Maol Mor on the Isle of Mull
The most common type of row is the single row. At least 174 single rows are currently known in Great Britain. They all include three or more stones placed in a line, but vary considerably in form and character. Single rows are found in every region, although in some places they are outnumbered by other types. Utilising differences in length, stone size and the presence or otherwise of terminal cairns or stone circles the distribution of the main forms of this type of row is considered below. This exercise offers an opportunity to unpick some of the confusion and establish whether there are any helpful patterns or anomalies which can help us understand these monuments.
As work proceeds the information used in this analysis will inevitably be enhanced. This article therefore should be considered as a draft to encourage discussion and the development of ideas and will be updated in the future.
Distribution of single stone rows.
Single rows are found in every part of the country where stone alignments have been identified. This confirms that the “simplest” form is likely to have been ubiquitous in those areas where stone rows were erected.
Single Short Rows
The length of stone alignments vary considerably from just a few metres to over 3km, although most are less than 44m long and only seven are longer than one kilometre. Burl defines short rows as lines of no more than six stones (Burl, 1993, 147) whereas here short rows are defined as being less than 20m long. Both methods are random and beset with problems – Burl could have chosen five or seven stones whilst 15m or 25m lengths could also be valid. Neither method is therefore right nor wrong, but there are clearly considerably differences in the lengths of rows and the adoption of a fresh definition may help characterise these monuments and thereby help us understand these special places.
Distribution of all single short rows.
There are obvious clusters of single short rows in Mid Wales, Central Scotland and Argyll and Isles. They are however found in all areas except Northern Scotland where the tradition of multiple rows was particularly prevalent and North Yorkshire where the rows tend to be longer.
Single short rows including large stones
Dervaig Centre on the Isle of Mull
Distribution of single short rows including large sized stones.
There are 61 single short stone rows including large sized stones in Great Britain. The near absence of this form of row on Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor and Exmoor is noteworthy. Indeed, the only examples on Dartmoor are the possible row at Merrivale 5 which includes a row of tiny stones leading to a single large orthostat and the disputed row at Joan Ford’s Newtake. This is extremely unlikely to be an insignificant detail and given the tradition of row building in these areas, this situation suggests that single short rows of large stones were only rarely erected on the moors of South West England. The reason is much more difficult to establish and is certainly surprising given the considerable evidence for widespread social interaction at this time and the known variety in form that can be found in relatively small areas. On the other hand there is an obvious concentration of this type of row in the west and centre of Scotland and to a lesser extent in Wales. This distribution map clearly highlights that the row builders in certain part of the country adopted a radically different style to others. This strongly suggests deliberation and a separate tradition and highlights the need for further work.
Single short rows including large stones with no associated cairn
Five Kings in Northumberland in common with most rows of this form has no cairn
Distribution of single short stone rows including large stones with no associated cairn.
From this map it is clear that most of the larger stone single short rows are not directly associated with cairns. Indeed 57 (93%) of this form of stone row have no cairns whilst only two (Balnaguard and Callanish, West) have cairns at the upper end and two (Arthog and Mynydd Dyfnant) at the lower end. It would therefore seem that short rows including large stones were not and did not generally directly form part of a funerary tradition. This is important as it indicates that this form of row is more likely to have had a non-ritual purpose.
Single short rows including large stones with cairn at the upper end
Callanish, West is one of only two rows of this type with a cairn at the upper end.
Single short rows including large stones with cairn at the upper end.
Only two of the large stone single short rows have a cairn at their upper end. Both are in Scotland, Callanish, West forms part of the best known stone row complex and here the cairn is considered to be later in date than the row. The second in Central Scotland is at Balnaguard where excavations revealed a cist at the western end of the row. It is clear that cairns are a rare association with large stone short alignments and indeed in every instance the possibility exists that the cairn was not contemporary with the row. If not built as places for the dead they must have been built for the living and whilst ritual cannot be ruled out a functional purpose may be more likely.
