6 of the Most Magnificent Stone Circles of the British Isles
The enigmatic tradition of Europe’s Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles, megaliths, and henges is by far the most mysterious glimpse into the lives of our ancestors. Today, stone circles dot Europe and are widely found in the areas once inhabited by Celts, but are also a remnant of Europe’s earlier, old population. Their meaning is still a matter of debate. But whether they were religious, funerary, or perhaps even early astronomical constructions, these stone circles were certainly a big achievement for the early Europeans.
From small, simple assemblages to complex, imposing megalithic structures , stone circles still continue to inspire and captivate. Today we are bringing you a carefully curated list of Europe’s most intriguing stone circles. But this time, we are straying off the beaten path a little to showcase some of the tucked away stone relics that you might not have heard of! So join us and attempt to travel far back in time – to the ritualistic origins of Old Europe.
A Neolithic Heritage: Stone Circles and Their Symbolism
The sheer amount of remaining stone circles that dot the landscapes of Ireland, England, Scotland, Brittany, and some other corners of Europe, clearly tell us that the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age tradition of raising these stone circles was full of importance and symbolism. We can assume that the circular design was perhaps a way to symbolize the sun , as much of ancient Europe’s inhabitants worshipped the sun in one way or another.
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For the Neolithic peoples, sun was life. It ensured crops and fertility, and complex religious rituals might have been staged at these stone circles in order to invoke it at the end of winter. Through this, we can make an intriguing connection: As the majority of stone circles are located in the British Isles , a location often plagued by overcast and rainy weather with a lack of sunlight, we can assume that the cult of sun was strong in these places.
Either way, they are a great source of information for all contemporary scholars and researchers. Through dedicated study, we can gain important knowledge about the lives and beliefs of our early ancestors and the complex relation they had with the nature around them. And as a special way to showcase this belief, we are guiding you towards some of the enigmatic stone circles that are all around us.
Ring of Brodgar – The Heart of Orkney
The Orkneys remain among the most important locations for Neolithic and prehistoric sites. These islands off the northern tip of Scotland are known for their rich history under Norse and Scottish influence, but they also carry a lot of remains from ages way before. And one of the most important locations on the Orkneys is the Ring of Brodgar . Located on Mainland , the largest of the Orkney Islands, and just a few miles from Stromness, this Neolithic stone circle is one of the prettiest and best preserved in the whole of the British Isles.
Stones of the Ring of Brodgar. ( David Woods /Adobe Stock)
It stands as a close “competitor” to the famed Stonehenge, and is also unique for being both a henge and a stone circle. It is the 3rd largest stone circle in the British Isles, and measures a whopping 104 meters (341 ft) in diameter. In its earliest form it contained 60 tall, slender upright stones. Nowadays, only around 27 of them remain upright.
The Ring of Brodgar is famed for the smooth and very tall stones that comprise it. Together with the other neighboring Neolithic sites on Orkney, such as the Standing Stones of Stenness, the famed Skara Brae , and the Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, the Ring of Brodgar is a part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.
Merry Maidens – A Stone Circle Highlight of Cornish History
One of Cornwall’s finest ancient sites and a wonderfully preserved stone circle, the Merry Maidens never fails to inspire. This stone circle is located about 2 miles (3 km) from St Buryan on the southern edge of Cornwall. The stones’ positions, the precision with which they were arranged, and the proximity of other Neolithic sites, clearly suggest this was a very important ritual site.
Restored in 1860’s, this stone circle has 19 stones, and comprises a perfect circle that is 78 ft (23.8 meters) in diameter. The stones are about 4 ft (1.2 meters) high on average. Just 300 meters away are two very tall and large standing stones – known as “The Pipers” – and not far from that is the Tregiffian Burial Chamber. Clearly the site was of high importance.
