Stone circles, standing stones: they evoke mystery, a sense of spirit, and a sense of connection with the past.
A sense of wonder, too: all the more reason you could imagine that such places could be portals for time travel.
That is what Diana Gabaldon decided when she was writing the novel Outlander. She intended to write a practice piece, just to see if she could do it: a research professor in the sciences, she’d written many sorts of things, from a doctoral thesis to comic books, but not a novel. Working from imagination and research, she devised a story which saw nurse Claire Randall, out for a walk and minding her own business in the Scottish Highlands one day in the 1940s, go into a stone circle and inadvertently step through a portal in time, sending her back to Scotland in the 1740s.
The stone circle Gabaldon created — a pivotal location in the story in Outlander, the many books that followed on, and the recently begun television series — is invented from her imagination. There are, however, a good number of stone circles and standing stones still around in present day Scotland.
In Argyll, there’s Kilmartin Glen. This area, near the location of Dunadd, where it is believed early rulers of Scotland stepped into a footprint in stone to claim their leadership, there are cairns, cup and ring designs on stones, rocks set in patterns, individual standing stones, and stone circles. Kilmartin is, in fact one of Europe’s most densely concentrated areas of prehistoric sites.
Off the coast, on the isle of Arran, there is Machrie Moor, which comprises a series of stone circles. Scholars think these mysterious looking places may have had to do with observing and reckoning by the stars.
What were these places used for? We do not know. Many — most — were created four and five thousand years ago, some perhaps earlier than that. Those who designed and built them believed that stories, history, and beliefs were better taught by spoken and sung word than by written one. What little we know of those stories was written down thousands of years after these stones were set in place, and the voices of their storytellers long fallen silent.
Traveling to the north and west of Scotland, the standing stones at Calanais on the isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides may have been a place of worship, or a way to chart the moon’s phases for agriculture — or something else entirely.
There are a number of stone circles and alignments at Calanais, a mysterious place which has often seemed to me to suggest standing at the edge of the known world — which the people who put them in place may well have been in their time.
Up farther north, on Mainland in Orkney, across the water from Inverness, there is the Ring of Brodgar, another site which invites contemplation of mystery and history.
As do the other stone circles in Scotland, Brodgar, though impressive — it is the third largest stone circle in the British Isles, behind Stonehenge and Avebury — shares a sense of mystery with those sites but offers a sense of intimacy which they do not. In Scotland, you know real people put these stones place.
Back in mainland Scotland, a short way from Inverness, lies Clava Cairns. If you follow the real and invented geography of Outlander, this would seem to be closest in location to the fictional stone circle included there.
It is quite real, though, and with its own stories. There are cairns — stones stacked upon each other — and standing stones. Archaeologists think that the standing stones at Clava Cairns, and several of those in other parts of northern Scotland, may have been placed to take account of the position of the midwinter sun on the shortest day of the year.
Will you slip though time at any of these standing stones in Scotland? Gabaldon’s books and the films based on them are works of fiction, after all. The hand of the past is very present in each of these places in real life even today, though. In your touring around Scotland, in following the Outlander trail, take a bit of time with these standing stones. You will very likely come away changed in your perceptions of past and present.
Photographs courtesy of Scottish Viewpoint/Visit Scotland, Kenny Davidson, Colin Ewing, Chmee2, and Martin McCarthy
Kerry Dexter is one of six writers who contribute to Perceptive Travel’s blog. You’ll most often find her writing about travels in Europe and North America in stories that connect to music, history, and the arts, including such things as an evening in Belfast and Julie Fowlis singing of her home in Scotland’s Western Isles
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