For more than a century, druids had dominated conceptions of the ancient British past, and in that capacity, they had been adapted for an extensive variety of imaginative purposes. They were pivotal to the formative narratives of the island, regardless of whether they underwent transformations into sages, savages, heroes, or antagonists. Prior to delving into the rationale behind this abrupt shift, it would be advantageous to establish a framework by identifying authors who, during the height of interest in the ancient Druids, attempted to marginalize or disregard them.

These authors pursued this shared objective through diverse approaches. A select few could be labeled as eccentric cranks or colorful proponents of notably original ideas, depending on one’s perspective. Henry Browne, a native of Wiltshire, was the most extraordinary; he concluded that both Stonehenge and Avebury were constructed prior to Noah’s Flood.

If the religion of the Vatican comes somewhere, that is where true history dies

Stukeley postulated that the two stone avenues leading to and from the Avebury circles symbolized a serpent. He expanded on this notion to imply that Adam himself had constructed the structure as a sobering reminder of the devastation caused by the serpent in Eden. Browne noted that Adam, according to the Book of Genesis, had lived for a considerable duration of 930 years, providing him with sufficient time to amass a sufficient number of descendants to accomplish the task at hand. In juxtaposition to the religious practices of the biblical patriarchs, which he perceived as embodying the pinnacle of human possibility, he levied accusations against the Druids, characterizing them as adherents of “the most slavish superstition.”

Browne accomplished commendable things: he drafted precise blueprints of Stonehenge, and for decades he and his son served as unofficial guardians of the site, preventing visitors from causing damage to the stones. Furthermore, his fundamentalism was well-received by a large number of individuals at the time; his 1823 tract, which was published in fifty editions over the subsequent fifty years, was an example.
An alternative group responsible for the decline of the Druids was the spiritual descendants of the poets who had extolled them a couple of generations prior: these individuals were the foremost representatives of the Romantic movement.

This had attained its pinnacle with the composition of some of the most renowned verse in the entire corpus of English literature, authored by some of the most renowned poets; however, these poets were not enthusiastic about Druidry, with one exception. One exception, however, was Wordsworth, whose upbringing in the Druid-haunted Cumbrian Mountains as a child had deeply ingrained in him the connection between history and nature that formed the basis of much of his writing. However, even he was, at best, ambivalent regarding them. These consciously avant-garde authors appear to have regarded the Druids with contempt due to their mere prominence in contemporary culture; they appear to have regarded them as tedious.

Although the Pre-Raphaelites, the most renowned romantic visual artists of the Victorian era, paid more attention to them, there was still very little of it, and what was provided was profoundly hostile. Holman Hunt exhibited his fervent Christian faith and lack of historical knowledge in a painting bearing one of the most protracted titles and most absurd subjects in Victorian art: A converted British family provides refuge for a Christian priest during the Druids’ persecution. Only one artist in the group, Edward Burne-Jones, addressed them, and he did so in the form of a short narrative as opposed to a painting. Published during his youth, it served as a rebuttal to writers who questioned the Druids’ involvement in human sacrifice by depicting a skeptic who encounters a Druid’s spirit while on vacation. The latter acknowledges that, having yielded to the allure of power, his kind had exerted tyranny in part through the execution of such gruesome labor.

A secondary group of critics who opposed the current frenzy surrounding Druids comprised a limited number of English authors who maintained skepticism regarding their correlation with megalithic structures. Under the prevailing conditions of the era, these individuals were expected to be openly heterodox and typically took delight in opposing the prevailing consensus of thought. Although they were marginalized in comparison to contemporary historians and antiquarians, they possessed certain distinguishing characteristics as individuals; one such individual was the eminent Shakespearean scholar J. O. Halliwell.

The fundamental tenet of their contention resided in the absence of any correlation between Druids and megaliths in ancient literature. Furthermore, they were often incited by the more irrational historical conjectures or delusions that had emerged as a result of the prevalent fixation on Druids. Halliwell eloquently stated the case: “As far as I can tell, there is neither evidence nor a remote possibility that a solitary archaeological artifact or relic of any kind is currently discovered in Great Britain.” The theory that Stonehenge was originally a Druidic temple is not even remotely substantiated by the available evidence.

However, as is customary for this group, his own interpretation of the monuments was utterly erroneous, despite the fact that his statement struck an archaeological bull’s-eye; he claimed that the stone circles were merely boulders that had supported the sides of vanished funerary mounds. The publication dates of the 1850s and early 1860s for each of these authors suggest that ambitious English writers were becoming fatigued of the prevailing fixation on the Druids as pivotal figures in ancient British perceptions by that time. An alternative strategy was implemented by a self-aware heterodox writing tradition, which resurrected the early modern contention that the megalithic monuments of Britain, which were lauded for their intelligence, were, in fact, ignorant and highly barbaric in behavior, and gloomy and cruel in their superstitions, despite the enthusiastic acclaim they received for their achievements.

