Stone Circles in Aberdeenshire
Throughout Scotland, you can discover a variety of stone circles constructed during the Bronze Age in the third and second millennia BC. The precise purpose of these enigmatic monuments remains uncertain, but the significant effort and labour required to build them indicate their immense importance to the prehistoric communities that created them.
Let's look at some of the very best stone circles in Aberdeenshire.
Recumbent Stone Circles
Aberdeenshire, home to approximately 10% of all recorded stone circles in Britain, boasts a unique style known as the Recumbent Stone Circle. Over 70 instances of this distinct type can be found almost exclusively in Aberdeenshire, with diameters ranging from 11 to 26 meters.
The hallmark of the Recumbent Stone Circle is an enormous stone, laid horizontally in the southwestern or southern arc of the circle, flanked by the circle's two tallest stones. These recumbent stones, weighing an average of 24 tons, were meticulously positioned and propped up to maintain a level upper surface.
Typically located on hilltops or terraces, Recumbent Stone Circles offer broad southerly views, although some landscapes they currently occupy would be unrecognizable to their original builders.
While the beliefs and rituals associated with these stones remain speculative, extensive study and debate have taken place regarding their function. It is widely accepted that the exact positioning of the stones relates to the moon's cycles.
The recumbent and flanking stones are thought to create a false horizon or frame through which to observe the major standstill moon, which occurs every 18.6 years. At this point, the moon appears to dip towards the recumbent. On 12 Recumbent Stone Circles, clusters of cup marks have been discovered, positioned where the major standstill moon rises or sets (on the recumbent, flankers, or immediately adjacent stones).
In some cases, Recumbent Stone Circles were transformed into burial monuments by constructing a ring cairn or kerb cairn within the circle, where cremation burials were placed. This connects them closely with the Early Bronze Age Clava Cairns of the inner Moray Firth and Speyside.
These ceremonial centres, established by local farming communities, deviate significantly from the communal burial tombs of their ancestors, suggesting a fundamental societal shift. They also represent a strong regional tradition unique to this area and potentially indicative of a distinct belief system, separate from the ideas and values of neighbouring regions to the north and south.
The Bronze Age (2500 BC - 800 BC)
The Bronze Age in Northeast Scotland heralded a transformative era, giving rise to a society vastly different from its predecessors.
Circa 2500 BC, North East Scotland experienced an influx of novel cultural ideas originating from Northwestern Europe. Often attributed to the "Beaker People," named for the unique pottery vessels discovered at burial sites, these ideas diverged significantly from earlier Neolithic traditions, both culturally and technologically. The most notable development during this period was the advent of metalworking skills.
The ability to craft copper and bronze objects distinguished specific individuals from the rest of the population, laying the foundation for a hierarchical society. Settlement patterns also evolved during this time, with roundhouses emerging as the predominant dwelling type. Constructed with timber or stone walls and likely thatched roofs, these roundhouses were built as standalone structures or small clusters.
In addition to technological advancements, the Bronze Age ushered in new ritual and funerary monuments. Communal tombs gave way to individual burials, and megalithic structures, such as standing stones and stone circles, began to appear, including the unique Recumbent Stone Circle.
Glossary of terms used when describing stone circles
Cist burial: A compact, stone-lined grave where a body is placed, accompanied by grave goods.
Clava Cairns: Passage graves and circular or ring cairns encircled by stone arrangements, commonly found around the rivers in the Inner Moray Firth and Speyside regions.
Cupmarks: Hollows shaped like cups, ranging between 10 and 50mm in diameter, that have been carved or ground into a stone surface.
Flankers: A pair of tall, upright stones positioned at both ends of the recumbent, often adorned with cup marks.
Kerb cairn: A circular arrangement of large, upright kerbstones enclosing a mound of smaller stones, also known as a cairn. These may occasionally contain burials.
Recumbent: A sizeable stone slab laid horizontally in the southwestern or southern part of a Recumbent Stone Circle, often decorated with cup marks and flanked by two tall, upright stones.
Ring cairn: Circular or oval stone structures with a central open area, forming a ring-like shape. These may occasionally contain burials.
Ten of the best stone circles in Aberdeenshire
Here is a list of ten of the best stone circles you can visit in Aberdeenshire in northeast Scotland.
Dunnideer Stone Circle
The remnants of a Recumbent Stone Circle remain, with only the recumbent and two flankers still standing. Measuring 2.84 meters by 1.72 meters high, the recumbent is positioned in a northwest-southeast alignment. The two flankers were repositioned around 1960. The western flanker displays evidence of the circle's destruction: the stone's top has been shattered, a shot hole is visible in the break, it is split in two, and the eastern face bears plough marks. These remains are now situated within a small wooded area.