Single short rows including large stones with cairn at the lower end
Mynydd Dyfnant is one of only two rows of this form with a cairn at the lower end.
Single short rows including large stones with cairn at the lower end.
Only the single short row at Arthog in Snowdonia and at nearby one at Mynydd Dyfnant have a cairn at their lower ends and this confirms that this type of row was rarely directly associated with cairns, although some including Glenamachrie, Bryn-y-Maen, Sannaig and Higher Town Bay stand relatively close to cairns. However these are a rarity and most large stone single short rows are not associated with cairns or stone circles. The shortage of cairns directly and indirectly associated with rows of this type is probably significant and may suggest that they formed part of a distinctive ritual practise which was not funerary in character or more likely had a function purpose. This of course helps our understanding as it suggests that the nature of the activity at the different forms of row could have been very different and this may also be expressed in the variable form of the monuments.
Single short rows composed of small and medium sized stones
Lakehead Hill Summit on Dartmoor
Distribution of single short rows including only small and medium sized stones.
Only 14 rows of this form are currently recorded. Single short rows consisting of small and medium stones are therefore far less common than those that include large stones. This distribution map is potentially very informative. The distribution of single short rows with no large stones is largely limited to the south west of Great Britain with clustering in the South West of England and Mid Wales. Stone rows consisting of relatively small stones are therefore a characteristic of both these regions. The only exception is the stone row at Garynahine, Cnoc Fillibhir Mhor in the Western Isles which protrudes from deep peat and may therefore have originally been formed by large stones which are now only partly visible. If you discount this isolated and problematic example the focus for this form of row is entirely in the South West of Britain.
Single short stone rows including only small and medium sized stones with no terminal cairns
Saith Maen, WSW does not have a terminal cairn.
Distribution of single short stone rows including only small and medium sized stones with no terminal cairns.
Nine single short rows composed of smaller stones are not directly associated with cairns or stone circles. Compared to the short rows including large stones a smaller proportion of this form of row are not directly associated with cairns, although the majority do not have cairns at either terminal.
Single short stone rows including only small and medium sized stones with terminal cairns
Cefn Gwernffrwd 1 stone row in Mid Wales has a large cairn at its upper end.
Distribution of single short stone rows including only small and medium sized stones with cairn at the upper end (red circle) or lower end (black circle).
Compared with the large stone short rows a greater proportion (43%) of the single short rows composed of smaller stones are directly associated with cairns. As usual most are at the upper end of the row. Two stone rows in Wales (both at Cefn Gwernffrwd) have a cairn at the top of the row, with the others all being in the South West of England. The widespread absence of cairns indicates that they were not an essential element of rows, although the possibility exists that some may have been removed. Nevertheless we can be fairly confident that whilst rows and cairns are often found together very few cairns have rows and large numbers of rows have no cairns. Only one short stone row composed of small and medium stones (Merrivale 6) may have a cairn at the lower end and this may not have extended quite as far as the cairn. It is therefore possible that no rows of this form had a cairn at the lower end. Oddities are certainly a characteristic of stone rows. Only the Cefn Gwernffrwd II row has terminal features at both ends. This row leads between a stone circle at the lower end and a cairn at the upper end. Unique or unusual rows are common place and illustrate an individuality which is so often lacking in todays’ corporate world. This reminds us that the rows were not built to a single design and instead are a reflection or interpretation of an idea. This makes them very special indeed.
Single Long Rows
The single long rows are defined, for the present purpose, as those extending over 20m. This includes more than half of the known single rows and they vary considerably in length as well as character. Some of these rows consist of large stones at considerable intervals. Burl notes that in order to differentiate this type of row from randomly placed stones “that there should not be more than about 100 ft (30m) between any two stones unless they are clearly intervisible, and that the line in settings of three to six stones should be reasonably straight” (Burl, A., 1993, 147). The rows in this section are believed to fulfil these criteria though quite what is meant by reasonably straight is probably open to debate.
