6.6.4 The Stone Rows of Caithness and Sutherland

This unusual monument type, the subject of a 2003–05 research project at Battle Moss led by Kenny Brophy of Glasgow University, is geographically restricted to the northern counties of Caithness and Sutherland, with monuments largely in upland locations in straths and, less commonly, on the coastal plains. Some 20 sites have been identified (Myatt 1988; Heald and Barber 2015). These monuments consist of at least three rows of relatively short standing stones, no more than 1m in height, with the rows set either parallel to one another or radiating out from a central point which in some cases is marked by a cist burial or cairn. The rows are no more than 50m in length, often much shorter, with stones usually spaced between 1m and 2m apart. Some sites are substantial: the Hill o’ Many Stanes (MHG2400) has over 20 rows which include over 200 standing stones. These sites have suffered from a lack of archaeological excavation with most fieldwork taking the form of surveys.

Hill o’ Many Stanes, Caithness. General view of the stone rows, looking south from the hill-top. © Courtesy of HES (Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Collection)

Some of these monuments have been associated with clan battles and skirmishes, which are reflected in folk tales or site name, for example Battle Moss (MHG2187). However, it was recognised during early field visits by Alexander Rhind then fieldwork by Joseph Anderson in the 1870s that stone rows were probably Bronze Age monuments; the latter argued that they were essentially embellishments to Beaker graves (Kenny Brophy pers comm). Early RCAHMS survey work in 1909–1910 reinforced this impression (RCAHMS 2011), but after this, the sites became characterised as lunar observatories through the survey work of Alexander Thom.

Survey work continued in the second half of the 20th century with new sites gradually found, and the first modern excavation took place at Battle Moss in 2003 (Baines et al 2003; Pannett 2005a; 2005b; Baines and Brophy 2006). This excavation debunked the lunar observatory theory, but no firm date or function for this monument was identified. It was shown to be related to a nearby Bronze Age multi-phase cairn (MHG61688). However, cremated remains and the remains of a cinerary urn possibly related to the Bucket Urn tradition in the centre of the monument as well as a possible cist associated with the crushed remains of an early-style Beaker constitute the earliest funerary deposit (Sheridan 2010a). Cremated remains from the urn produced a date of 1662–1451 cal BC. It is likely that these stone rows are monuments of the late 3rd or 2nd millennium BC, are often found in proximity to upland prehistoric settlement traces as well as burial sites, and they may have operated as monuments of memorialisation of the dead (Kenny Brophy pers comm). Further work with dating is needed.

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