‘I perceived beyond a doubt that the strange object was a well-shaped monolith whose massive bulk had known the workmanship and perhaps the worship of living and thinking creatures’.
The recent launch of the issue 3 of the Love Archaeology magazine prompted me to take a fieldtrip to Darvel in East Ayrshire. The magazine contains an article on HP Lovecraft and archaeology, and this made me think of one of the strangest urban megaliths in Scotland, the Dagon Stone. My main motivations were to explore the complicated modern biography of this standing stone, as well as think about its strange name, and so I developed a simple field project. In one morning, I would visit Darvel and the various sites associated with this much travelled megalith, then read HP Lovecraft’s short story called Dagon, and finish the project off with a viewing of the film version of Dagon. For me, this was an exciting programme – of all of the urban megaliths I have encountered, this one seems to have suffered the most indignities: constantly moved, appendage added, drawn on with chalk, and allocated a silly name. This is urban prehistory worth exploring.
Before we look at the standing stone itself, it is worth asking who, or what, was Dagon? Typically regarded as a Near Eastern god with prehistoric origins, Dagon is sometimes depicted as a half-man, half-fish creature. The 20th century image of Dagon was, to an extent, defined by Lovecraft, with fishy men and fishy gods featuring heavily in his writings, notably the short story Dagon (of more below) and the longer story, The Shadow over Innsmouth (from 1931). Lovecraft utilised ‘the ancient Philistine legend of Dagon the Fish-god’ although this entity is also mentioned in various forms in the Old Testament in connection with more mundane things like agriculture and paganism.
Bearing this in mind, I have always found it surprising that there are two references to Dagon in the National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS). One relates to a steam trawler called Dagon, which sank off the Aberdeenshire coast en route to the Faroe Islands on 8th September 1934 in heavy fog (NMRS number NK14SW 8001) with no lives lost. (In some records it is thought that this ship was actually called Dragon, a point of confusion I will return to later.) And the other is the bizarre standing stone of unknown provenance which today stands in the centre of the Ayrshire town of Darvel (NS53NE 12), known locally as the Dagon Stone.
This is quite a remarkable monolith, and indeed its appearance is so strange that I have passed it many times in the past by car and assumed it was some kind of statue or sculpture. The main body of the megalith is quite normal (for a megalith): it is a thin block of ‘olivine’, some 1.6m in height above the ground surface, narrowing towards the top. It has a rather blocky appearance. In its current location it has been set into a circular arrangement of setts or cobbles and a lot of concrete. But what sets this stone apart from others is the addition of a ‘large stone ball’ to the top of the megalith; the two are connected by a corroded iron rod which is embedded quite deeply into the top of the standing stone. It is possible that a succession of stone balls have been stuck on top of the stone as hints of other rods are visible. Apparently the addition of this stone ‘head’ was undertaken by a local blacksmith in 1821. I could not find any sign of the date stamp that Woodburn noted (in A history of Darvel) was present on the iron rod in 1967.
The maverick Scottish archaeologist Ludovic MacLellan Mann felt the stone had a series of cup-marks on them (prehistoric rock carvings). The above photo shows the Dagon Stone in one of its previous locations, taken for the Glasgow Herald newspaper by George Applebey in 1922. This shows chalk lines and circles added to the stone, presumably by Mann himself, who had a bit of a reputation as a chalksman. Yet these ‘markings’ have been rejected as natural for quite some time now, and I saw nothing convincing in terms of rock-art when I closely examined the stone. The identification of rock-art would have gone some way to explain the mysterious provenance of this standing stone. Was it initially erected in prehistory in this area and at some point had a stone head added to it? Or is the megalith simply a modern – fanciful – creation?
One of the most remarkable things about the Dagon Stone is that it has moved about a lot. Indeed, based on OS mapping records and a few local snippets of information, Woodburn noted the Dagon Stone has stood in at least four locations in the town since the 19th century. I visited each of these places while I was in Darvel and got a sense of the geography of the Dagon Stone in the town; this is mapped out above. The motivation for each stone upheaval is unknown, but the stone endured, and has been a fixture within Darvel for at least 200 years, albeit crossing the main road several times and appearing in two different parks. The Dagon Stone appears to have initially been recorded on the main street that runs east-west through the town, at the junction with Ranoldcoup Road (location 1) where it is shown on 19th century maps. I am not sure how likely it is that this was the original position for this stone if it was prehistoric in origin, but a connection with a main route way would not be unusual.
