney, standing next to the b9055. Accommodation is available in stromness or Kirkwall.
The weddings at Stanton Drew
Located on the eastern side of the village of Stanton drew, nestled on a small rise next to the river chew, lies the remains of one of the most important Neolithic complexes in Britain. What is now three stone circles, two avenues and a cove started life as a massive henge containing 400 oak trunks in concentric circles next to a chambered long barrow. At some point in antiquity the henge ditch was filled in, the wooden posts removed and the 2nd largest stone circle in the country was constructed. The other circles and avenues were added after. Meanwhile the body of the longbarrow was removed leaving only 3 stones standing as a cove, now located in the beer garden of the druid arms pub. It is known as the weddings as the circles are said to be the remains of a wedding party that danced too long on a Saturday night into the sabbath and were turned to stone by the devil as the sun came up.
The village of Stanton drew is located in north Somerset in the picturesque chew valley about 7 miles to the south of Bristol. Accommodation is available nearby or in Bristol.
Now robbed and abused this once mighty ring was once called the finest example of its kind in Devon. Just over half of its original 65 stones remain, in a large circle standing proud in the middle of Dartmoor. Its one of a line of 5 great circles that cross the moor and surrounded by one of the richest surviving prehistoric landscapes in the world. Its surroundings make this worth a visit alone but the ruined circle makes this site mournful and dramatic.
The shovel down stone rows are just visible from the circle and a natural holed stone called the Tolmen which its said to heal rheumatism if you pass through it is a short distance away.
Scorhill circle is a short walk onto Dartmoor from the nearest road. The closest accommodation is in Okehampton.
Also known as Swinside and a dead ringer for its sister site Castlerigg, this is one of the most powerfully located circles in the country.
An almost complete ring with clearly visible portal stones standing higher than the rest, the views to the south are immense. The name literally means “sunken church” and as you climb the lane from the nearest road, you could be forgiven for thinking it was the tips of spires you were seeing not standing stones. The site was levelled before the stones were raised, similar to Ballynoe in Ireland.
Swinside is located near to Millom.
Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor
Nestled in a clearing in a peaceful wood lies one of the more visited circles in England. The nine ladies is a denuded Peak District embanked circle dating from the bronze age.
Traces of the bank can still be seen between some of the stones, and originally would have been similar to the banks in the circles on Barbrook moor and at doll tor phase 1, less than two miles away. Out of the wood you come onto peat moorland, where one of the largest cairn fields in the peaks meets you with at least 40 cairns of varying types can be seen. This site is popular due to its accessibility and association with nearby protests which stopped a quarry extension on the moor. Stanton moor is bounded by roads with the villages of Stanton in the peak and birch over at either end.
This complex of small circles, cairns and rows from the later bronze age is in a marvellous state of preservation as it was only discovered in the 1940s by peat diggers. Tantalisingly the whole complex hasn’t been dug out of the peat, with one cairn only half revealed and banks of peat spreading out in 3 directions. Several of the rows run over earlier Neolithic walls, suggesting this was built on formerly arable land.
Broadmoor is close to Cookstown, Country Tyrone, Northern Ireland.
Useful resources for more information.
13 awesome stone circles/