Traditional names or just another ‘Loda’ old nonsense?

“Its name of a watch-stone may possibly have been derived from the circumstance that it was situated on the brink of the ford, which commanded the passage to the great temple of the sun, where a watch would naturally be placed to preserve the rites of sacrifice from interruption.”
Samuel Hibbert. The Tings of Orkney and Shetland. Archaeologica Scotica VIII (1823)
Brodgar sunset. Nick Card
Sunset over the Ring of Brodgar. (📷 Nick Card)

By Sigurd Towrie

The “Circle of Loda” is a little known title that was attached to the Ring of Brodgar in at least four 18th century accounts. [1]

It originated in Macpherson’s “translation” of the Ossian texts. But as the Orkney historian and scholar Malcolm Laing was at pains to point out in 1805:

Extract from the 1772 map A Plan of the Circle of Loda in the Parish of Stenhouse in the Island of Pomona by Frederick Herm Walden. (Courtesy of the British Museum)
Extract from the 1772 map A Plan of the Circle of Loda in the Parish of Stenhouse in the Island of Pomona by Frederick Herm Walden. (Courtesy of the British Museum)
“…the name of Loda … was never heard in these islands, nor ever applied to the circle of stones.” [2]

Straight to the point. And accurate. And perhaps the reason we don’t find the term repeated ad nauseam through the subsequent literature.

But glance through the early descriptions of the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar and you’ll find two more – the “Temple of the Moon” and the “Temple of the Sun” – along with claims they were traditional Orcadian names for the stone circles.

But, like Laing, as far as I’m concerned, these sobriquets were nothing more antiquarian inventions.

Before we begin, let me make it perfectly clear that I am not dismissing the possibility that the sun and moon were significant to the people of the Neolithic.

Nor that the stone circles were perhaps linked to that – after all, the movement of the sun still has relevance to the people of Orkney today.

What I am rallying against is the notion that the stone circles had “traditional” names that somehow completely vanished, in mere decades, between the 18th and 19th centuries.

Given the persistence of placenames and traditions in Orkney, I find that highly unlikely.

Instead, I suspect they were romantic additions – fanciful terms introduced and distorted over time by writers obsessed with the “druid circles” and “sacrificial altars” being documented across Britain.

As the notion was subsequently copied from one manuscript to another, by the 19th century it was considered by some to be an inalienable fact.

Late summer sunset viewed from the Stones of Stenness.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Late summer sunset viewed from the Stones of Stenness. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

One of the earliest accounts linking the two Stenness circles to the sun and the moon was written around 1695. In it Martin Martin describes both rings as temples.

A native of Skye, on the west coast of Scotland, Martin is best known for his A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland. In his short account of the Northern Isles – A Brief Description of the Isles of Orkney and Schetland – he declared:

“The Hills and Circles are believ’d to have been Places design’d to offer Sacrifice in time of Pagan Idolatry; and for this reason the People called them the ancient Temples of the Gods, as we may find by Boethius [3] (sic) in the Life of Manius (sic). Several of the Inhabitants have a Tradition, that the Sun was worshipped in the larger, and the Moon in the lesser Circle.” [4]

Before we look at an overarching problem with Martin’s account, consider that interesting turn of phrase: “Several of the inhabitants…” [4]

An almost full moon over the Stenness megaliths.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
An almost full moon over the Stenness megaliths. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Hardly the entire population! And who were these “several inhabitants”?

Had he referred to “the vulgar” – a term used elsewhere to refer to “common” Orkney folk – then we might have more confidence in the validity of his statement.

Instead, we are left wondering whether he was misinformed by a well-meaning minister or laird — someone perhaps influenced by the fashionable ideas of “druidical temples” drifting up from the south. [5]

But we don’t need to dwell too long on Martin’s account because I wonder whether he actually visited Orkney.

Why? Because his text is simply a 17th century (slightly edited) cut-and-paste of Rev James Wallace’s 1693 A Description of the Isles of Orkney.

