History Of The
Scottish Nation Vol 1, Chapter 10 - The
Temples or Stone Circles of the Druid
From the worship of Druidism we pass to the
structures in which it was performed. These were so unlike the temples of later ages that
we hesitate to apply to them the same name, or to rank then in the same class of edifices.
The whole idea of their construction was borrowed from eastern lands and from patriarchal
times. The models on which they were reared had come into existence before architecture
had grown into a science, or had taught men to build walls of solid masonry, or hang the
lofty roof on tall massy column. In the temple of the Druid no richly structures, they
possessed coloured light streamed in through mullioned oriel, and no pillared and
sculptured portico, or gate of brass, gave entrance to the long train of white-robed
priests, as they swept in, leading to the altar the flower-crowned sacrifice. But if these
graces were lacking in Druidic structures, they possessed others in some respects even
more in harmony with their character as religious edifices. They had a rough, unadorned
grandeur which made them more truly imposing than many a fane which boasts the glory of
Byzantine grace or of Gothic majesty. If the simplest, they were notwithstanding among the
strongest of all the fabrics of man’s rearing. They have outlasted races and empires,
nay, the very deities in whose honour they were set up. And while the pyramids, which it
cost millions of money and millions of lives to build, are bowing to the earth, or have
wholly vanished from it, these simple stones still stand erect on field and moor, and link
us in these western parts with the world’s morning and the first races of men.
We have three examples of these, the earliest of
British fanes, in a state of tolerable preservation: Stennes, Stonehenge, and Avebury. All
these are partially in ruins, but enough remains to show us the mode of their construction
and to give us an idea of their magnitude and grandeur when they were entire, while the
fact that they have survived, through only in fragmentary condition, to our day,
sufficiently attests their amazing and unsurpassed strength. Nothing could be simpler than
the plan of their construction. They consisted of single stones, rough and shaggy, as when
dug out of the earth, or when taken from the quarry, set on end, and ranged in a circle,
each stone a little way apart from the other. The area which they enclosed was consecrated
ground, and in the centre of it was the altar, an enormous block of stone.2 The
chisel had not approached those great blocks; ornament and grace their builders knew not
and indeed cared not to give them. We look in vain for carvings or inscription upon them.
They were the work of an illiterate age. They possess but on quality, but that is the
quality which of all others the barbarian most appreciates—size, colossal size.
The description of these structures belongs
to the archaeologist, and hardly falls within the province of the historian. The latter
has to do with them only as they shed light on the social and religious condition of the
people, among whom and by whom they were reared. At Stennes, in Orkney there are two
circles, the larger, called Brogar, consisting originally, it is believed, of sixty
stones, of which only thirteen remain erect, and ten lie overturned; the smaller being a
half circle. The greater circle was a temple to Baal, or the sun-god, while the smaller
was dedicated to the moon. Others see in the smaller a court of judicature. The Druids,
adding the office of judges to their functions as priests, generally set up their courts
hard by their temples. The Norse rovers of the ninth century found these circles standing
when they took possession of the island, for the spot is referred to under the name of
Steinsness by Olaf Trygresson, when recording the slaughter of Earl Harvard (970).
Designating the spot by its most remarkable feature, the Norsemen called it, in their own
language, the Steinsness—that is, the Ness of the Stones—the Stones' ness.
Stonehenge 2 is the second
greatest stone circle that remains to us. It stands on the open plain of Salisbury, with
no bulky object near it to mar its effect by dwarfing its apparent size. It must be
visited before its weird splendour can be truly judged. The length of the tallest stone is
21 feet; the number of stones still erect is 140; and the diameter of the circles which
they form is 106 feet. The circle appears to have had a coping, or corona, of headstones,
but nearly all of these are now displaced. Henry of Huntingdon, writes in the twelfth
century, calls Stonehenge one of the four wonders of England. It was old even in his day,
for he confesses that he knew nothing of its origin, or of the means by which such
stupendous columns had been set up.
