The history of the standing stones at Cothiemuir Hill

21st June 2020#cothiemuir#history
The history of the standing stones at Cothiemuir Hill

The stone circle at Cothiemuir Hill

This beautiful stone circle at Cothiemuir Hill Natural Burial Ground in Aberdeenshire is an important part of Cothiemuir Wood. Found at the centre of the woodland burial ground it is a protected area that has been historically important for thousands of years. It brings to mind so many questions including why is it there? What was its use? Why were these magnificent stone circles built across Britain and Ireland and beyond? We may never know the exact answer to many of these questions, but we do have some insight into these questions. These help us to understand these amazing neolithic monuments.

Links to the sun and moon

We know that celebrating the solstice was an important time of year for our Neolithic ancestors. Many stone circles appear to have special links to the sun and moon and it is a common feature of stone circles. At Cothiemuir Hill they have been set within a way that suggests their focus is the moon and its lunar standstills.

Surrounded by stunning woodland the stone circle is over 20m across. Some of the stones are still upstanding while others lie on their side. The recumbent stone flanked by two large stones appears to have three large cup marks on the outer face. The reason for these is a mystery but one theory is that their use was for mapping ancient lunar positions. The fact that they point towards the major lunar standstills could be a coincidence but the positioning of the stone circle suggests not. Our ancestors constructed the stone circle with an open view of the south. This would allow for tracking the movements of the moon.

The Devils’ Hoofmark’s

The distinctive ‘hoof like’ markings found on the recumbent stone meant something very different to those in the 1800s. It gave the stone circle the alternative name ‘Devil’s Hoofmarks’. A name that doesn’t do this beautiful stone circle justice, but does highlight an important part in the stone circle’s history.

Due to the suspicions of the 1800’s it was a common misconception that unknown hoof marks were the devil’s footprint. There was a lack of understanding or openness to discover what these monuments truly symbolised. Even without hoofmarks, they were places surrounded by suspicion of death and wrongdoing. Unfortunately, this superstitious culture resulted in the destruction of many stone circles due to fear of the unknown. Luckily for us, this did not happen to the standing stones at Cothiemuir Hill.

Devils Hoofmark

The use of standing stone circles

The use of standing stone circles is still widely debated. Evidence from Cothiemuir Hill suggests that the standing stones stood upon an ancient resting place. Archaeological investigations found that 12 stones originally surrounded the stone circle. Only 8 of these have survived and the megalithic stone structure was most definitely man-made.

The stone circle at Cothiemuir hill was actually a later addition to an earlier burial monument. In 1980 a more in-depth investigation of the stone circle at Cothiemuir confirmed this. In 1980 archaeologists excavated three small trenches. They found that a low cairn was the original monument, possibly containing a cist. The recumbent stone circle was a later addition identified by the way two monoliths cut through the existing structure of the cairn. It was not uncommon for stone circles to have the same structure as Cothiemuir Hill because it is similar to sites like Tomnaverie.

It’s thought these were important gathering places. Possibly used for funeral pyres, although there is no evidence for this at Cothiemuir Hill. Connections to the solstice and lunar cycles support the theory they were special gathering places for special times of the year. They had connections to the past but may have also had connections to the present and future celebrating the changing seasons.

Uncovered artefacts and facts

Worked flint and quartz were the only artefacts recovered from the investigation. This helps to date this beautiful monument back to the Neolithic. More recent discoveries of stone circles have raised theories that Neolithic sites were part of a larger cultural community. There seem to be links between stone circles that suggest interconnections. Similarities between stone circles spread across large distances may not be coincidental.

The stone circle was clearly built with a lot of thought even down to the stones used in the circle itself. These have a distinctive pattern with a pink and grey recurring arrangement. You may not be able to see this at first glance due to the weathering on the stones, but it is clear at the base of the stones.

All this creates more mystery about the meaning behind these magnificent monolithic structures. Their use, what they meant to the people who created them and if processional routes were an important part of their use.

Learning a lesson from our ancestors

When we wonder about monuments like these and their use in the past maybe we should also consider what they can teach us for the future. We are lucky that we have the privilege of sharing these structures with our ancestors. That they are places we can visit with a special link to the past however they can also give us a glimpse into how we can do things better. How we can be the ancestors our future generations deserve.

They have left something special which allows us to remember them, whether intended or not. But the land around the stone structure remains unspoilt. There are no tarmac roads leading to the standing stones, just a natural path walked in by those that visit. There are no rows of headstones or cut markers that tell the name of those that once were. Yet this doesn’t take away from how special the stones of a shared monument are. It seems to add to the importance of this area because the focus is not on ancestors that have died, but on their history and the lives they lived. How they may have celebrated and the wonder of their beliefs which may even make us more open-minded. This is a wonderful way to remember someone.

They are a place of remembrance, with links to life and death and an understanding of how seasons change. They teach us we can remember those we love while respecting the natural world around us and that’s a lesson we need to learn.

“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” – Native American Proverb.

Visit the Standing Stones

You can visit the stone circle at Cothiemuir Wood from Cothiemuir Hill Natural Burial Ground. There is a beautiful walk through the woodland. Dogs are welcome but please respect the surrounding natural burial ground and monolithic structure. Both have a lot of meaning to us and the families of those that rest here in both the past and the present.