Wallace, however, lived in Orkney and it is telling that he did not directly assign the “temple” label to the two stone circles. Nor did he mention of any Orcadian tradition of sun or moon worship:

“Some think that these Rounds have been places whereon two opposite Armies have encamped; but I think it more probable that they have been the high places in the Pagan times, whereon Sacrifice was offered…”

He added:

“And this is the more probable, because Boethias (sic), in the Life of Mainus (sic), King of Scots, makes mention of that kind of high Stones, calling them the Temples of the Gods.

“His words are these. ‘In Memory of what King Mainus ordained anent the worship of the Gods there remains yet, in our days, many huge Stones drawn together in form of a Circle, named by the People the Ancient Temples of the Gods…’”

Here, it seems, we have the root of the “temple” titles so beloved of the antiquaries. And indeed, in 1701, in his A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithness, John Brand repeats the Boethius extract. [7][7a]

Extract from Walden's 1772 map showing the Stones of Stenness (simply marked 'Crescent'), the Watchstone and Odin Stone (marked Stone of Power and Stone of Sacrifice respectively). (Courtesy of the British Museum)
Extract from Walden’s 1772 map showing the Stones of Stenness (simply marked ‘Crescent’), the Watchstone and Odin Stone (marked Stone of Power and Stone of Sacrifice respectively). (Courtesy of the British Museum)

But where do the sun and moon come into it?

Going through the accounts it is clear they were terms being used descriptively. The surviving megaliths at the Stones of Stenness formed a semi-circle, or crescent, so were taken to represent the moon. The Ring of Brodgar, which was still clearly circular, represented the sun.

And if they looked like them, they must surely have been used for their worship.

But not all fell into the same trap.

In 1771, Principal Gordon, of the Scots College, Paris, visited Orkney. And he was having none of it:

“Some have pretended that the semi-circular temple was in honour of the moon and the circular one in honour of the sun.” [8] [my emphasis]

A year later, however, and we have one of the stops on Sir Joseph Banks’ Orkney itinerary recorded as being a “walk to Circles of Stone temples of Sun and Moon…Druidical Places of Judgement”. [9]

Rev George Low had been appointed “manager” of Banks’ sightseeing tour. Low had moved to Orkney in 1766 and, again, it is significant that he makes no mention of “temple” labels when writing about the Stenness circles.

Although he did not include the two sites in his A Tour through the Islands of Orkney and Schetland in 1774, his account of them does appear in the 19th century edition’s introduction. [10]

It is in that introduction, written over century after Low’s original text, that the Temples of the Moon and Sun really rear their heads. But not in anything composed by Low. Instead, it came from a visiting Edinburgh minister.

In 1784, Rev Dr Robert Henry had presented a “rude woodcut” of the area around the Ness of Brodgar to the Society of Antiquarians of Scotland. [11]

Almost 100 years later, Henry’s illustration, along with its key, was reproduced in the introduction to Low’s Tour.

Reproduction of a 1784 woodcut by Dr Robert Henry, showing the “temple of the sun” marked F. This version was published in Hibbert in 1823.
Reproduction of a 1784 woodcut by Dr Robert Henry, showing the “temple of the sun” marked F. This version was published in Hibbert in 1823.

In it, describing the Stones of Stenness, Henry wrote:

“Standing Stones, called by the inhabitants of Orkney the Temple of the Moon; they are formed into a semicircle.”

And the Ring of Brodgar:

“Standing Stones called the Temple of the Sun; they form a circle, and from 8 to 3 feet high.”

Despite happily reproducing Henry’s material, Joseph Anderson, the author of the introductory text to Low’s Tour, was critical, hailing it a “literary curiosity of the most ponderous nature”. [10]

Comparing the writings of Henry and Low, Anderson has no doubt that the latter’s work was “vastly superior in merit and value”.

He conceded, though, that the “probable purposes of these monuments, which is appended to the drawing, coincides, to a certain extent, with the views expressed by Mr Low… [so] it is probable that it may have been partly supplied by him.” [10]

I don’t think they were.

As mentioned, nowhere in Low’s text does he mention the temples of the moon and sun. He lived in Orkney. Had these been in any way traditional Stenness names, why would he omit them?