He further elaborated by noting that there was indisputable evidence against their association with Greek philosophers or biblical patriarchs, and an abundance of pagan polytheistic savagery from ancient sources. Furthermore, he continued, there was no evidence that they had constructed or utilized megalithic structures or contributed significantly to the study of Scottish history.

An additional characteristic of the early nineteenth century that served as an indicator of a renewed Scottish resolve to marginalize or expel Druids was the resurgence of the theory that the Vikings had constructed the megalithic structures of northern Scotland. This benefited from the robust political, cultural, and commercial ties that Scotland had historically upheld with Scandinavia, which were more extensive than those of other regions in the British Isles due to its geographical positioning. These interactions drew attention to a perplexing unresolved matter that had been neglected since the Georgian amalgamation of Druids and megaliths.

It was evident that Denmark and Sweden were home to a significant number of megalithic structures that exhibited notable similarities in both appearance and date to such structures found in other parts of Western Europe. In contrast, no ancient author had asserted the existence of druids in that particular region. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, certain authors contended that Danish colonizers had constructed the English stone circles, based primarily on the resemblance between Scandinavian and British monuments. During the mid-eighteenth century, this notion had been largely disregarded by scholars. However, a succession of Scottish authors, desiring to distance their national heritage from Druidry, were now reviving this controversy.

Scott, like the other authors discussing Scotland, lacked the ability to substantiate his arguments with specific references to archaeological evidence. However, by the mid-century, two fellow countrymen had surpassed them in this regard. The term ‘prehistoric’ was in fact coined by Sir Daniel Wilson, while the other was John Stuart. During the 1850s and 1860s, they collaboratively authored a series of volumes that presented a unified argument: the exclusion of Druids from historical records of Scotland. Stuart espoused this view on the strength of the stone circles in Aberdeenshire, each of which featured an enormous recumbent boulder in its southern arc; these structures may have been the source of inspiration for the Scots’ initial identification of such structures as ancient temples.

As excavations progressed, it became apparent that human remains were interred within the ring of stones on some of them. This information allowed Stuart to erroneously assert that these structures had been utilized as burial grounds rather than as religious monuments. Furthermore, both he and Wilson correctly asserted that the stone chambers, which were recently referred to as dolmens, were also utilized for funerary purposes. As a result, they were not Druid altars, as had been conventionally believed in modern times. Wilson underscored the limited understanding that existed regarding the Druids, asserting that despite the publication of numerous scholarly and reflective volumes attempting to clarify Druidism, the topic has retained a significant portion of its initial obscureness.

He continued by emphasizing the total absence of any conclusive correlation between them and megaliths. However, by drawing upon an analogy from later Viking culture, he suggested that stone circles and chambered tombs may have been utilized for political assemblies similar to the Norse ‘things’. He suggested that these structures be attributed to a period in the distant past during which the peoples who would later evolve into the Celts and Scandinavians constructed them. Wilson was the initial scholar to propose in 1851 that the Druids ought to be reclassified as an enigmatic priesthood associated with the final phases of prehistory, just prior to the arrival of the Romans. Stuart concurred that they were unrelated to prehistoric stone monuments and, citing sources from medieval Ireland, asserted that they were merely illusory sorcerers employed by barbaric communities.

The old and new perspectives on Scottish prehistory collided in 1863, when the clergyman John Pratt published a book that was decidedly antiquated. He compiled the majority of scholarly discourse on Druids from the latter half of the eighteenth century and supplemented it with a few observations from ‘Celtic’ Davies, believing that doing so would substantially update the accepted record.

A lengthy essay in the Edinburgh Review swiftly deflated his book by demonstrating the scarcity and unreliability of ancient sources concerning Druidry. It then reiterated the now-recurring claim that Druids and megalithic monuments were unrelated and used Welsh revisionist scholarship, which was associated with Stephens and Nash, to distinguish them from the medieval bardic literature. The article dejectedly concluded that “their true place in history is obscure and indeterminate; and attempts to give these traditions a more precise form through inventive conjectures have been largely unsuccessful.”

Pratt’s perspectives persisted beyond the decade, even among Scots who were relatively well-educated and harbored a strong fascination with antiquities. A transient society was established in 1872 at Oban, the primary mainland port serving the southern Hebrides, with the intention of promoting the study of the region’s history and prehistory. Two papers were reviewed at the organization’s inaugural gathering regarding the Druids, whose roles as architects of stone circles and organizers of the rituals for which the circles were intended were accepted as fact.

This is not unexpected, given that the author’s conceptions of ancient Scotland were firmly grounded in eighteenth-century texts, particularly Macpherson’s Ossianic poems. Nevertheless, there is every reason to believe that by the conclusion of the 1850s, the majority of prominent Scottish antiquarians had embraced the arguments presented in Wilson’s book, as stated by Peter Rowley-Conwy, the foremost authority on the Victorian adoption of the concept of prehistory. The latter responded in accordance with the current preferences of the intellectuals.