Our images of the Celts are shrouded in myth and legend. They were a people whose story began in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, flourished in the Iron Age, existed in post-Roman times, and moved on to intertwine with Christianity and survive today in a different form. Cromlechs, long and round barrows, standing stones, henges, hillforts, and buried treasures: these remnants of their society give us a half-opened window into their world.
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These were a pagan people before their conversion to Christianity; their beliefs were grounded in the natural world and its power to control their lives. Places of worship saw rituals related to fertility, agriculture, the moon and sun, and success in battle. Burial sites reflect strong beliefs in an afterworld. Cromlechs (curved stones) and barrows have yielded up highly decorated weapons, armlets, and bracelets fashioned of gold, silver and amber. Food and utensils were placed in graves.
On Mainland, Orkney, the Neolithic Maes Howe Burial Chamber’s 36-ft. passage—the sun’s rays of the winter solstice align with it—leads into a large burial area. It was raided by the Vikings who carried away the contents, leaving behind only graffiti on the walls. Stoney Littleton, near Wellow, in Somerset, is a 100-ft long Neolithic communal chambered grave with a 50-ft long passage.
Pentre Ifan, built about 3500BC, high atop the Presili Hills of Wales, is one of Britain’s best known cromlechs. Its capstone is estimated to weigh over 16 tons. The bluestones used in the building of Stonehenge were quarried here.
Stonehenge, the most famous henge, is only one of many. The standing stones of Callanish, overlooking Loch Roag on the Isle of Lewis, are visible for miles. These 13 stones, with 29 stones marking a path to them, gave birth to many legends. One theory is they were used to calculate the movements of the moon. Machrie Moor, a Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement, was a place of importance on Arran. There were two large stone circles here—four stones remain standing—and chambered tombs, cairns, and other standing stones are found in the area.
Perhaps the most scenic circle—little is known of its history—is the Neolithic Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria. The 38 stones (33 remain standing) are surrounded on all sides by mountains. Bronze Age Long Meg and her daughters consists of 27 standing stones of an original 70. Legend says the stones were once witches and that, if Long Meg is ever rent, it will bleed.
Avebury, Wiltshire was an important Neolithic area. Its three stone circles, surrounded by a bank and ditch, enclose 28 acres and the modern village of Avebury. Nearby lies a mystery—the 130-ft. high man-made Silbury Hill, the largest earth mound in Europe. A mile down the road, West Kennet Longbarrow is considered England’s finest example of a burial barrow. Only 1/10 of its 350-ft length is excavated. The Stanton Drew area in Somerset was another important area similar to Stonehenge and Avebury. Around BC 3000, three stone circles, avenues, and standing stones were constructed as part of a ritual complex situated deep in a valley beside the river Chew.
During the tumultuous period of the Iron Age, when infighting and invasion were commonplace, the Celts lived in, or by, earthenwork hillforts erected for protection. Large ones encompassed whole villages. Many contained human remains sacrificed as foundation burials. In Dorset, the massive hillfort, Maiden Castle, the largest in Britain, was headquarters for the Celtic tribes of the southwest. Convoluted entrances helped to defend the fort. Its shrines and temples date from the early Iron Age through the end of the Roman habitation. Coins and cult figures were uncovered here.
In Shropshire, Old Oswestry Hillfort’s 15 acres encompassed a detailed defensive system. Cadbury Castle, a hillfort rising dramatically over farmland in Somerset, is a fine example of a site that was occupied first in Neolithic times, then as a Bronze Age homestead, then evolved into a defended Iron Age town. It had four lines of bank-and-ditch defense. Much evidence of domestic life was unearthed here—weapons, beads, coins, forges, bones, tools and implements.
Tre’r Ceiri Hillfort, the ‘Town of the Giants’, in Wales, is a five-acre site containing 130 hut circles built 1800 ft high in the Yr Eifl Mountain range, a commanding but inhospitable location.
The Druids, the priests of early Celtic religion, were also the teachers and holders of oral tradition. Because there were no written religious teachings, we can only guess at the true nature of Celtic beliefs. In the first century AD, when the Romans invaded Britain, they brought with them their language and government and social customs. The Romans declared, in AD 54, that the practices of the druides were illegal, and many retreated to the island of Anglesey, where they were massacred. The island is home to standing stones and burial chambers as well as strange legends and myths.