Diordorus Siculus quotes a passage from
Hecataeus says, "The men of the island are, as it were, priests of Apollo, daily
singing his hymns and praises, and highly honouring him. They say, moreover, that in it
there is a great forest, and a goodly temple of Apollo, which is round and beautified with
many rich gifts and ornaments."3 Mr. Davies, author of the "Celtic
Researches," reasonably concludes that the island here spoken of is Britain, and the
temple in which harpers sang daily the praises of Apollo is Stonehenge and the Druids. If
so, Stonehenge was in existence B.C. 300. And supposition is strengthened by Pindar, the
Greek lyric poet, who speaks of "the Assembly met to view public games of the
Hyperboreans." 4 It was the custom of the ancient to celebrate games and
races on the high festivals of their gods; and that they did so at Stonehenge when the
people assembled for sacrifice is rendering almost certain by the discovery of Dr.
Stukeley (1723) of a "cursus," or hippodrome, half a mile north of Stonehenge,
about 10,000 feet in length, and 350 feet in width. It runs east and west, and is lined by
two parallel ditches. At the west end is a curve for the chariots to turn, and on the east
a mound where the principal men might view the contest, and the judge award the prizes to
These stones have a weird spell to which the
imagination not unwillingly surrenders itself. Standing on the bare, solitary plain, they
suggest the idea of a Parliament of Cyclops met to discuss some knotty point of the stone
age; for with that age, doubtless, are they coeval. As the centuries flow past, new races
and new arts spring up at their feet, still they keep their place and for part of the
British world of to-day. They saw the Celtae arrive and bring with them the bronze age.
They were standing here when Caesar and his legions stepped upon our shore. Their tall
forms were seen on that plain when One greater than Caesar walked our earth. They saw the
Romans depart, and the Angles and Saxons rush in and redden the land with cruel slaughter.
They heard the great shout of the Gothic nations when Rome was overturned. They saws the
sceptre of England handed over from the Saxon to the Norman. They have waited here, fixed
and changeless while a long line of great kings—the Johns, the Edwards, the Henrys,
of our history—have been mounting the throne in succession and guiding the destinies
of Britain. And now they behold the little isle in which they first lifted up their heads
become the centre of a world-wide empire, and the sceptre of its August ruler—the
daughter of a hundred monarchs—stretched over realms which extend from the rising to
the setting sun, and far to the south under skies which are nightly lighted up with the
glories of the Southern Cross. Such are some of the mighty memories which cluster round
these old stones. To see them morning by morning, freshening their rugged forms in the
radiance of the opening day, and to watch them at eve solemnly and majestically
with-drawing themselves into the dusk and cloud of night, is to feel something of the awe
with which they inspired our forefathers of three thousand years go.5
But wonderful as Stonehenge is, it is
eclipsed by the grandeur of Avebury. According to the remark of Aubrey two hundred years
ago, and quoted by Sir Richard Colt Hoare, "Avebury does as much exceed in greatness
the so-renowned Stonehenge as cathedral does a parish church."
A vast earthen rampart or mound sweeps round
the site of the rude but majestic fane. Inside this mound is a fosse or ditch, and the
perpendicular height in some places from the bottom of the fosse to the top of the mound
is 80 feet. Half-way up the mound, on its inner side, is a broad ledge, running round the
entire circle, on which the spectators could seat themselves by hundreds of thousands and
witness the rites which were celebrated on the level floor, 28 acres in extent, which the
vallum and rampart enclosed and over looked. Just within the fosse was a second rampart of
great stones, set on end, and sweeping round the entire area, stone parted from stone by
an average interval of 27 feet. The row consisted of an hundred stones from 17 to 20 feet
in height, not one of which had known chisel or hammer. To give them firm hold of the
earth they were sunk to a depth of 10 feet, making the actual length of the stone about 30
feet. There are remains of an inner row, showing that this encompassing circle of grand
monoliths was double. The diameter of the area enclosed by the fosse is 1200 feet and of
that enclosed by the great outer mound 1400 feet.6
In the centre of the area rises a beautiful
little artificial hill of which we shall presently speak. On each side of the mount, and
equally distant from it, stood a double concentric stone circle, formed of the same
columnar masses as the great outer ring, presenting us with two small fanes enclosed
within the great fane. The outer ring of these two little fanes contains thirty, and the
inner twelve pillars, and the diameters of the rings were respectively 270 feet and 166
The conical mount in the centre is 125 feet
high. Seldom disturbed by foot it has a covering of the freshest and loveliest verdure. It
is wholly composed of earth, with an area at the top of 100 feet, and 500 at the base. Dr.
