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One of the largest areas of reasonably level ground on the Isle of Arran, lies in a broad triangle to the south of the Machrie Water as it makes its way to the sea a little south of mid way down the island's west coast.
People have been present in this part of Arran for up to 8,000 years, and for the last 6,000 of those years they have been living in ways that left a physical imprint on the landscape around them. The result is one of the most important prehistoric sites in Scotland, a fascinating and at times puzzling landscape in which people lived, farmed, and apparently expended a vast amount of effort creating sites where ritual activity could take place.
If you look at a detailed map of this part of Arran, you can see that large parts of the surrounding area are pock-marked by hut circles, the remains of the places where people once erected their homes. Amongst the scatter of hut circles are the occasional stone circle or standing stone. There are also the remains of two prehistoric forts, one built on the 730ft high summit of Cnoc Ballygown and the other on the coast at Drumaddon Point.
At the heart of this wider ancient landscape, both physically and spiritually, is Machrie Moor. Here are the remains of no fewer than six closely grouped stone circles, while the immediately surrounding area comes complete with chambered cairns, a standing stone and more hut circles.
Access to the Machrie Moor Stone Circles is via the Moss Farm Road. This is a track heading east from the A841 some 200yds south of the bridge where the main road crosses the Machrie Water and about three miles north of Blackwaterfoot. Access from the main road is on foot, and taking a tour of the stone circles into account, together with small side excursions to standing stones and cairns not actually on the track, you are likely to have walked three miles by the time you return to your car, though this does depend on where you have been able to park it.
Given the huge importance of the monuments at Machrie Moor, it comes as a surprise to many visitors to find that no proper arrangements have been made for parking. You are faced with the choice of leaving your car partly on the - already narrow - main road, or using a pull off on the west side of the road 50 yards north of the track, where a few cars can be parked without blocking field accesses. Given that a good parking area could easily be established at the start of the Moss Farm Road itself, the current lack of provision seems very odd.
The Moss Farm Road gives good walking as you follow the line of the Machrie Water inland. After half a mile, and two right-angled turns, you come to the first of the monuments en route. Opinions differ as to whether this is a burial cairn with a kerb made of large stone, or a stone circle in which a later burial took place. Pressing on, the track climbs a distinct edge as it makes its way onto Machrie Moor itself. There are a number of hut circles in the immediate area of the track here, but anyone but an expert will have difficulty making them out. Easier to spot, however, are the next three monuments, a standing stone 100yds off to the left of the track (plus a nearby modern memorial), a chambered cairn with a pointed upright a similar distance to the right of the track, and some stones remaining from a chambered cairn which was largely destroyed when the track you are following was built.
By now you are within sight of your destination. The Moss Farm Road leads to the long-ruined Moss Farm. But for most visitors the farm is of less interest than the area beyond it, where a series of mown paths through the surrounding vegetation link together six stone circles. These form no particular pattern, and the numbers used to describe them on this page are those used on the interpretative boards on the site.
The star of the show is Circle No.2. At first sight this seems less a stone circle than a group of three upright sandstone slabs of varying heights up to 18ft or 5.5m, very reminiscent of the Stenness Stones on Orkney. The group becomes a circle if you take into account the stumps of other sandstone slabs and the granite boulders which someone tried to carve into millstones in the 1700s, but gave up when one broke. Equally fragmentary is Circle No. 3, which now comprises a single tall sandstone slab and traces in the ground of up to seven more.
Most of the other circles are more modest in ambition, though rather more complete. They range from the complex double circle of 25 granite boulders forming Circle No.5, to the four granite boulders in Circle No.4. At the far side of the site, Circles 1 and 6 are close together and comprise a mixture of granite boulders and small sandstone rocks.
As you wander around this unique place, set as it is within sight of the jagged mountains of northern Arran, you cannot help wonder what those who spent a huge amount of time and effort putting it all together had in mind. You might also start to get the unsettling sense that aspects of it seem too good to be true: could our more recent ancestors have moved some of the boulders here to "improve" an existing archaeological site? The answer to the second question would seem to be "no". Excavations of two of the circles in 1985-6 may not have solved the "why" question, but they did a great deal to establish what was done on Machrie Moor, and when.
The starting point for activity here seems to have been in about 3,500BC, when pits were dug in the areas now occupied by Circles 1 and 6. The purpose of the pits is unknown, but ridged Neolithic pottery was recovered from them. A thousand years later, in around 2,500BC, timber circles were erected on the sites of the earlier pits. The timber circle in the area of today's Circle No.1 was especially elaborate, comprising a double ring of posts with more in its centre. Over time, the timber forming the circles rotted away, and the land was subdivided into small plots and ploughed. Then, in about 2,000BC, stone circles were built on the site of the two earlier wood circles. It is assumed that the four other stone circles were built at the same time. What is known more clearly, from excavations in the 1860s that produced finds from most of the circles, is that some time later each of the circles was used as the burial place for at least one - presumably important - person.