The main road was widened in 1894, and so the stone was moved to the ‘grounds of Brown’s Institute’. The Brown Institute was a one of a number of such Working Men’s Institutes established by Miss Martha Brown of Lanfine in Ayrshire villages in the 1870s; a sad looking building at 7 Mair’s Road (pictured below) is one building that survives from this Institute, while a still occupied adjacent building acted as a Reading Room. These were built in 1872/1873, and the standing stone must have been located somewhere in adjoining Morton Park at the back of these buildings (location 2) although the exact location is unknown.
Decades later the stone was on the move again. In 1938 it was taken to a small park at the junction between the main street and Burn Road (location 3) beside the building that is now the Darvel Telephone Museum. There is no indication now of where the Dagon Stone stood on this thin stretch of grass, although I assume it was near the main street and in full view of passers-by. (The Morton Park location was the only time we know of that the Dagon Stone was removed from the side of the main road.) The Burn Road ‘park’ is now dominated by a much more modern memorial, a ‘cairn’ dedicated to the Special Air Force Regiment (SAS) who were stationed in Darvel in 1944; this was erected in 2001.
And then finally, the stone was moved to its current prominent position in Hastings Square in 1961 or 1962, where it has remained for half a century, set into concrete. The stone sits amidst a series of other memorials, including an obelisk-like War Memorial, and at the opposite end of the square stands a pillar with a bust on top in honour of Sir Alexander Fleming, the penicillin guy as I like to call him, who was born in the town. This offers a peculiar mirror image of the Dagon Stone. Both consist of an upright with a head stuck on top, and with a circular feature at the base (a flower-bed in the case of the Fleming statue). The main War Memorial sites equidistant between them. The creation of this little symmetrical monumental garden is, I would imagine, one of the reasons why the Dagon Stone was moved to here from across the other side of the road.
And this is where, in a sense, my journey should probably have ended. I had spent some time wandering about Darvel in the rain, exploring the previous locations for the Dagon Stone, and then spent more time looking up close and touching the stone itself, which had little dribbles of rain running down its side. I even bought Hugh Maxwell’s book Old Darvel in a local bookshop, demonstrating that urban prehistory can contribute to the local economy. But I had set myself a task some time before Dagon Day, and so I decided to keep to schedule in order to seek inspiration from the creative arts. I drove to a car park with a fine view of nearby Loudon Hill, and proceeded to read aloud HP Lovecraft’s short story Dagon. Nothing much happened.
Dagon was one of the first HP Lovecraft story to be published, in a magazine called The Vagrant, No. 11 (November 1919), 23–29. It does read like one of his weaker efforts, with a feeble storyline involving a sailor / narrator who had escaped ‘the ocean forces of the Hun’ and set off by boat alone into an unexplored area of the Pacific. The narrator runs his ship aground on a strange unmapped landform that he assumes has risen up from the ocean floor and notices all sorts of weird shit, including unusual geometrically arranged rocks (standard HPL landscape features), strange dead things and the mysterious standing stone described in the quote that opened this blog. Before fleeing, the sailor saw some kind of ‘loathsome’ creature with big hands, and then somehow he found his way back to dry land.
The narrative framing device for the story is that he is committing this tale to pen and paper before he kills himself. He has become a shambolic morphine addict haunted by the visions of the indescribable creature he saw in the ocean with its hands all over the standing stone. The story ends with the narrator still furiously writing that ‘some immense slipper body’ was at his door; thankfully the story does not end with him writing aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrghhhhhhhhhh but it comes pretty close. Did reading this story help with my understanding of the Dagon stone? In fact, aside from the title, Dagon is only mentioned once, prompted by the narrator’s attempts to research what he had seen on the rocky eminence. But what is interesting is that this story is a thinly veiled anti-war tale, set unusually for HPL in the ‘real world’: the sailor noted that if the underwater creatures were to rise to the surface they would only find ‘the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind’. The Dagon Stone sits in the centre of Darvel where I counted at least three memorials to those who fought and died in 20th century wars.
I headed back home and settled down to watch the film version of Dagon on DVD, which I had recently been loaned. Directed by Stuart Gordon, and released in 2001, this was an attempt by Gordon to re-capture the glorious excesses and Lovecraftian creepiness of his brilliant 1985 film Re-animator. Sadly, he was not successful. Strangest of all, this part-Spanish movie is actually really a film version of HPL’s masterpiece, The Shadow over Innsmouth; the only element that is retained from ‘Dagon the story’ is the arrival by boat, and even then it is four people in a yacht. (In Shadow Over… the protagonist arrives in Innsmouth by public bus, perhaps a first in horror fiction.) I won’t trouble you with the plot, which involves a lot of running about from the fish-man equivalent of zombies, all of whom are caught up in the cult of Dagon, which has provided the Spanish village of Imboca (nicely rendered in the film) huge amounts of fish and gold from the sea. This cult has dis-benefits however, in the form of some unpleasant fish mutations, cross-breeding and a regrettable need for human sacrifices to appease Dagon itself.
