Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

When it comes to national icons, standing stones in Scotland are right up there alongside castles and bagpipes. They’re found spread across the country in all shapes and sizes. Some have fancy information boards and car parks, others are seemingly forgotten but feel far more natural.

Nether Largie Standing Stones

There are literally hundreds of sites to choose from, so I’ve made things easy for you with this list of 10 of the best standing stones in Scotland. You’ll find a good variety here, from stone circles to solitary monoliths, from almost every region!

What Were Scottish Standing Stones Used For?

First things first, to clarify what a Scottish standing stone is! These are different from Pictish stones found mostly on the East Coast with their beautiful, intricate carvings. Yes, those are stones which are standing up, but are usually solitary and date only from the 5th to 9th centuries.

Scottish Standing Stones and Stone Circles were raised thousands of years before that from big, crude blocks! This is long before written sources and so we have nothing contemporary to tell us what they were used for. It’s clear they had some kind of ceremonial purpose and the effort needed to create them shows us they were hugely important.

What Are Standing Stones?

The best guess for the use of standing stones in Scotland is that these were astronomical tools. Like a huge calendar, tracking stars, planets or the moon across a stone circle can help tell what time of year it is. For a people who have recently moved from hunter-gatherers to farmers, the start of winter or spring is a useful thing to know!

1 – Standing Stones of Stenness – Orkney

Top of the list for the best standing stones in Scotland has to be the Standing Stones of Stenness. It’s not just that the stones are enormous, they also make up the oldest stone circle henge in the British Isles. Erected around 5400 years ago, they’ve had an awfully tough life though.

There are four upright stones still standing, the largest around 6 metres tall. Evidence suggests that this was the very first of its kind anywhere. From Orkney, the idea spread, reaching right through Scotland, out to the Western Isles and all the way south to Stonehenge in England.

Standing Stones of Stenness

Originally there were 12 stones, plus an outlier with a hole in it known as the Odin Stone – a reminder of Orkney’s Viking past. Even in the 19th century, locals clasped hands through the hole to make oaths or confirm their engagements. That was until December 1814 when a Captain Mackay began destroying them.

He was a newcomer to Orkney and claimed the locals were damaging his land to visit the stones. He smashed the Odin Stone into pieces and began toppling the Stones of Stenness! Luckily he was stopped before he got to all of them!

It’s one of many incredible Neolithic Sites to explore in Orkney!

2 – Ring Of Brodgar – Orkney

At the other end of a causeway separating two lochs stands the Ring of Brodgar. Not quite as old as Stenness, it’s actually the largest stone circle in Scotland at 104 metres diameter! Once comprised of 60 stones, there are only 27 still standing!

The Ring of Brodgar is one of Historic Scotland’s many free, outdoor sites on the islands with its own car park. The ground can get a little boggy so wear waterproof boots, especially if its snowing like on my visit.

Ring of Brodgar

Local folklore claims that these stones were all originally nocturnal giants who once roamed the islands. One night, a giant played his fiddle and the others began to dance. They spun round and round in a perfect circle, getting faster and faster, forgetting to watch the time. The giants were so engrossed in the dance that the sun came up and turned them all to stone.

You can still spot the fiddler who also turned to stone, just a little bit away from the others.

3 – Calanais Standing Stones – Lewis

From one iconic set of islands to another, no list of the best standing stones of Scotland is complete without the Calanais Stones. It’s one of the most spectacular locations of the Western Isles and well worth the journey.

There are actually several stone circles at Calanais, spread around a huge complex. They were originally raised around 5000 years old, although developed over time, their true purpose has been lost to history. Fortunately, it’s stories remain.

Hundreds of years ago, after a poor harvest, the islanders of Lewis were running out of food. Not knowing what else to do, one mother made her way down to the sea-loch at Calanais. She begged the spirits of the water to take her as a sacrifice and spare the other islanders. Bravely wading out, she was shocked when a pure white cow with blood-red ears rose out of the waves.

