Megalithic Rows

Harolds Stones in South Wales.

Megalithic rows for the purposes of this article consist exclusively of large stones standing greater than 0.8m high. The many rows including one or more tall stones, but composed mainly of small or medium sized slabs are excluded.  Utilising existing records, a total of 74 megalithic rows (24% of the total number) have been identified.

Distribution of megalithic stone rows

Megalithic rows are found in most parts of Great Britain although there are none in Northern Scotland (Caithness and Sutherland) and Exmoor. Relatively few are found on Dartmoor where only four of the rows are megalithic. By contrast in Central Scotland all of the rows are of megalithic form, whilst in Argyll and Isles the figure is nearly 85% and in the Western Isles 64% of the rows are megalithic. The only other regions where half of the recorded rows are megalithic are Rest of England and Rest of Scotland. In the remaining regions megalithic rows are outnumbered by examples containing small and medium sized stones.

Megalithic Row Types

Three types of megalithic row are recorded. Sixty-four are single rows, nine are of the double variety and one (Tom nan Carragh) is of the combination type. Megalithic double rows are relatively uncommon with none in Argyll and Isles, Central Scotland or Wales despite the existence of a strong megalithic tradition. The double rows tend to be found in pairs or form the focus or a significant component of complexes including other monuments. The best known examples are Callanish, North, Broomend of Crichie, South, Shap, West Kennet Avenue, Beckhampton Avenue, Stanton Drew, North, Stanton Drew, South and the anomaly at Piles Hill on Dartmoor. It is perhaps significant that the distance between the rows is considerably greater than that found at double rows composed of smaller stones.   For this reason they are often referred to as avenues.

Distribution of megalithic single stone rows. Red symbol denotes single rows, black depicts double rows and green shows the location of the combination row.


Megalithic Row Lengths

The length of megalithic rows varies considerably. The distribution maps presented below illustrate this variety and highlight a number of details of interest.

Megalithic stone rows measuring less than 10m long

The Baliscate stone row on the Isles of Mull forms part of a discrete cluster of very short megalithic rows. It consists of three closely spaced orthostats and measures 8.4m long. Click on image to enlarge.

Distribution of megalithic stone rows measuring less than 10m long. Other megalithic rows shown grey.

The shortest megalithic rows are (with the possible exception of Joan Ford’s Newtake on Dartmoor) all found in Scotland. Extremely short rows composed entirely of large stones are relatively common in Argyll and Isles and Central Scotland. Their absence from the rest of Great Britain must be considered significant and may indicate a relatively localised tradition which was not adopted elsewhere. This map illustrates why the Joan Ford’s Newtake row has been dismissed by most authorities. It is hundreds of miles from similar rows and for this reason and therefore the argument goes it cannot be a row.  The problem with this tact is that Yellowmead Down and Corringdon Ball, South should also have been dismissed as they are even further away from anything comparable, but have not been.  Taking an objective view the Joan Ford’s Newtake stone row should be included and remain until evidence is uncovered to disprove it.


Megalithic stone rows measuring between 10m and 20m long

The impressive Ballymeanoch row in Argyll measures 14.5m long. Click on image to enlarge.

Distribution of megalithic stone rows measuring between 10m and 20m long. Other megalithic rows shown grey.

The absence of any megalithic rows less than 20m long in the whole of the south west of England is likely to be significant. Rows of this type do not appear to have been constructed in this area. The four examples in Wales each have doubts regarding their identification as stone rows. Carreg Cadno is a line of boulders rather than upright slabs, Saith Maen NW has various doubts regarding its interpretation, Court 1 may include two natural boulders and Harolds Stones could be part of a chambered tomb rather than a row. If the Welsh rows are eventually discounted the distribution is again focused entirely on the northern half of Great Britain. Whilst most definitely a circular argument, this discovery adds further credence to the idea that the Welsh sites should not be considered as rows.


Megalithic stone rows measuring between 20m and 30m long

The East Cult stone row in Central Scotland measures 25.5m long.

Distribution of megalithic stone rows measuring between 20m and 30m long. Other megalithic rows shown grey.

