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Delfour

Ring Cairn (Neolithic) - (Bronze Age), Stone Circle (Neolithic) - (Bronze Age)(Possible)

Site Name Delfour

Classification Ring Cairn (Neolithic) - (Bronze Age), Stone Circle (Neolithic) - (Bronze Age)(Possible)

Alternative Name(s) Easter Delfair; Easter Delfour; Delfoor

Canmore ID 14894

Site Number NH80NW 1

NGR NH 8442 0858

NGR Description NH 8442 0858 and NH 8441 0857

Datum OSGB36 - NGR

Permalink http://canmore.org.uk/site/14894

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Administrative Areas

  • Council Highland
  • Parish Alvie
  • Former Region Highland
  • Former District Badenoch And Strathspey
  • Former County Inverness-shire

Archaeology Notes

NH80NW 1 8442 0858 and 8441 0857

(NH 8442 0858) Stone Circle (NR)

(NH 8441 0857) Standing Stone (NR)

Delfour 'stone circle' - a Clava ring-cairn comprising an outer kerb of about 58 ft diameter, of substantial boulders and a carefully built inner ring of smaller stones. Outside the kerb is a turf-covered bank of small stones (an original feature but increased by field-gathered stones formerly heaped on the site): very little of the cairn material survives. To the SW of the cairn and 22ft from the kerb is a monolith 9ft 6ins high, and to the N of this a prostrate slab 8ft long; these may be the remains of the monolithic surrounding circle.

A S Henshall 1963, visited 1957.

As described and planned by Henshall.

Surveyed at 1:2500.

Visited by OS (R L) 1 December 1966.

Activities

Field Visit (19 September 2013)

This ring-cairn is situated 200m SSW of Easter Delfour, close to the leading edge of a natural SE-facing terrace overlooking the flood plain of the River Spey. It originally consisted of a ring of orthostats enclosing a ring-cairn revetted by an outer platform, but, today, only one orthostat from the surrounding circle still stands. It remains vertical and firmly set, although it is located in a hollow 0.2m deep worn by cattle rubbing against its flanks. It measures 1.55m in breadth by 0.35m in thickness and it stands 2.65m in height; and while its broad flat faces are distinguished by quartz nodules and veins beneath lichen, its sides taper upwards irregularly to form a blunt point. The stone is positioned 7m SW of the ring-cairn where it marks the focus and axis of the monument that passes NE through its centre; and its distance from this centre indicates that the monument once had a diameter of 32m. There are fragments of four additional slabs that may also derive from this circle. The best preserved is situated at the foot of the platform to the W of the ring-cairn. Although a straight edge on its E reveals that it has been cut down, it measures 2.4m long by 0.65m broad and 0.18m thick. The other fragments are smaller and their identification is less secure. One is a slab which has been cast into the body of the ring-cairn immediately NNW of the central court. It measures 1.5m long by 0.6m broad and 0.2m thick; while another, shaped rather like a parsnip and measuring 1.1m long by 0.55m broad and 0.45m thick, is situated at the edge of the stony matrix 2m to its N. The third slab is situated on the S side of the cairn 1.2m E of a boulder bearing a drill hole made to hold a charge of gunpowder. It measures 0.9m long by 0.68m broad and 0.25m thick.

