The stone circles of Fortingall

Fortingall stone circle 4At Fortingall in Perthshire, in a field that leads down to the River Lyon, are a number of large stones.  At first glance, they appear to be scattered at random as if by some giant hand, but it soon becomes clear that they are arranged in three groups.   If you’re the kind of person who loves standing stones (or even sitting ones), you just have to go and inspect them.

These massive boulders are rounded and smooth – historians describe them as ‘water-worn’, and when you get close and run your hands over them there is no doubt about it.   They are nothing like the angular stones of Callanish or the squared blocks of Stonehenge;   it looks as if they have been sculpted by nature.

Fortingall stones1The best geological description I can find for them is ‘blue whinstone’, which could mean dolerite or basalt;   I was intrigued to see that they sparkle in the sunlight, as a result of some quite large crystals which I think might be mica.  The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland adds that they “…obviously contain metal as compasses will not give a true reading in the area.”

But as for any sense of their original positioning or alignment, you are completely lost.

For most of my information I’m relying on the historian Aubrey Burl, who conducted extensive research into the stone circles of Britain from the 1970s onwards, and published several books on the subject.   He says:

Fortingall East and West, seven miles west of Aberfeldy

“These are two of three megalithic sites close together on a terrace overlooking the River Lyon.  Before excavation in 1970 they seemed to be Four-Posters, from each of which one stone had been removed.  Digging revealed that in reality they were sub-rectangular settings of eight stones with the largest stones at the corners.”

He continues:

“…paired eight-stone circles are fairly common in central Scotland, and the Fortingall settings may be the results of a mixing of traditions.  They stand by what may be a ruined and idiosyncratic RSC.”

from ‘The Stone Circles of the British Isles’

In Burl’s description, ‘RSC’ stands for ‘Recumbent Stone Circle’, and he is referring to the third, most southerly, group of stones (shown below).  As the name suggests, recumbent stone circles contain at least one very large stone which has been deliberately laid on the ground, often flanked by smaller upright ‘posts’.   You immediately wonder what they were used for.  But in any case, archaeologists now argue that this third grouping was originally another ‘Four-Poster’.

From the excavation of one group of stones, Burl tells us that “Flecks of charcoal and cremated bone were recovered.”   Canmore, the database of the RCAHMS, reveals that a small sample of bone was dated to around 1110-900 BC.   This does not necessarily indicate when the stones were erected – it merely proves that someone was buried here at that date.  The rest is pure speculation.

The third group - a ruined circle, or an alignment?

The third group – a ruined circle, or an alignment?

Fortingall stone circle 11

The western group

It seems that, in the 19th century, superstition led local people to topple some (but not all) of the stones into pits that they had dug ready for them.   In each ‘circle’ of four stones, three were left in place.   How do archaeologists know this?   Because a beer bottle of that era was found buried underneath one of the fallen stones.   Interestingly, the hole had been backfilled with small stones “such as might come from a central cairn”.

Why would anyone want to do such a thing?

Aubrey Burl has an answer.  He suggests that: “In each case, three stones were left standing as tokens of the Christian Trinity.”

But there are other possibilities.  Many Victorian landowners got very excited about the prospect of doing some excavation, and it’s quite likely that an amateur historian had a dig around, maybe disturbing some of the stones in the process.   Or perhaps the local farmer tried to shift them out of the way of his plough, and, in keeping with many of the stories attached to standing stones, he was visited by a mysterious pestilence before his task was complete.

Or just maybe, following Burl’s train of thought, the local vicar was keeping a zealous watch for any possible infringement of the scriptures and decided that the landscape needed re-arranging…

– “Look here, Murdo MacDubh, at these stones, standing blatantly in groups of four;   they present an offence to the eye of holiness.  I declare, I flinch when my gaze falls upon them.   I exhort you to uproot one of each, and cast it down upon the earth.  My sexton will be pleased to lend a hand.  And do not let me catch you drinking beer.”

(I would like to point out that the above scenario is entirely my own fabrication!)

One thing we know for sure about the Fortingall stones, and it rather boggles the mind:  if they date from the Neolithic period, they were most likely erected in the lifetime of the yew tree which stands in the nearby churchyard.  The Fortingall yew is reckoned to be 5,000 years old, meaning that it has been a silent witness to the long story of human settlement in this quiet little corner of Perthshire.   Until we learn to unlock the memory of trees, these stones will continue to present a fascinating puzzle.

Fortingall stone circle 9

The eastern group

Sources:

  • RCAHMS Canmore
  • The Megalithic Portal
  • ‘The Stone Circles of the British Isles’ by Aubrey Burl
  • ‘A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany’ by Aubrey Burl

Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf

Further reading…

Fortingall stones1 (2)You can read more about the Fortingall Yew tree in this feature on The Hazel Tree. Alternatively, if you love standing stones, take a look at…

Comments

  1. It’s as if you wrote this just for me! I’m in the middle of re-reading The Great Wood by Jim Crumley & of course it is only another 5 or 6 weeks until we return for a holiday in Comrie. We are really looking forward to then.