There are very few megalithic rows between 20m and 30m long. Cae Carreg has interpretative issues and having been destroyed these are unlikely ever to be resolved. If discounted this would mean that all of the megalithic rows less than 30m long are found in the northern half of Great Britain. This would be significant and indicates that shorter megalithic rows have a clear northern bias and provide further evidence to doubt the Cae Carreg identification.  The likelihood of this being a coincidence or the result of differential survival seems improbable and is much more likely to reflect a real and significant difference. Perhaps the northern short rows served a different function  and they may even have been built at a different time.


Megalithic stone rows measuring between 30m and 50m long

Stanton Drew, North in the south of England measures 31.6m long.

Distribution of megalithic stone rows measuring between30m and 50m long. Other megalithic rows shown grey.

Only three megalithic rows are between 30m and 50m long. The two double rows are associated with stone circles.


Megalithic stone rows measuring between 50m and 100m long

Callanish, North measures 84m long.

Distribution of megalithic stone rows measuring between50m and 100m long. Other megalithic rows shown grey.

Longer megalithic rows between 50m and 100m in length are entirely absent from Wales and are widely distributed with no obvious clustering.


Megalithic stone rows measuring greater than 100m long

The West Kennet Avenue meanders through the Wiltshire countryside for 2500m.

Distribution of megalithic stone rows measuring greater than 100m long. Other megalithic rows shown grey.

Most of the very long megalithic rows consist of a small number of widely spaced stones although some include or are likely to have included large numbers of stones. Piles Hill, Shap, West Kennet, Beckhampton Avenue and Broomend of Crichie would have included large number of stones, whilst the others consist of small numbers of stones placed some considerable distance apart.  Clearly some stones may have been removed, but it is likely that at least some rows consisted of relatively few stones spaced a considerable distance apart. It is hard to believe that such rows would have been designed to function in the same way as those where the stones were placed close to each other. This again confirms that stone rows should not really be seen as a single type of monument built for the same reasons and that instead the monument class that we describe as stone row or alignment is in fact probably a number of different types of site which were built for various reasons, probably over a long period of time.


Megalithic Rows – number of stones

Megalithic stone rows consisting of three stones

The Doune (Glenhead) row includes three large orthostats.

 

Distribution of megalithic stone rows consisting of three stones. Red symbol denotes row with three stones and grey symbol other rows.

There is a clear clustering of megalithic of stone rows consisting of three stones in Argyll and Isles. Indeed nearly half of all the megalithic rows with three stones are found in this region. Furthermore, it is clear that the great majority are found in Scotland with only a smattering in Wales and South West England. The absence of examples from most of England confirms the truly clustered character of this distribution. If one digs a little deeper into the examples in England and Wales a case could be made for suggesting that the original distribution of three stone megalithic rows may originally have been limited to Scotland.  The row at Longstone Farm in Cornwall no longer survives and may have originally included more than three stones.  The row at East Butterdon is not yet fully understood, whilst Harolds Stones maybe the remains of a chambered tomb and finally Buwch A’r Llo would almost certainly have consisted of many more stones. Compared with the three stone megalithic rows in Scotland all of those in England and Wales have doubts hanging over them and therefore it is possible that rows of this type were originally confined to Argyll and Isles and Central Scotland. This form of row therefore probably had a limited distribution and this in turns implies that the particular cultural or perhaps scientific purposes in turn were not adopted in most of Great Britain. Whilst not conclusive it may be possible to utilise this discovery to help with a re-interpretation of some rows and in the future this may help us refine our understanding.


Megalithic stone rows consisting of four to six stones

Maol Mor stone row includes four orthostats.

 

Distribution of megalithic stone rows consisting of four to six stones. Red symbol denotes row with four to six stones and grey symbol other rows.

Megalithic rows consisting of between four and six stones also have a clear northern bias and as before some of the southern examples are amongst the more uncertain examples.  Stanton Drew, South almost certainly originally consisted of many more stones. Court 1 and Joan Ford’s Newtake are both probable rows and may therefore be seen as the exceptions that prove the rule a feature of a significant number of rows.  We can be certain however that the focus of four to six stone rows was Argyll and Isles and Central Scotland.


