Sacred Sites

December 1st, 2008

The Ring of Brodgar – Orkney Islands

“We cannot fully live without the treasury our ancestors have left us. Without the story – in which everyone living unborn, and dead participates – men are no more than ‘bits of paper blown on the cold wind”

George MacKay Brown, Winter Tales 1995

Once again we journey to the island of Orkney for our final look at one of the most spectacular and well preserved prehistoric monuments in the British Isles, The Ring of Brodgar.

This series of standing stones is not just a stone circle and henge but a focus for the other standing stones and many Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds that survived alongside the modern road passes by.

The definition of a henge is a prehistoric architectural structure, a nearly circular or oval-shaped flat area in diameter that is enclosed and delineated by a boundary of earthwork that usually comprises a ditch with an external bank.

The Ring of Brodgar is a near perfect circle measuring over 130 meters (426 ft) in diameter including its ditch. There are 36 remaining stones left of the 60 original. It is difficult to know whether the Neolithic people ever finished erecting the 60 standing stones.  Archaeologists tell us that there was room allotted for them. Of the 36 stones that remain, half are standing. Thirteen of these were re-erected shortly after the monument came into state care in 1906.  Several have been struck by lightening in the passing years and another thirteen have survived as stumps only.

The early Orcadians constructed this henge sometime between 4500 and 4000 years ago. The builders of the henge transported stones with ropes and timber rollers over land and on boats across the lochs. We can imagine the preparation of food and feasting along the way, processes which took place at the stone circles themselves.

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Walking the Ring of Brodgar

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Archaeologist, Caz Mamwell at the Ring of Brodgar showing us rune carvings on one of the stones.

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Carvings of Twig Runes found on one of the broken stones in the ring.

The Stones of Stenness, a nearby neighbor to the Ring of Brodgar is perhaps the earliest henge in the British Isles. According to the Guide to Historic Scotland, this would date the Ring of Brodgar slightly later then the Stones of Stenness.

The Historic Scotland guide states that, “Like Stenness, Archaeologists think that the Ring of Brodgar fulfilled social and ceremonial functions associated with the commemoration of the dead”.

Walking the Ring

As we enter the ring through one of the two causeways, our guide tells us that the common practice is to walk the ring in a clockwise manner. Against the sky, the standing stones rise out of the barren landscape. The shadow they cast across the land seems to represent a human form. The association between standing stones and ancestral lines seem woven together and imprinted on the landscape. Much in the way we use headstones in graveyards to memorialize our ancestors.

These Neolithic people went to a great degree of trouble to raise these stones and we have to wonder at their significance. Are they a monument to the dead?  Do they represent a clan or group of individuals? Or is it a barrier separating the inner and outer, sacred from the ordinary?  It may have been regarded as a fence, keeping outsiders from entering?  Perhaps it was a warning to those not from the community.

When Visiting Orkney

The standing stones found in Orkney are numerous; The Stones of Stenness, The Watchstone, The Comet Stone and The Odin Stone.  Unfortunately The Odin Stone was destroyed by a farmer in 1814, when he became distraught over people trespassing on his land. Keep in mind that some of the Standing Stones are located on private property; however there are allowances made for visitors and a protocol to be followed if one wishes to view them. Once again it is recommended that a guide be hired to accompany you for it will be easier to find the stones and the knowledge of history is invaluable when visiting these locations.

Visitors to the Ring of Brodgar may walk around the site, but it will help to protect this fragile area if you keep to the mown patches and do not climb the mounds. From the Ring of Brodgar you can take a circular route through the land owned by the RSPB (the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) or if on foot from the Stones of Stenness you can join the path just north of Brodgar Farm. Historic Scotland recommends allowing an hour to enjoy this route, which passes along the shores of Loch of Stenness, providing access to the wildlife as well as very different views of how the monuments sit in the landscape.

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May 2007, the heather that covers the surrounding countryside was brown and had yet to bloom.

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The landscape is still largely untouched by modern man, whom is kept at a distance, and preserved by the heritage trust in which lies in its care. Here is one of the broken stones that had been struck by lightening.

The Ring Of Brodgar Is a World Heritage Site. Inscription on this list confirms the exceptional universal quality of a cultural or natural site, which deserves protection for the benefit of humanity

Reference:

Historic Scotland – The Heart of Neolithic Orkney – Official Guide

Visitor Center and Guided Tour


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