Distribution of all single long rows.
There is a marked clustering of single long rows in the South West of England, Wales and North Yorkshire. They are found in all regions although it is noticeable that they are relatively uncommon in Argyll and the Isles and Central Scotland where single short rows prevail.
Single long rows including large stones
Nine Maidens, Cornwall
Distribution of single long stone rows including large stones.
Examples are found in every region apart from Exmoor illustrating that this form of stone alignment was widespread.
Single long stone rows including large stones with no terminal cairns or stone circles
Colvannick Tor stone row on Bodmin Moor has no terminal cairns.
Distribution of single long stone rows including large stones with no terminal cairns or stone circles.
Compared with the shorter rows including large stones a much larger proportion of these rows have terminal cairns or stone circles.
Single long rows of large stones with a cairn or stone circle at the upper end
Kerbed cairn at the upper end of Hingston Hill stone row on Dartmoor.
Distribution of single long rows of large stones with a cairn or stone circle at the upper end.
Examples of single long rows including large stones with a cairn or stone circle at the upper end are found in most regions with a marked concentration on Dartmoor.
Single long rows of large stones with a cairn or stone circle at the lower end
Kerbed cairn at the lower end of Simon Howe stone row in North Yorkshire Moors.
Distribution of single long rows of large stones with a cairn or stone circle at the lower end.
This form is less common with most examples being in South West Britain. Nevertheless isolated examples are found in Scotland and northern England. This emphasises that the unusual is a characteristic of stone alignments with diversity of form a recurring feature.
Single long rows including large stones with a cairn or stone circle at both ends
Kerbed cairn at the northern end of Fonllech stone row in Wales.
Distribution of single long rows including large stones with a cairn or stone circle at both ends.
Cairns or stone circles at both ends is a relatively rare feature of all stone alignments and therefore to find five rows of this type with this characteristic is noteworthy. At Simon Howe and Swarth Howe the rows lead between two cairns. In Wales the row at Fonllech leads over a long distance between a ring cairn and a round cairn whilst less certain is the destroyed site at Cae Garreg which appears to have been associated with a pair of cairns. On Dartmoor the longest row in the country, the Upper Erme row has a small round cairn at its upper end and a fine kerbed cairn at the lower end.
Single long rows composed of smaller sized stones
Shaugh Moor, Dartmoor
Distribution of all single long rows of small and or medium sized stones.
Rows of this type are found mainly in Wales and the South West of England. Doubts have been expressed regarding the identity of both Blashaval and Broomrigg A, whilst Broughwhin 4 at 20.9m long only just scrapes into this category. This distribution map provides powerful evidence that single long rows of smaller sized stones are a characteristic of South West Britain. There is a marked concentration of these rows on the south western moors, but some also survive on the Welsh hills. This type of row is likely to have originally been much more common and widespread, but their relatively ephemeral character means that many will have been destroyed.
Single long rows of smaller sized stones with no associated terminal cairns or stone circles
West Pinford on Exmoor has no terminal cairn
Distribution of single long rows of smaller sized stones with no associated terminal cairns or stone circles.
In common with other forms of alignments the majority (56%) of the rows of this type have no cairn or stone circle at their terminals. A sizeable percentage of this form of row do however have terminal cairns or stone circles.
Single long, rows of smaller sized stones with a cairn or stone circle at the upper end
Cairn at the top of the Hameldown stone row on Dartmoor.
Distribution of single long, rows of smaller sized stones with a cairn or stone circle at the upper end.
Apart from Bancbryn and Madacombe all of the single long smaller stone rows with a cairn or stone circle at the upper end are situated on Dartmoor where there is a marked cluster on the south western part of the moor. A significant number of the single long rows of smaller sized stones on Dartmoor have a cairn or stone circle at the upper end.
