Sometime a place can become defined by its standing stones – Carnac, Salisbury Plain, Orkney – even although that is only ever part of the story. That is because megaliths endure. And megaliths are also malleable, and so we are able to shape them into whatever we want, regardless of the prevailing circumstances. This post is about how this has happened, and is happening, on the island of Arran, in the Firth of Clyde, which has one of the most enigmatic collections of megaliths to be found anywhere in northern Europe at Machrie Moor. This collection of stone circles has layers of meaning, beginning deep beneath the surface, lost in the timelessness of geological time, and running through to the fleeting, disposable times we live in today. I want to argue that the echoes of megalithic, Neolithic Arran, still persist in Brodick, the island’s capital town, today, sometimes in quite surprising ways. Prehistoric monuments often leave some kind of trace behind them, but what form the trace takes is not always predictable … or even logical.
We need to start at the beginning, Machrie Moor. This amazing landscape (the terms monument or site hardly do it justice) in moorland just north of Blackwaterfoot on the west coast of Arran consists of at least six stone circles, as well as assorted burial monuments, and traces of later farming activity abounds as well.
The stone circles are a spectacular example of the way that monuments can reflect and embody the land from which the stone was sourced. The circles consist of tall, majestic and eroding sandstone pillars, but also squatter, rounder grey-white granite boulders. Some circles utilise both stone types, others are restricted to one or the other. As Andrew M Jones has noted, the materiality of these stones – their geology, texture and colour – are representative of the island of Arran itself. He wrote in 1997: ‘The island is divided into two distinct geological zones – a barren, northern mountainous region of white granites and schist, and a fertile southern lowland region of red sandstone’. Bearing this in mind, Jones argued of the bi-colour scheme at Machrie Moor that…’it may be that white and red also symbolised the land itself, the white of the north and the red of the south’. I love this imagery, the sensory properties of standing stones representing the land from which the stones were sourced, embodying the stones with magical and mundane powers.
Arran is often referred to as ‘Scotland in miniature’, and so it seems that Machrie Moor is Arran in miniature.
There have been some episodes of modern excavation at Machrie Moor, in 1978 and 1979 under the direction of Aubrey Burl, and then again by Alison Haggarty in the mid-1980s: both explored circles 1 and 11 (the latter being buried by peat and vegetation at the time). The excavations revealed a remarkable sequence of activity in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, which culminated in the stone circles. Preceding them were episodes of timber monument construction, as well as a phase of ploughing, and also some pit digging. Clearly, these were locations that had a strong sense of place from at least the time of the first farmers, and like so many prehistoric sacred places, they endured, for many many generations, even when little was there so mark them out as special. The resilience of these places to the rigour of time and the failing of human memories is amazing, and shows no sign of stopping now.
Because of course the standing stones of Machrie Moor still matter to the people who live on Arran today. There are many signs that the island is marketed to tourists and visitors via the heritage resource that is Machrie Moor, from the ubiquitous postcards, usually showing the kinaesthetic and dramatic salmon-coloured sandstone pillars, through marketing material and even product branding. Examples of this is include the use of sandstone standing stones on the labelling of the Isle of Arran 10 year old and 14 year old single malt whisky, and also on the Arran dark beer, brewed on the island. These high profile, international brands, have utilised the dramatic megaliths as a synecdoche of (as well as metaphor for) the island of Arran itself.
Of course, this kind of utilisation of the past in the present is commonplace in the vicinity of other important and famous archaeological sites, with brands, businesses and street names reflecting famous forts, stone circles or Roman walls. For me, these suggests one kind of lingering significance of megaliths in the modern landscape and consciousness, what could be termed a form of remanence.
Stephen Dobson and Paul Selman have recently (2012) written about ‘landscape remanence’ in connection with historic landscapes. They note that remanence is a ‘term borrowed from physics to reflect the tendency of a faint impression to linger even after the processes that caused the original effect have disappeared’, the most obvious examples being a magnetic field. I have written before about our expectation in some contexts that places have essences, faint traces of something that happened before encoded within them, although in the case of landscapes, this effect can become more diffuse. And so in Brodick (on the opposite side of the island to Machrie), I found a number of allusions, both ancient and modern, to the Machrie Moor circles.
And one of the finest examples of this is the setting of three tiny sandstone miniliths amidst the cheesy splendour of Arran mini golf, on the waterfront in Brodick. This world of crazy putting is probably best known to visitors to Arran for the amazing model of the Forth Bridge which straddles one of the holes. But tucked over beside the 12th hole is a triangular setting of miniliths. The mini golf is part of a complex of shops, cafes and so on run by Bilslands, and they proudly proclaim:
‘Located in front of the main shop and café, the fifteen holes provide endless fun for all ages.
Whether attempting to cross the Forth Road [sic] Bridge at the fifth or navigating the Standing Stones at the twelfth, you will still have time to appreciate the magnificent views provided at every hole.’
