Thatcher’s petrified children

24 Apr

As far as I am aware, there was only ever one bit of urban prehistory that crossed the consciousness of the late Margaret Thatcher, the Sighthill stone circle, located near Glasgow city centre. This rather surprising monument has recently been thrust back into public consciousness due to the threat by Glasgow Council to forcibly evict the stone circle from its parkland location overlooking the M8 to a location unknown, an act that may involve dynamite and the total destruction of this classic piece of urban prehistory. This will not be the only blog I will write about this monument and its fate, so please indulge me as I introduce the monument, and my first visit to it, and place it within its highly politicised context, from Thatcher to more contemporary political concerns. The fate of the circle in the coming months and years will be the subject of future updates.

general view low res

The stone circle is located in parkland, surrounded by the M8 motorway, industrial units, cul-de-sac canals and Sighthill, an estate in Glasgow that was part of the historic regeneration of the City’s east end in the 1960s, built in a location that was previously largely industrial. The stone circle itself had rather more peculiar origins, built using labour from a Labour government Jobs Creation Scheme in the city in 1978-79, and constructed as part of the amazingly named Glasgow Parks Department Astronomy Project under the leadership of Duncan Lunan. The site was supposed to be a ‘mini-Stonehenge’ or at least copy an existing stone circle, although in the end it was constructed bespoke for the location it ended up and arranged relative to the night sky in that position. It was intended to be explicitly an ‘astronomical megalith’, and the chosen location, overlooked by tower blocks, and overlooking the M8, has spectacular views over the city.

The raw materials for the circle were 22 stones (in quarrying terms, ‘hard rock’, aka whinstone) of varying size and shape sourced from Beltmoss quarry in Kilsyth to the north of Glasgow, and these were brought to Sighthill by a Ministry of Defence Sea King helicopter, watched by a crowd of over 1000 people.

helicopter over stone circle

Most of the circle had been constructed by the time of the general election on 4th May 1979, which of course the Conservatives won. This is when – perhaps mythically – Margaret Thatcher turned her beady eye northwards towards this unique piece of urban prehistory. Duncan Lunan recounted in a recent interview in The Guardian that:

‘Six days after the election, I remember our shop steward coming in and saying that he had just heard Thatcher on the radio: ‘we shall be restoring full employment by the end of 1980 and there will be no more nonsense like the Glasgow Parks astronomy project’’

With that, work on the stone circle came to a premature end, with unused megaliths lying near the circle, and the henge bank only partially completed. Thatcher got wind of, and put a stop to, a project that was viewed by the Tories as indicative of socialist, lefty, arty, waste-of-tax, self-indulgent activities, and thus showed herself to be an enemy of urban prehistory.

building scotland's future

There are few finer indications of Thatcher’s indifference to prehistory – and the value that it still retains for society even today – than the ongoing conflicts around Stonehenge solstice events, notably in the 1980s, culminating in the so-called Battle of the Beanfield in 1985. Investigative journalist Andy Worthington recounts:

‘..over 1,300 police from six counties and the Ministry of Defence, with the approval of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, used unprecedented violence, in a civil context, savagely attacking 450 new age travellers, green activists and festival-goers as they attempted to make their way to Stonehenge’.

In the space of six years, the Ministry of Defence had shifted from providing support to build a stone circle, to flexing its muscles to stop people congregating at a stone circle.

Battle of the Beanfield as captured by Alan Lodge

Battle of the Beanfield as captured by Alan Lodge

Since Thatcher’s death, it has become commonplace to use the expression ‘Thatcher’s children’ in a range of different contexts, and it could be argued that the Sighthill version of Stonehenge represents – monumentalises – the lack of imagination and humour that characterised the Tory administration of the 1980s, shutting people out, shutting things down, petrifying the children.

Subsequent landscaping altered the original vision of the stone circle, flattening the henge bank and burying too much of the stones thus diminishing their height. And to this date, Lunan has been unable to complete his vision. Recently, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) carried out some survey work at the site, under their ‘Threatened Building Survey Programme’ and an excellent description of the monument by archaeologist Adam Welfare can be found in the National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS site number NS56NE 5025).