Directions: The stone circle is located 1.67 miles (2.7 km) west of Insch. From the centre of Insch, head west on Western Road. There is a parking area at 0.9 miles (1.47 km), from which a 0.7 miles (1.2 km) signposted walk leads to the stone circle via the Dunnideer hillfort. Alternatively, drive an additional 0.7 miles (1.1 km) past the first car park to a small lay-by. From this point, a 0.3 miles (500 m) signposted walk through the wooded area will take you to the stone circle.
East Aquhorthies Stone Circle
This Recumbent Stone Circle is distinguished by its nearly perfect circular layout, placing it early in the sequence of such circles. With a diameter of 19.5 meters, the circle features a red granite recumbent, two grey granite flankers accompanied by two stone blocks that create a reserved space in front of the recumbent, and nine upright stones. The western flanker exhibits four cup marks. The geological origins of this recumbent and its flankers clearly differ from those of other stone circles.
Directions: Located 3 miles (4.8 km) west of Inverurie, turn left off the A96 at the Blackhall Road roundabout (at the northern end of Inverurie) onto a minor road. Proceed for 2 miles (3.2 km) along a private road (unsuitable for coaches) to reach the car park. From there, follow the signposted path to the stone circle.
Midmar Stone Circle
This Recumbent Stone Circle, with a diameter of 17.3 meters, is composed of a recumbent, two flankers, and five additional upright stones. A church and graveyard now encircle the reconfigured circle. The two flankers, each standing 2.5 meters tall, have been matched and sculpted to resemble a pair of massive canine teeth flanking the imposing 20-ton recumbent. At least one stone was likely re-erected and a ring cairn removed, possibly during the establishment of the graveyard around the circle in 1914.
Directions: Situated 16 miles (25.7 km) west of Aberdeen and 3 miles (4.8 km) west of Echt, turn right off the B9119 (following the sign for Midmar Kirk). Parking is available near the churchyard wall.
Tomnaverie Stone Circle
Revived Recumbent Stone Circle, with an approximate diameter of 17 meters, consists of the massive whinstone recumbent, two flankers, and eight upright stones made of pale red granite. The recumbent features two cup marks. The circle encloses a ring cairn, around 14 meters in diameter, with its well-preserved, substantial kerb still intact.
Directions: Located 4.5 miles (7.2 km) northwest of Aboyrie, turn right off the A93 onto the B9094 at the western end of Aboyne. Continue along this road for 4 miles (6.4 km). The car park can be found on the left side. From the car park, follow the signposted path to the stone circle.
Aikey Brae Stone Circle
This exceptionally well-preserved Recumbent Stone Circle in Northern Aberdeenshire consists of five standing stones, including the recumbent and eastern flanker, and five fallen stones, which include the western flanker. These stones are arranged on a circular bank of small stones and earth, approximately 14.4 meters in diameter, with kerbs formed by slab-like stones on both the inner and outer faces. While most of the stones in the circle are granite, the fallen western flanker and recumbent are composed of whinstone. The recumbent is estimated to weigh 21.5 tons.
Directions: Located 3.6 miles (5.7 km) southwest of Mintlaw, turn left from the A950 onto the B9029. Proceed for 1 mile (1.6 km), pass through Old Deer, and turn left onto a minor road. After 800 meters, park safely in the small car park on the left. Walk up the signposted track and follow the path to the stone circle.
Clune Wood Stone Circle
This Recumbent Stone Circle, measuring approximately 17.5 x 16.7 meters, comprises the recumbent, its two flankers, and three upright stones, all made of red granite. The recumbent is situated on the south side, measuring around 3 meters long and weighing over 9 tons. A cairn, measuring about 15.3 x 13.9 meters, occupies the circle's centre. Immediately east of the stone circle lies a ring cairn.
Directions: Situated 6.5 miles (10.4 km) east of Banchory, turn onto the A957 at Crathes from the A93. After crossing the River Dee, turn left onto the B9077. Continue on this road for 1.8 miles (2.9 km), passing through Kirkton of Durris, and then turn right onto a minor road towards Woodlands of Durris for 0.9 miles (1.4 km) before turning left. Clune Wood is signposted on the right. From the car park, take the left-hand uphill trail. Take the right-hand trail at the top of the hill until you reach a bench; then, take the track on the left to the stone circle.
