Balbirnie Stone Circle, Markinch, Fife

Stone Circle: OS Grid Reference – NO 28585 02968

Also Known as:

1. Druid’s Circle

Getting Here

Balbirnie stone circle – with Marion checking it out!

Take the A92 road running north out of Glenrothes towards Freuchie and, after a couple of miles out of town, you’ll hit the B969 road on your left.  Across from here on the other side of the road, you’ve just passed a small B-road that takes you to Markinch.  That’s where you need to be!  Go along there for less than 100 yards and turn first right, swerving along the tree-lined road for 200 yards or so. Watch out, just before the first house on your left, for a footpath which leads into the woods. Walk down it, barely 10 yards!

Archaeology & History

This is a lovely megalithic ring in a lovely setting – albeit a new one. The circle was originally positioned some 125 yards northwest of here and would have been destroyed, but was thankfully reconstructed by Fife Council before road-widening of the A92 was done. And the job’s a good one! But as Burl (2005) tells, this wasn’t the first time Balbirnie had been threatened with damage:

The southeastern stones & cists

Balbirnie from the roadside, looking southeast

“With some stones removed in the eighteenth century, dug into in 1883 when bones and sherds were found, damaged by trees, it was finally excavated and restored in 1970-71,” before the main road was built. Thankfully it’s still here – and an excellent stone circle it is! However, the reconstructed site here doesn’t show the circle in its entirety. Originally there were ten standing stones making up the ring, as opposed to the seven you can see today.

Royal Commission ground-plan, c.1933

The site was built amidst the scatter of other larger, and once more impressive, mythically important monuments than the circle – but it’s as likely that the circle added more to the sacred dimensions of the region as a whole when it first came to be built. For on the other side of the A92 we can still see the denuded remains of the Balfarg Riding School Henge, with imitations of its internal upright posts resurrected into position to give an idea of what once stood inside the sacred enclosure. And then about 200 yards west of that, the gigantic Balfarg Henge is impressively surrounded by a modern housing estate, built with the henge in mind, with its outlying megaliths and internal level surface area graciously intact. It’s a truly impressive prehistoric area all round, although the Balbirnie stone circle was built some considerable time after the two henges had been done, many centuries later…

Before the circle was moved, the consensus profile of the site was that given by the Royal Commission (1933) lads following their visit here in June 1925, when they told it looked like this:

“At the southern end of a small wood on the east side of the main road from Kirkcaldy to Falkland, about 180 yards south of Balbirnie Lodge, are the remains of a large circular cairn and of the setting of standing stones by which it was once surrounded… The circle, which has had a diameter of some 48 feet, has been composed of sandstone boulders. Four of these are still in place, but one other on the southeast has been slightly displaced, while against the stone on the northeast lie two large boulders, which apparently have been transferred to this position. Any other stones that may once have existed have been removed or destroyed. The greatest height above ground of any of those that survive is 5 feet 6 inches, while one, which rises no more than 2 feet, measures in circumference as much as 9 feet 9 inches at the base. The cairn itself seems to have been broken into at two points. No record of these excavations appears to be extant, but a number of fragments of cinerary urns from the site are preserved in the National Museum. These indicate that, as might have been inferred from its general character, the monument was sepulchral and dates from the Bronze Age.”

Sepulchral indeed. When the stone circle was excavated at the beginning of the 1970s by J.N.G. Ritchie (1974) and his mates, it was discovered this was a primary function of the site. As Burl (2000) wrote:

“At Balbirnie patches of cremated bone lay underneath some circle-stones. Whatever the ceremonies here they were interrupted when the site was converted into a cemetery. Four or five cists associated with a late beaker and a jet button were constructed within the ring. The date of about 1650 BC came from wood alongside the beaker. Stretches of low walling were put up between the stones forming a continuous barrier…analogous to the embanked stone circles elsewhere in Britain that seem generally to belong to a period in the mid-second millennium… But the first cists did not long remain undisturbed and were seemingly rifled when later cists were built that contained the cremations of women and children… One of these later cists held a food-vessel and a flint knife.

“The stone circle was further abused. A low cairn was piled over all the cists. Sherds of deliberately broken urns, one with barley impressions, were scattered amongst the boulders, intermingled with small coagulations of burnt human bone. This last phase at Balbirnie occurred late in the second millennium BC, for a C-14 determination of…1200 to 900 BC came from the land surface that had built up within the ring during the centuries while the stone circle remained open to the weather.”

Measuring 49 feet across at the widest, this flattened ellipse also possessed a curious rectangular section of laid stone, near the middle of this circle, almost ‘Roman-road’ like in appearance and covering about a quarter of the internal arena. It’s visible today at the reconstructed site and looks almost intrusive! Measuring some 11 feet by 9 feet, the flat stone surface has been suggested as a place where corpses were rested.

Also found within two of the tombs inside the circle were the cup-and-ring marked stones of Balbirnie 1 and Balbirnie 2, showing yet again the relationship that some of these carvings have with spirits of the dead.

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Burl, Aubrey, “Intimations of Numeracy in the Neolithic and Bronze Age Societies of the British Isles (c.3200-1200 BC),” in Archaeological Journal, volume 133, 1976.
  2. Burl, Aubrey, Rings of Stone, BCA: London 1979.
  3. Burl, Aubrey, The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale University Press 2000.
  4. Burl, Aubrey, A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale University Press 2005.
  5. Denston, C.B., “The Cremated Remains from Balbirnie, Fife,” in Archaeological Journal, volume 131, 1974.
  6. Ritchie, J.N.G., “Excavation of the Stone Circle and Cairn at Balbirnie, Fife,” in Archaeological Journal, volume 131, 1974.
  7. Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the Counties of Fife, Kinross and Clackmannan, HMSO: Edinburgh 1933.

AcknowledgementsHuge thanks to Marion Woolley for getting us out to see this and the related neolithic monuments.  Cheers m’ dears!

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

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About megalithix

Prehistorian and independent archaeological researcher, specializing in prehistoric rock art, Neolithic, Bronze Age & Iron Age sites, and the animistic cosmologies of pre-Christian & traditional cultures.
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One Response to Balbirnie Stone Circle, Markinch, Fife

  1. Elen Sentier says:

    Reblogged this on Elen Sentier and commented:
    Looks beautiful – must go :-)

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