On the Isle of Beàrnaraigh (Berneray) in the Outer Hebrides at Cnoc na Grèine (NF 92312 81860) stands an enigmatic grouping of stones. The site has been variously interpreted over the years as a chambered cairn, stone circle and stone row. There seems to be a broad consensus that it is of prehistoric origin even although it has not been possible to agree on its identity. Interpretative uncertainties abound in archaeology and for many the uncertainty is one of its challenges and charms. The opportunity to examine and re-examine evidence from different perspectives adds to our appreciation of these sites and encourages us to learn more about them. Often there is no single explanation and much more remains unknown than known. This will probably always be the case but this should not stop us looking at and re-examining the many wonderful sites as they may have much to tell us. Our understanding is still in its infancy and the new scientific methods we can use will certainly help us to comprehend many aspects of our past. However, it would very unwise to rely entirely on science or to allow it to become our only tool. We must find new ways of looking at the surviving evidence and the specific link between Neolithic/Early Bronze Age funerary and ritual monuments suggested to me by Helen Woodley and examined within the context of South Western stone rows is an excellent example of the potential value of looking at sites in a different way.
A recent visit to the Outer Hebrides provided further evidence to support the hypothesis that Neolithic/Early Bronze Age people were interested in very particular visual relationships to the sea. I was very fortunate to be accompanied by the crofter at the standing stones at Cnoc na Grèine to whom I explained my theories concerning the stone rows in the South West. Given this sites position on a small island with extensive views of the nearby sea to the east and its small extent I said that it would be very unlikely that a similar situation would exist here. How wrong could I be! Despite the relatively small size of the site (c 7m from one end to the other) it soon became apparent that it did indeed straddle the interface of visual sight to the Atlantic Ocean to the west. This means that the southern part of the site has no views to the western sea, the centre has sea glimpses and from the northern edge three separate sea triangles are visible. This is an observable and recordable fact and creates within the space of a few metres the same type of reveal we have seen elsewhere on the Dartmoor rows. The precision of this relationship means that if the site had been placed even a metre from its current position in any direction these very particular visual treats and of course the reveal would not exist. This together with the emerging evidence from a significant number of broadly contemporary sites strongly supports the hypothesis that funerary/ritual sites of this period were positioned very precisely relative to particular features in the landscape. This in turns implies that these relationships were important to these people and suggests that these people’s spiritual beliefs were strongly influenced by their surroundings.
At Cnoc na Grèine the icing on the cake is the spectacular appearance of the island of Boraraigh (Boreray) forming part of the St Kilda archipelago in the centre of the southern sea triangle, whilst the tiny island of Spuir peeks from behind the near horizon and forms the northern edge of the southernmost sea triangle. It is surely improbable that this spectacular reveal just happens to exist at the precise point where this special place was built. Coincidences as we all know can and do happen but when they keep repeating themselves they cease to be coincidences and instead become part of a pattern. The evidence for the existence of this pattern is becoming increasingly difficult to deny and future work will continue to build upon this most exciting series of discoveries.
View from south west (Scale 1m).
View looking west along the stones. This photograph is taken from an elevated position to illustrate the character of the topography that provides the visual links to the sea. The sea is visible between the near hills from this height but on the ground it is not.
From the lower eastern side of the site views to the sea are blocked by the rising ground.
Standing on the southern side of the large western stone three sea triangles are visible. During the spring and summer months the sun sets at different points behind the distant horizon and this together with variations in the atmospheric conditions create a variety of visual treats. Despite it being a clear late summer day St Kilda could not be seen although its position is highlighted.
From the northern side of the large western stone only the two large sea triangles are visible. This photograph was taken by Meg Rodger the local crofter who kindly agreed to take a photograph of the sea triangles when St Kilda was visible. © Meg Rodger.
Zoomed in view showing St Kilda in the southern sea triangle. The appearance and disappearance of this island may have been of special significance to the builders of this monument. © Meg Rodger.
This site offers the visitor two different forms of reveal. The first is achieved by walking alongside the stones until the sea triangles appear as you reach the large stone at the top and the second by changing atmospheric and lighting conditions which means that the distant St Kilda can only be seen occasionally. It is very likely that many of the stone rows in the South West England share this characteristic with distinctive natural features on distant horizons forming an occasional part of the observed reveal. Many monuments of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age certainly seem to have been carefully positioned to exploit particular visual inter relationships between prominent features in the landscape but most important of all was the special reveal that the location provided.
Map showing the position of the sea triangles visible from Cnoc na Grèine.
I would like to thank Meg Rodger for her considerable help in preparing this article and Helen Woodley for bringing to my attention her ideas of visual relationships between these types of site and sea views.