It beckoned her to the stone circle and she rushed to collect her milking pail. The cow patiently waited as she filled her bucket with rich, creamy milk. Then, it was time to spread the news around the other islanders. One by one, they filled their pails. The milk stopped flowing once they were done and started again when the next stepped up.

For three days, the people of Lewis were sustained, but one old witch wasn’t happy. She had been enjoying the suffering, so when her turn came, she fitted a sieve to the bottom of her bucket. She milked and milked, but it would never be full and with a weary bellow, the cow was dry.

It disappeared beneath the waves once more. The Islanders would have to struggle on for the rest of winter and that cow would never be seen on Lewis again.

4 – Kilmartin Glen – Argyll

When it comes to Scotland’s ancient history, you’re spoiled for choice in Kilmartin Glen. This quiet corner in Argyll boats the highest concentration of prehistoric monuments found anywhere in Scotland.

You can visit a dozen sites on foot from chambered cairns to rock art and of course, enormous standing stones. The most captivating of Kilmartin Glen’s standing stones are found near Lady Glasserie Wood car park at Nether Largie. This isn’t a stone circle, but a strange, elongated X-shape instead.

Dog Friendly Kilmartin Glen

All five of the Nether Largie Standing Stones are just shy of 3 metres tall, manoeuvred into place just over 3000 years ago. Look closely at the central stone and you’ll spot some strange hollowed out divets. These are known as Cup Marks, formed by human hands 1500 years before the stones were arranged!

That means these enormous slabs were prised out of the ground by people whose ancestors had used them for their own purpose. Whoever raised the Nether Largie Standing Stones may have been just as confused at the meaning of the rock art as we are at their own work.

Traveller communities regarded Nether Largie as a safe, protected place to camp. They also believed that it was bad luck to touch the stones so be warned – This isn’t the place for your Outlander re-enactment!

5 – Kintraw Standing Stone – Argyll

The Kintraw Standing Stone isn’t the biggest in Scotland but at 13 feet, it’s still humbling to stand next to. Rather than set in a circle, this 4000 year old stone is alone apart from a couple of burial cairns. It is, however, not far from the wealth of prehistoric monuments in Kilmartin Glen.

Kintraw happens to have a local legend that may or may not be related to the stone. There is a small hill nearby which is one of many believed to be home to the fairies.

One day, a farmer’s wife from the area unfortunately passed away, leaving behind her husband and two young children. On Sunday, the farmer went off to church  leaving the children behind to look after themselves. When he returned, the children enthusiastically told him that their mother had come to see them.

Kintraw Standing Stone

The grieving widower got angry, shouting that they needed to let their mother go. Every Sunday, the children would say the same thing and the father would get upset. He told them that the next time they saw their mother they should ask how her visit was possible.

The mother explained that she wasn’t really dead. She had been taken by the fairies under the hill and was only able to escape for a short while every Sunday. If her coffin was opened, only a withered leaf would be inside.

The children’s father immediately went to the minister to ask about checking his wife’s coffin. The man of God scoffed at the idea. Nobody was going to be dug up from his churchyard because of a silly belief in fairies. Soon, the minister was found dead on the road running right past the Kintraw standing stone.

If you didn’t know by now, never mock the fairies.

6 – Aikey Brae Stone Circle – Aberdeenshire

When it comes to the best standing stones in Scotland, Aberdeenshire is an important region. This is the only place in the world where you’ll find Recumbent Stone Circles. One of the best examples is Aikey Brae Stone Circle and while most of the stones are upright, it’s the giant horizontal one that gives it the name recumbent.

Best Standing Stone in Scotland

Like others of this type, that one stone is far larger than its companions, faces southwest and is flanked by two tall sentries. These don’t appear elsewhere in Scotland, but there are dozens in Aberdeenshire, all created around 4000 years ago. It’s thought that they may have been used to track the moon’s cycle against the recumbent stone.

There are 10 standing stones here, although half have fallen over, which makes Aikey Brae look like a giant hand bursting from the earth! The giant 21-ton recumbent stone is part of the thumb in case you’re wondering.

Recumbent Stone Circle

Sitting on a prominent hill above Old Deer, it’s a short walk up to Aikey Brae along a dedicated path, but far enough away from roads to give you some peace and quiet.

