Funerary Practices and Ceremonial Monuments

The only Middle Bronze Age funerary rite attested in Perth and Kinross is cremation. It may have been the dominant, or only, funerary practice during this period, although the paucity of evidence makes it impossible to corroborate such a statement.

By analogy with Argyll and Bute, where several examples have been dated to around 1400–1200 BC (Sheridan 2008b), the few kerb-cairns found in Perth and Kinross are likely to date to the Middle Bronze Age. Although a Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age example is known from Sands of Forvie, Aberdeenshire (Bradley and Nimura 2016, 119). These should not be confused with Early Bronze cairns with kerbs, such as Beech Hill House, Coupar Angus, which is incorrectly labelled as a ‘kerb-cairn’ by Canmore (MPK5042). The kerb-cairns are small, low, flat-topped drum-shaped cairns which are edged by a well-defined, continuous, boulder- or slab-built kerb. They are often associated with the deposition of quartz and cremated human remains. (Ritchie and MacLaren 1972; Lynch and Ritchie 1975). The late Graham Ritchie memorably compared them to a dessert known as a ‘Charlotte russe’ (Lynch and Ritchie 1975, 30), although this culinary reference is increasingly unlikely to be understood nowadays. No definitive list of examples from this part of Scotland exists; in 1972, Ritchie and MacLaren declared ‘It is too soon to offer a complete catalogue of this type of cairn in Perthshire’ (1972, 8). Now is the time to investigate the matter afresh – and to obtain dating evidence – so this needs to be identified as a research priority. The examples in the region known to the authors are those at Monzie (MPK848; Young and Mitchell 1939; Burl 2000, 247, 248, fig 28, plate 50; about 5.5m in kerb diameter); Fowlis Wester (MPK1514; ibid., 247, fig 28); possibly Machuim/Machuinn (MPK206; Ritchie and MacLaren 1972, 8); Ninewells (MPK2414);  and, perhaps less convincingly, two sites at Strath-head on Tullybeagles Moor (MPK5230). Burl described the Tullybeagles examples as ‘dishevelled kerb-cairns’, but they are as likely, or more likely, to be stone circles (Burl 2000, 246).

Excavation at Monzie kerb-cairn in 1938 (Young and Mitchell 1939) revealed the presence, off-centre, of a small cist containing the cremated remains of an adult and child. These remains were reported on by Professor Waterston of St Andrews University; their current whereabouts are unknown, and they may have been discarded. Also present within the monument, and contemporary with the cist, were sherds of a Bucket Urn, found in a black, charcoal-rich layer that may consist of pyre debris. This black layer is distinct from a lower black layer that either relates to the burning of surface vegetation, or to the location of the cremation pyre. Further cremated remains were found outside the kerb-cairn. Considerable quantities of unrolled quartz were also present. One of the kerbstones has cupmarks linked by channels, and a short distance (3m) from the kerb-cairn to the south-west, and linked to it by a paved ‘causeway’, is a fallen, low, standing stone covered on one face with Atlantic rock art. Other rock art is known in the area, as recorded in the ScRAP database, and it may be that this decorated slab had been prised from a pre-existing, ancient rock art-marked outcrop. Whether the cupmarked and channelled kerbstone also constitutes a reuse of ancient rock art, or whether its design was added when the kerb was being constructed, is unclear, but the latter is possible. Burl has remarked (2000, 248–9) that the kerb-cairn at Fowlis Wester shares many features in common with that at Monzie, since there is evidence for burning, cremated remains, plentiful quartz, a cupmarked stone in the kerb at its SSW point, and an outlying stone to the NNE, 11.3m away. A SSE–NNW alignment between the cupmarked kerbstone and the outlier at Fowlis Wester points downhill to the position of moonrise at the moon’s northern standstill. At Monzie, the cupmarked kerbstone aligns E–W with the tallest of the kerbstones, and Burl implies that the SW alignment with the outlying decorated stone may have had a solar solstitial orientation (midwinter sunset). An interest in marking the movements of the celestial bodies seems to be associated with these monuments built for the dead.