  2. Great post on the stones, Jo have you seen the standing stones of Barra…… 🙂 I’m not sure I will been able to write as much on them when I post the photos 🙂

    • Thank you, Lynne! No, I haven’t been to Barra but I am sure I will be green with envy when I see your posts! Is that where you are now?

      • No we have moved on to North Uist now and don’t get green with envy over the stones, theres only two, one fallen oven and the other leaning, close to falling over 🙂

      • I wouldn’t mind! I’m sure it’s all beautiful. I hope the weather is being kind to you, too.

  3. How interesting! I was just discussing the Fortingall Yew with someone, but I didn’t know about the stones. I must try to go back there. It is such a beautiful part of Scotland.

    • You’re right, Christine, it is stunningly beautiful. Words can’t really describe it properly! Yes, the stones are definitely worth a visit and I also want to go back and see if the church at Fortingall is open – it was shut that day, but there are some interesting relics inside!

  4. waikowhai says:

    My ancestors came from there…I took my own shots last July, yours are better! https://picasaweb.google.com/118040110480463402163/FortingallStandingStones?authuser=0&feat=directlink

    • How wonderful! A lovely place to have in your family’s history. I love your photos – the grass looks to have grown more around the stones (they really must make life difficult for the farmer!) I also see you photographed the ‘plague stone’, which is nearby – I must do a post about this sometime, too! Thank you so much for visiting!

  5. I didn’t even know these stones were there. Next time I’m in the area I must go and have a look at them, preferably on a sunny day when they’ll sparkle at me. What a fascinating and curious business.

    • I know, Lorna, I only knew from looking at the map before we went! It’s fairly easy to overlook them as you’re driving past. I often wonder if stones such as these were chosen for their composition or their magnetic qualities. I remember that the Callanish stones had big crystals of quartz (I would imagine it was quartz).

  6. I really enjoyed this Jo – I don’t think we’re ever likely to know all the answers about these stone monuments – I have theory that experts, probably unwittingly reflect their own ideals and prejudices in their interpretations, but to be honest, unless as you say, we learn to talk to trees, our personal theories aren’t any better or worse than the experts. Call me a hippy, but I do think that sitting inside rings, touching the stones or just letting your mind wander over the area, can give you all sorts of feelings and sensations – I’m not sure I’d want to know definitively why they’re all where they are. This one seems particularly attractive, but then anything sparkly with crystals is going to appeal to this girlie.

    • Haha, well said, Anny, and if that’s what makes a hippy then I’m one too, and I’ll be quite happy to sit inside a stone circle any day! The trouble is that with ‘evolution’ I think we’ve lost a lot of the wisdom that would have told us instinctively about stones like these. And we try to replace that wisdom with science, which can only supply part of the picture. Every day, it seems, there’s a new ‘revelation’ about Stonehenge, fuelling our passion for logic. As for the crystals, they are like tiny mirrors, reflecting the sun (or the moon). Surely that must have been as appealing and magical back then, as it is now! And if the compulsion to collect sparkly stones is still with us today, I’d like to think some of that memory is preserved in us, somehow!

      • Jo, I think we all do the same when something glistens & I suspect our ancestors, whatever era we think of, would do exactly like us. We are all one big family really, past & present & I imagine that there is very little difference between us all. Okay, so the hair on my body might have been a bit longer then, but hey, the hair on my head was certainly longer when I was a teenager than it is now!

      • You’re right, Ash! I like your thinking. 🙂

  7. I laughed out loud at the beer bottle being found beneath one of the stones! 🙂 Great story!

    • Haha, I know! I thought so, too. I’m pretty sure the men who set up the stones in the first place would have liked a pint or two afterwards!

  8. E.J. Schwartz says:

    Not sure if comments are still relevant here, but I wanted to share something that may be of interest. There is a stone circle in Killin … not far from these stones … that I’ve visited several times since 2013. I am a dowser, and during my last trip, in August of 2016, I took my rods. I had learned about ley lines (electro-magnetic fields) often found in stone circle configurations. Sure enough, I discovered a line radiating from the center stones … one line to each outer circle stone. There also appeared to be another one encircling the entire circle … very close to the outside of the stones. I’m not sure if perhaps someone more scientific than I might be able to at least lay out the ley lines pattern around these stones … perhaps it could be a clue to the original configuration. Much ancient knowledge has been lost, so it is unclear how the ancients tapped into magnetic fields, but at the very least it makes for an interesting days outing.

    • That’s very interesting, and thank you for describing your findings. I didn’t know that there was a stone circle in Killin, and will have to seek it out. I did some dowsing a couple of years ago, at a local Neolithic henge monument (Cairnpapple Hill), which was fascinating. I agree that much ancient wisdom has been lost, and with it the original purpose for siting these stones. That doesn’t stop us being drawn to them – they still have their magic!

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