Captain Thomas’ 1852 map showing the Ring of Brodgar and surrounding monuments.
Lieutenant Thomas’ 1852 map showing the Ring of Brodgar and surrounding monuments.

We owe a great debt to Lieutenant F.W.L. Thomas, a Royal Navy surveyor who meticulously documented the sites on and around the Ness of Brodgar in 1851.

Again, Thomas makes no mention of the sun and moon temples, other than to quote sections of Henry’s 1784 text – which he believed “to be extremely exaggerated”. [12]

“In the description of [Henry’s] drawing, the Ring of Stenness is called ‘the semi-circular hof or temple of standing stones, dedicated to the moon, where the rites of Odin were also celebrated, but my witty friend, [Rev Charles] Clouston, is of opinion that it was only the lunatics who worshipped here. The Ring of Brogar is called ‘the Temple of the Sun’”.

With (I suspect) his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, Thomas added:

“Unfortunately, the Ring of Bukan, which was, of course, the Temple of the Stars, seems to have escaped notice, or we might have learned of some more ante-nuptial ceremonies performed therein.” [12]
Extract from Lieutenant Thomas’ 1852 map of the Stenness area – showing Big Howe alongside the Stones of Stenness.
Extract from Lieutenant Thomas’ 1852 map, showing the crescent-shaped remains of the Stones of Stenness.

But not all were as skeptical as Lieutenant Thomas. And the names kept coming.

Some decades later, in July 1901, the parishioners at the Stenness kirk were treated to a lecture on the neighbouring standing stones by a visiting minister, Rev Agnew.

Not content with just the temples of the sun and moon, the esteemed clergyman threw the stones of Mercury, Saturn and Jupiter and Venus into the mix! You’ll not find anyone arguing that these were long-lost traditional names.

According to Rev Agnew:

“[The stones] were 4,000 years old, and were erected by the Phoenicians or Canaanites, who then held the chief power in the country, and seem to have had their chief residence in Stenness.” [13]
Ring of Brodgar sunset. (📷 Nick Card)
Ring of Brodgar sunset. (📷 Nick Card)

All the standing stones, he told his congregation, were involved in a druidical ceremony, which, once complete, was signalled to “all Orkney, Scotland, England, France and Ireland” via a bonfire on Ward Hill.

But I digress. Back to the Temples of the Sun and Moon. Were they in any way traditional?

I doubt it very much.

Why? Because we have several accounts in which the authors explicitly state that the inhabitants/locals/peasantry had no traditions as to the stone circles’ use and did not know what they were for.

If that were the case, who had been telling these antiquarians their so-called traditional names?

In 1814, for example, the writer Sir Walter Scott quizzed his host during a visit to the county:

“Mr Rae seems to think the common people have no tradition of the purpose of these stones, but probably he has not enquired particularly. He admits they look upon them with superstitious reverence.” [14]

In this case, however, the key element in Scott’s declaration is “probably he has not enquired particularly”.

Rae clearly hadn’t. We know there were traditions and stories. At the time the Odin Stone and both stone circles played a major role in wedding traditions – something that Scott actually documented!

Although Lieutenant Thomas believed an early account of these traditions to be exaggerated, they can’t be dismissed and were probably the key factor that led to the Odin Stone’s destruction and the devastation wreaked on the Stones of Stenness in December 1814.

In addition, the Odin Stone, together with a nearby holy well, played a key part in curative and preventative health traditions.

That aside, could it really be that just 30 years after Rev Henry confidently declared that the Stones of Stenness were “called by the inhabitants of Orkney the Temple of the Moon” that every Orcadian had completely forgotten the name? I think not.

In Orkney, placenames persist, very often retaining old pronunciations that have no bearing on the “modern” name — e.g. Dridda for Drydale; Cloweeger for Clovigarth; Melisbroch for Malisborough; Soody for South Keigar. And there are many more.

These names have endured for centuries while, on the surface, they underwent multiple “official” changes and standardisations.