Single long rows of smaller sized stones with a cairn or stone circle at the lower end
Stone circle at the lower end of Trecastle Mountain stone row (Scale 1m).
Distribution of single long rows of smaller sized stones with a cairn or stone circle at the lower end.
In Wales the Trecastle Mountain row has a small stone circle at its lower end whilst on Dartmoor the row at Corringdon Ball, North and on Exmoor Furzehill Common 3 each have a cairn at their lower end. Again these rare deviations from the norm illustrate the varied character of the alignments.
Single long rows of smaller stones with cairns at both ends
Cairn at the western end of the Madacombe stone row on Exmoor
Distribution of single long rows of smaller stones with cairns at both ends.
A single row at Madacombe on Exmoor has cairns at either end. Indeed there are two cairns at the western end and a single at the east.
Terminal cairns and stone circles
Pie charts showing the proportions of the different forms of single stone row with or without terminal cairns or stone circles. Click on the image to open a higher resolution version.
Short rows including large stones are the least likely to have terminal cairns or stone circles whereas long rows with the same size of stones are the most likely to have these features. By contrast rows including only small and medium stones are very similar whether they are short or long. This is important as it implies that the two very different lengths of rows including small and medium sized stones had a similar relationship with funerary activity whilst this was most definitely not the case for the rows that include large stones. The reason for the significant difference between the rows with large stones is not at all obvious though it could be seen as further evidence for the different megalithic rows having separate functions whilst the rows composed of smaller stones had a similar or related function despite the differences in lengths. Stone row studies are full of these contradictions.
Pie chart illustrating the proportion of the different forms of row situated within a funerary context.
Many rows whilst not having terminal cairns sit within a funerary context. Why cairns were sometimes erected near to but not at the end of the rows is not clear. Sometimes there are large numbers of cairns in the vicinity of a row such as at Bancbryn where there are at least 57. Analysis has shown that the percentage of rows with cairns (including terminal cairns) in their vicinity is over 69% for three of the four categories. The only form of row where cairns in the vicinity are comparatively scarce (41%) is short rows including large stones. This is consistent with the numbers from the rows with terminal cairns and is further evidence that the short rows including large stones were not primarily associated with funerary activity.
Analysis of the single rows has revealed marked differences in their distribution. A number of useful details have emerged which helps us appreciate the varied character of the rows and how this can differ from one area to another. In general terms it is possible to conclude that:
- Single rows are found in every region in Great Britain and their distribution is similar to those for rows as a whole.
- Single short rows are particularly numerous in Wales and Argyll and the Isles.
- Single short rows composed of large stones are rarely found on the SW English moors.
- All plausible Scottish single stone rows include large stones.
- Very few short single rows including large stones have a terminal cairn or stone circle.
- Most long single rows including large have a terminal cairn or stone circle.
- Examples of diversity are common but usually involve very small numbers of rows.
- Single short and long rows with smaller stones are clustered in Wales and South West England.
- Single long rows are less common in the areas where the single short rows prevail.
- Most rows are associated with cairns except the short rows including large stones.
There are regional differences in the form of the single stone alignments. In Argyll and the Isles most of the rows are short and composed of large stones, whilst in SW England most of the rows are long and composed mainly of smaller stones. In Wales, the picture is different again with a mix both of long and short rows being composed of large and smaller stones. The variety in form is further emphasised by differences in the numbers of rows with associated terminal cairns or stone circles. Short rows including large stones are much less likely to survive within a funerary context. This lack of consistency highlights a world with guidelines rather than rule books.
The use of smaller stones in many of the Welsh and SW English single rows may is certainly significant and indicates that their primary function is unlikely to have been the same as the rows composed of large stones. They were certainly not built as grand architectural statements and some could have been erected by a small group of people in a few hours.
Burl, A., 1993, From Carnac to Callanish – The prehistoric rows and avenues of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale University Press, New York and London.
First Published: 25th September 2016
Last Updated: 24th October 2019