Stukeley says that in his time ((1740) its height was 170 feet. It was ringed with stone
pillars at the base. What its use was, whether an altar or a judgment-seat, it is now
impossible to say.
This grand temple, with its fourfold
circumvolution and it’s inner sanctuaries, is approached by two grand pathways which
sweep on with a slight curve (the one from the north-east and the other from the
north-west) for upwards of a mile. These approaches are spacious, thousands might journey
along them without jostling, their breadth being not less than 45 feet, and they are lined
throughout with a grand balustrade of pillars. They remind one of those grand avenues of
sphinxes that lead up to the great temples of ancient Egypt; and doubtless the impression
they made on the Druidic worshipper as he drew nigh the grand shrine, was not less solemn
than that which the marvels of Edfou made on the mind of the Coptic devotee; for what
impresses the barbarian most is not artistic grace, but colossal size. It was when the
Romans had passed the climax of their civilisation, and begun to decline once more towards
barbarism, that, despising the Athenian models, they began to rear piles remarkable mainly
for their stupendous magnitude.
All round the level plain on which these
monuments occur swell up the ridges or low height of Avebury. These little hills are
dotted thickly over with sepulchral tumuli. If the great temple which enclosed by this
zone of graves be one of our earliest cathedrals, as in a sort it no doubt is, many we
not, in the well-nigh obliterated sepulchres around it, see one of the earliest graveyards
of our country? Here king and priest, warrior and bard mingle their dust, and sleep
together. They have gone down into a land of "deep forgetfulness," for even
Tradition has grown weary of her task, and has long since ceased to repeat their names and
tell the story of the exploits which doubtless made these names, however forgotten now,
famous in their day.
In comparison with these cyclopean
structures, which it required only strength, not art, to rear, the grandest temples of
Greece and Italy, on which science had lavished her skill, and wealth her treasures, were
but as toys. The special charm of the Greek temple was beauty: majesty was the more
commanding attribute of the Druidic fane. The snow-white marble, the fluted column, with
its graceful volutes and sculptured pediment, the airy grace which clothed it like
sun-light, was a thing to fascinate and delight, but in proportion as it did so it
conflicted with the spirit of devotion, and lessened the reverence of the worshipper. The
stone circle of the Druid, severe, sombre, vast, its roof the open heavens, was a thing to
engender awe, and concentrate, not distract the mind. In our judgment our barbarian
forefathers had a truer apprehension of the sort of structure in which to worship the
Maker of the earth and heavens than the Greeks and Romans had.
We have already stated our deliberate and
settled conviction that these monuments were reared for a religious purpose, in short are
the earliest fanes ever set up on Scottish or British soil. But the recent discovery of a
grand dolmen-centre in the land of Moab offers new and, we thin, conclusive proof in
support of our opinions. This discovery, moreover, sheds a new and most interesting light
on the early history of Scotland, and corroborates the account we have given touching its
first settlers, as coming from Eastern lands, and bringing with them this earliest of the
forms of worship, while yet in a state of comparative purity.
No reader of the Old Testament needs to be
told of the interest that invests Mount Nebo, or to have recalled to his mind the
memorable occasion on which that hill was engirdled with altars and seen to blaze with
sacrificial fires. Recent discoveries in that locality vividly recall the whole scene as
depicted on the sacred page. The scholars of the "Palestine Exploration,"
enjoying a leisure for investigation which ordinary travellers cannot command, have
discovered not fewer than 700 dolmens, standing or overturned, in the territory east of
the Jordan. With these were mingled the remains of stone circles. This multitude of ruined
shrines in one territory may well astonish us, and yet it is probable that these are only
a few out of that great host of similar monuments with which that whole region bristled in
former days. One shudders when he thinks of the abyss in which the inhabitants were sunk,
as attested by these relics of a worship at once lewd and bloody. These monuments appear
to have been equally numerous of the west of the Jordan before the entrance of the
Israelites into Palestine, and if their ruins are there more rarely met with it is owing
to the Divine injunction laid on Joshua to utterly destroy these erections and cleanse the
land from the fearfully demoralising and debasing practices to which they gave birth.