As for the other types of monument constructed during the Middle Bronze Age in Perth and Kinross, Bradley’s work on Croftmoraig (MPK363) concluded that the oval stone ‘circle’ – more aptly named ‘oval setting’ – in the centre of this multi-phase monument is of Middle Bronze Age date, dating to 1410–1220 BC (Bradley and Nimura 2016, 69–70, 118, fig 4.21b). This post-dates a timber roundhouse-like structure dating to 1370–1120 BC, which in turn post-dates a stone circle with outliers that was constructed around a remarkable erratic boulder, probably around 2000 BC. The oval setting, with its long axis to the SSW, is believed to be contemporary with a discontinuous perimeter wall and with the placing of a large slab with cup-and-ring markings to the SSW of the oval setting, probably in a gap in the perimeter wall (Bradley and Nimura 2016,  150–1 and fig 4.21b). The slab with the Atlantic rock art could have been prised from a decorated outcrop in the area: in other words, the rock art could well have been over a millennium old when it was deployed in this way. The SSW orientation of the oval setting is further emphasised by the grading of the stones so that the tallest ones are at the SSW. Furthermore, the slab with Atlantic rock art is directly opposite Monolith 3 of the Early Bronze Age stone circle, which has cupmarks. These could conceivably have been added to the monolith during the Middle Bronze Age. It appears that the oval setting was orientated on the position of the setting midwinter solstice sun and possibly also on the position of the setting moon near its major southern standstill, according to Scott (Scott and McHardy 2020; Sheridan 2021). Inside the oval setting, numerous water-worn and angular lumps of white quartz were found; their deposition may be contemporary with the construction of the oval setting, or perhaps more probably with a subsequent, Late Bronze Age phase of funerary activity dated to 1258–976 BC (Bradley and Nimura 2016, 69, 70).

Bradley has argued that other small oval stone ‘circles’, with no more than eight stones, are likely to be contemporary with the Croftmoraig example. These include one near Killin, at the other end of Loch Tay (Bradley and Nimura 2016, fig 10.2). Another at Machuinn, mid-way along Loch Tay, this is the same site which is referred to as a kerb-cairn by Ritchie and MacLaren (1972). There are others at Tigh-na-Ruaich; Wester Torrie; Ardblair (Leys of Marlee) (MPK3896; Fowlis Wester; Sandy Road, Scone (MPK3285; Stewart 1965); and Moncreiffe (MPK3163; Stewart 1985). Further examples, discussion and analysis of the distribution of these and other stone ‘circles’ are available (RCAHMS 1990; 1994; Burl 2000, 243–4). Stewart (1985) refers to an additional example at Ninewells, near the Loch of the Lowes, but it is uncertain whether the site in question is that which Canmore describes, with some justification, as a kerb-cairn. There is a discrepancy between Stewart’s NGR of NO 076 455 for the Ninewells ‘circle’, and that of NO 07571 43600 for the kerb-cairn. There is no Canmore entry for a stone ‘circle’ at NO 076 455 and it could be that Stewart’s NGR, and her classification of the site as a stone circle, is erroneous.

A recurrent feature of these oval stone settings – and one held in common with the kerb-cairns – is a NE–SW orientation, emphasised by the grading of orthostat heights. Moreover, as with kerb-cairns, several of the settings are associated with cupmarks (Bradley and Nimura 2016, 144) and/or with outliers with more complex Atlantic rock art designs. This is the case with the example at Moncreiffe (Stewart 1985) – a multi-phase monument that started out, several centuries earlier, as a ‘mini-henge’ (Phase 1) and went on to be a round cairn surrounded by a stone circle (Phase 2) before the oval setting (Phase 3) was constructed. A cupmarked slab, now within the oval setting, is believed to have been moved into the monument in the relatively recent past but it may originally have been an outlier. A further slab with a more complex Atlantic rock art design was found further away. Stewart argued that the Phase 2 cairn was converted into a ring-cairn during Phase 3, with large amounts of quartz added at this point. The deposition of cremated human remains may have occurred at this time. It is unclear whether the single pot of the flat-rimmed ware/Bucket Urn tradition was deposited at this time, or during the Late Bronze Age.

It may be that the stone row at Balnaguard (MPK1705; Mercer and Midgley 1997, 285, 288) and the paired stones of Perth and Kinross were erected during the Middle, or Middle to Late, Bronze Age, although none of these sites has been dated. The reason for suggesting this dating is admittedly tenuous, as it is based on the dates of 1370–1050 BC and 1370–1120 BC relating to the construction of short-stone rows at Ballymeanoch and Ardnacross in the west of Scotland (Sheridan 2012b, 180). West Scottish short-stone rows are a different kind of monument from the Balnaguard row and the paired stones.

The existence of 26 sets of paired stones, mostly located in Strathtay and Strathearn, was pointed out by Stewart (1966), who listed and mapped them. They are aligned E–W, NE–SW and ENE–WSW, and some have cupmarks, eg Fowlis Wester 1. This is a class of monument that requires further investigation and dating.

Digital, black line map of Perth and Kinross with paired stones indicated with black dots and numbers.
Distribution of paired stones in Perth and Kinross (Stewart 1966)