Standing stones and stone circles

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  • The Calanais Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis are thought to pre-date Stonehenge.
    Calanais Standing Stones, Isle of Lewis
  • Clava Cairns is a prehistoric burial site near Inverness in the Highlands
    Clava Cairns, near Inverness
  • Machrie Moor on the Isle of Arran is strewn with stone relics from the ancient past
    Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran
  • The Ring of Brodgar on Orkney consists of 27 tall standing stones
    Ring of Brodgar, Orkney
  • Ancient rituals were carried out at the Temple Wood Stone Circles during the Neolithic period and early Bronze Age
    Temple Wood in Kilmartin Glen, Argyll

Scotland’s dramatic landscapes have witnessed millenniums of human history. The first settlers arrived over 10,000 years ago and these early inhabitants began to erect incredible monuments in the eras that followed, some of which can still be seen today. But for what purpose is something that modern day archaeologists can only speculate; these ancient sites may forever remain shrouded in mystery. Discover them for yourself and let your imagination take you back thousands of years in time.

One of the most famous stone circles is the remarkable Calanais Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Built around 5,000 years ago, this fascinating structure is thought to pre-date Stonehenge.

The stones are visible for miles around and form a circle, with a single monolith at the centre standing almost 5 m high. From the ring, lines of stones extend outwards in four directions. Like many stone circles, the stones’ positioning may relate to specific cosmological or lunar events, although it’s near impossible to determine which ones they may be.

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site is recognised as one of the most important historical sites in the world and includes the Ring of Brodgar, a circle of 27 tall stones which encompasses a large ceremonial space and dates from 2,500 to 2,000 BC. Try to visit at either sunrise or sunset, when this circle is at its most majestic and mystical.

From the Ring of Brodgar, you can walk to the nearby Standing Stones of Stenness which are thought to be among Orkney’s oldest Neolithic relics. Only four stones remain, all of which are considerably taller than those of the Ring of Brodgar, with some as high as 6 m. Both sites are surrounded by a round circular ditch, called a henge.

East of Inverness, the Bronze Age cemetery of Clava Cairns is set within an enchanting small woodland area close to the River Nairn. In this sacred prehistoric site you’ll find three stone burial cairns, each surrounded by a stone circle, and look out for a split stone near its south west passage grave.

There is little clue to who built them and why, but it’s thought that they have been constructed to align with the setting of the midwinter sun. Try to spot the mystifying cup and ring carvings on some rocks.

In Argyll’s heartlands lies the lush expanse of Kilmartin Glen, considered to be one of Europe’s most concentrated areas for prehistoric remains with hundreds of monuments, cairns, standing stones, stone circles and rock art.

Walk through the valley following the line of five well-preserved burial cairns – in some of the cairns, you can look inside and see the stone slab burial chambers. Lying at the end of the cairn trail is Temple Wood Stone Circle, set in a leafy copse where two circles are marked by short stone stumps and small boulders, with burial cists at their centre. Thought to be used originally for rituals, and later on for burying the dead, you can’t fail to feel that this site is a spiritual place.

On the pretty Isle of Arran lies the mysterious Machrie Moor. Its most prominent feature is a curious series of stone circles. Some of these are fragmented, while others are formed by impressive, slender stone pillars, the tallest of which is over 5 metres. Dating from 3,500 to 1,500 BC, this site may have been used for religious and ceremonial purposes, which might have included observing the sky for astronomical activities.

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