There is very little horror either, other than an unpleasant scene in a ‘butchers’ which I assume was a homage to the 1960 horror classic Eyes without a face, complete with very unpleasant sound effects. There are lots of rituals in the film (as well as a crazy scene involving a flimsy hotel door, a bolt-type lock and a penknife with a screwdriver), and quite a lot of Cthulhu chanting by people with tentacles (some of whom are thoughtfully pushed about in wheelchairs) but I couldn’t see any standing stones. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the ‘Making of’ extra on the DVD.
Half man, half fish. An idol to be worshipped. I will now avoid the temptation to drift onto musings about the weird limestone fish-man-gods found within houses of the Danubian Mesolithic village of Lepinski Vir in Serbia. But what does interest me is how such a strange name came to be associated with a standing stone in Ayrshire. Can it really be that the stone is named after the fishman of Babylon? Certainly, the monolith has been implicated in rituals or ceremonies carried out locally; Ordnance Survey fieldworkers recorded in the 1960s that ‘there is a strong folklore tradition that before its [the Dagon Stone] 19th century history newly-wed couples had to walk around the stone for good luck’. This fertility rite (for this is surely what it was) offers some connection to ancient Dagon I suppose. And the addition of the stone head to the stone gives it a somewhat pseudo-anthropomorphic appearance. Scrutinizing photos in Old Darvel shows, in certain pictures, a recurring hazy black and white figure in the middle distance that looks like it might be the Dagon Stone – although I don’t think the Stone actually does appear in any of the photos I have seen. The stone has, like Dagon, something of the human about it.
Yet perhaps we can find a more mundane explanation, which takes us back to the aforementioned shipwrecked Aberdeenshire Dagon (a Lovecraftian event if ever there was one!) which, in some records, was actually called Dragon. Could it be that the Dagon stone was actually the Dragon Stone? This sounds plausible, and during my visit to Darvel this connection became overwhelming, when I glanced over the road, where just 50m from the Dagon Stone was situated a Chinese carryout that suggested that the simple truth – Dagon was simply a mistaken spelling – had been hidden in plain view for anyone who cared to see…..
The Dagon Stone is a true enigma, its origins, meaning, place and even name a source of confusion, now fading even from folk memory. Limited attempts by archaeologists to make sense of this stone have come to naught, and it has, like so many urban megaliths, been made ‘modern’ through concrete and decontextualisation. At the same time, though, the comical addition of the stone head has transformed this stone into something very different from the other urban megaliths I have visited. The naming of this stone – whether Dagon or Dragon – has added a colourful chapter to the biography of a standing stone that people may have been ‘worshipping’ or processing around for thousands of years, perhaps as recently as the 19th century. The ancient evil personified in Lovecraft’s fish-man-god Dagon has never rubbed off onto this stone, despite the name, but it reminds us that in the prehistoric past, megaliths would have had names, and personalities, and perhaps when no-one was looking, they moved, and then became petrified once again in another place. Dagon Day did not really help me make sense of this standing stone, but it has given me a better appreciation of how people interact with megaliths, even in the modern world.
Sources: The quote that opens this blog comes from HP Lovecraft’s story Dagon. Some information about the Dagon Stone came from MacLeod’s 1950 Book of Old Darvel (which in itself sounds Lovecraftian) while details on the movement of the stone are drawn from John Woodburn’s A history of Darvel (1967), with additional information from the NMRS. I also made extensive use of Maxwell’s Old Darvel photo book and this was the source of the old Morton Park picture. The Dagon image at the start of the blog is available widely online; the black and white Dagon photo is from the Herald, 1922. For more on Mann and the Cochno Stone, see Ritchie, JNG 2002 Lucovic McLellan Mann (1869-1955): ‘the eminent archaeologist’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 132, 43-64 (google and you shall find). There is a massive amount of information on HP Lovecraft online; I usually dip into the Lovecraft Archive for factual information. You can watch all of Dagon the movie on youtube and read all of the short story Dagon in various places online. The Dagon book cover reproduced above is widely available online, and is from a classic series of Panther HPL book covers, the illustrated example from 1973. Images of the DVD cover and stills from Dagon the movie are surprisingly commonly available online. And finally, thanks to Bam for loaning me the Dagon DVD – but please, please take it back.