I’ll leave the last word to Daniel Wilson, who wrote in 1851:

“The convenient terms of Druid altars and temples have long supplied a ready resource for the absence of all knowledge of [cromlechs, circles, and standing stones] origin or use.”

In Stenness, he was under no illusion that the “temple” titles, by then firmly entrenched in the literature, were in any way traditional.

“The smaller group is now frequently designated, from its crescent form, the temple of the moon, and the larger circle that of the sun ; but there can be no doubt that these are quite modern and spurious designations.” [15]


  • [1] 1772: Frederick Herm Walden, a naval architect and surveyor, was a member of Sir Joseph Banks’ visiting group. He carried out the first dedicated surveys of the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness, labelling the former “Circle of Loda” in his A Plan of the Circle of Loda in the Parish of Stenhouse.
    1775: Painting by John Frederick Miller:  The view of the Circle of Loda at a distance.
    1784: Rev Dr Robert Henry, in the key to his woodcut illustration, wrote: “These stones are by some people thought to be the Circle of Loda, spoken of by the Poet Fingal, their situation and the face of the country resembling his description of the place, where Loda’s Circle was erected.
    1789: John Thomas Stanley identified the Ring of Brodgar as the Circle of Loda, “as a result of his fondness for the immensely popular (throughout Europe) poetical works attributed to an ancient Highland bard called Ossian.”
  • [2] Laing, M. (1805) The Poems of Ossian with notes and illustrations by Malcolm Laing. Vol. 2.
  • [3] The Historia Gentis Scotorum (History of the Scottish People), by Hector Boece (known in Latin as Hector Boethius) was published in 1527.
  • [4] Martin, M. (1695) A Brief Description of the Isles of Orkney and Schetland.
  • [5] John Aubrey’s Monumentica Britannica was written between 1663 and 1693 and its first section, Templa Druidum, outlined his thoughts on the “druidic temples” of Avebury and Stonehenge.
  • [6] Wallace, J. (1693). A Description of the Isles of Orkney. W. Brown.
  • [7] Brand, J. (1701) A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithness.
  • [7a] In his 1905 article, Maeshow and the Standing Stones, Stenness: Their Age and Purpose, Magnus Spence directly quotes John Brand’s 1701 Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithness, preceding it with: “Sheriff Brand, the historian of Orkney, says in 1701…” This is an error on Spence’s behalf. Rev Brand was a visitor to Orkney, not sheriff. He was a minister appointed, in 1694, to the parish of Bo’ness, on mainland Scotland, where he remained until his death. The General Assembly sent him on commissions, including in 1700 to Orkney, Shetland and Caithness – a journey that took place over two months between April and June. Spence presumably mixed up his Brands – attributing Rev Brand’s quote to Sir Alexander Brand, who was not a historian and technically not a sheriff. He became tacksman, briefly, in 1693 but visited Orkney only once, on an ill-fated voyage to secure the rents due to him.
  • [8] Principal Gordon (1792) Remarks made in a journey to the Orkney Islands. Archaeologia Scotica Vol I.
  • [9] Lysaght, A.M. (1974) Joseph Banks at Skara Brae and Stennis, Orkney, 1772. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 28(2), pp.221-234.
  • [10] Low, George (1879) Tour through the islands of Orkney and Schetland in 1774. (Ed. Joseph Anderson) Kirkwall, 1879.
  • [11] Marwick, E. (1975) The Stone of Odin. In Robertson, J. D. M. (1991) An Orkney Anthology: The Selected Works of Ernest Walker Marwick (Vol 1). Scottish Academic Press: Edinburgh.
  • [12] Thomas, F.W.L. (1851) Account of some of the Celtic Antiquities of Orkney, including the Stones of Stenness, Tumuli, Picts-houses, &c., with Plans, by FWL Thomas, RN, Corr. Mem. SA Scot., Lieutenant Commanding HM Surveying Vessel Woodlark. Archaeologia, 34(1), pp.88-136.
  • [13] The Orcadian, July 20, 1801
  • [14] Lockhart, J. G. (1837) Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart. (Edinburgh: Robert Cadell)
  • [15] Wilson, D. (1851) The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland. Pg 106.

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