Megalithic stone rows consisting of seven to 19 stones

Saith Maen NW stone row consists of seven stones.

 

Distribution of megalithic stone rows consisting of seven to 19 stones. Red symbol denotes row with seven to 19 stones and grey symbol other rows.

A marked contrast exists between megalithic rows with six or fewer stones and those with seven to 19. Only one row of this kind survives in the whole of Scotland, at Callanish, North and the remainder are in the southern half of Great Britain. This remarkable difference strongly suggests that this is very likely to be a contemporary reason for this and is unlikely to be a result of later activity. It is probable that the rows in the southern half of Great Britain were built differently because they had a different purpose. That purpose may have been similar, but was different enough to affect the form of the monuments being erected. The presence of more stones in the southern examples may indicate that movement formed a greater part of their purpose than those in the north where the rituals may have been more static.


Megalithic stone rows consisting of 20 or more stones

Piles Hill stone row includes at least 120 fallen orthostats.

Distribution of megalithic stone rows consisting of 20 or more stones. Red symbol denotes row with 20 or more stones and grey symbol other rows.

A relatively small number of megalithic rows consisted of more than 20 stones. The original number of rows with large numbers of stones may have been more, with some sites having been severely truncated in historic times. Nevertheless we can probably be fairly confident that they would have been comparatively rare. The surviving four examples form part of large-scale ritual complexes. In Scotland Broomend of Crichie, South was associated with a henge and two stone circles, whilst Shap in the Lake District forms part of a ritual landscape. Further south the Beckhampton and West Kennet Avenues are intimately connected with Avebury henge and Piles Hill sits next to several stone rows.  These rows are likely therefore to denote places of particular significance.


Megalithic stone rows with no visible terminal features

Maol Mor on the Isle of Mull in common with many other megalithic rows has no visible terminal feature.

 

Distribution of megalithic stone rows with no visible terminal feature. Red symbol denotes row with no feature and grey symbol other rows (Base map: Google Maps).

Most megalithic rows do not have a visible feature at their upper end. In most instances they were clearly built as standalone structures. Indeed it is possible that all rows were originally built with no associated upper terminal feature, but in some instances a cairn, stone circle or henge may have been added later.


Megalithic stone rows with terminal cairns

Callanish, West has a stone circle and cairn at its upper end.

Distribution of megalithic stone rows with terminal cairns. Red symbol denotes row with terminal cairn and grey symbol other rows.

Only nine megalithic rows have a terminal cairn at their upper end. The presence of a cairn might reflect an adaptation of the original row or perhaps the reason why the row was built at a particular spot. It is clear however that megalithic rows only very occasionally lead to cairns. This was not the case with rows including smaller stones where many terminate in a cairn.


Megalithic stone rows with a terminal stone circle 

At Broomend of Crichie, South there is a stone circle and henge at the upper end of the row.

 

Distribution of megalithic stone rows with terminal stone circle. Red symbol denotes row with terminal stone circle and grey symbol other rows.

Eleven megalithic rows lead towards a stone circle. None of the rows in Wales or South West England have a stone circle at their upper end. The reasons why some rows are connected to stone circles is unclear, but it is very likely that the rows and circles were not erected at the same time. Despite extensive excavations at Callanish the relative dates of the stone circle and various rows could not be established, although Aubrey Burl has suggested that the rows are likely to be more recent.  At most sites no datable evidence exists.


Conclusion

Analysis of the megalithic rows has highlighted a number of important and probably significant details. In particular there is a clear difference in the character and form of the rows with examples in the north being generally shorter and consisting of fewer orthostats. This work has provided information to challenge the identification of some rows and these will be examined in further detail in the coming months. The difference between northern and southern rows is so marked as to suggest that they may have had separate functions or purposes. They may have shared certain functions, but it is very likely that the activities carried out were fundamentally different. Over time some places were probably adapted to reflect fresh developments or ideas whilst at others they simply fell out of use, being perhaps initially respected, then neglected and sometimes desecrated but certainly the ideas and beliefs that they embodied were forgotten.


FIRST PUBLISHED: 15th January 2017

LAST UPDATED: 2nd November 2019

 

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