It looked, for a while, as if we might escape being rained on at our second site of the morning, but no… that would have been too much to ask The ritual cleansing would continue. We were heading for another recumbent circle, with a few unusual features… Loanhead of Daviot.
The car park was full so I parked the car at a little distance and we walked back, arriving to find the group listening to a ghost story about the lady seen in the woods through which we would walk to the circle. The trees could not have been there when the circle was constructed, or they would have blocked the view of the moon and made the recumbent redundant, but they do provide a beautiful approach and backdrop to the stones. The green lawn opens out beyond the shadows of the trees on a spectacular site.
There are two circles at Loanhead. One is a circle of standing stones, the other, a low-kerbed enclosure which is an ancient cemetery. The earliest construction at the site seems to date back to the Neolithic period, with later use, changes of use and additions. Making sense of the place means looking at perhaps six thousand years of history, as well as the way we view and use our buildings.
In one of the villages where I grew up, there was a lovely old chapel. It had belonged to a small Christian sect and had long-since fallen into disuse. Over the few years that I was there, attempts were made to use the building. It served as a community centre, office space, a dance hall, a cinema and was eventually converted into residential apartments. Each function saw changes to the structure and decor and, by the time the new residents moved in, its original builders would not have recognised the place. They would certainly not have approved of many of the roles it had assumed.
With these truly ancient sites, I think we have to look at a similar shift over millennia, with later folk adapting the site for their own needs and traditions. In a time without written records, it is easy to see how knowledge could be lost as peoples move and shift across the face of the land, yet in a landscape where nothing other than homesteads were built, these enigmatic circles must always have commanded awe.
Then, thousands of years later, the archaeologists who restore and reconstruct them must find a formula that seems to fit all the facts, but which may not be entirely correct or inclusive of all a site’s history. Especially when we know nothing for certain about their original function within the community, exactly how they were used or what form the rituals performed there may have taken. It is, I think, for this reason that the interior of the circle was infilled with the stones of the much later cairn when it was restored.
What we do know is that these circles are in alignment with the movements of heavenly bodies and the seasonal changes. They forge or celebrate the relationship between the earth and the heavens and, in that respect, have something in common with our modern places of worship. It is no surprise, then, that many of these sites have burials attached to them, though this one has more than most.
The main circle is sixty-four feet in diameter. There are eight single standing stones, plus the two flankers and the huge recumbent which, says the official report, has been split vertically in two by the frost. The stones, as always, descend in height to the stone opposite the recumbent. The two flankers, one of which is carved with cupmarks, lean in towards the recumbent and you are left in no doubt of which of them represents the masculine, fecundating forces of nature.
Within the circle, at some later date, a cairn was raised over a cremation where shards of adult and children’s bones were found, with worked flints, potsherds and charcoal. Around the base of each of the standing stones a small cairn had been raised, where cremation burials were also found. Four shallow holes within the centre of the circle have given rise to the suggestion that a wooden mortuary house may once have stood there.
I had initially been drawn to the smaller, less impressive circle, curious as to its purpose, but in no doubt as I approached. During excavations in 1935, a shallow pit had been found in which were the half-cremated remains of a forty year old man who seemed to have been clutching a pendant. The pyre had been built over the body and, instead of collecting the remains, the area had been used to inter another thirty or so cremations. Close by is a pit in which, it is thought, bodies may have been stored before burning and another eleven burials in urns and yet more in pits.
The burials seem to date from the Bronze Age, and took place over a relatively short period of time. “Whereas the great stone circle had required the co-operation of a whole community (and their neighbours) to build it, and while its use for the rituals of life, fertility and magic extended over many centuries, the cremation cemetery is an altogether slighter, more transient creation, concerned with the relationships in death within an individual family or two over a short time.” ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Grampian’, (1986).
On the edge of the next field are the remnants of yet another recumbent circle. We can only imagine the awe and wonder in which such sites, already remnants of an ancestral past, must have been held. That same awe still touches those who visit these ancient, mysterious sites still today. We may not always understand, but we can still feel the magic in the stones and see the spirits of the earth in the forms that linger in their shapes. There are sinuous dancers, great hands reaching for the sky, faces and animals, a shaman’s headdress… all there for the eye to find and the heart to comprehend. For all our veneer of modernity and our vaunted civilisation, we are not so far removed from our roots as we might care to think.