Mount Nebo, in the land of Moab, was an
object of special interest for examination on the part of the members of the
"Palestine Exploration" expedition. "Close beside the knob of the mountain
they saw," says Captain Conder, "a dolmen standing perfect and unshaken."
They found other dolmens on the southern slope of the mountain; and on the west side of
Nebo, yet another a little way below the "field of Zophim." This latter lies
overturned. There, is, moreover, a rude stone circle on the southern slope of the
mountain.7 Around this very hill-top did Balak rear seven altars, thrice told;
may not these be their remains? Here stood "Balaam with the king and princes of Moab
beside him," and while the smoke of the sacrifices ascended into heaven, and the
dolmen tables ran red with the blood of the slain bullocks, the "son of Beor"
looked down on the city of black tents in the gorge at his feet, and obeying an impulse by
which his own inclination and wishes were overborne, he broke out into a lofty strain of
prophetic blessing where he had hoped to pour forth a torrent of scathing maledictions.
This is the holy place of Moab, and these are
the altars of Baal. But in shape, in size, in the method of their construction, in short,
in every particular, they are the exact resemblances of the Druidic remains of Scotland.
There are races which even at this day raise such structures in connection with religious
uses. The tribes of the Khassia hills, the remains of the pre-Aryan inhabitants of India,
still continue to erect menhirs.8 The Arabs worshipped stones before the days
of Mohammed: and no traveller can pass through Palestine without having his attention
arrested by fields dotted all over with little pyramids of stones, the humble imitations
of those statelier monuments which former ages reared for a sacred purpose. The Khonds of
Eastern India, the remains of the Dravidians, still employ circles in connection with
their worship of the rising sun. They offer at times human sacrifices. This was a common
thought horrible practice of the Baal worshipper of ancient days. He deemed his altar
specially honoured when he laid upon it a human victim. Above the blood of bullock his
deity delighted, he believed in the blood of man,
The Druids were of opinion that the higher
the victim the greater its power to make expiation. On this theory the sacrifice of a
human victim was of all others the most efficacious and the most acceptable to the deity.
They therefore on occasion offered such, as Caesar and others assure us. It is easy to see
what a fearful effect this would have in hardening the heart, and leading to waste and
destruction of human life. Lucan tells us that in the forests the stone altars of the
Druids were so thick, and the sacrifices so numerous, that the oaks were crimson with the
blood. When a great man made atonement it was often with a human victim. Such, however,
was generally selected from condemned criminals: but when these were not to be had, a
victim was procured for the altar by purchase, or other means. Moloch turned the hearts of
his worshippers to stone. In Caledonia, as in Judea, the mother shed no tear when she
threw her babe upon the burning pile, nor did the father utter groan when he offered his
son to the knife of the Druid. Sigh or tear would have tarnished the glory of the
Nor was a single victim enough for the
Druid’s altar. He constructed, on occasion, castles of wicker-work, and filling their
niches with young children, whose shrieks he drowned in the noise of his musical
instruments, he kindled the pile, and offered up all in one mournful and dreadful
hetacomb. But human sacrifices are not the reproach of the barbarous races to the
exclusion of civilized peoples. It was not the Moabite and Druidic altar only that flowed
with the blood of man. These ghastly holocausts were seen among the Greeks and Romans, and
that, too, in their most enlightened age. The same city that was the centre of ancient
commerce was also the theatre of human sacrifices. The altars of Phoenicia--whence Greece
borrowed her letters and arts—smoked with the bodies of infants immolated to Moloch.