Inner turmoil and invasion characterized the centuries from AD 410, following the Roman withdrawal. With further invasion of the island, the Celts were pushed to the farther reaches of the kingdom. Christian holy men, arriving on Britain’s shores during Roman rule, began to stamp their Celtic-Christian mark on the landscape. They often built on pagan places of worship—6th century St Non’s Chapel was built inside a prehistoric stone circle and stands near a healing well.
Pagan symbols, such as fertility goddesses, abound on Christian churches. Crosses and holy wells are other examples of this melding of cultures. St Brynach founded one of the earliest Christian churches at Nevern, Pembrokeshire, where a collection of Celtic memorial stones is housed. A well-preserved 13-foot high, 900-year-old Celtic cross stands nearby in a wooded valley. This cross and the 9th century Carew Cross, are highly decorated with typical Celtic designs, including knotwork, key pattering and chevrons.
Water in the form of springs, wells, and rivers was an integral part of Celtic religion. Because they believed that water held spirits and healing powers, they left tokens of worship behind. At Flag Fen, in Peterborough, more than 330 artefacts, or offerings, were deliberately deposited. One of the best known healing wells is the Holy Well of St Winefride in Wales, a place of pilgrimage since AD 660.
St Ninian, a Celtic-Christian, reportedly spent much time in a cave named after him at the Isle of Whithorn, in Scotland. He played an important role in converting the Celts to Christianity by establishing a monastery. St Columba, born in Ireland in AD 521, was a Gaelic-speaking priest who, in 563, set up a Celtic-Christian monastery on the island of Iona, once inhabited by druids who fled here to escape Roman persecution. A replica of the Celtic St John’s cross (shattered remains in the museum) stands in the abbey grounds.
Celtic Britain’s landscape can, in some ways be explained, and in other ways, will always remain a mystery. The fact that aspects of the Celtic culture survive today is a testament to its mysterious power to capture our imagination. Its spiritual beliefs, art, oral tradition, and monuments have left us a rich tapestry of the past.
Note: This article was originally published in issue 101 of Heritage/Realm magazine.
On the A965
Mainland, Orkney, Scotland
Tel: 01856 761606
Open April to September daily 9:30 to 6:30pm; October to March Mon-Sat 9:30 to 4:30pm; Sunday 2:30-4:30pm.
Located in the Pressili Hills, by a series of narrow minor roads, southeast of Newport off the A487
St. Winefride’s Well
Holywell, northern Wales, off the A55, B5121
Tel. 0352 713054
Callanish Standing Stones
12 miles west of Stornoway
Off the A858 on Isle of Lewis
Visitor Centre open 10-7pm in summer, 10-4pm in winter
Museum: open daily 10am-6pm (4pm Nov-Mar)
Tel: 01672 539250
West Kennet Long Barrow
Viewpoint only, no access to site
Isle of Arran
North of Blackwater from the A841
1 mile walk off the road
2 miles S of Dorchester off the A354
Castlerigg Stone Circle
1 ˝ miles east of Keswick
Tel: 01946 63222
Long Meg and her daughters
A686 north of Penrith, Cumbria
Old Oswestry Hillfort
1 mile N of Oswestry
Tel: 0345 056785
South Cadbury village
Access by footpath
Tre’r Ceiri Hillfort
Access by footpath
St Non’s Chapel
A487, minor road
By Carew Castle
Village of Carew
Flag Fen Bronze Age Excavation
Fengate, Peterborough PE1 5UR
Tel: 01733 313414
Open daily 10-5pm, except Dec. 25, 26
Whithorn, Dumfries and Galloway
Tel: 01988 500 508
Open Easter to October 10:30am-5pm.
Visitor’s Centre and Museum with collection of early Christian stones
Reached by Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Mull, then foot ferry to Iona
Tel: 01681 700512
Stoney Littleton Long Barrow
1 mile south of Wellow, Somerset off A367
Open site, exterior only
Stanton Drew Circles
East of Stanton Drew village
Tel: 0117 975 0700
Photo of Callanish stones courtesy Mad about Mountains. Photos of Maes Howe and Stonehenge courtesy Steve's Ancient Sites. Photo of Cadbury Castle courtesy Britain on View. Photos of Trefignath burial chamber courtesy Visit Wales
This article was first published in Heritage/Realm magazine.