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  The Ring o' Brodgar, Stenness

"The Ring of Brodgar is the finest known truly circular late Neolithic or early Bronze Age stone ring and a later expression of the spirit which gave rise to Maeshowe, Stenness and Skara Brae."
Nomination of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney for
inclusion in the World Heritage List

If one iconic site has come to represent Orkney's ancient heritage, it must surely be the Ring o' Brodgar.

Part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, the Ring o' Brodgar is found in the West Mainland parish of Stenness. It stands on an eastward-sloping plateau on the Ness o' Brodgar - a thin strip of land separating the Harray and Stenness lochs.

Because the interior of the Ring o' Brodgar has never been fully excavated, or scientifically dated, the monument's actual age remains uncertain. However, it is generally assumed to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, and was, therefore, the last of the great Neolithic monuments built on the Ness.

Picture Sigurd Towrie

The stone ring was built in a true circle, almost 104 metres wide. Although it is thought to have originally contained 60 megaliths, this figure is not based on archaeological evidence. Today, only 27 stones remain. (see Figure 1).

In contrast to the giant megaliths that make up the Standing Stones o' Stenness, the Brodgar stones are much smaller, varying in height from 2.1 metres (7 feet) to a maximum of 4.7 metres (15ft 3in).

With a diameter of 103.6 metres (340 ft), the Brodgar ring is the third largest stone circle in the British Isles. Covering an area of 8,435 square metres (90,790 square feet), it is beaten only by the outer ring of stones at Avebury and the Greater Ring at Stanton Drew in England. Incidentally, the Brodgar ring is exactly the same size as Avebury's two inner rings.

Picture Sigurd TowrieLike the nearby Standing Stones o' Stenness, the Ring o' Brodgar has been classed as a henge.

Enclosed by a massive rock-cut ditch, it has two entrance causeways, one to the north-west and the other to the south-east. These two causeways differ in size - the south-eastern one just over one metre in width, compared to the 3.4m wide north-western causeway.

However, strictly speaking, Brodgar can't be called a henge, because it lacks the external bank of a true henge.

Heart of Neolithic Orkney

Any visitor to the ring will immediately see why the Ness o' Brodgar was considered the ideal place to construct such a great ceremonial monument.

The stone circle is practically in the centre of a massive natural "cauldron" formed by the hills of the surrounding landscape. Today, the site is accentuated by the water of the lochs, but that was not always the case. In fact, when the ring was erected, between 2500BC and 200BC, the Stenness loch didn't exist. Instead the area was wet, marshy bog, surrounding pools of water or lochans. Click here for more details.

The sea only breached the narrow landbridge at the Brig o' Waithe in Stenness, filling the loch was salt water, around 1500BC - 500 to 1,000 years after the ring was built.

The Ring o' Brodgar was part of an enormous prehistoric ritual complex that incorporated the Stones o' Stenness, approximately one mile to the south-east, and, probably, the Ring o' Bookan to the north-west. A short distance to the east of the Brodgar ring is the solitary standing stone now known as the Comet Stone.

The area surrounding the Ring o' Brodgar, and the entire Ness, is rich with archaeology - including four massive mounds thought to have been created between 2500 BC and 1500 BC. Click here for more details.

Brodgar or Brogar?

Picture: Sigurd TowrieWhen it comes to the Brodgar name - it is no wonder the visitor is often confused.

It appears on some maps and accounts as Brogar - although this actually has no bearing on the "correct" Orcadian pronunciation, which is broa(d)yeur, where there is slight emphasis on the "d".

Over the years, particularly outside the West Mainland parishes of Sandwick, Stromness and Stenness, this pronunciation corrupted and it is now more common to hear "broad-gur" - or Brodgar, as it is now written.

Recorded in 1563 as "Broager", it seems likely that this local pronunciation led to the gradual inclusion of a "d" when the name came to be written.

In 2004, Historic Scotland, who maintain the site, decided to revert to the Orcadian use of "Brodgar" in all its promotional material - a move that was widely welcomed by Orcadians. Click here for more details.

Early accounts

The Brodgar ring was first recorded in the early 16th century, in an account of Orkney written by the enigmatic author Jo Ben. His Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum is the oldest surviving account of the Orkney Islands since the transfer to Scotland in 1468.

Jo Ben's identity is unknown, although it has been suggested that he was a priest, a visiting superior or travelling monk, who resided in Orkney around 1529.

Regarding the Ring o' Brodgar, Jo Ben wrote:

"[In Stenness] beside the lake are stones high and broad, in height equal to a spear, and in an equal circle of half a mile.

In 1792, the ring contained 18 standing stones, with eight lying prone. But by 1815, an account shows that two more stones had been toppled, leaving only 16 erect.

Then, in 1854, in what was the first detailed account of the stone circle, there were only 13 erect stones, ten complete, but fallen, stones and fragments of 13 more.

The Ring o' Brodgar was taken into state care in 1906 and, two years later, most of the fallen stones were placed in what was thought to be their original sockets. Since then two stones have suffered lightning strikes, leaving 27 standing today.

Brodgar from the North West