RCAHMS survey Feb 2013

RCAHMS at work

The circle consists of an outer ring of 16 standing stones, in a circular arrangement with diameter 13.75m. These stones are huddled together in four small groupings rather than spaced fairly regularly as one normally sees at stone circles. A single monolith stands in the middle of the setting, the tallest stone at 1.75m. The other stones range in height from 0.85m in height to 1.65m, and they come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Concentric and trapezoidal settings of cobbles lie within, and outwith, the circle. The remaining unused megaliths lie just downslope from the circle. As noted before, this monument is concerned with astronomical alignments, something I may return to in a future blog, and this accounts for the peculiar arrangement of stones and cobble paths.

alignments diagram

This, then, by any standards of nomenclature, is a stone circle. It is not an old stone circle, not a Neolithic or Bronze Age stone circle, but it is a stone circle nonetheless. And what interests me is that it is used rather like stone circles probably were back in the prehistoric day. It is a focal point for the local community, for both positive social gatherings (such as solstice and music events) and also for antisocial activity such as drinking, as evidenced by the large quantity of bottles and cans strewn in the vicinity when I visited, and the graffiti daubed on the stones. The circle is a focus for fire setting and burning, and also has an astronomical character, albeit one only really understood by an elite few users, and the builder himself. It is not an old stone circle, not a Neolithic or Bronze Age stone circle, but it is a stone circle nonetheless.

sighthill postcard

I visited the site for the first time just last week (which is a bit embarrassing given I am the urban prehistorian). I visited in the rain, walking through wet and muddy grass to reach the circle. The first thing that struck me was the constant noise of traffic from the nearby M8, and I was more or less able to appreciate the views across Glasgow afforded by this location, even although it was a little misty. The sensory experience of this monument – the sounds, the sights, the smells – makes it a unique experience. The stones themselves are strangely shaped, some squat, others angular. Bold and bright graffiti adorns many of the megaliths, and beer cans were strewn around, and near, the monument. The central monolith had a small memorial at its base, consisting of a small cross and two candles. This is, to all intents and purposes, a stone circle, and the trappings of modernity do not diminish this sense. With no pre-knowledge, one would not know how old this circle was, or why it was built. Excavation would be pointless – we know what we would find, and it would be mostly cement – and yet even Stonehenge is nowadays largely held together by concrete. The ambiguity of this place is almost painful, urban prehistory that in some ways is neither urban, nor prehistoric.

slot view of stones low res

As I alluded to above, the Sighthill stone circle is threatened with imminent destruction. Those who know Glasgow know that the east end of the city in particular has been undergoing dramatic re-shaping in advance of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The threat to this remarkable monument is slightly more obscure though, related to the city’s application to host the 2018 Youth Olympic Games. As part of this process, the long-awaited regeneration of Sighthill has been brought forward to support the bid (and so redevelopment will happen whether Glasgow wins these games or not). As part of this process, the stone circle apparently has to be removed to carry out ‘chemical checks’, to make way for a pathway, or sits in a location that is going to become a modern housing estate, depending on who you believe.

sighthill-regeneration-image

The new vision for Sighthill

What happens when a stone circle that is not an archaeological stone circle is threatened with destruction? Who speaks up for urban prehistory when it is not prehistory? Who are the advocates for 20th century megaliths? Certainly not Historic Scotland – this is not a scheduled ancient monument and probably never will be. Maybe RCAHMS who undertook the recent survey? Probably not, they simply record the threat as a matter of record.

This threat has not gone down well with the creator of the circle: Duncan Lunan has suggested the circle could only be removed by dynamite, due to the concrete base within which the stones are set which suggests that removal will be a permanent vacation and reduce the whinstone megaliths to aggregate. But this unfortunate series of events has spawned a campaign that has been established by the The Friends of the Sighthill Stone Circle group. They have an online petition that currently has over 3500 signatories and there has been a lot of high profile press coverage, and there are a good few well-known Glaswegian musicians, artists and writers who have spoken up against the circle’s destruction (as well as Julian Cope, the modern antiquarian).

summer solstice 2010

student tour image

A place of modern utility: solstice event 2010 (top), student tour (bottom)

Although I have no real sense of how the stone circle was used – or viewed – by the local community before it came under threat in 2012, it does seem that the Sighthill stone circle is now viewed as a genuine community resource, used for a range of events and regarded fondly by local people, and more widely, Glaswegians (at least those that know about it). I have no idea how much depth there is to this affection, but at least the voices raised in protest have prompted the Council to embark on a period of consultation on the plans including working out if it would be possible to retain the circle, rather than go ahead and just remove the stones as they were apparently set to do earlier this year. Nonetheless, the massive rebuilding of Sighthill is now underway, and on the day I visited demolition work had only just begun on a tower block on Pinkston Road, one of the few remaining remnants of 1960s Sighthill. It seems once again, as in 1979, the future of this monument to the past is in the hands of politicians.

circle and demolition low res

start of demolition 16th April

I suppose I am amazed by a few things here. Firstly, I am amazed that for 20 years I have driven past a stone circle that can be seen from the M8 and never noticed it. I am amazed that Glasgow has not made more of this bizarre and unique attraction, even although it is on the itinerary of some student tours. And I am amazed that in the rush to prioritise work on Sighthill as part of the bidding process for the Youth Olympics that the stone circle has been viewed as an impediment to change, and not a benefit to local people, visitors and the city. It would not take a good deal of imagination to visualise this stone circle as a centrepiece of the new housing and green spaces being constructed here, moving the megaliths from the fringes to the centre of this community, for the potential benefit of all. And I hope that the Council is now coming to that view as well.

