Recent research by a British archaeologist suggests that prehistoric stone circles in Scotland may have been used for celebrations or ‘parties’. (click here for article). Actually, in another part of Britain – Wales – stone circles are still used every year for cultural celebrations. Not only that, every year a brand new stone circle is built to host the ‘party’! You can see them all over Wales, in many villages, towns and cities.


Stone circle in Bute Park, Cardiff, erected for the eisteddfod in 1979

Wales is home to a rich historic, literary and musical culture, and is often called the ‘Land of Song’. Every year this culture is celebrated in a national week-long amateur competition of singing, dancing, music and poetry, a sort of huge folk festival. The event is held completely in the Welsh language and is known as an Eisteddfod (pronounced: Ij-steth-fod’, meaning a ‘sitting’ or session). The eisteddfod is held in a new place every year, one year somewhere in North Wales and the following year somewhere in South Wales. And wherever it is held, a new circle of standing stones (called Gorsedd Stones) is built as the centrepiece, usually with stones from the local area. A large, flat-topped stone, known as the Logan Stone, lies at the centre of the circle and serves as a platform.

Logan Stone in Colwyn Bay, North Wales 1947 © Colwyn Bay Heritage
Proclamation ceremony from the Logan Stone in Colwyn Bay, North Wales 1947 © Colwyn Bay Heritage

Celtic druids

As you can see in the photo above, the festival also involves people dressing up as druids, supposedly to emphasise the Celtic history of Wales. The Eisteddfod officials style themselves Bards or Druids, they are led by an Archdruid, and they dress accordingly in flowing robes of white, blue or green. The druids are chosen from Welsh poets, writers, musicians, artists and others who have made a distinguished contribution to the Welsh nation, the language, and its culture. Current druids include the singer Bryn Terfel, the actor Ioan Gruffudd and ex-Welsh rugby star Gareth Edwards.

The Archdruid (left) and the Gorsedd Bards at the National Eisteddfod

However, these druidic traditions and ceremonies, and indeed the eisteddfod itself, are not as old as they appear to be. A musical festival and competition of some kind is known to have been held in 1176 at the court of a Welsh prince, and others were held occasionally until the 18th century – a sort of Welsh Meistersingers! But it was not until 1792 that a Welshman named Iolo Morganwg ‘invented’ the link between druids and the performing arts. It was also his idea to incorporate a stone circle, apparently inspired by a visit to the impressive stone circle at Avebury.

Gorsedd stones, Rhyl, North Wales from the eisteddfod held in 1940 © Martin J Eley
Gorsedd stones, Llandudno, North Wales 1963 © Matt Impey
Gorsedd stones, Ashley Jones Fields, Bangor, North Wales 2005
Proclamation of the 2017 Eisteddfod at Caldicot, South Wales, 2016 © South Wales Argus

The Welsh National Eisteddfod in its modern form has only been held annually since 1880 and it takes place for eight days at the beginning of August. In addition to the many competitions, the festival site is teeming with stalls and shops, music performances, arts and crafts, design and architecture – and often also teeming with rain. Nevertheless, each year the National Eisteddfod attracts around 150,000 visitors.

A sign of the times

All across Wales these stone circles stand as proud reminders that the community has hosted an eisteddfod. Sadly, since 2005, in an effort to cut costs, the eisteddfod now uses a temporary “fibre-glass stone” circle which can simply be moved from one place to another every year. The modern world is a constant disappointment!


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