The last stone standing

20 Nov

How many standing stones are there in Glasgow? There are lots of stones that are standing of course, but when archaeologists talk about standing stones (and stone circles) we are talking about proper prehistoric standing stones. Standing stones in back gardens don’t count, and neither do stone circles in roundabouts (even although they are, to the innocent bystander, er, standing stones and stone circles). Anyway, if we use the narrow archaeological view of standing stones, then there are none in Glasgow. None? How can this be possible? Glasgow is geographically a big place. And a quick search in the National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS) shows that there 1162 standing stones recorded across Scotland. This covers all manner of stones that stand alone or in pairs (but not circles or more elaborate settings), but even allowing for a few whimsical antiquarian entries, and some rogue non-prehistoric megaliths, it seems unlikely that people who lived in what is now the greater Glasgow area in the Neolithic and Bronze Age didn’t erect a few standing stones. So we have to suppose that the urban machine has chewed them up and spat them out. Or even the rural, post-improvement farming machine. The second last standing stone in Glasgow stood in a field on the north side of the Clyde, in the area that is now Scotstounhill (across the river from the Braehead shopping centre, location of an Iron Age settlement that is now Ikea). In 1873, a J. Napier remembered that, ‘a large stone standing in a field on his farm … was broken and removed a good many years ago’ (NMRS number NS56NW 13). Even before this became an urban area, this standing stone disappeared in the name of progress (or in the name of needing building material for a new barn).

And then there was one. Because until 1972, there was one more standing stone, the last stone standing in Glasgow. This stone stood a few metres from a roadside just to the south of Pollok Park, just to the north of Kennishead in the south side of Glasgow (NS56SW 13). This megalith is marked as ‘stone’ on various versions of OS 25 inch maps for Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire published in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1972, the standing stone – let’s call it the Boydstone standing stone as it does not seem to have had a formal name – finally succumbed to urban improvement; it was removed in advance of the widening of the adjacent road. The stone socket was excavated and it was concluded by archaeologist Helen Adamson (Assistant Keeper of Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries) that this was possibly a prehistoric standing stone, perhaps later used as a boundary marker for Boiston estate (this is a boundary location, between estates, between Counties, on a road junction). Adamson’s report for Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 1972 (the organ of record in Scottish archaeology) reads as follows:

I suppose we can make allowances for progress and some of the compromises we have to make. The real stone was to be re-erected, albeit in the wrong place, and the proposed location in nearby Darnley would have meant the stone probably got a lot more public attention than it had had in its original lonely roadside location. But…sadly, it was never to be. A report from 1975 on the excavation by Adamson, deposited in the NMRS, notes: ‘it was accidentally destroyed in storage’. What!? How on earth could a sandstone block that was over 3m long and weighing in the order of 4 or 5 tonnes be accidentally destroyed? Perhaps the simple truth is that it was ‘lost’ in a quarry or landfill. Or maybe it did indeed crash from a creaking fork-lift truck and smash into miniliths. Most tantalising of all is my fancy that the megalith was propped up in the corner of a warehouse, hidden by all of those orange corporation buses that used to drive about Glasgow, and was forgotten, awaiting rediscovery. Such is the fate of urban megaliths.

It remained the task of the urban prehistorian to visit the location where this stone once stood 40 years ago almost to the day. Would any essence of the stone, or the pastness of this location remain? I approached the location from the north, aware of the constant hum of traffic from the nearby M77. The stone had stood at the bend of Boydstone Road, at a point where several routeways converged, and these tracks were still apparent, although one was inaccessible due to a silver metal fence with a padlocked gate. The location of the stone was disappointing, a roadside patch of scrubby vegetation, a crappy fence and lots of litter. A golf course lay just behind the spot, and tower blocks offered a suitably urban backdrop. This was a classic urban edgeland, not so much brown belt as grey belt, troubled by traffic noise and shadowed by an inexplicable pile of industrial debris and a huge – and nearly empty – car park for industrial units that are now gone. Yet echoes remained. Across the road, at the end of one of the tracks running off towards the west, stood a setting of three ‘megaliths’, blocks of varying shapes made of concrete and metal. These stood in a row and were almost comical, as if the Three Stooges had been petrified. These curious geometrical objects reminded me of the amazing (and appropriately named) Paul Nash painting Equivalent for the megaliths (1935), which appropriately adorns the cover of Julian Thomas’s 1991 book Rethinking the Neolithic (Cambridge University Press).

And this returns me to my opening point. These are not proper prehistoric structures: but they are our equivalent of megaliths, abstract, physical, mysterious, perhaps even slightly menacing. This is all we have, this is our consolation when – in Glasgow – in the name of progress all standing stones have now been removed. The last two stones standing were treated with little dignity, and no care, and we must now assume they are gone forever. And what we are left with are places that were once special, but are now typical.

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