The Stones of Stenness. The curiously sloping stones result from the natural fracture lines in the rock. The popular idea that they recreate the sloping peaks of Hoy in the distance, I feel is coincidence.
This stone circle in Orkney, built around 3100BC, is possibly the oldest in Britain. It is at the heart of a vast and complex ritual site on the Brodgar peninsula which would eventually comprise two stone circles, a series of earthen mounds and some of the most elaborate stone buildings of Neolithic Europe.
The circle once comprised twelve stones, of which four remain, the tallest nearly six metres in height. They were erected inside a circular ditch and bank which has now almost entirely vanished. The ditch was once two metres deep and seven metres wide, a vast construction effort considering it was cut through bedrock using only stone and antler tools.
The site is on a low-lying peninsula between the two huge lochs of mainland Orkney, the Lochs of Stenness and Harray. Beyond the lochs, hills rise in the distance and the dramatic peaks of the island of Hoy lie to the south.
The entrance faces due north, across the Loch of Harray and towards the distant hills. An interesting observation is that the surrounding hills and valleys from this point are almost symmetrical. This apparent balance may be the reason for the circle’s location.
The circle was used for feasting and hearth stones still survive in the centre. Pottery and animal bones have been excavated. Perhaps it was a gathering place, a microcosm of land surrounded by water, reflecting every island in Orkney and also perhaps the world in general and the spiritual world. A world surrounded by water which must be crossed to reach the spiritual world is a recurring theme in myths worldwide. That the stones seem to have been brought from various places in Orkney supports this notion.
The circle also contained other stone features. These were once presumed to be altar stones for human sacrifice and re-erected as such, and now their original arrangement is long lost. Other wooden features also stood on the site, perhaps much older than the stone circle itself. It is a common occurrence across Britain for wooden structures, perhaps temples or ‘spirit-houses’, to be later memorialised in stone.
The Stones retained their importance long after the Neolithic period ended. Burial mounds were arranged around the stones and the surrounding area into the Bronze Age, and into the 19th century local couples would pray to Odin – perhaps a throwback to Orkney’s Nordic heritage – inside the stones, now locally known as the Temple of the Moon, for a successful marriage. And today, they form part of a World Heritage Site which attracts visitors from across the world.