Menhirs Date From the Neolithic, But What are They?

Standing stones, called ‘menhirs’, are large stones set vertically into the ground. Placed in different locations in the British Isles by Neolithic Peoples, they date from 4,000 BC to 1,500 BC.

Menhirs are widespread worldwide and can be found in Europe and as far afield as Africa and Asia. Modern-day Turkey is home to the oldest stone circle in the world, dating back at least 12,000 years.

Gobekli Tepe is near the Syrian border and nearly fifty times larger than Stonehenge. However, the highest concentration of standing stones is in Western Europe, particularly Brittany in France and the UK. Generally associated with pagan rituals, the Bible mentions stone circles 39 times.


Different Designs

Menhirs appear in a wide variety of designs, including circles, ovals, horseshoe formations and simple lines. Each stone generally has an uneven shape but with a tendency towards being squared but not always.

Dry Tree menhir
Dry Tree menhir is some 3000 years old; it is gabbro rock and was brought here from Crousa Downs, some 2 miles away. In the background is one of the satellite dishes on Goonhilly Earth Station. Credit: Philip Halling

They also usually taper towards the top. When they appear in groups, they are sometimes called megalithic monuments, but menhirs can consist of just a single standing stone.

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A menhir is a single stone, whereas the word ‘henge’ is used to describe several tall stones placed in a circle. A cairn is a marker, and these are heaps of stones in a pyramid design, usually placed on a high summit.

Dolmens are made from large upright stone slabs with a capstone on the top and are generally thought to be used as markers for tombs. Trilithons are groups of three large slabs, perfectly demonstrated in the construction of Stonehenge. 

Famous Menhirs

Stonehenge is one of the most famous stone circles on the planet and is now a World Heritage Site. Located on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, Stonehenge dates to around 2,500 BC and consists of huge blue stones transported from the Prescelly Mountains in South Wales, some 200 miles away.

Forever a mystery?

There has been endless speculation about its purpose, with theories ranging from an ancient burial ground to a Neolithic calendar. This was clearly a location of significance as there is another stone circle nearby called Avebury Henge which was initially larger than its more famous neighbour.

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Aside from Stonehenge, there are countless examples of standing stones across the UK. Near Keswick in the Lake District lies the Castlerigg Stone Circle, also known as the Druids’ Circle. This consists of 38 standing stones, and it is dated as one of the oldest stone circles in the UK, going back around 4,000-5,000 years. Also near Keswick is the Bowder Stone, located in the Borrowdale Valley.

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This is a balancing rock and stands about 30 feet high, and a ladder is provided so visitors can climb to the top of the stone. More remote areas of the UK with a plentiful supply of local stone, like Cornwall and Wales and Scotland, have many examples of menhirs. The Mên-an-Tol, or Stone of the Hole in English, is located close to Madron near Penzance in Southwest Cornwall and consists of three upright granite stones.

Standing Stone, Glaisdale Swang, Glaisdale Moor is scattered with standing stones. Credit: Mick Garratt

Two standing stones are on either side of a round stone with a hole in the middle. Just a few hundred metres to the north is the Men Scryfa and the Boskednan Stone Circle less than one kilometre further away.

What were Groups of Standing Stones Used for?

No one is entirely certain of the purpose of these standing stones. Still, historians and archaeologists suggest they had religious or ceremonial use for specific occasions or rituals and a practical function as a meeting place. Some stone groups have burial chambers.

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Pottery found near some of these monuments connects them with the Beaker people, a late Neolithic early Bronze Age society dating back around 4,500 years and mainly resident in the warmer parts of Europe.

Dry Tree Menhir, Goonhilly Downs
Dry Tree Menhir is a 3m tall standing stone situated just south-east of Goonhilly Earth Station. It was originally erected in the Bronze Age, 3-3,500 years ago, and forms part of a complex ritual landscape on the Goonhilly Downs.

The Beaker people were given this name because of their distinctive bell-shaped beakers which features fine horizontal decoration. They used stone circles for religious worship and buried their dead in circular graves.

Stone and Timber

Some timber henges exist, including Woodhenge, a timber circle monument two miles northeast of Stonehenge, and one of the most famous of these discovered in 1998, Seahenge in North Norfolk.

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Seahenge was uncovered by the movement of shifting sands on the beach in the village of Holme-next-the-Sea near Hunstanton in Norfolk. It consists of a timber circle with the outer ring comprising 55 small split oak tree trunks, with an upturned tree root in the centre.

Dating to the early Bronze Age and specifically to the year 2049 BCE, the monument known as Holme I was excavated from its site to preserve the timber. The sea had exposed it to the air, so the remains were removed to an archaeological museum and then to a maritime museum to preserve the wood.

