In my book The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, Avery journeys to a circle of standing stones in Orkney called the Stones of Callanish. She is surprised to find that the stones can come to life, as a band of craggy giants, playing Scottish folk music deep into the night. Giants in European folktales are often cruel and stupid, but in Britain, giants tend to serve other purposes. In some stories, their behaviour is used to explain the presence of certain landmarks, for example Goram and Vincent who are supposed to have formed the Avon Gorge in Somerset. In others, giants represent deep memory, and the old way of doing things, such as in the story of the Welsh giant Gogmagog, who is beaten by Brutus of Troy. And in other stories, giants are associated with ruins of past places, acting as a metaphor for impermanence, and the ravages of time itself. Giants in British folktales challenge our modern ideas of progress and knowledge.
The Stones of Callanish in Orkney are a real set of standing stones, constructed some time in the late Neolithic era. One of the oldest sites like this in Britain, they are believed to be some 5000 years old. Some of the stones weigh ten or more tons! Despite archaeological work and investigation we still don’t really know why they were erected, though there are lots of theories encompassing ideas of meeting places, sites for social rituals, showing off and status, and sacred sites in which the ancestors were honoured. Some researchers theorise that the stones were arranged on an astronomical formula, to show the extreme rising and setting points of the sun and moon, showing that the ancient peoples of Britain understood the world in cycles and opposites, for example, day and night. Other researchers argue that the purpose of the standing stones is to be found in the stones themselves, often beautiful specimens in their own right, full of ripples and patterns. Perhaps their purpose was to celebrate the patterns found in the earth, not the sky?
But I love this idea from Gail Higginbottom of the University of Adelaide in Australia. The “stones represented watchers of this great spectacular sky show and of the seasons.” It reminds me of my giants beside their bonfire, tapping their feet along to the fiddle music underneath the swirling constellations of a Scottish night sky in the deep north.