Loanhead of Daviot Stone Circle
This restored Recumbent Stone Circle features a low central kerb cairn. The outer circle, measuring 20.5 meters in diameter, consists of eight standing stones, two flankers, and an enormous frost-split recumbent. The stone immediately east of the eastern flanker showcases a vertical line of cup marks on its inner face. Each stone was originally positioned within a small cairn, beneath which lay a pit containing charcoal and pottery fragments.
Near the stone circle are the remnants of a Bronze Age cremation cemetery, which, upon excavation, revealed the remains of 31 individuals.
Directions: Situated 5.5 miles (8.8 km) northwest of Inverurie, take the B9001 out of Inverurie. After 4.3 miles (6.9 km), turn right onto a minor road signposted for Daviot. Follow this road through Daviot, and the stone circle will be signposted on the right. A car park is available.
Whitehill Stone Circle
This Recumbent Stone Circle, approximately 20 meters in diameter, encloses a well-defined ring cairn of around 17 meters in diameter. Only the grey granite recumbent, its western flanker, and two other stones remain in their original positions, with several fallen stones still present.
Directions: Located 11.5 miles (18.5 km) southwest of Inverurie, turn left off the A96 onto the B993 on the south side of Inverurie, heading towards Kemnay, and continue on this road for 10 miles (16 km). Turn right towards Pitfichie Forest car park. From the car park, follow the marked trails for 0.9 miles (1.5 km).
Cullerlie Stone Circle
This revitalized Stone Circle consists of eight stones arranged around the perimeter of a circle roughly 10 meters in diameter. Within the stone circle, eight small kerb cairns were added, revealing burnt bone, charcoal, flint tools, and pottery upon excavation. The central cairn, with a diameter of 3.4 meters, is the largest and uniquely features a double kerb. This stone circle represents a later evolution of the Recumbent Stone Circle tradition.
Directions: Located 11 miles (17.7 km) west of Aberdeen, turn left off the A944 at Westhill onto the B9119/B9125. Pass through the village of Garlogie, turn left to remain on the B9125, and after 250 meters, fork left onto a minor road. To reach the car park, continue on this road for 0.5 miles (0.8 km).
Nine Stanes Stone Circle
The remnants of a Recumbent Stone Circle encircle a ring cairn consisting of six upright stones, the recumbent, and two flankers. This circle deviates from traditional examples, as the recumbent and flankers are positioned on the edge of the inner cairn, while the remaining standing stones form an oval outer arc, approximately 18 x 14.6 meters. This circle was believed to be constructed late in the sequence of Recumbent Stone Circles.
Directions: Located 8 miles (13 km) southeast of Banchory, turn onto the A957 at Crathes from the A93. Continue for 2.8 miles (4.5 km) and turn right before the bridge onto a minor road. Proceed for 2 miles (3.2 km) and park safely at the end of the forestry track on the right. The stone circle is a brief walk along this track.
Are there other stone circles in Aberdeenshire?
Yes! I have only included ten circles within this article, but there are many more to be found:
Berrybrae Stone Circle
Rothiemay Standing Stones
Yonder Bognie Stone Circle
Balquhain Stone Circle
Louden Wood Stone Circle
Kirkton of Bourtie Stone Circle
Cothiemuir Stone Circle
Old Keig Stone Circle
Cairnfauld Stone Circle
Craighead Badentoy Stone Circle
Tyrebagger Stone Circle
Are any standing stones in Aberdeenshire used in the Outlander TV show?
No, the standing stones used in Outlander were made for the TV show and are not real. A pity considering there are so many wonderful real stones they could have used. The Clava Cairns standing stones near Inverness would have been perfect.
The Craigh na Dun (the main standing stones from the TV) were created in a field west of Loch Tummel and Pitlochry in central Scotland.
Key information on stone circles in Aberdeenshire
10% of stone circles in Britain can be found in Aberdeenshire.
Recumbent stone circles are unique to Aberdeenshire.
Many of the stone circles in Aberdeenshire are over 4000 years old.
Some stone circles are very accessible; some are quite difficult to get to.
Please do not climb on the stone circles; they have legal protection under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.
Some circles are large and complete, while others are only a few stones.
I'm sure you'll agree that the Aberdeenshire area of Scotland has a treasure trove of ancient sites to visit. I hope this article has been helpful and you will attempt to visit one of these fascinating stone circles.
Many images in this article were sourced from Stu Smith.
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16th of July 2023 @ 15:21:49
Thanks Chris. Excellent information.