A grass-grown stony bank or platform retains the exterior of the ring-cairn. It measures 2.5m thick by 0.8m high on the SE, where its original sloping profile is best preserved. However, it has been damaged by ploughing around much of its circuit and it has been completely destroyed on the WSW, where a point of entry has been driven into the heart of the monument to allow carts or barrows access in order to facilitate stone robbing. The ring-cairn, itself, is polygonal on plan and measures 18m in diameter. Its outer kerb is formed from carefully chosen, closely fitted, rectangular slabs set vertically, their summits now largely projecting above the top of the platform. However, their irregular shape and the variable alignment of their broader faces would have been concealed by the outer platform and the cairn’s stony fill. Small vertical slithers have been used to fill gaps between them at four points on the W and one on the E. The kerbstones are roughly graded to diminish in size from SW to NE, with the result that the larger and taller contrast with the smaller and shorter embedding the monument’s axis. The largest stones of all are situated next to one another 7m NE of the one surviving orthostat which also projects this axis. They have been deliberately paired to offer a contrast. Thus, the stone on the NW, which is a rectangular slab with a flat horizontal upper surface, measures 1m high by 1.3m broad and 0.5m thick, while the stone on the SE, which is notably dome-shaped, measures 1.3m high, 1.2m broad and 0.6m thick. Yet, despite these statistics, they can be characterised respectively as ‘slender’ and ‘stout’. Most of the outer kerb is intact, save on the SW where at least one stone has been removed to either side of this pairing. However, one on the S has been displaced, while another on the NE is reduced to a low stump with its upper section lying prone immediately to the E. The matrix of the cairn has been largely removed from the interior leaving the footings of the outer and inner kerbstones exposed. However, there are drifts of large water-worn cobbles on the N which overlap the top of the outer kerb in that quarter and there are others on the NE and SE. These include a small admixture of field clearance, but elsewhere grass-grown cobbles can still be detected underfoot. Two rectangular cuttings from an unrecorded archaeological excavation post-dating the stone robbing are situated on the ENE and ESE. Both have been restored with boulders. The central court of the ring-cairn, which is also polygonal on plan, measures 7.5m in diameter. It is delimited by carefully chosen, closely fitted rectangular slabs, but unlike those of the outer kerb these have been deliberately set to lean outwards to counteract the pressure of the cairn’s stony matrix. Their inner faces are also notably smooth and regular, indicating that the court itself was probably once open and free of stone, although a recent gathering of boulders measuring 2.5m in diameter and 0.7m high now occupies the centre. There is one instance on the E where a gap between two of the kerbstones has been filled with a vertical slither; but slabs are missing from the kerb’s circuit on the SE, SSW, WSW and N. As with the outer kerb, the stones are roughly graded to diminish in size from SW to NE to reinforce the axis of the monument. The largest, situated on the SW immediately NW of the axis, measures 0.85m high, 0.53m broad and 0.32m thick. This now lies snapped in two immediately SW of the stump, but its detached upper section exhibits a flat horizontal upper surface.

The axis and focus of the monument’s architecture indicates that it was carefully orientated to point towards the SW quarter of the sky where the sun would set at midwinter. The contrast in the shape of the two large stones marking the axis in the outer kerb on the SW possibly symbolises a closed entrance, which was itself subsequently sealed symbolically by the encircling revetment.

The Rev John Macdonald’s account indicates that the stone circle had reached its present state by 1835, but the condition of the ring-cairn at that time is less certain although the inner and outer kerbs were evidently plainly visible (NSA 1845, 87). The monument was surveyed in 1869 for the 1st edition of the OS 25-inch map, when it fell near the centre of a rectangular field laid out from NE to SW (Inverness-shire 1875, sheet lxxiii.9). The OS differentiated the ring-cairn from the orthostat, describing the former as a ‘Stone Circle’ - adding the comment in the Name Book that it was ‘covered with loose stones which renders it impossible to define the position or number of stones composing it. . .’ - and the latter as a ‘Standing Stone’ (Name Book, Inverness-shire, No. 4, p5). However, Alexander MacBain recognised Delfour as being one of a cluster of monuments in Badenoch and Strathspey that had strong affinities with the Clava Cairns (MacBain 1885). Each consisted of an outer ring of graded orthostats enclosing a ‘ring cairn’ – the term which Sir Arthur Mitchell had first employed in describing the cairn within the comparable monument at Grenish (Mitchell 1874, 685-7) and which MacBain also identified as a member of this group (NH91NW 5). There is no change in the OS depiction of the two elements on the 2nd edition of the 25-inch map (Inverness-shire 1901, sheet 073.09), but Caleb Cash’s plan of 1906 indicates that the NW arc of the ring-cairn’s outer kerb remained buried beneath field clearance, while the inner kerb was entirely lost to view (Cash 1906, 252-4). Cash was also assured by an informant that the monument had not been disturbed for at least thirty five years. His plan shows the broad gap through the outer kerb made to facilitate stone robbing, confirming that this destructive episode must have occurred before 1870 and possibly very much earlier. It is not known when the field clearance was finally removed, or when and by whom the excavation cuttings were made, but the detailed plan taken by Audrey Henshall and J. C. Wallace in 1957 shows the monument with this stripped away (Henshall 1963, 374-5). It is accompanied by an excellent description and unlike earlier commentators Henshall reaffirmed MacBain’s view that the orthostat was the survivor from a surrounding stone circle. Alexander Thom’s plan of 1958 was taken to evaluate the monument’s astronomical and geometric properties (RCAHMS DC4436 (B7/10); RCAHMS MS430/28; Thom 1967, 86-87, 98; Thom, Thom and Burl 1980, 256-7; Ferguson 1988, 96). He recognised the orthostat as a ‘solstitial outlier’, but was much more exercised by the ring-cairn for which he inferred a complex geometrical composition. However, Burl firmly rejected this last deduction, arguing that its geometry was as likely ‘the result of haphazard construction as of nice mathematics’ (Burl 1976, 43-4). Nevertheless, he accepted Thom’s astronomical interpretation and included this in a general analysis of the properties of Clava ring-cairns (Burl 1981, 258-61). More recently, refocusing on Thom’s perception of the standing stone as marker of the winter solstice, he has questioned whether it should be interpreted as the solitary survivor of a surrounding circle rather an outlier (Burl 1995, 132; 2005, 132). Delfour has also been reassessed by John Barnatt, Audrey Henshall and Graham Ritchie, and Douglas Scott, but none has offered any new observations (Barnatt 1989, 260; Henshall and Ritchie 2001, 9, 13, 16, 17, 240; Scott 2003, 103).

