Thursday 14 September 2023

Scottish Standing Stones – Myths and Legends by Victoria Williamson


I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of magical rings in natural environments. My interest might have been sparked by the strange ring of leaves that sprouted up from my front lawn every spring as a child. My parents didn’t know what plant they came from, or why the ring was there – they certainly hadn’t planted the seeds! One year someone’s bag of small polystyrene bean bag balls must’ve burst when they were putting out their rubbish, because when I came home from school one day, I found a small scattering of them dotted under the hedges by the footpath. I remember convincing my brother these polystyrene balls were ‘fairy eggs’, and if we collected them and put then under the leaves in the ‘fairy ring’ in our lawn, they’d hatch into fairies. I’m not sure now if I was just teasing him, or whether I was actually trying to convince myself that magic was real! Or my interest might have begun with the toadstool ring in the 1980s ZX Spectrum 48K game ‘The Curse of Sherwood.’ At one point, Friar Tuck had to step into a ring of toadstools to get to different area of the forest, and I was always fascinated by him vanishing and then re-appearing in a different place. I loved the idea that rings of plants, toadstools and stones were magical, and this is what inspired my latest historical children’s book, The Whistlers in the Dark, in which a circle of ancient standing stones is awoken by accident and goes walking through the night. Although my book is set in 158AD – the date which current research suggests the Antonine Wall was abandoned – stone circles in Scotland are far more ancient than that. Thought to date back between 3,000-5,000 years, the reason why they were built is still a mystery. There are many theories about this. Some researchers suggest they were places of ceremony and worship, while others think they might have been burial grounds or gathering places.
Victoria at Machrie Mhor I’ve been lucky enough to have had the chance to visit two stone circles in the last year – the Machrie Moor standing stones on the Isle of Arran, and the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney. Machrie Moor contains the remains of six stone circles – some made of granite boulders, and some made of red sandstone. Excavations in 1861 revealed that the centre of circles number two and four there was a ‘cist’, which is a small, coffin-like box made of stone. While these were often used as ‘ossuaries’ – boxes to hold the remains of the dead – two of these cists also contained food vessels. You can have a look at an interactive model of one of these Bronze Age food vessels exhibited by the National Museum of Scotland here.
The Ring of Brodgar On my visit to Orkney as part of an archaeological field trip, I found the Ring of Brodgar stone circle to be equal parts beautiful and eerie – exactly as I had imagined the stone circle which features in The Whistlers in the Dark. The Ring of Brodgar’s original stone circle consisted of sixty stones, of which thirty-six still survive. The reason for the circle’s construction has been lost in the mists of time, but legends say that one starry night, a band of giants were so enchanted by the music played by a fiddler that they danced until sunrise, and were turned to stone by the rays of dawn. Over the years, poems – such as Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown’s ‘Brodgar Poems’ – stories, and even TV shows such as ‘Outlander’ have celebrated the standing stone circles of Scotland, adding to their myth and appeal. Stone circles might not be magical themselves and they might not be able to physically transport us to different places the way I’d hoped as a child, but there is a certain kind of magic in the way that they can transport our imaginations to different worlds in the past, and the way they continue to influence our works of fiction both in print and on screen. My own novel is testament to the fact that over 5,000 years after the first were thought to have been built, the stone circles of Scotland continue to play an important part in our cultural heritage, reaching out from the past to influence the story tellers of the future.

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