Though happily hard to tell in the photo, the Aviemore Stone Circle is today actually in the middle of a modern housing estate, built up around this ancient site. Prehistoric stone circles are fairly common in Scotland and Ireland but despite how many of them remain, experts still don’t really know why ancient cultures built them or much about these people. Built by ancient peoples during the Neolithic era, the oldest stone circles are as much as 5,000 years old. The Aviemore Stone Circle, comprised of stones far smaller than the stones of more famous exemplars like the Ring of Brodgar or Callanish Stones (or Stonehenge down in England), can be dated as far back as 2,400 BC. The ancient people did not have a system of writing (at least, not that we know of), and other than their megalithic monuments, many of their artefacts were made of easily decomposable materials, so much of their culture is lost to us. But we do know that these Neolithic cultures, found in what are considered in modern times as the Celtic regions, built hundreds – thousands – of great ancient monuments of stone. We also know that they had complicated rituals, and that astrology was important to them. Today, the best Neolithic-era sites are found in Celtic places like Ireland, Scotland, England and Brittany.
Pro tip: Aviemore Stone Circle is in a housing estate a short walk from Aviemore Train Station. For the best Neolithic ruins in Scotland, head to the Orkney Isles (home of Skara Brae) or over to the Isle of Harris. Outside of Scotland, Ireland holds a treasure trove – head out for a walk in the fields of the woods and you’ll practically be stumbling over them.
Knocknarea is a very special place. Tucked away in a quiet corner of northwest Ireland on a little peninsula in County Sligo, Knocknarea is renowned for its history and legends. Though only 300 metres high, climbing to the top of this hill is a sacred act. Crowning this hill is a huge cairn from Neolithic times – over 5,000 years old! Sligo is riddled with ruins from the Neolithic era – at Knocknarea’s foot are the Carrowmore tombs (home to some 50 monuments!), and further inland, find the even more impressive Carrowkeel tombs – 20 monuments of which three are opened. There are other sites of course – Deerpark, Creevykeel, Knockvranny, Knocknashee, and so many more – and these are all in wee County Sligo! You could spend a lifetime trying to visit all of Ireland’s Neolithic sites… But yes, back to Knocknarea. Other than the huge cairn, there are a few satellite tombs, and the ruins of an ancient village (as well as a famine age abandoned village – both just a few houses). After Ireland was Christianised, many early Christians hung on to their beliefs, and the religious leaders had to find a way to compromise – such as Yule becoming Christmas, the Pagan goddess Brigid becoming a saint, and the fertility goddess Sheela na Gig giving Mary a higher status than in most contemporary – and patriarchal – Christian societies. And then there was the problem of understanding those societies who came before these early Christians (who were they, and why did they build these things!? Questions still unanswered today…). Knocknarea was therefore explained away using folklore. The cairn was attributed to the legendary (and semi-mythical) saviour and warrior queen of Connaght, buried upright in her great tomb under the cairn, facing her enemies from the North. Though this story is unlikely to be true, it’s clear that someone (well, many someones) are buried here, making this an ancient graveyard of sorts. It is one of Sligo’s iconic spots and can be seen from almost anywhere around Sligo town. Knocknarea is seen here from the far side reflected in the low tide sands of Cullenamore strand, a quieter alternative to busy Strandhill Beach – and also better for a long walk on the beach!
Pro tip: Don’t forget to bring a stone from the bottom of the hill up to the cairn for Queen Maeve! If you have a car, climb from the Queen Maeve Car Park. No car? Take the Strandhill bus and stop at the Centra – there is a path up this side starting here. A new path connects both sides with the Strandhill beach, famed for its surf. We recommend lunch/brunch at Shells, ice cream at Mammie Johnson’s and/or pizza and a pint at The Strand pub.
Ireland is one of the richest destinations when it comes to Neolithic heritage, in particular, Neolithic era tombs. Here in Ireland, we still have thousands of them. Capping most hills and mountains is some kind of cairn, usually small and inconspicuous. Two regions are particularly concentrated: Sligo and Meath (though interestingly, Celtic Neolithic societies stretched all the way to Scotland, Wales,Bretagne, and Galicia). The biggest of the Neolithic tombs is found in Meath. UNESCO site Newgrange is one of Ireland’s wonders. Built around 3,200BC according to archeologists, the Newgrange monument is an enormous mound/ cairn that encloses a single, 19-metre-long passage tomb ending in 3 burial chambers where cremated remains were once placed. Inside, the passage is narrow but visitors are still able to walk (unlike the tombs at Carrowkeel where you have to crawl…). Walls are adorned with spirals and other basic forms of megalithic rock art, and the tomb’s roof uses corbelling, an ancient drystone technique that makes the tomb waterproof without even requiring mortar! Even with the thousands of tombs they’ve left behind, we know very little about the ancient Celtic Neolithic people of Ireland. One thing that is evident is that astronomy was very important to them. In fact, Neolithic people had a good understanding of sun, moon, and stars including solstices and equinoxes. Newgrange is aligned with the Winter Solstice, therefore for 6 days in mid December, the sun shines through the “roofbox” (that narrow slit above the door of the tomb) to the lighten the chamber with sunlight. Amazing!
Pro tip: If you want to visit for the Winter Solstice, you can enter the lottery (with about 30,000 other applicants for 100 available places!) Or head to one of the other Neolithic sites for similar alignments. For Newgrange, in general we recommend booking in advance, and going early in the day. However, Newgrange Visitor Centre will be closed for most of 2019 so while works are going on, you can’t book in advance, but to compensate, tickets are free and first-come basis during the works. Best to visit in the off season or early, around 9 am. Nearby site of Dowth is also amazing – you can’t get inside anymore, but you’ll have it all to yourself. Or head to the Hill of Tara.
Oweynagat Cave, Roscommon, Ireland – The Gateway to Hell
Below the wet, emerald fields of Co Roscommon, an overlooked county in the Irish Midlands, is the narrow fissure that jets through the earth for some 37 meters… of which local lore calls this cave the Gateway to Hell (or the Gateway to the Otherworld). Oweynagat Cave is an ancient place. Though the cave itself is of natural occurrence, the entrance to it is what they call a souterrain (literally, ‘underground’) – a neolithic monument with an underground element. Oweynagat’s entrance is man-made, using boulders as well as lintels – basically structural horizontal blocks spanning the opening – inscribed with Ogham writing (the earliest form of writing found in Ireland). While this is rare enough in Ireland, in Co Roscommon, only 6 Ogham exemplars have been found. The cave’s small opening, mysterious inscriptions, dark interior, and narrow passages earned it the Gate to Hell. Not easy to find, Oweynagat Cave is located deep in the backcountry of the forgotten Midlands – but it wasn’t always this way. In ancient times, this region held a sacred and royal function. The surrounding area of Rathcroghan, like the Hill of Tara in Ireland’s Ancient East (near Dublin), is full of ancient, man-made mounds where kings were crowned and later buried, and important festivals and rituals were celebrated. Oweynagat Cave is associated with one of these Celtic pagan festivals – that of Samhain (pronounced ‘saw-when’), celebrated the 31st of October, when the borders of our world and that of the otherworld are said to be open. In fact, it is this festival that gave rise to the modern holiday we call Halloween! Like most pagan things, when Christianity came along, it repurposed pagan rites. So what was once the gateway to the otherworld of the fairies now becomes the terrifying Gateway to Christian Hell. Would you be brave enough to crawl inside the dark and narrow passage of Oweynagat Cave… on Halloween!?
Pro tip: The cave is extremely muddy. Be sure to wear good, waterproof boots, rain trousers and waterproof jacket so that you can shed them when you come out. Bring lights and a hard hat if you have one. Nearby, be sure to visit a few of the ancient mounds. Though little is left of them, it is interesting to learn about the ancient peoples who once worshipped there.
Though it may be hard to see from here, Knocknarea is topped with a magnificent stone cairn, shaped like an overturned bowl. Dating back to the neolithic times (so, some 2,000-3,000 years old…), a cairn is a loose dry-stone (without mortar) pyramid, usually located in a desolate or altitude location, and used as a tomb. Ireland is full of these neolithic monuments of varying shapes and sizes. Though generally simple, many of these monument pre-dates the Pyramids of Giza, and have changed very little in past millennia (thanks to local Celtic peoples thinking they were either cursed or protected by the fairies). Even today, projects get diverted in order to avoid touching these ancient sites. Knocknarea is a small hill in northwestern Sligo, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Coolera Peninsula, and Sligo town. The cairn is legendary queen of Connacht Queen Maeve’s burial place – supposedly buried standing up, spear in hand, ready to face her enemies.
Pro Tip: There is more than one way up but the best way starts from the Queen Maeve car park. Bring a stone up from the bottom of the hill to add to Queen Maeve’s cairn for good luck! Back in Sligo, have dinner at the delicious Coach Lane (pub – not restaurant – it’s the same cook but cheaper food!) and go for music and drinks at traditional pubs like Shoot the Crows and Connollys or craft beer pub, the Swagmans.