Merry Maidens is a perfect stone circle in Cornwall. ( Newlands Aerial /Adobe Stock)
The name of this stone circle in the Cornish language is Dans Maen, which means “stone dance”, and this name is a clear insight in how Christianity transformed the early beliefs and myths of old. The legend says that 19 girls were turned to stone at the spot for dancing on a Sunday. Luckily, we can now understand that these stones carry much more importance than this.
Castlerigg – Jaw-dropping Cumbrian Beauty
Cumbria is well-known for its natural beauty and ancient history that reaches far back in time. One proof of this anciency is the stone circle of Castlerigg, one of the oldest in Europe. Situated in a natural amphitheatre, this stone circle emphasizes the immense beauty of Cumbria, and is often cited as one of the prettiest prehistoric monuments in Britain. Its position might have been chosen with care – from the circle one can see some of the highest peaks of Cumbria. A. L. Lewis memorably said that “it was the grandest position in which I have ever seen a circle placed”.
Castlerigg stone circle at sunrise. ( Y. Jorzik-Brzelinski /Adobe Stock)
Originally, Castlerigg circle numbered 42 stones. Of those, 38 survive today and are between 3 to 5 ft high on average (1-1.5 meters). The heaviest of these stones weighs around 16 tons, which gives us an insight into the great achievement it was to construct one of these stone circles. Another important conclusion about this stone circle was discovered with dedicated research: the stones of the circle are aligned with the midwinter sunrise and various lunar positions as well. The sunrise during the autumn equinox that emerges from behind a hill called Threlkeld Knott is perfectly observed from within the stone circle as well.
Long Meg and Her Daughters – Through Ages to Legend
Another one of Cumbria’s illustrious stone circles, this oddly named site is also one of the largest. It is the sixth biggest of all stone circles, measuring around 359 ft by 305 ft (109.4 by 93 meters). Originally, it numbered 59 stones, but sadly only 27 remain standing today. In the 18th century an attempt was made to destroy this ring by way of blasting. As this process began, severe thunderstorms appeared, and the superstitious fears of the crew caused them to abandon the idea and restore some of the damaged stones.
At the south west end there are two larger stones that define the entrance into the circle. An outlying taper stone lies perfectly in line with the midwinter sunset. The sun’s shadows cast clockwise spirals as they journey north towards midsummer, and anti-clockwise as they move toward midwinter. In the case of Long Meg and Her Daughters , this spiral is anti-clockwise.
Long Meg and her Daughters. ( drhfoto /Adobe Stock)
Interestingly, one of the prominent explorers of stone circles, John Aubrey, reported in the mid 17th century in his research that he uncovered two large cairns within the ring, which contained “ a giant’s bones and body ”. By 1725 and the research of William Stukeley, these finds had been completely removed.
Doll Tor – Some Stone Circles are Small, Lovely, and Ancient
Stone circles don’t need to be large in diameter to be effective and charming. The Doll Tor stone circle is a perfect example of a smaller stone circle that fits this description. Located in Derbyshire, near Birchover and south of Stanton in the Peak lane, this tiny circle measures only 7 meters (23 ft) in diameter.
Nonetheless, it is quite beautiful and creates a wonderful, picturesque sight in unison with its surroundings. This stone circle stands on the edge of a woodland, which is from a much later period. It consists of only six standing stones and presents an almost miniature version of the much larger stone circles scattered around the British Isles.
Doll Tor is one of the most charming stone circles in the British Isles. (Elfmeterschiessen/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Even so, Doll Tor has provided some very intriguing archaeological finds. In 1852 the first formal excavations of the site were conducted by William Bateman, who discovered four collared urns of the Pennine type containing cremation burials, and small incense burning cups. Further excavations were done from 1931 to 1934, when more cremation burials were discovered – five cremations and more urns. At one point in prehistory, a stone cairn was built adjacent to the circle and it contained a female cremation in its center, with four cremations on the sides.