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Harbourne Head menhir. Also known as “Harbourne Man” Credit: Derek Harper

A reproduction was erected near the original site. There was a lot of controversy surrounding the removal of Seahenge from its original home, so when a second monument was discovered nearby, entitled Holme II, this was left in place and is gradually being destroyed by erosion. Although Seahenge was located on what is now a beach, when it was built, that area would have been a salt marsh.

Naturally Occurring Standing Stones

Some standing stones, despite their appearance, arrive in their location and position due to naturally occurring forces; these are called ‘erratics’. Erratics were moved by glacial ice, whereas so-called rocking stones formed due to extreme weather conditions and erosion over time. Some examples are so bizarre that they really do look man-made. There are different classifications of naturally occurring standing stones.

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Inland stacks are tall columns of rock, often indirectly man-made, formed by quarrying or subsidence. An excellent example of an inland stack is the Devil’s Chimney, located above a disused quarry in Leckhampton near Cheltenham. This forms the shape of a crooked and twisted chimney.


Tors are outcrops of either granite or sandstone, and there are plenty of examples of tors that weather over time to resemble a large pile of stones, with many examples in national parks around the UK, including Dartmoor.

Rocking stones, also called Logans, are also thought to have been created by the Ice Age and then subjected to extreme weathering. The clue’s in the name! If you apply pressure, the vast boulder will rock while remaining balanced.

Siblyback Menhir 1. A standing stone near the ancient settlements and hut circles on the eastern slopes of Newel Tor. In the distance to the north-east, across Witheybrook marsh, is High Rock of Kilmar Tor. Credit: Jonathan Billinger

One of the best-known rocking stones in the UK is Logan Rock, located at Treen in Cornwall near the southwest coast path. Whilst some rocking stones move almost imperceptibly and can be rocked with just finger pressure, Logan Rock is an altogether different case.

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Weighing around 80 tons, it was actually dislodged from its perched location by a group of Navy ratings during the Victorian period in a demonstration of their strength.

However, the seamen were forced to return Logan Rock to its original site after locals complained of the damage it caused to the trade surrounding their lucrative local attraction. Logan Rock still rocks today, but not as easily as it once used to.

Myths and Legends

If 21st-century man, with all his knowledge and technical know-how, is still struggling to identify the use of these stone circles definitively, then previous people down through the centuries must have been even more mystified.

Not surprisingly, myths and legends abound, with stories associated with specific stones and strange powers attributed to some of them.

The Stone of Colwall Stone
The Stone of Colwall Stone This possible 18th century replacement of a bronze age menhir is known to turn around 9 times at midnight. It was hurled by an angry giant from Clutters Cave [SO 75 39] killing his unfaithful wife – honest! Credit: Bob Embleton

The Mên-an-Tol in Cornwall is a good example of this. The ring-shaped stone with the hole has been believed to possess curative powers for several centuries.

If a child passes through the hole nine times, they can be cured of diseases including rickets and scrofula! In Scotland, near Loch Earn in Perthshire, there is a hill called Dunfillan located above the town of Comrie.

At the top is a stone seat called St. Fillan’s Chair. Local myth has it that the chair will cure rheumatism for sufferers who sit on it, although they may well encounter other traumas as the rest of the legend requires them to be hauled down the hillside by their ankles afterwards!

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However, not all standing stones have curative and restorative powers. In South Wales, there are standing stones at St. Nicholas in Glamorgan.

The Druids reputedly curse these, and it is said that if you sleep near them on May Day’s Eve, St. John’s Eve, which is June 23 or Midwinter Eve, you will die or go mad, or you could even become a poet, clearly not a profession held in any form of esteem.

An Enduring Fascination

There are around 300 known stone circles across the British Isles, although some people believe the actual number to be far higher, and that doesn’t include the countless examples of isolated stones standing on their own.

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These sites continue to have a magnetic effect on people for many reasons. There is an opportunity to marvel and ponder on exactly how ancient people managed to build Stonehenge and move the huge boulders into position.

Then there is the fascination about what the stones were used for – who doesn’t love a mystery?! Another draw is the location of these stones, often remote, frequently spectacular, a chance to step outside the intense 24/7 hurly-burly of modern life and connect with another time. But are these stones relevant?

Modern World

In an increasingly confused and chaotic society where many rituals and norms are being dismantled, and the Christian church has never had so little influence, people are beginning to look in other directions for something solid to hang onto.

You can’t get more rock solid than the physical mass of these stones. Still, for many people, they represent something more than that, a connection to something pagan, ethereal and other worldly, filling an increasing spiritual void in the modern world.

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Of course, some say they are irrelevant, but on May 6th, 2023, when King Charles II is crowned, take a minute to think about the Stone of Scone, which is incorporated into the base of the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey.

A relatively new kid on the block regarding stone significance, this stone was brought to the Abbey in 1296 by Edward I. Called the ‘Stone of Destiny’, all English kings and queens throughout the centuries have been seated above it during it the actual moment the crowning takes place.