Hiking for miles across bleak moorland to a remote stone circle might have its romantic appeal, but on a cold January day with the sun already low in the sky by early afternoon there is something to be said for lifting the latch of a roadside gate and strolling about fifty yards into a field.
And these stones are absolutely beautiful – there is such a lovely quality about them, and it wasn’t all down to the light. Quite a compact group, they sit on a man-made platform of earth, slightly raised above the level of the surrounding field. The tallest one is about shoulder-high (to me, anyway) and a number of them have fallen; some of them are curiously lined – glacial striations, perhaps – and some of them bear cup markings.
When you first approach the site, it’s not immediately obvious what pattern the stones make on the ground, and this is because there is more than one circle, one inside the other, each dating from different periods of time. When it was excavated in 1965 by Stuart Piggott and Derek Simpson, Croft Moraig (which means ‘Mary’s Croft’, and is a much more recent name) was revealed to be quite a complex setting – and in fact it is the best preserved monument of its kind in Scotland.
Nothing remains of the very first structure which stood here, a horseshoe-shaped ring of 14 upright timbers, with an opening to the south. They were put up around 3000 BC, and a shallow ditch was dug around them. Archaeologists don’t know if the posts belonged to a building, in which case they would have helped to support walls of some kind, or whether they stood alone, linked by horizontal posts laid across the top in the manner of Stonehenge.
Aubrey Burl has his own theory:
“At Croft Moraig when the uprights weathered, some were replaced more than once and it is tempting to visualise a freestanding timber setting with a central, flat boulder beside a hollow containing burnt bone.” (‘The Stones Circles of the British Isles’)
From studying the pattern of the post holes, which are shown on the information board as small and very faint grey shapes, you can see that there was a short, almost parallel row of posts to the east, which is assumed to have been an entrance.
At a later, unknown date the wooden posts were replaced with stones (shown in darker blue-grey) and these were surrounded by a low rubble bank. Eight stones were arranged in a circle, with the suggestion of an entrance to the south-south-west; one has since fallen over. Three further stones were placed just to the south, and one of these is also recumbent.
Burl says that one of the eight stones (to the north-north-east of the circle) is cupmarked, and so is a smaller stone which lies in the rubble bank, roughly where the ‘entrance‘ would have been. I have to admit that I didn’t see any cupmarks on the northern stone, although I walked around most of them, and to my regret I didn’t inspect the small stone in the bank closely enough.
Beneath some of the stones, archaeologists found “charcoal-laden earth and Neolithic sherds… that came possibly from the first phase.” These sherds were dated by Piggott and Simpson to the turn of the third and second millennia BC.
In the third wave of construction (shown in the diagram in brown) nine stones were set up on the outside of the first circle and surrounding it completely; two additional stones, large and quite impressive, were placed to the south-east, and these suggest a ceremonial entrance more than any other surviving feature. They may also have marked the site of burials:
“In front of each was an empty hole which may have held an inhumation long since destroyed by the acid soil.”
As usual with places like this, we are grasping at imaginary straws, touching the skin while standing five thousand years away from the heart.
It seems as if the stones, especially the ‘third phase’ ones, were not deeply embedded in the ground, but rather chosen for their flat bottoms and planted in fairly shallow holes. I was interested to read that handfuls of quartz pebbles were found scattered at various points around the site. Whatever obscure purpose our ancestors might have had for this place, the appeal of white quartz is timeless, and it has long been carried as a good-luck charm. In fact, I have one in my coat pocket…
Aubrey Burl is quite decisive about the site’s importance:
“Croft Moraig is one of the most informative stone circles in the British Isles. Its Neolithic timber ring is one of the earliest known and may have affinities with the tradition that caused east-west lines to be incorporated into many early stone circles… The variety of stone rings in Perthshire and the distribution of monuments along the hillsides down Loch Tay reveals something of the movement of people and of ideas passing along this prehistoric route that reached from Strath Tay through Glen Dochart and down to Loch Lomond and south-west Scotland.”
What struck me most was the beauty of the stones themselves – they were not so much covered as trimmed with moss and lichen, and contained the same chips of sparkly mica as their fairly close neighbours at Fortingall. I guess, because of their similarity in height to a human, they seemed friendly and personal and it crossed my mind whether some were ‘female’ and others ‘male’. At any rate, they all seemed to be having a very friendly chat with each other, and there was no off-putting ‘keep out’ kind of atmosphere which I have sometimes sensed elsewhere. The fact that all the stones are arranged on a circular platform also gives it a lovely feeling, as if you’re visiting a stage on which the players are frozen in time.
Perhaps I’m indulging my imagination a bit too much here!
But there was another thing, and in this observation I know that I have at least one ally to back me up: the trees around the site, which were mainly oaks, were all bending noticeably inwards towards the circle, as if they were eavesdropping on conversations that I couldn’t hear. Just to the south-west, in an adjacent field, stood a huge old oak tree, its trunk looking as if it had grown in a gentle spiral, and its longest and strongest looking branch was inclined towards the stone circle – reaching out towards it, in fact. If there was a ‘guardian’ of Croft Moraig, it felt like this was probably it.
Most of the other stone circles I’ve visited have had no trees growing near them, so I can’t say that I have seen this phenomenon at similar sites. But I have seen trees with amazingly twisted trunks bending themselves into – or away from – ‘tumps‘, man-made mounds or barrows, and now we are back in the beguiling land of Alfred Watkins and ‘The Old Straight Track’. In addition, I have an old book called ‘The Pattern of the Past’ by Guy Underwood, a fascinating man who taught himself the skill of dowsing, and he used it to map the unseen lines of energy around ancient sites. His findings are eye-opening, and for me at least, they were convincing. This is another of my most-cherished books, and if you have an interest in this kind of thing, I think you would love it too.
At two o’clock the midwinter sun was already sinking behind the hills above Kenmore, casting long fingers of shadow from every single stone of Croft Moraig and giving a golden glow to the mosses that had penetrated the cracks. Just a few hours later, the place would be bathed in light from the nearly-full moon. But the cold was coming down, and a warm car beckoned, and we had a two-hour drive home… so if there were any ancestral spirits stirring under those stones, there was no one to watch them dance.
- ‘The Stone Circles of the British Isles’ by Aubrey Burl
- RCAHMS Canmore
- Mysterious Britain and Ireland
- The Megalithic Portal
Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf