Rather than marking one specific moment in time, like a belief or a deeply-held wish that has been expressed and then apparently abandoned, some ancient sites have evolved slowly over thousands of years – and are, in fact, still evolving.
For archaeologists, places like Temple Wood in Kilmartin Glen must present an ongoing headache. Instead of a few scattered pieces of the same jigsaw, they are working with the fragments of different pictures, spread over a time span of about 2,000 years, mingled and overlapping, and garnished with a generous topping of Victorian romanticism.
This probably isn’t the best moment to remember Einstein’s famous observation, that “the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”
It’s thought that Temple Wood began life around 3500 BC, as a circle of upright timber posts. Then, around 3000 BC, the posts were replaced by a setting of at least five stones. There’s a suggestion that this construction was never finished.
For some reason which we may never fathom, but which I’d love to know, “at some date after 3000 BC” another stone circle was set up a few yards to the south-west, adjacent to the first one. The information sign at the site suggests that for some time at least, the two circles existed side by side, before the first one was deliberately dismantled and covered with a layer of cobble stones.
For the first few millennia, it seems that Temple Wood’s only purpose was as a ritual site. But around 2000 BC, two small burial cairns were dug outside the second stone circle, and over the centuries more burials were placed inside the ring of stones. The central box-shaped cist is still a striking feature. At some stage, it was decided to surround the perimeter of the circle with a bank of cobbles, held in place by slabs that connected the stone uprights to form a complete ring. This band of cobbles would have covered the two outside burial cairns, as shown on the Historic Scotland information board (below).
“The central cist [of the NE cairn] was covered by a massive slab (1.65 m by 0.95 m and 0.15 m thick); on its pebble floor were found a fine Beaker, three barbed-and-tanged arrowheads and a flint scraper, all of which had probably accompanied an inhumation burial, as the phosphate analysis of the floor deposits clearly suggests…
The W cairn held a cist… floored with flat stones, on which there was a thin layer of gravelly earth containing only the tooth of a child aged between four and six years.” RCAHMS Canmore
Historic Scotland’s sign alludes to the ‘archer’s ghost’, which is enough to set your mind racing, but this turns out to be speculation about the owner of the flint arrowheads, referring to the fact that his physical remains have completely disappeared.
The database of the RCAHMS states that an axe-head is carved on the head slab of the cist within the circle. This is later described as “unrecognisable”, which is a relief to me, as I certainly missed it. Other carvings are recorded, including a “magnificent” spiral on one of the outer stones, and there is mention also of a concentric circle and cup-marks. These would be hard to spot, as the stones are covered in lichen.
Lunar and solar alignments
Looking south-west, a line drawn through the centre of the two circles and the north-east cairn points towards the midwinter sunset; lunar alignments have been described, but these are quite complex and include the Nether Largie stones, in a field close by. They are best seen in a diagram, and you can read more in the excellent article ‘Recent Astronomical Observations at Kilmartin Glen‘ by Doug Scott in ‘Antiquity’.
Peat began to form over the site in the second millennium BC, and Historic Scotland believes that by 1000 BC it had been abandoned. In the 19th century, a ditch that was made to assist peat cutting may have traced the line of a much older ditch, and it’s possible that the activity also aroused the interest of amateur historians. A report from the early 1800s suggests that a cache of coins, possibly medieval, was discovered within the “Druidical Circle”, but these disappeared, no doubt into eager hands. Later in the 19th century the local landowner, Sir John Malcolm, decided to plant oak trees around the site, presumably to enhance its appearance, and it was he who named it ‘Temple Wood’. That is interesting, as I always thought it was an ancient name.
Writing in ‘The Stones Circles of the British Isles’, Aubrey Burl doesn’t have a great deal to say about Temple Wood, except that to its east is the setting of standing stones “thought by [Alexander] Thom… to form a lunar observatory, with the circle standing in line with a notch in the western mountains where the whole horizon looks as though it had been chewed by beavers.”
It’s difficult to imagine these distant periods of prehistory with any kind of definition: it’s the time factor that gets in the way. I can imagine the people of the Bronze Age, burying their child with sadness and reverence… but how connected did they feel to a stone circle that had been put up perhaps a thousand years before? And if they could feel that connection strongly, and understood why it was there and what it was for, at what stage did their descendants forget?
Perhaps there are still clues to be had, although you need a certain amount of imagination. While the trees around Temple Wood are a comparatively recent addition, it’s interesting to note their behaviour. Some of the oaks are bending over the stone circle as if their branches are being whirled into some kind of unseen vortex, while a group of smaller trees – mountain ash, I think, although they were bare of leaves – are leaning in unison towards the site, like worshippers hurrying for the church door. On the field boundary, two oaks appear to be whispering together, their trunks forming an incomplete arch, which makes you wonder what lies between them.
Another question that occurs to me is about the cobble stones. They must have been gathered from a not-too-distant shore, but why? Did wave-rounded stones have some kind of harmonious energy? Was it just that they were more plentiful? Were they chosen for their pale colour? They give a strange experience as you walk around, because your footsteps crunch a little, making you feel like an intruder. And, of course, that is what you are. If Einstein is right about time – and who am I to argue? – then perhaps it is all still going on in there, and even if we can’t see it, the trees certainly can.
- RCAHMS Canmore
- Historic Scotland
- Historic Scotland Portal
- Undiscovered Scotland
- Kilmartin Museum
- ‘The Stone Circles of the British Isles‘ by Aubrey Burl
Photos copyright © Jo Woolf
In a field close to Temple Wood lies the chambered cairn of Nether Largie South; it is so called because it is one of five cairns, stretching for several hundred yards in a straight line down Kilmartin Glen. Four of them date from the Bronze Age, but the fifth, Nether Largie South, is even older, and it is still possible to crawl inside. I’ll tell you about this soon!
Meanwhile, you might like…
- Prehistoric rock art at Achnabreck
- The Ballymeanoch stones
- Nether Largie standing stones
- Dunchraigaig burial chamber
- Dunadd – behold the king!