The information panel beside the gate annoys me.
Apparently, this large and enigmatic ritual complex “may have been solar in nature” because the view of the rising sun from inside the farthest circle “must have been quite striking”.
Call me crazy, but a valley with an obscured view of the sunrise wouldn’t be my first choice of location for a solar temple.
You can tell that the purpose of the temple complex hasn’t really been given much thought in more than a century, when Victorian antiquarians would declare everything to be a solar temple.
Presumably this was because a solar interpretation was a better fit for their masonic/druidy/loosely Christian worldview. Their solar fixation was almost Freudian.
And indeed, according to Julian Cope’s The Modern Antiquarian, the Victorian gentleman in question was quite the piece of work:
Unfortunately, like most 19th-century antiquaries, Bryce had an overwhelming faith in himself. In order to sustain his own interest, he liked to dig as quickly as possible, and returned to Machrie Moor in September 1861, when he opened five sites in one day.
Bryce’s speed was of no help, though, and he only discovered a couple of kists, one food vessel, a bronze awl and some arrowheads in this rich place of high antiquity, leaving a trail of mess and chaos, plus scanty records of his swift pillage.
We will never get a bead on the original purpose of places like Machrie Moor (and it was certainly used for long enough for those purposes to change), but walking through the site, it felt to me like a southern extension of the same beliefs encoded in the Brogdar complex.
Watch two and a half minutes of this video I have cued up for you:
Like Brogdar, Machrie Moor is clearly a processional site. There are standing stones and circles laid out in such a way as to clearly imply some kind of sacred perambulation. And like Maeshowe, some of these circles appear to be aligned to gaps in the same dramatic landscape.
Back to The Modern Antiquarian:
A Great Mother mountain to the east is created by Beinn Bhreac and Ard Bheinn, the latter being named after the Scandinavian goddess, Ard, or Urd, as in ‘earth’. The feet of the figure are created by Cnoc Shievena (same root as the river Severn) from whence the sunrises would have been formidable. The archaeologist John Barnett believes that four of the Machrie Moor circles were so placed in order to take advantage of a horizon notch. Barnett suggests that it ‘explains why all six circles are located in only one restricted area of the three zones of high prominence on the moor.’ The flash of sunrise through the notch could only have been a usable phenomenon from this one perspective.
There’s certainly a lot to commend this theory. But why six circles? Why not one big-ass one if it’s a solar temple? Once again, we’ll never know for certain. But here is a map of the site:
And here is a constellation map. (Embiggened version here.)
Keeping in mind that many of the stones have been removed or destroyed over the millennia, and other sites may be concealed under the peat, it seems to me we may discern a constellation built across the moor. (Draco isn’t too far off, especially if there are other sites around.)
Such an analysis would also provide a measure of ritual purpose to the layout and the sacred processions, as each circle or site would match a particular star. And remember, a solar element does not preclude a stellar one. Giza is aligned to the heliacal rising of a constellation, which requires the sun and the stars. What if this mountain horizon formed a similar purpose in ‘activating’ the complex?
The notion of British stone star maps is one that has a long history among self-appointed freaks like me. One of the more notorious names in this space was Bishop Browne, below. (Both images from the British classic, The New View Over Atlantis.)
But, of course, I hear ‘mirror’ and ‘star map’ and my mind goes elsewhere pretty quickly.
Time for some vital statistics:
People have been present in this part of Arran for up to 8,000 years, and for the last 6,000 of those years they have been living in ways that left a physical imprint on the landscape around them. The result is one of the most important prehistoric sites in Scotland, a fascinating and at times puzzling landscape in which people lived, farmed, and apparently expended a vast amount of effort creating sites where ritual activity could take place.
If you look at a detailed map of this part of Arran, you can see that large parts of the surrounding area are pock-marked by hut circles, the remains of the places where people once erected their homes. Amongst the scatter of hut circles are the occasional stone circle or standing stone. There are also the remains of two prehistoric forts, one built on the 730ft high summit of Cnoc Ballygown and the other on the coast at Drumaddon Point.
At the heart of this wider ancient landscape, both physically and spiritually, is Machrie Moor. Here are the remains of no fewer than six closely grouped stone circles, while the immediately surrounding area comes complete with chambered cairns, a standing stone and more hut circles…
The starting point for activity here seems to have been in about 3,500BC, when pits were dug in the areas now occupied by Circles 1 and 6. The purpose of the pits is unknown, but ridged Neolithic pottery was recovered from them. A thousand years later, in around 2,500BC, timber circles were erected on the sites of the earlier pits. The timber circle in the area of today’s Circle No.1 was especially elaborate, comprising a double ring of posts with more in its centre. Over time, the timber forming the circles rotted away, and the land was subdivided into small plots and ploughed. Then, in about 2,000BC, stone circles were built on the site of the two earlier wood circles. It is assumed that the four other stone circles were built at the same time. What is known more clearly, from excavations in the 1860s that produced finds from most of the circles, is that some time later each of the circles was used as the burial place for at least one – presumably important – person.
And now some even more vital statistics, the mythological ones:
It is quite common in folklore to find that ancient circles of stone have become associated with legendary figures and giants. These legendary figures were often used to explain the origin of the stones. At Machrie the double circle, Suide Choir Fhionn or Fingal’s Cauldron Seat, is named after the legendary warrior and giant Fingal, who is most likely derived from the Irish Warrior God Finn MacCumhail.
According to the tradition, Fingal used the stone with the hole in it in the outer circle to tether his dog Bran, while he ate a meal within the inner ring. Fingal and his dog Bran are attached to a number of other Scottish sites. The double circle is the only that is associated with folklore, and some people have suggested that it served as the focus of the site.
This is Fingal’s Cauldron. Canadian hipsters model’s own.
Speaking of changing uses, as we were walking through the complex, I noted that each of the sites and the circles had a particular feel to them. None were hostile, but none were particularly amenable, either.
Until we got to one that was more or less in the middle. This one was both active and friendly! Then I look down. Ha, some cheeky pagans had been here very recently. Check out the flowers and banner hanging off the rock in the background:
Good choice, anonymous pagans! This circle very much felt like the heart centre for the whole complex. As this was only a few days after the last blue moon, that was my guess. I announce both theories to the group.
The bride-to-be then asks “so we can pick some heather from around here?” Being the local part of the imminent Australo-Scottish marriage sandwich, she had been instructed to pick some heather for the groomsmen’s outfits. You can see them below, kinda. (What do you want?! It was a selfie!)
I say, “yes”, this is the place for that. I assist and we say a few words, she expresses relief that she is marrying someone who has such conveniently weird friends, because she would otherwise have been too chicken to collect the heather herself.
We all start back toward the cars. I like this place. During the wedding, the mother of the bride would go on to say that we were welcome back to their Arran home whenever we wished.
Clearly, she was just being polite, but what she failed to consider is that polite isn’t exactly one of my regular modes. So I will certainly be back. It’s rare to find such an active and accommodating sacred space. I would like to spend some evening hours here to ‘test’ some of these theories, or even just be in the space on my own for a while.