At Carthage a child was yearly offered in sacrifice, and the custom was continued down to
the days of the pro-consul Tiberias, who hanged the priests on the trees of their own
sacred grove. The rite of human sacrifice was not abolished at Rome, according to Pliny,
till B.C. 897. Idolatry at the core is the same in all ages and among every people. It is
a thing of untameable malignity, and unsatiable bloodthirstiness. Despite of arts and
letters, and conquest, and all counteracting influences, it hardens the heart, that
fountain of life and death, and slowly but inevitably barbarises society. What a
difference betwixt the circle of unhewn stones on the Caledonian moor and the marble
temples of Greece! What a difference betwixt the unadorned ritual performed in the one,
and the graceful and gorgeous ceremonial exhibited in the other! But whatever the people,
whether painted barbarians or lettered Greeks, and whatever the shrine, whether a fane of
unchiselled blocks, or a temple of snow-white marble idolatry, refusing to be modified,
was the same malignant, cruel, and murderous thing in the one as in the other. It was
invincibly and eternally at war with the pure affections and the upward aspirations of
man. It converted its priests into man slayers, and made the mother the murderess of her
Of the old pre-historic stones that linger on
moor or in forest of our country, we do not affirm that all are remains of religious or
Druidic structures. Some may have been set up to commemorate some important event in the
history of a clan or of a family. These are like the memorial-stones of the Patriarchal
and Jewish history. But whatever the original use and purpose of these venerable
monuments, they have now become, all of them, in very deed, "stones of
remembrance," and the sight of them may well move us to thankfulness that the
"day-spring" has risen on the night of our country, and that the advent of
Christianity, by revealing the "one great sacrifice," has abolished for ever the
sacrifice of the Druid.
1. In Craigmaddie, Stirlingshire, is an
enormous Druidical altar or dolman; the top-stone is eighteen feet in length, and three or
four feet in thickness. It rests on two perpendicular stones placed triangularly to one
another. It is believed to be the largest in Scotland.
2. An Anglo-Saxon name, borrowed from one of
the features of the monument, the imposts, or "hanging stones" which are denoted
by henge. "The ancient or Cymric name," says Gidley, "appears to
have been Gwaith Emrys, divine, or immortal." And ancient coin of Tyre has on
it two stone pillars with the inscription, "Ambrosiae petrae," ambrosial stones.
Stukeley quotes Camden as speaking of a remarkable stone near Penzance, Cornwall, called
Main Ambre, or the Ambrosial stone. It was destroyed by Cromwell’s soldiers. The
ancient name of Stonehenge is preserved probably in the neighbouring town of Amesbury.
3. Diod. Sic., lib. iii. c. 13.
4. Pind. Pyth. x. 30.
5 "Stonehinge itself is enclosed by a
double mound or ditch, circular in form; and there is an avenue or approach leading from
the north-east; and bounded on each side by a similar mound or ditch. The outer mound is
15 feet high, the ditch nearly 30 feet broad, the whole 1009 feet in circumference, and
the avenue 594 yards long. The whole fabric consists of 2 circles and 2 ovals. The outer
circle is about 108 feet in diameter, consisting, when entire, of 60 stones, 30 uprights,
and 30 imposts, of which remain only 24 uprights, 17 standing and 7 down 3 ½ feet
asunder, and 8 imposts. The smaller circle is somewhat more than 8 feet from the inside of
the outer one, and consisted of about 30 smaller stones, of which only 19 remain, and 11
standing. The walk between these two circles is 300 feet in circumference. At the upper
end of the atrium is the altar, a large slab of blue coarse marble, 20 inches thick, 16
feet long, and 4 broad: pressed down by the weight of the vast stones that have fallen
upon it. The whole number of stones when the structure was complete is calculated to have
been about 140. The heads of oxen, deer, and other beasts have been found on digging in
and about Stonehenge, and human bodies have also been discovered in the circumjacent
barrows."—Encyclopoedia Britannica, vol. xx. P. 709, eighth edition,
Edin., 1860. "At the summer solstice the sun would be seen by one standing on the
altar stone to rise over the summit of the bowing stone."—Stonehenge, Rev. L.
Gidley, p. 49, Lond., 1873.
6. Rust., p. 116.
7. Conder, Heth and Moab, pp. 147.
8. Conder,Heth and Moab, p. 200.
9. Speaking of the sacrifices of the Druids,
Caesar says, "Quod pro vita hominis nisi vita hominis reddatur." And Tacitus
says that the first care of the Romans in Britain was "to destroy those groves and
woods which the Druids had polluted with so many human victims."
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