Visited by RCAHMS (ATW, ECB), 19 September 2013

Note (February 2017)

What is this ring of Stones?

In the 1845 Statistical Account of Scotland, the Reverend John MacDonald of Alvie describes this monument as ‘...the remains of a Druidical Cairn, enclosed by a circle of large stones, closely set up on end.’ He goes on to muse whether the monolith might mark the grave of an important person and notes that the site still appears to be venerated locally, as the stones have been allowed to remain in the midst of arable land, despite ‘a considerable interruption to the operation of the plough’.

Delfour is classified by archaeologists as a 'Clava cairn' and is thought to date to the Early Bronze Age. They group it with about 50 other similar structures, all of which share a range of features; while the name, itself, is derived from the famous cairns at Balnuaran of Clava.

Clava cairns usually consist of an inner and outer ring of kerbstones (the space between them filled in with smaller boulders) and a surrounding bank, or platform - the whole being enclosed by a ring of standing-stones. As with recumbent stone circles, like Loanhead of Daviot, the outer kerbstones and the standing-stones are usually graded in height, with the tallest situated in the south-west and the shortest in the north-east. Delfour is termed a 'Clava ring-cairn', but some have an entrance and passage that leads to the open chamber at their centre. These are termed 'Clava passage graves' and they appear quite similar to earlier Neolithic chambered tombs. Unfortunately, excavations within either kind of Clava Cairn have usually yielded little, but the stain of a crouched body was found at Corrimony, while traces of cremated remains occurred at Balnuaran of Clava.

While the Reverend MacDonald may have been wrong in believing the stones to be 'Druidical', he was undoubtedly right in supposing that the monument had been respected for hundreds of years by those who lived in its shadow. In Gaelic, math is 'good', and clach is 'stone'. Locals around Balnuaran of Clava reported that 'Clava' meant ‘ the good stones’; but it is also interesting to note that cladh is Gaelic for 'cemetery', so the purpose of these monuments may well have been partly understood long before they attracted the attention of archaeologists.

Like so many ancient monuments, Delfour is much depleted, as many tons of stone have been carted away in comparatively recent times. The one standing stone on the south-west, together with the flat slab situated at the foot of the surrounding bank on the west, are all that remains of the stone circle that once surrounded the cairn.

A site for burial, gathering, celebration?

The purpose of such monuments is still debated. Do they mark the location where bodies were once burnt upon funeral pyres, or are they rather the grave of one high status individual? The robbed state of Delfour would make it quite easy to look beneath the ground surface. Perhaps one day in the near future we will have the technology to do so in some detail, without disturbing what may be there.

Sources:

Bradley, R 2000 The Good Stones: A New Investigation of the Clava Cairns, (Society of Antiquaries Monograph Series No 17: Edinburgh)

MacDonald, J 1845 Parish of Alvie, Inverness, The New Statistical Account of Scotland: Inverness - Ross and Cromarty 14 (William Blackwood and Sons: Edinburgh and London) 87

Peigi Mackillop - Scotland's Urban Past Digital Access Officer

References

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