My name is Adam Welfare and I am an archaeologist with a special interest in stone circles. Earlier this year I received a letter from a lady who had recently visited a stone circle at Lynagowan, deep in the hills south Forres, which she had first seen when she was a girl many years ago. However, to her surprise and immense disappointment she discovered that it had been removed from the field in which it once stood. She ended the letter with a request ‘Please can you find out what happened to it’. The letter raised a number of interesting issues, including the question of whether the stone circle had been correctly classified, what happened to it, and on broader scale about the vulnerability of archaeological sites in general to erosion and destruction. As far as the first point is concerned, the site was initially recorded in 1972 by Ian Keillor, an experienced amateur archaeologist from Elgin, but as far as is known his interpretation of the site was never verified or refined. There are no contemporary photographs and Keillor’s notes lack the detail that could have proven the site’s authenticity. Moreover, the field in which the circle is alleged to have stood is bordered by a 19th century farmstead and a former public road. It is therefore surprising that it escaped the notice of the Ordnance Survey as well as local historians for so long. As to what happened to the site, it is fairly clear that the stones have been removed to ease the task of cultivation. A number of images posted on the internet suggest that they may have been simply pushed over the edge of the river terrace to the east of the field.
Many archaeological sites are fairly slight in nature and as long ago as the 1840s John Stuart of Inchbreck, Professor of Greek at Aberdeen University, complained about the loss of antiquities resulting from agricultural improvement. Pressure from him and others of like mind eventually led to the mapping of ancient monuments like Innesmill by the Ordnance Survey, a responsibility that was subsequently passed to RCAHMS in 1983. Although many stone circles in Scotland must have been destroyed without any sort of record, details of more than 500 can be consulted using the Commission’s Canmore search engine. This record owes much to the work of the Ordnance Survey and there can be little doubt of the important role it played in documenting and preserving what is a vitally important part of the nation’s heritage. The story of the Lynagowan site is a salutary reminder that much recording work still needs to be done and that attrition remains a very real issue. However, we can be consoled to some extent by knowing that in general terms Scotland’s stone circles have never been better cared for and that many are now protected by an effective legal framework.
In researching stone circles in NE Scotland over the past few years, not least for my book, Great Crowns of Stone, I have been struck by how few remain intact. The recumbent stone circle of Easter Aquhorthies is a remarkable exception, but even so its mid-19th century owner considered it prudent to enclose it within a low wall. His counterpart at Pitglassie had no interest in his recumbent stone circle and instead extracted the stones and piled them in a heap ready to be taken away. Once cleared, such stones were usually put to work around the farm. At Bankhead several were reused in a field wall and one at Corrie Cairn was employed as a gate-post. Likewise, at Cairnfauld one supports the gable of a barn, while at Colmeallie another was built into a now ruined cart shed. However, sometimes a single stone would be spared demolition for use as a cattle rubbing stone – as happened at Peat Hill.
This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.