Swinside, "the hillside on which pigs graze," is a marvellous ring. It is also known as Sunkenkirk, because the Devil was believed to have pulled the stones of a new church into the ground until the builders despaired of finishing it, leaving the stark foundations for visitors to marvel at today.
This lovely ring stands in an amphitheatre of hills and mountains at the SW corner of the Lake District, where its remoteness has preserved it from the damage that many stone circles have suffered because of their nearness to farms and villages. Only one or two stones have been taken away to leave gaps that alllowed ploughs into the centre. Otherwise the circle is perfect.
Five thousand years ago about sixty grey stones were dragged from the nearby fells to be set up in a true circle, 93 feet 8 inches in diameter, standing closely together as though in need of each other's company. The tallest, an elegantly lithe pillar, tapering to a point, is 7 feet 6 inches high and almost exactly at the north of the site, a little to the NNE. It looks across the circle to a stone that is opposite in every respect, squat, broad and flat-topped, set sturdily at the south. It has been interpreted as the 'female' counterpart to its phallic partner on the other side of the ring. Such fertility symbolism is suspected at other early rings. There is nothing ordinary about Swinside. As well as the north and south stones there is also an obviously designed entrance at the SE, where two extra stones have been placed as portals just outside the circumference. There is subtletly. An alignment from the centre of Swinside across the tops of the two south blocks of the entrance - the circle stone and the portal beyond - has a compass bearing of 134*.5 which looks towards the distant hillside and the place where the midwinter sun would rise at the dark end of the year. A similar arrangement exists at Long Meg and Her Daughters near Penrith.
It would have taken at least fifty workers a month to bring the stones from the hilside, dig their holes and erect them, creating an open space where a hundred or more people assembled at the bleakest, emptiest part of the year. Only imagination can tell us what ceremonies they performed, what their fears were. No more than the stones survive.
Other places of interest. The stone circle is not isolated. 4 3/4 miles SSW at SW 150 814 are the three little rings and short stone row of Lacra. A fine pair of standing stones can be seen 5 miles SSW at "The Giant's Grave", Kirkstanton, SD 135 810.
Circles of Stone: The Prehistoric Rings of Britain and Ireland
Aubrey Burl & Max Milligan
The Harvill Press, 1999.
ISBN 1 86046 661 3
Notes at Swinside, June 2008: It's late afternoon and the sky is darkening; we've dodged rain showers most of the day. We walk up the farmers track amongst the loose scattering of sheep and clumps of brown cows, grey sheep the colour of the sky; the colour of stone cobbles and so the colour of the stones of Swinside themselves. I've parked the car on the road in the valley below, at a bridge under which a busy stream flows - the walk from there to the stones has been good.
The trek (pilgrimage) to the stones is one of great anticipation as they appear further along the track than one would think and remain out of view for some time. When seen for the first time they are magnificent, clustered together they hide their shape and form until you are almost upon them. This first view is only fleeting as the roadway rises and falls, hiding and revealing until you suddenly arrive.
The sky is clearing as we stand against a stone wall with the stone circle in the field beyond. I'm unduely cautious and nervous about entering this field but there appears to be no livestock in the field and it is said the farmer once danced with the Pagans who gathered at this place, I leap the gate; how could a gate prevent me from entering this Kirk of Sunkenkirk. The flattened hand cut plateau on which the circle stands is barely discernable and the large 'phallic' stone more obvious than its broad 'female' consort beyond. We walk about the circle before entering, a tight enclosure within an amphitheatre of hill and fell beyond. Two horses appear, two very pretty ponies; a mare and its foal. They run about the stones and neigh loudly but never enter the confines of the circle, its time to leave, our audience with this dramatic place is at and end!
"In the parish of Millum, in the same county, there did exist the remains of a Druidical temple, which the country people called " sunken kirk," i.e., a church sunk into the earth. It is nearly a circle of very large stones, pretty entire, only a few fallen upon sloping ground in a swampy meadow. At the entrance there are four large stones, two on each side, at the distance of 6 feet. Through these you enter into a circular area, 29 yards by 30. The entrance is nearly south-east. It seems probable that the altar stood in the middle, as there are some stones still to be seen there, though sunk deep in the earth. The situation and aspect of the Druidical temple near Keswick is in every respect similar to this, except the rectangular recess, formed by ten large stones, which is peculiar to Keswick.
And I am informed that there are other remains of stone circles in these northern districts, where there yet exist so many popular superstitions and customs. Indeed, we find in Camden's account of Westmoreland allusion made to the ruins of one ancient round structure, which has always been considered to have been a temple dedicated to Diana, but which i now known by the name of Kirkshead. Many such instances will be found in the ancient monuments of Scotland. Sometimes there are two circles of stones, at others three circles, having the same common centre.
From the general arrangement of the stones, one of the largest having a cavity, at the bottom of which there is a passage for any liquid sacrifice to run down the side of it, nothing can be more evident than that the triple circle of stones was intended as an heathen temple, where Pagan priests performed their idolatrous ceremonies; and what is most remarkable is, that most of these singular structures are still known by the name of chapels or temple stones."
J. T. Blight, The Gentlemans Magazine, 1843.