The Ring of Brodgar in Orkney is one of the largest stone circles in Britain. It sits on a narrow peninsula between the two vast Lochs of Harray and Stenness, a balance point between land, sea and air. The waters, usually turbulent with the wind and reflecting the grey, scudding clouds which race from the nearby sea, eventually touch the hills which frame this panoramic scene, and reinforce the impression that this peninsula is the centre of Orkney’s landscape. It has been described as a natural amphitheatre, and it is easy to imagine dozens of people on the hilltops, looking down at this stone circle and watching rites whose effects would ripple out to touch them all.
The Ring is flanked by the nearby The Stones of Stenness to the south, possibly the oldest stone circle in Britain, and the Ring of Bookan to the north, a possible henge now all but destroyed. Its two entrances focus on these sites.
It has been suggested that the layout of the three monuments reflect the three stars of Orion’s Belt. It is a convincing match, and may explain why the Ring of Brodgar is slightly off-centre on the sloping hillside, but my feeling is too much effort is made to link sacred sites to the stars. Most seem to me to be orientated to and blended with the surrounding landscape, which enhances the idea that they reflect a spiritual microcosm of the land where rites could be conducted to influence that land.
The Brodgar stones originate from various sites across Orkney, creating the evocative image of a blending of communities and their spirits into a single monument in the heart of the land. The circle is 104m in diameter and comprised sixty stones, of which thirty six remain, surrounded by a six-metre wide ditch. It was built around 2500BC, shortly before the collapse of Orkney’s highly advanced Neolithic culture. It was perhaps a last attempt to save it, or a lasting memorial to its existence.
The Comet Stone, an outlier of the Ring of Brodgar. Two other broken stones lie nearby. Legend says the stone was a piper, turned to stone along with the dancing giants.
Like many stone circles, legend states the Ring of Brodgar was formed when a group of dancing giants were turned to stone after failing to notice the approaching sunrise. I wonder if these stories reflect their former use for shamanic or ritual dances.
The two stone circles were known to locals as the Temples of the Sun and the Moon, and betrothed couples once prayed inside them to Woden to seal their relationship. This is likely a relic of Orkney’s Nordic heritage, and continued almost to living memory.
The Ring of Brodgar was built to guide the Orkney people’s lives. People have long memories. Five thousand years later, that spirit still survives.