Cup-and-Ringmarks, Spirals: prehistoric petroglyph offerings from Gaia to Sol, Luna

Cups to make you shiver with pagan delight

Petroglyphs range from simpe cups to complex rock art configurations

NORTHEAST SCOTLAND is blessed with a heritage in stone which visitors find unbelievable, mainly because there is still space in which to cherish it, but also because the form it takes is unique.

Now familiar is the NE recumbent stone circle, 5000 years old, standing alone in the farmer’s field, looking out like a blind sentinel on the southern sky. It marks centuries of study of the heavens, worship of Nature, the seasons, and knowledge of the Ancestors — the stuff of which all primitive religions are made.

Few cultures have, as has the Northeast, such detail, such signals, such messages still embedded in granite and sandstone, left by those ancient wisemen, to be discovered by an enlightened few five millennia on.

Blind sentinel in a farmer's field, the recumbent circle of Aberdeenshire

It is believed that in the rural context of Aberdeenshire the largest and most impressive recumbent stone circles — those of the Garioch, Donside and Mar — were the earliest. Flanked by two man-sized supporting stones, the ‘recumbent’ or reclining stone at Old Keig alone weighs 53 tons.

As successive generations of prehistoric farmers continued to believe in the efficacy of building a stone circle calendar to ‘capture’ the sun and moon moving through their portals, other smaller circles were created, one in every community. They spread outwards, like ripples from the central fertile ‘girnal of Aberdeenshire’, the Garioch, to Buchan (Aikey Brae, Auchmaliddie, Berrybrae, Strichen), to Banffshire (St. Brandan’s Stanes, Gavenie Braes, Marnoch and Rothiemay) to Morayshire (Innesmill, Rafford’s Templestone, and Bogton Llanbryde).

Winter solstice full moonrise from a recumbent stone circle in central Aberdeenshire, photo ©MYoungblood

Here, at preordained times, when a giant midwinter full moon rose at sunset, or the sun reached its maximum midsummer point, they would celebrate festivals of fire with feasting, gift-giving, sacrifices. Reckoning was calculated for other times, too.

The sun, however great its power, is a simple orb to follow round the yearly sky. But the moon does a skittering dance, not returning to the same point relative to the horizon, in the same season, until 18.6 years have passed. This is the so-called Metonic Cycle, devised and confirmed by Greek astronomer Meton of Athens in 440BC.

For a Neolithic community, those were precious years. So what indelible marks did they use to count such special moments?

At 19 Aberdeenshire stone circles there are cupmarks — small, hand-ground mystical indentations carved out of rock, signalling some heavenly occurrence we may never understand. For keen cupmark detectives, here is the list:

Cupmarks at Sunhoney, (NJ 715 056), Cothiemuir (NJ 617 198) and Balquhain (NJ 735 240) appear on or very near the recumbent. You can see them at Loanend, Premnay (NJ 604 242), Braehead, Leslie (NJ 592 255), Drumfours, Cushnie (NJ 561 110) on the remaining stone(s); at the near-extinct stone circle of Nether Corskie, Dunecht in Mar (NJ 748 096) they are visible on the west flanker (only remnant left) and at the equally solitary east flanker of Balhalgardy, Harlaw (NJ 759 243). Loanhead of Daviot (NJ 747 288) has a stone immediately east of the main recumbent group cupmarked in a distinctive line. One mile away, an abandoned boulder at New Craig (NJ 745 296) originally belonged to the circumference of the circle there, but now lies in the trees behind, and you can only just feel its cupmarks if you probe deep into its mossy surface. The cupmarked recumbent stone at Balnacraig, Lumphanan has its little cups etched so far down on this leaning megalith that you have to crawl underneath to feel the shapes.

Banffshire recumbent circles at Arnhill (NJ 531 456), the Harestanes of Feith Hill, Auchterless (NJ 664 438) and St Brandan’s Stanes (NJ 607 610) are all cupmarked, but the supreme champion is the great stone at Rothiemay (NJ 550 487, now classified as Moray) which, although bereft of its classic flanking companions — gateposts at the field entrance — is clad most inspiringly with 107 cupmarkings of varying size and decoration. Thorax (NJ 582 549) also in former Banffshire has a cupmarked stone on the northwest perimeter, where the midsummer sun goes down — but no recumbent. It probably never had one.

Most cupmarked designs are found on or near the recumbent. At Arnhill the recumbent alone is the one remaining stone, cupmarked. Because of its eccentric placing, it’s a great candidate for midsummer moonset on a mild, clear midsummer morning, especially if one replaces today’s soulless, desecrated barren atmosphere with a stage charged with magnetism and suspense, a circle hemmed in by reinstated stones of immense proportions on the night of the solstice when birds stop singing for three hours of darkness between dusk and dawn.

Buchan and Kincardine have no cupmarked circles at all. Paradoxically, Kincardineshire has a solitary example: the earliest officially dateable cupmarked stone. A decorated slab discovered in a mortuary structure underneath Dalladies longcairn at Fettercairn, put Kincardine on the map before the mid-third millennium BC.

Stones and Knights Templar
In a modern world, it is a curious quirk of language that the word SANCTUARY has less to do with sanctity and more to do with refuge, but its original medieval meaning was closer to the original Latin, i.e. holy.

Knights Templar pioneered the concept of sanctuary’s having supremacy over law, where refugees who sought out that inner place were safe from all pursuers, legal or illegal.

How original was this thought?

