by Roland Spencer-Jones (NOSAS)
Henges in Highland seem to be a bit different from other UK henges. Smaller, later, less flamboyant. More akin to the quiet steady Highland temperament, perhaps.
A henge is usually defined as a circular enclosure, surrounded by a ditch, surrounded by a bank, with one or two entrances. They can be, but don’t need to be, associated with internal burials, or standing stones, or posts. They are generally a varied lot. Although the earliest known UK henge is at Stenness in Orkney, approx 3100BC at the start of the later Neolithic, the biggest and most spectacular henges in the UK are dated to 4-500 years later, around the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. They are part of that fundamental change from square or rectangular monuments in the early Neolithic to a variety of round monuments in the later Neolithic.
What seems special about the Highland henges is that when they’ve been dated they turn out to be middle to late Bronze Age, ie 1500-1300BC. Radiocarbon dates have been obtained from excavated henges at Pullyhour, Portree and Lairg. The latter two sites are now built over. The latest known henge is the Hill of Tuach in Aberdeenshire, dated to approx 1000BC.
This blog is meant to enthuse you to take to the roads and do the Highland Henge Trail. It’ll take you round 10 of the best henges that Highland has to offer. The clickable numbers take you to the relevant entry in the Highland Council’s Historic Environment Record (HER). And please note that although there is a “Right to Roam”, you should still be respectful of the landowner’s rights and property as you access these sites. Close gates, etc and respect the shooting season.
- Start with Conon Bridge MHG9059, the archetypal and easiest henge to see in Highland. Park at the roadside, pop over a low wall, and you’re there. It’s good to get your eye in for the other henges you’re about to meet.
- Next stop is Achilty, nr Contin, MHG7792 where a reedy but unmistakable henge is just inside a field wall, opposite Loch Achilty (with its crannog, but don’t get too distracted, cos there’s more!).
- Back the way, through Tore to Culbokie MHG9064 where the henge is a bit more of a challenge to get to, and is seriously vegetated. It needs a NOSAS haircut, so maybe in 2015…….
- Then head north, over the Cromarty Firth, over the Dornoch Firth, and turn sharp right to Sydera Wood MHG11795 just outside Dornoch. This varies from the three you’ve seen so far in that it has two entrances, is oval rather than circular, and has a Home Guard trench through the middle of it. Read the story on the HER..
- Turn west now, along the north side of Dornoch Firth, through Bonar Bridge, to find the Loch Migdale henge MHG10021 . This is the only one with its own sign off the road, famous since the Time Team Dig in 2003. A small and lovely henge overlooking the loch (also with its crannog!).
- Head north, through Lairg, to the Baddhu henge MHG17847. This was recorded but little visited until recently. A perfect henge, on a heathery ridge, looking north. And it requires a satisfying walk to get to it.
- Off east now along the A839, turn left at Rogart, and over the hills to enter the upper end of Strath Brora. Head east down the strath, and just before Loch Brora, the road cuts Ascoile henge MHG11021 in half. The half that is left is well worth the detour.
- Continue down the glen to Brora, and then a long haul up to Pullyhour henge MHG1368 just south of Halkirk. This henge was excavated by Richard Bradley and team in 2008 and is a perfect under-stated remote henge that amply repays the long drive to get to it.
- The last two henges are over on the west coast. Although they don’t connect, they’re maybe worth doing as you head out that way for other purposes. The small degraded henge on the Ullapool Braes MHG40618 has only recently been identified.
- And lastly the majestic Auchtertyre MHG9208 henge, the largest on this list, just west of Stromeferry. It’s so much more impressive than any of the henges listed so far, thereby reflecting the bigger henges south of the Border. And, it may not be a henge at all. The HER record describes the uncertainty.
Now you’re fired up about henges, there are more on the Highland HER, although many of those are only identified as crop-marks or are now sitting under development. Books? Richard Bradley’s Stages & Screens is good, as are Gordon Noble’s Neolithic Scotland and the Set in Stone book, edited by Vicki Cummings and Amelia Pannett.