Motivations behind the erection of modern standing stones exist in stark juxtaposition. They are either incredibly banal, casually thrown up in the middle of roundabouts or business parks, largely ignored and made to order.
Or they are incredibly poignant, powerful places that become a focus for memorialising something, or someone.
The former are easy to explain: they are little more than cheap perfunctory landscaping, filling a hole in the middle of a road junction, or a corner in a park, or a spare bit of ground next to a car park. The latter are much more difficult to make sense of. Because there does seem to be something about standing stones that compels people to use them as memorials, something to do with death and memory and stone.
In this post, I want to consider, using some examples that I have recently encountered, the enduring emotional connection people can have with standing stones, and how these can become a focus for communal and personal mourning.
Personal mourning and memorialisation were very evident when I visited the Sighthill stone circle in Glasgow earlier this week, probably for one of the last times. The monument has become, in its last months, the focus of almost frenzied activity, with deposits around the central standing stone, evidence of various ceremonies, and the establishment of a rag tree next to the circle. In the final months of the circle’s life, even as tower blocks are torn down chunk by chunk nearby, the circle is blossoming into life, perhaps used more than ever, or at least having the appearance of being used more than ever.
Ironically, the circle is surrounded by the collapsing ruins of Sighthill.
The central stone has been for quite some time a memorial to a lady whose ashes were scattered in this modern stone circle. Last year, there was a cross and some candles, but now there are many more items: postcards and pictures, a child’s money box, a cigarette lighter, flowers (real and artificial). The stone itself is wrapped in two red (now faded red) ribbons, attaching to the stone a wreath, flowers, a mobile phone, feathers. I don’t know how much of this curious assemblage relates to the deceased, yet this standing stone seems to be more closely associated with her and her family and their memories than any granite grave stone.
I wonder how the connection between a family’s memories, and this standing stone, will be negotiated when the stone is finally removed with the rest of the monument later this year?
Standing stones are supposed to be eternal, unchanging, unflinching, which is perhaps why they so readily become a focus for memories that cannot be lost.
This apparently natural human reaction came to the fore earlier this year, when a small boy went missing in Edinburgh, only to be found dead in Fife a few days later. This tragic set of circumstances became a national obsession for a few days, and much to the fore of media coverage was the ‘community spirit’ shown in that part of the city. Once the bad news had been confirmed, a memorial sprung up in a small corner of parkland near where the boy had lived, a park that is decorated with a line of grey standing stones. Media images captured the sea of flowers, cuddly toys and objects left in this place with the standing stones overlooking it all, impassive.
Perhaps standing stones are so comforting because they are mute, they don’t pass judgement.
It may have just been a coincidence that this outpouring of emotions for a child happened to focus on a place with standing stones. But there is no doubt that in some cases, rather than spontaneous memorialisation as was the case in Edinburgh, standing stones are explicitly built as part of memorials.
In an excellent lecture at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in Bournemouth last December, Howard Williams of the University of Chester, spoke (in the context of a session on the archaeology of Margaret Thatcher) about the memorialisation of the Falklands War, both in the Falklands, but also in the UK. In his paper, ‘Commemorating Thatcher’s war: The South Atlantic Task Force Memorial’, Howard considered a series of memorial places and monuments, and it is striking how many of these explicitly include standing stones.
In 2012, the South Atlantic Taskforce Memorial was opened at the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire. This monument includes a number of materials from the Falklands, notably rocks used in the construction of elements of the memorial. To enter the memorial, one has to pass through a pair of austere grey-white standing stones that flank the entrance.
And this is not the only Falklands memorial that includes megaliths: the memorial pictured above is a monument to the men of Cardiff who died in that conflict, and it stands in Alexandra Gardens, Cardiff.
Standing stones are recurring motifs for war memorials around the UK. One of the most remarkable examples is the relatively recent war memorial consisting of six Westmoreland slate standing stones in Glenrothes, Fife. This monument was erected in this New Town in part because of the death of two local men during the Iraq War. The use of standing stones as a motif makes complete sense in Glenrothes, a New Town with ancient monuments already within its midst at Balfarg. And the design of the memorial is supposed to evoke the ‘past, present and future’.
In this brief post, I have reflected on the recurring modern functionality of standing stones as memorials for people, through serendipity, spontaneity or design. I am sure that I have only scratched the surface of this most serious of uses of prehistoric archetypes within very modern contexts.
Yet what these stone circles, settings and megaliths represent transcends time – the emotions of mourning, the pain of remembering, the need to have somewhere tangible to focus on, places to place flowers and to grow flowers, softening the hardness.
It seems to me likely that many Neolithic and Bronze Age standing stones either memorialised, or came to be associated with, someone dead. Like hard, consistent, dependable stone, some things never seem to change.
Sources and acknowledgements: I was accompanied on my most recent visit to Sighthill by Helen Green, and she helped clarify my thoughts for this post. I am grateful to Howard Williams for drawing my attention to the Falklands memorials, and for stimulating my thoughts on the recurring use of modern standing stones for memorialisation. The Edinburgh image of the spontaneous memorial came from the Daily Record, and the Cardiff war memorial is a Wikipedia Commons image. The photo of the Falklands memorial was sources from TripAdvisor, while the Glenrothes war memorial image is commonly found online. The news clipping about this memorial was sourced from a forum discussing Scottish War Memorials.