Sadly, Doll Tor was vandalized in 1993 – visitors attempted to “rearrange” the stones to create a more complete and visually pleasing stone circle. The Doll Tor circle was subsequently returned to its original layout by the English Heritage and Park authorities.
Callanish – The Hebridean Heritage Withstanding Centuries
The Callanish stone circle is one of the most iconic sights in whole of the British Isles. Located near the village of Callanish on the west coast of the Lewis island in the Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, it is known in Scottish Gaelic as Clachan Chalanais.
It is also one of the most complex stone assemblages in existence, famed for its beauty, grandeur, and astronomical importance. The Callanish stones are unique as they form a cruciform shape – resembling a celtic cross. This site was made in the Neolithic period. Its layout comprises of the central stone circle, a central stone, a long northern avenue, a chamber tomb, and three smaller stone rows.
The stone circle has 13 large and imposing stones and a large central monolith. This central stone is almost 5 meters (16.4 ft) high, and weighs around 7 tonnes. In total, there are 5 stone rows that connect to this circle. To the north, two parallel rows of upright stones form the “avenue”, which is 83.2 meters (273 ft.) long.
Callanish shows a very complex astronomical layout that was created with great precision. The northern avenue is directed towards the southern moonset, while the western row of stones was oriented towards the equinoctial sunset. Callanish shows a connection to the equinox and the Pleiades . It is believed that this circle was mentioned by Diodorus Siculus in the first century BC, as he mentions that in this “spherical temple, moon dances continously through the night from the vernal equinox until the rising of the Pleiades”.
Callanish Standing Stones. ( Fredy Jeanrenaud /Adobe Stock)
It could be that the Callanish stone circle was never fully completed, but was disrupted by the arrival of chambered tomb builders. Nonethelss, it is without a doubt one of the finest insights into the advanced levels of late Neolithic and early Bronze Age peoples of the British Isles. This is a mysterious, complex ritual and astronomical site and a cult center in the region. The region of Callanish is dotted with many more smaller stone circles, chambered tombs, and standing stones, numbering more than 19 sites.
This magnificent prehistoric lunar observatory is also important as a good picture of the passage of the centuries and how various inhabitants of the area came into contact. The stone circle itself was erected between 2900 to 2600 BC. More than a millenia later, between 1500-1000 BC, the site gradually fell out of use and was undervalued by the later Bronze Age farmers and newcomers.
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Time went on and in the next 500 years turf covered the lower layers of the site. It was finally completely abandoned around 800 BC and remained that way until 1857, during the first excavations and the removal of the turf layers. Those who built it are long, long gone and are unkown to all. Their tribes are a mystery, their languages and beliefs forgotten. Time is ruthless – but stone is eternal.
Stone Circles in the British Isles Provide a Millenia of Mystery
Often we think of our earliest ancestors as primitive, heathenistic, and warlike, without stopping to think and observe the facts. What is clear from these majestic stone circles is the fact that Old Europeans had a complex understanding of the world around them, especially regarding the celestial bodies and seasonal changes.
They also tell us that migrating groups of people often brought an end to centuries-old practices and beliefs – terminating ancient ways of life, losing great knowledge, and changing the world forever. Mystery is deep around these stone circles – they hum with old, ancient secrets that are known only to the night skies and the moss-covered stones.
Top Image: Four famous stone circles in the British Isles: Callanish Standing Stones ( Fredy Jeanrenaud /Adobe Stock), Merry Maidens in Cornwall ( Newlands Aerial /Adobe Stock), Castlerigg (Y. Jorzik-Brzelinski /Adobe Stock), and the Ring of Brodgar. ( David Woods /Adobe Stock)
Burl, A. 2005. A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland, and Brittany. Yale University Press
Burl, A. 2010. John Aubrey & Stone Circles: Britain's First Archaeologist, From Avebury to Stonehenge. Amberley Publishing Limited.
Finch, D. 2017. Stone Circles. Raintree.
Richards, C. 2013. Building the Great Stone Circles of the North. Windgather Press.