Near the Bronze Age circle-henge of Cairnpapple, West Lothian, at the preceptory of the Knights Templar, a stone carved with an elaborate cross on one side was the site of Sanctuary and all comers were assured of safety within its precinct. Coincidentally, that cross-carved stone has cupmarks on its surface hidden from view. How short a quantum leap is it from sanctuary of the cross to the sanctity of cupmarkings driven into stone four millennia earlier?

Culsh earthhouse near Tarland, has two cupmarked stones re-used and built into the wall, recycled by Pictish descendants from a nearby circle or sacred carved rock of the district. Two possible uses for these holes were sanctuary and healing.

Similar recycling can be seen on a stone with 30 cupmarks which formed part of a dyke (field wall) at Tofthills farm near Clatt, Aberdeenshire. It is likely to have come originally from the Tofthills stone circle, known as the ‘Sunken Kirk’. The top of the stone has been overlaid by a cross within a circle, possibly one of the first Christian conversions of pagan granite.

If cupmarks were ground out of stone to mark moments of moon magic in a sky filled with awesome seasonal changes, it is possible that they were created as a moondial before some stone circles came into being.

Avochie cupmarked rock, Rothiemay (Jas.Ritchie, 1905)

Rock art exists on slabs at Cattieburn (NJ 469 254) and Brawland (NJ 471 267) close to stone circles at Wheedlemont and Upper Ord within the power centre of the ‘crone’, Cnoc Cailleach, of Rhynie. Near Rothiemay, the Avochie cupmarked rock (NJ 540 468) has over 80 sculptings, 17 of which are cups surrounded by rings. It lies close to the (destroyed) Kinmonity stone circle.

The Museum of Scotland has a plastercast of the cupmarked stone of 29 cups found at Hilton of Glass, formerly kept at Beldorney. In the kirkyard of Fordyce near the Banff coast — within the last 20 years — there used to lie a cupmarked table stone, reused as a graveslab. It now cannot be found (May 1993).

If I have a favorite it is the series of magnificent but derelict slabs in Roseisle (NJ 143 678), inland from Hopeman and Burghead (NJ 146 682). Moray has one cupmarked circle at Innesmill (NJ 289 640), but that lack is serenely made up for by the beauty of the 44 Roseisle cup-and-ring-marks seen on a wet winter’s afternoon through weak shafting sunlight. Then, like bolts of silver lightning, those carefully-worked patterns lying low in patchy undergrowth with a herd of goats their only companions, shine out from their sandstone bed as new as when they were carved 5000 years ago.

What rain does is to enhance with remarkable simplicity the fact that the slabs are naturally horizontal, allowing water to find its level in each shallow cup, creating a cluster of miniature mirrors of the sky.

Imagine that in full moonlight — gleaming enough to make the most hardened skeptic shiver with pagan delight.
©1993-2010 Marian Youngblood

Leopard supporters hold city of Aberdeen's coat of arms

This article appeared in the May 1993 issue of Leopard Magazine, printed at Aberdeen University Press. The eponymous leopard is one of two feline supporters in the city’s coat of arms, and forms a phalanx of ‘Kelly’s cats’ — lining one cast iron rampart of the Union Bridge which spans Aberdeen’s Union Terrace Gardens.

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mike Roberts
    May 14, 2011 @ 23:29:32

    Hi Marian !!

    Nice site. I am here with Evan. You are making us nostalgic for the old cup and ring days!!
    Look G and I up on facebook!



  2. cleopasbe11
    May 21, 2011 @ 21:09:22

    thanks for a lovely surprise, Mike – I shall indeed look you up! yes — those WERE the cupmark days! 🙂


  3. Julia
    Aug 03, 2011 @ 21:30:52

    Please help me… I have seen pictures of a “pictish” church with many stone carvings of little animals all around this small church. I think that is in wales. Please let me know if you have any information on this. Thanks. Julia


  4. cleopasbe11
    Aug 20, 2011 @ 18:40:28

    sorry for delay, Julia: The Picts lived exclusively in what is now Scotland from far north to Tay and Forth, gradually retreated to central Aberdeenshire… they were related in language to what was spoken in other Brittonic areas, including Old Welsh, but it seems unlikely there would be Pictish symbols in Wales. To help you, go to this link to see all if the known Pictish symbols …


  5. khamedra19
    Oct 08, 2011 @ 10:46:08


    Are you talking about the Rosslyn Chapel? Perhaps that’s what you’re looking for. Google it and you will find plenty of information.


  6. cleopasbe11
    Nov 13, 2011 @ 14:55:33

    Thanks Khamedra. I hope Julia is still listening – I’ve been a little preoccupied with my other blogs, slaps wrist.

    Julia: I think Khamedra is right: Rosslyn could be seen as Pictish’ – it’s certainly in old Pictish (southern) heartland and full of weird and wonderful carvings, numerology, sun and moon alignments; almost its least obvious purpose is as a Christian church – it featured in movie DaVinci code.

    Thank you both for visiting


  7. John Ellis
    Jan 11, 2012 @ 03:14:05

    I’m not 100% positive just 99% that Rosslyn is the least Pictish Church one can encounter by many hundreds of years.

    thanks John — you are right! how people like to attribute anything ‘mysterious’ to the Picts…


  8. Trackback: Friends of Grampian Stones 2006 Lammas newsletter Vol.XVII#2 « FOGS Blog
  9. David R. Cowan
    May 02, 2012 @ 22:05:23

    To find out what petroglyphs (some at least) were for, look up my website – they are a very important part of the fascinating ley system in this country. Or my book “Ley Lines and Earth Energies”


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