I do hope that the ongoing consultation process and the campaign of the Friends will result in a more enlightened and imaginative future for this all too young stone circle. Frequently, as this blog is documenting, urban prehistory is forgotten, abused, invisible, built over or just ignored. At Sighthill there is a remarkable opportunity to use urban prehistory for the good of city dwellers.

Sources: Thanks to Gavin MacGregor for informing me of the stone circle, and the campaign to save it, both of which I was blissfully unaware of until late last year. For almost all information on the stone circle, I consulted the excellent website set up by Duncan Lunan, and I highly recommend it (link in the first paragraph of this blog). Duncan has kindly allowed me permission to reproduce a number of images from his website, which include the RCAHMS survey and solstice 2010 photos (Linda Lunan), the shot from the helicopter (Burnie) and the stone circle plan (by Richard Robertson). For reflections on the Battle of the Beanfield, I highly recommend that you look at Andy Worthington’s webpage (again, link in the blog) and his books on the subject (the former was the source of the quotation I used above). The Thatcher in Scotland image can also be found commonly online. For information on the Glasgow’s games bid, and current redevelopment plans, see the 2018 games website, and Glasgow City Council. The image of Sighthill post-development was sourced from The Glaswegian and is one of many aspirational images that can be found online. Information on student tours to the stone circle can be found at the Student Tours Scotland website, and this is where the student tour photo came from. The photo of the tower block being pulled down came from the Kirkintilloch Herald website. Please do take time to sign the petition.

I was accompanied on my first visit to Sighthill stone circle in the pissing rain by Jimmy Thomson, and it was he who took the opening photo in this blog: thanks for being there Jimmy, even with jetlag and wet shoes….

Updated 26th April 2013 to remove photo of police and miners at Orgreave and replace with an actual photo from the Battle of the Beanfield! Thanks to Welsh Andy for pointing out this error, and suggesting an alternative source of images, from a great account of the Battle by digital journalist Alan Lodge, whose image I have used in the blog.

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11 Responses to “Thatcher’s petrified children”

  1. GreatNorCycWay (@GreatNorCycWay) April 24, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    Fascinating and insightful piece. It would be interesting to see how many of these “homage’ circles there are. I can think of four I’ve seen; Alderley Edge, Castle Hill Mold, Llandudno Winter Gardens and Wales Mountain Zoo. The Welsh circles, sometimes temporary as in the case of the recent Wrexham event, often get set up for the Eistedfodd.

    In the early years of the Millennium there was a threat to the Nine Ladies Stone Circle in Derbyshire as a result of a desire to expand a local quarry. A camp was set up to protect the site whilst the legal process rumbled on. Nine Ladies was saved.

    • balfarg April 26, 2013 at 9:21 am #

      Hi, thanks, I like the term ‘homage circles’ as they are a homage to something ancient and suggest stone circles still hold a power over (some of) us. I have not heard of any of these circles, so lots to explore. Next time I am in Wales, a friend is going to take me on a fieldtrip to see some Eistedfodd circles.

  2. Booshwa Facade April 25, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

    At some point there must have been a Thatcher Type in the distant past, complaining about all the waste involved in Stonehenge… and to this day, thanks to that ancient ‘philistine’ we don’t really know much about it.

    • balfarg May 3, 2013 at 7:08 pm #

      I think you are probably right, although given what I know about Neolithic monuments, I don’t think they had Health and Safety Officers….

  3. Catherine McVey May 3, 2013 at 3:01 am #

    Thank you so much for writing this article on the Sighthill circle and in so doing raising awareness of it’s existence and of the threat it faces. Now I’m interested in settling down and reading the rest of your article 🙂 I’m not sure if you’re aware but there is a Facebook group for news and organizing events towards saving the circle. https://www.facebook.com/groups/saveourstones I would love for you to join us. 🙂

    • balfarg May 3, 2013 at 7:05 pm #

      Hi Catherine, thanks for getting in touch and also for posting this link. I am not actually on Facebook, but Mrs Urban Prehistorian is, so I will encourage her to sign up!

  4. Andy speak July 30, 2013 at 11:26 am #

    I cycled through sighthill park to get to my allotment in petershill every day for a summer and wasnt even aware of the stone circle (wasnt on my route). trip back to glasgow on the cards….

    • balfarg August 12, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

      Hi Andy, yes, although the circle is in a prominent position, it is actually quite tricky to see from footpaths and cycle paths. To get to the circle you will have to off-road a bit, but it is worth it!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] My small collection of Caravan Gallery postcards was the inspiration behind the simple postcard-type image I created of the Sighthill stone circle for my last blog. […]

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