Encounters with the Neolithic (5)

(Read Part 4.)

Rachel gazing at Arran

After a week in the highlands of Scotland, we took a combination of buses and trains down to Glasgow and out to the west coast, where we caught the ferry to Arran, an island about which it is often said that it resembles Scotland in miniature: very mountainous in the north, with more rolling, agricultural land in the south.

Machrie Moor 3

On the western side of the island, at about the point where the mountains are starting to give way to flatter land, is a large complex of prehistoric monuments at a place called Machrie Moor. As the Historic Scotland website puts it,

Machrie Moor is a landscape rich in prehistoric archaeology. The most fascinating monuments date to a time when the moor was a centre for ceremonial and burial activity. This period spans the Neolithic to the early Bronze Age (about 3500 to 1500 BC).

The most prominent features are the six stone circles themselves. But the moor is strewn with other precious remains, including standing stones, burial cairns and cists.

Most interesting of all are hut circles and field systems. The houses appear as low rings of turf-covered stone. Beneath the blanket of peat, archaeologists have recently discovered even older remains. These include two timber circles and plough marks made around 4,500 years ago.

Machrie Moor 2

Circles of stone

Six stone circles are visible on the stretch of moor immediately east of the now-derelict Moss Farm. They were erected quite late on in the sequence of early prehistoric activity here, in about 2000 BC.

The circles are memorable for their contrasts. Only one [pictured above], that closest to Moss Farm, consists of two concentric rings. The first is an inner circle of eight round-topped granite blocks about 1.2m high. The second is an outer circle of 15 granite blocks of slightly smaller stature.

Some circles are formed of granite boulders – low, squat and grey. Others are built of tall, imposing, red sandstone pillars. In one circle the builders have alternated granite and limestone.

Machrie Moor

Undoubtedly the most striking is Circle 2. This is now represented by three tall, slender stones (the tallest is 5.5m high), but originally consisted of seven or eight uprights. One of its fallen stones now lies in two pieces, fashioned into millstones which never made it to their 18th-century mill.

Ceremony and ritual

These circles are thought to have been associated with the religious and ceremonial activities of the Neolithic and early Bronze Age farmers living on and around Machrie Moor. They may have been used to observe the heavens.

Later on, all the circles were used for burial purposes, probably for prominent members of the community. They included both cremation and inhumation. A fine food vessel was found in the central cist of Circle 2.


So as with many other important sites around Britain, the place was in ceremonial use for thousands of years — 4500-1500 B.C.! — with uses shifting over time


as the stones themselves weathered and aged, gaining in charisma as they did so. The land, too, changed as the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age and the climate turned cooler and wetter. What had been fields of grain became moorland, which for us, at least, makes the setting even more evocative. Nowadays, the stones at Machrie Moor are so iconic, they appear on bottles of whisky from Isle of Arran Distillers and bottles of beer from Isle of Arran Brewery.

Machrie Moor-4

Rachel and her teenaged son Alex had visited Machrie Moor four years earlier, and remarked that the parking lot car park was larger now, and the trail had a couple of new interpretive signs. Given how much Arran depends on its tourist economy, this isn’t surprising. Several other groups of people were also circling the circles that day. And though we did find a loop of braided grass that appeared to be an offering of some sort at one circle, the other visitors’ reactions seemed much like ours: a mixture of fascination on the part of some


and utter boredom for others. I believe we were the only group with an air gun, though. Let’s just say the ancestral spirits did not rest in peace that afternoon.

standing stone in golf course

Machrie Moor is far from the only prehistoric site on the island. Standing stones were all over the place; here’s one in the middle of the golf course next to our campground at Lochranza, on the north end of the island.

neo-Neolithic circle at Fairy Dells

I even happened upon what I’m pretty sure is a modern (neo-Neolithic?) stone circle. It isn’t indicated on the Ordnance Survey map, and it appears to mark the otherwise hidden entrance to a spot locally known as Fairy Dells:

Fairy Dells

To me, coming from a place with abundant forest cover, it’s a little sad to see such tiny scraps of wildness so fetishized, but between the red deer and the sheep, trees that aren’t protected or growing on cliff sides have a tough time on Arran.


A natural standing stone on the slopes above the distillery becomes an elfin forest refuge.

one of those very rare trees?

And a few miles away in Glen Diomhan, three-meter-high fencing surrounds a genuine refuge to protect the island’s endemic tree species, the Arran whitebeams. One of the three species, the Catacol whitebeam (Sorbus pseudomeinichii), has been reduced to just two individuals, both located in this now-protected glen. It is considered to be the rarest tree in the entire U.K. Like many islands, Arran is a natural laboratory for evolution. But very few residents or tourists seem aware of it.

The trees are not well known to the islanders and two fine specimens were even cut down in the 1980s by a professional gardener working at a site near Brodick Castle. The Ranger’s Service have taken steps to increase the distribution of the trees, planting both species in the park. However, a great deal more could be done to make visitors and islanders aware of these unique species possessed by Arran.

Arran whitebeam refuge

All of which makes me want to grab the neo-Neolithic lovers of fantasy by their necks and drag them to Glen Diomhan. “Here’s your real Fairy Dell, fuckers!”

seals 03

The inhabitants of Arran do love their stones, though, I’ll give them that.

Left-handed skimming stance

Skipping Skimming stones on the beach seemed to be a popular pastime for all ages, and one in which we were happy to take part — even the bored teenager. In fact it’s worth a trip to an island like Arran, as renowned among geologists as it is among archaeologists, just to reacquaint oneself with the immense aesthetic and tactile pleasures of bare rock. In so many ways, I think, we’ve never really left the Stone Age.

Many of the photos in this post are by Rachel (“turn toward the light” on Flickr). Mouse-over the photos to find out who took what, or click through to see them at larger sizes.

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