It was a little further out of our way than we expected… and a little farther off the road too. When we parked the car, there was no sign of the stones, just a sign saying we would need to allow at least an hour. With a long journey still ahead, we almost didn’t go… but then, we didn’t know what we might miss. Donning the boots for a tramp across damp fields, we set out, hoping the projected hour was an overestimation. When the land shifted and we saw the stones crowning the hilltop, two things were immediately obvious. An hour was a gross underestimation… and it was going to be well worth the walk.
The Four Stones of Duddo are actually five… and were once seven. There were six stones standing in 1811, but by 1852, two had fallen, with one of them finally breaking. Two sockets were found in the west of the circle during an excavation in 1890, when only four of the stones were still standing. One of the fallen stones was re-erected in its original position around a hundred years ago. It seems a little sad that the circle, which has stood here for 4200 years should suffer so much in modern times.
The hill upon which the stones stand rises alone, like an island in a ploughed sea, in the centre of a wide basin. You could imagine it appearing to float above the morning mists. In the distance are the hills of Scotland and the view from within the circle is wide.
As we walked up to the stones, we thought we could discern the last vestiges of a henge in the green circle the farmer had left unploughed. Doubtless, his predecessors had not been so gentle with the land. Later research threw up a report by the antiquarian Canon James Raine in 1852 that suggests there was also an outer circle, now lost. He recorded that the circle is “36 feet in diameter. Four stones alone are standing, the tallest of which measures 6 feet 9 inches in height, by 13 feet in girth.”
Figures alone do not and cannot give a true idea of the scale and the presence of these stones. It is not until you walk amongst them and are dwarfed by them that you begin to realise just how big they are.
They are shaped stones, tapering towards the base, which is unusual. It had been suggested that it is this form that gave rise to one of their names… The Ladies… which seemed most appropriate as the subject of the workshop we were on our way to attend was ‘Maiden, Mother, Crone‘.To me, they looked like ancient teeth crowning the hill.
Made of a local sandstone, they have weathered into fantastic shapes, fluted from top to bottom after thousands of years of rain and snow.
Curiously, though, and not to this extent, we see this type of fluting on many standing stones. It may be explicable in terms of erosion alone on soft sandstone, but when you see it on pillars of adamantine millstone grit, you have to wonder if, perhaps, some carving or shaping of the stones did not help the process along.
We have seen many such stones where the fluting leaves a bowl or notch in the top of a stone, perfect for leaving offerings… and in which we often find them still today… or, as in this one, perfect for catching the sun. At the time we were there, the great orb seemed to fit perfectly into the rounded notch on the top of one stone.
Each stone has its own character and it seems as if you need only spend enough time in their silence to begin to hear them whisper. Some seem alive in a way we can almost understand, others seem far beyond our reach. One stone gazes out across the land…another looks like hands clasped and raised in prayer or supplication.
In spite of the weathering, at least two of the stones seem to have their vertical faces still adorned with simple cup-marks, those strange, mysterious depressions whose meaning is still unknown. It is thought that it is the extent of the weathering that may have given the stones their other name…the singing stones. No-one appears to have heard it, yet it is suggested that the wind on this exposed hill, playing through the fluting, might create an eldritch song. It is possible, but is, I think, more likely that this name has an older meaning. Research at Stonehenge indicates that the great stones there may have been used to create and amplify sound. Or perhaps the stones themselves once held some acoustic quality that sent the song of its priesthood across the land.
Robert Carr found and explored a pit in the centre of the circle in 1890. The pit, around eight feet in diameter, was found to contain charcoal and bone fragments, which see to indicate a cremation burial. This too we find at many sites, though unless modern archaeological dating techniques are used, it is impossible to say for certain whether the circle marks the site of the burial or whether the stones came first.
There are so many mysteries, so many questions and so few definitive answers. Sometimes that can be frustrating, yet on the whole, I like the idea that there is so much we cannot know for certain. Certainty only closes the doors of the mind. I have a feeling that these circles were meant to open them…
Photographs: Stuart France and Sue Vincent.