The tiny standing stones of course are Machrie Moor in miniature, and Machrie Moor is Arran in miniature, and Arran is Scotland in miniature. Makes sense.
Of course there are other echoes in Brodick as well, such as an imposing sandstone standing stone at the roadside on the northern side of the town, across from a primary school. This massive slab often has bins set out beside it, and at its base on a visit in June I noticed the debris of some kind of road incident, some broken glass and bent plastic.
Cars fly past and make the stone difficult to photograph from the optimum position in the middle of the road.
Carved on the stone are the words ‘Bobby 1973’.
Horace Fairhurst, in his book Exploring Arran’s Past, tells the visitor to the island that this standing stone is a ‘remarkable specimen’ of its type. Yet almost nothing is known of this standing stone, although it obviously is physically reminiscent of some of the stones at Machrie Moor, and it may well have brought this association to mind in prehistory as well. The stone is known as the Stronach standing stone (National Monuments Record of Scotland number NS03NW 5) and is 2.4m high, 1.8m broad and 0.6m thick – in other words, it is a solid unit.
Other echoes of Machrie Moor exist elsewhere near Brodick, for instance with a number of standing stones within the grounds of Brodick Castle. And in the 1990s, a strange modern tribute to Machrie was constructed by the National Trust for Scotland – a circle of standing stones in a field just behind Brodick Castle. This bizarre stone circle consisted of ten squat sandstone slabs set in small circle: the photo above was taken in 2004, but soon after, the circle appears to have been dismantled and is now nowhere to be seen. Almost nothing is known, or remembered of this circle, even although it stood less than a decade ago, suggesting it was not as resilient a place as Machrie Moor itself…or folk memory is not what it once was.
A still more temporary tribute to Machrie Moor was constructed in the ground of Brodick Castle in July this year – although this time, the echo was of one of the timber circles, not a stone circle or megalith. The Burning the Circle event was a collaboration between the National Trust for Scotland, Northlight Heritage and the University of Glasgow, and involved a weekend of prehistoric activities and crafts, as well as the construction of a timber circle – as the publicity stated, this was the first such monument constructed on Arran for 4000 years!
One of the reasons for carrying out the timber circle ‘experiment’ was to explore exactly how monuments retained significance in folk memory for so long in prehistory: what was it that encouraged remanence, that promoted resilience, that helped memories to be curated? In the case of timber monuments, Gordon Noble has suggested (in his 2006 book Neolithic Scotland: timber, stone, earth and fire) that one such means to do this was through dramatic events that caused ‘flashbulb memories’. Such an event could be a fire, and we have evidence that many Neolithic timber monuments were burnt down (although this is not as common for timber circles as other, earlier timber structures).
Building the timber circle created one set of memories, but burning down the timber circle was altogether more dramatic and memorable. We set the timbers alight after dark one sunny July evening, and the resultant fires were visible from Brodick itself. In this case, we created memories by destroying something: memories are much more resilient than wood.
Megaliths were not burnt down, but unlike timber, which is temporary and vulnerable, stone creates its own memories, a permanent memorial to itself. While the timber circles at Machrie Moor were eventually replaced by stone ones, the stone circles endured, and for all we know, they may endure forever. Currently Arran is marketing itself with the slogan ‘Island time…in no time’, and this reflects the timeless qualities of Machrie that persist in both rural and urban contexts. This is because the special place that was and is Machrie Moor has remanence – even today in 2013, in the world of marketing and commercialisation, tourism and cars, the faint impression of the Machrie megaliths lingers still.
Sources: The idea of remanence as applied to historic landscapes was inspired by Dobson and Selman’s 2012 article ‘Applying Historic Landscape Characterization in Spatial Planning: from remnants to remanence’, from the journal Planning Practice and Research (pages 1-16) and its application to urban prehistory first suggested to me by Helen Green. Andrew Jones’s quotation comes from a short article he wrote for British Archaeology magazine (March 1997, page 6) entitled ‘On the earth colours of Neolithic death’ and he also published an in-depth article developing his theme in volume 18.4 of the Oxford Journal of Archaeology (1999). Burl’s excavations were written up by Alison Haggarty, in the 1991 edition of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (volume 121, pages 51-94). The image of the Isle of Arran whisky came from the distillery website and the beer bottle image came from the brewery website, while the old photo of Machrie Moor (a postcard I think) came from the Machrie Bay golf course website, which has lots of amazing old photos of the area. The mini golf image came from the Bilslands website while the Machrie excavation photo was sourced from CANMORE and dates to the 1985 excavations. The colour Machrie stone circle photo came from an Argyll walking webpage as I didn’t have time to scan any of my old slides! I would like to thank everyone who worked on the Burning the Circle project, especially Corinna and Gavin, and thanks Gavin for the photo of the Brodick Castle stone circle. For more information and great photos of Burning the Circle, see the Northlight Heritage Facebook site (the source of the wonderful Burning the Circle logo, designed by Ingrid Shearer).