Standing Stones

STANDING STONES are one of the most obvious of prehistoric monuments and have a particular association with the Celtic west of Britain, where the stones of the modern Gorsedd circles are frequently seen. However, they belong to a much more ancient past than the Celts and their survival says something for the respect in which they have been held. Some are associated in folklore with legendary persons or events and some with early saints. They are often of impressive size and appear like giant figures in the landscape. Their presence provides us with a link with the prehistoric times when they were erected. Today most standing stones are neglected and rarely visited and this guide aims to make the stones better known and appreciated as well as providing opportunities for walking and cycling. It describes the stones and possible routes around the northern part of Anglesey. There are other stones elsewhere in Anglesey as well as on the mainland and guides to these may be produced in future.

Anglesey has a considerable number of standing stones even though there were probably once more, since some have fallen, been cleared for agriculture or even destroyed as pagan symbols during more religious times. 65 standing stones or sites of them are known of which 20 are protected as Scheduled Ancient Monuments. 21 of them no longer exist and their sites are known only from old records or place names. 8 of them are possibly of more recent date, erected as cattle rubbing stones. The largest surviving stone is the north stone at Pen yr Orsedd, Llanfairynghornwy, which is 5.1m (17ft) tall. The south stone there is the second tallest at 3.9m (13ft), followed by that at Bodewryd, Rhosybol at 3.75m (12ft) tall. Surprisingly the only excavation has been that at Cremlyn, Llansadwrn where a flint scraper and flakes were found. These are the only finds known from any Anglesey standing stone although a spear and helmet are said to have been found near the Pen yr Orsedd stones long ago.

Unusual natural stones may have been the objects of veneration long before standing stones were ever erected and some have a place in local folklore. In north Anglesey there are three such natural glacial boulders. They are Maen Arthur, Maen y Goges and Carreg Leidr. There is another, near Holyhead called Maen Bras because a brass pot is said to have been found there. Standing stones themselves often have a part in folklore and some have names that reflect this, including Maen y Gored or Goron, Llech Golman, Maen Addwyn, Maen Llechgynfarwy and Maen Eryr.

Although standing stones are well known their date and function is still uncertain. Only a few have been excavated in Britain and these have produced burials of Early Bronze Age date (late third/early second millennium BC) close to them. However, the standing stones may have been there before the burials took place. In Meirionnydd two linear groups of standing stones are clearly related to ancient trackways but perhaps in a ceremonial rather than a functional way as both trackways lead towards or through groups of Bronze Age burial cairns. Most stones are slabs rather than ‘pillars’ and so face in a particular direction. They could have been designed to face a position of the sun or just to a settlement, a route or to a view. The commonest orientation of stones on Anglesey is to the south–west or north-east.

In Anglesey overall the standing stones are quite evenly distributed and are found in all types of landscape. Those in north Anglesey are mainly in fairly prominent positions but elsewhere in the island the majority are in unobtrusive settings in valleys, on hill slopes or plateaux. There is no obvious indication that stones any part of any linear pattern of ancient routes but the landscape today is of similar, cultivated lowland with an even scatter of and a diverse pattern of routes, prior to modern development. The same might have been the case in the second millennium BC, as suggested by a fairly even distribution of Bronze Age burial mounds (contrasting with an uneven distribution of Neolithic chambered tombs). The distribution of standing stones may therefore be related broadly to the pattern of land-use and settlement, which suggests they may have served as boundary or ownership markers. Two stones are closely related to Bronze Age monuments indicating that they are of the same period. One is a stone around which the Bronze Age burial mound of Bedd Branwen was built. Another stone, at Llanddyfnan, Pentraeth, stands at the west end of a line of Bronze Age burial mounds. When visiting the stones think how they relate to the landscape and the views from them. Some face over wide views, and some seem deliberately set to be intervisible, like those at Llanfechell, which also lie close to prehistoric burial sites.

Standing stones still remain something of a mystery, requiring further research but they were clearly meant to be seen and to impress themselves on memory and that they have achieved by their presence today, after some four thousand years.