7 – Machrie Moor – Arran

There are few standing stones in Scotland as instantly recognisable as Machrie Moor on the Isle of Arran. It’s not a short walk out to the stones but it’s fairly flat with a decent path. Beware the guard sheep though, I kept Molly on the lead but some were still pretty bold.

Machrie Moor Standing Stones
Some of the Machrie Moor Stones

This is another complex of neolithic monuments. There are actually the remains of six stone circles surrounded by dozens of burial cists and hut circles. The stones are between 3500 and 5500 years old although they replaced even earlier 6500 year old timber circles. Some have only recently been discovered, completely swallowed up by layers of peat.

One folk story claims these were created as fairies sat on the surrounding hills and flicked pebbles down towards Machrie Moor. Those fairies must have been giants if they considered these pebbles!

Fingal's Cauldron Seat
Molly doing her best Bran impression

While most people are drawn to the tallest stones, the double circle near the old farmhouse has the best story. It’s called “Suidh Coire Fhionn” or Fingal’s Cauldron Seat. This is where the legendary Gaelic hero used to cook his supper in a big cauldron. His faithful dog Bran got in the way while he tried to eat, so Fingal would tie him up using a little hole that’s still visible in a corner of one of the stones.

8 – Lochbuie Standing Stones – Isle of Mull

Even if you aren’t looking for the best standing stones in Scotland, a visit to Lochbuie on the Isle of Mull is well worth the drive. It’s a quiet corner on a busy island, with a great spot for lunch at the Old Post Office and a brilliant circular walk.

You’ll find the stone circle hidden away from the road in a tree-fringed field. Either park by the signed gate or visit as part of the circular walk, then head into the first field. Follow the white stones, but remember to bring wellies or waterproof boots, it’s one heavy downpour away from full bog.

Lochbuie Stone Circle

A few outlying stones guide you to the surprisingly complete Lochbuie stone circle. These aren’t particularly large, but their setting with Ben Buie in the background is pretty magical. It sits in a natural ampitheatre and while some stone circles sit on hills to be seen, this one would have been visible for the exact opposite reason!

9 – Lundin Standing Stones – Fife

It’s a common misconception that Scottish standing stones are only found around the north and west coasts. This was a culture that spread right across the country and the Kingdom of Fife has some great examples! My pick of the bunch sit in one of the strangest locations.

On the Lundin Ladies Golf Course, players have to avoid a group of three 5-metre tall standing stones. Like all standing stones, people have been theorising about them for centuries. Some thought they were graves of Danish generals, others that they were of Roman origin.

While those groups could have used the stones for their own purpose, they’re older than them all. What we know is that they are around 4000 years old and there used to be at least four of them. The missing stone made the triangle into a square but after thousands of years it fell and has since gone missing.

In the 18th century, a coffin made of loose stone was uncovered at stones with a skeleton inside. Unfortunately, archaeology wasn’t quite what it is today, so any useful information has been lost. Maybe the stones were erected as part of this burial or maybe this important person was buried here because of the already prominent stones.

These standing stones have seen thousands of years of change and will be around long after golf is gone!

To visit them, don’t follow Google Maps but aim for Lundin Ladies Golf Club instead. Ask very nicely at the starters box and you’ll even get an information sheet. No dogs on the golf course though!

10 – Hill of Many Stanes – Caithness

To finish off this list of the best standing stones in Scotland, I thought I’d pick something very different. On the far north of mainland Scotland, in Caithness, you’ll find the aptly named Hill of Many Stanes.

While most standing stones awe you with their size, this site amazes in a different way. The stones are all tiny in comparison, but there are many of them – around 200 in fact, spread in 22 rough rows! It’s thought that there may have been around 600 here originally, but it’s difficult to be sure.

Hill of Many Stanes

It seems harder to associate the Hill of Many Stanes with an observatory, but it had some significance. Could it have been a way of marking different generations of local families? With little to no evidence that can even date the stones, that’s the theory I’m running with!


By Lala