There is something powerful about the A9, the lengthy road which runs from the urban central belt of Scotland through the misty mountains to the far northern shore of the mainland. It is a line of power, not just the power of access and travel, but also the power that will be carried by the newly constructed Beauly-Denny transmission line which connects the wind-generated electricity of the Highlands with the electricity-hungry consumers of the south. Then there is the power of the landscape – from the big forests of Perthshire, to the big mountains of Drumochter, to the big bridges across the firths north of Inverness.
But the A9 is also all about frustrating in-car experiences. Jenny Turner, in a recent piece in The Guardian, described the longest A road in Scotland in terms most drivers would be familiar with. It is ‘an odd road, both a major trunk route and a scenic byway, crammed with slow-moving lorries, coach tours and caravans’. And so the respite of dual carriageways and laybys is fundamental to a happy journey.
I drive up and down this road relatively frequently, usually heading for Caithness, each journey from home to Dunbeath some 244 miles (392.7km), of which all but the first 20 miles of so are driven on the A9.
On my most recent drive north earlier this month, I decided to visit Raigmore, a very strange Bronze Age kerb cairn with a checkered history, currently located in the shadow of a massive modern hospital in Inverness. Raigmore has been through a lot over the past few decades, from total excavation and reconstruction in a new location, to neglect and vandalism, and finally rebirth as a community resource.
This is a piece of urban prehistory that is completely entangled with the A9. It is currently located a few hundred metres from the A9 although it cannot be seen from the road. Its original location is right beneath the A9, and its excavation was prompted by the expansion of that road and its connections with the A96 road to Aberdeen.
But in order to visit this monument, I had to once again drive the A9.
I’ve got the A9 under my skin. I know the road almost too well. Each long journey north from Glasgow to Caithness a staccato succession of familiar junctions, recognisable signage and caravan-following. A journey to treasure but a journey to dread as well, interminable mile after mile, kilometre after kilometre.
Dragging myself north. Falling south.
Overtaking. Not overtaking. Breaking to avoid overtakers.
Parking. Not parking.
Stopping. Not stopping.
Sightseeing. Not looking.
Noticing. Not noticing.
Alert. Not alert. The very opposite of alert.
Highs and lows. Mountains and forests. Bridges and tunnels.
Glasgow. North Lanarkshire. Stirling. Perth and Kinross. Highland.
Highland. Perth and Kinross. Stirling. North Lanarkshire. Glasgow.
Tullibardine Distillery. Ebradour Distillery. Dalwhinnie Distillery. Tomatin Distillery. Dalmore Distillery. Glenmorangie Distillery. Clynelish Distillery. Old Pulteney Distillery.
All of this, time and again, over and over again, to get to archaeology. To do archaeology. To see prehistory. Up valleys and on mountainsides. In fields and on moors. Caithness. Sutherland. Ross and Cromerty. Inverness.
The complex Neolithic and Bronze Age Raigmore cairn (NMRS number NH64NE 6) was initially known as Stoneyfield, and antiquarian accounts described it erroneously as a stone circle (a misconception still evident today). The destruction by road development and excavation that was the ultimate fate of this monument was presaged by attempts to drill explosives into a few of the stones at some unknown time in the past; this is an unlucky megalith.
For much of the 20th century however it was interpreted as some form of burial monument, the standing stones thought to be the kerb which once held together a denuded cairn some 18m in diameter but of original height unknown. Yet when the site came under threat of complete destruction to make way for the A9 upgrade in 1971-72, excavations there revealed an altogether more complex monument. The excavations were carried out by Derek Simpson, a leading prehistorian of his time, and funded by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works.
The monument was dismantled and taken apart in the knowledge the location was about to be destroyed to make way for commuters and caravans. Therefore, we have an excellent level of detail and a strong sequence, from initial pit-digging and deposition activity in the earlier Neolithic, followed by the construction of a weird rectangular timber structure which may or may not have been a roofed building with central stone hearth. It was only later in the sequence that the megalithic component of the monument was erected as the site was converted to a cairn which covered a number of cist burials.
What happened next? Simpson recounts this in his 1996 excavation report:
Finally, the stones were moved to a new site some 500m to the south-west, and were erected along with the stone cists and wooden posts to mark the position of the timber structure located during the excavation. This work was undertaken by the Inverness Burgh Planning Department under the direction of Mr W T Jack, Burgh Planning Officer. The restored monument is now open to the public.
Even before the monument was moved, it was being monkeyed about with by the locals. When describing the modern contents of a few pits found during the excavations (one being a sheep burial for instance), Simpson noted that ‘a further pit was dug by persons unknown between the 1972 and 1973 seasons’.
The movement of the monument itself was a communal, volunteer driven exercise, following on from a campaign by local people, and the work itself took place over the winter of 1974-75. The story of the migration of this monument was recorded in the April 1976 edition of The Scots Magazine. The campaign to save the ‘stone circle’ was apparently prompted by a claim from a ‘Town Council Official’ that the megalith was going to be dumped in landfill for a new industrial development. The outcry led to a proposal for the re-siting of the major elements of the monument, co-ordinated by Burgh Planner Bill Jack.
And so the stones were moved, one by one, across the 500m distance from old site to new. The new noticeboard at the site (of more later) nicely evokes the image of the stones walking to their new location.
This is a remarkable story, and suggests that there was a real desire from the community to preserve what they saw as a valuable resource in a tangible form (rather than merely through objects in a museum and memories although of course both also still matter). The stones themselves seemed worthy of preservation, perhaps even memorialisation, even if the location where the monument stood was to be destroyed. Given the nature of the waste ground that the site originally stood on, by moving it, the stones were actually being drawn closer into the community, less peripheral, and perhaps more relevant. And the monument was reconstructed in loving detail, stone by stone.
Yet it seems that the original noble (and idealistic) objective of creating a new educational community focus did not work quite as planned.
A ‘condition report’ written in May 1993 (presumably for the council) noted that the monument was by this time in a state of disrepair. No signs or information were available to lead people to the site or explain it to them. Access routeways were unsuitable. Worse still was the condition of the monument – ‘completely overgrown with grass and small bushes’, the internal interpretive markers were gone (i.e. the wooden posts) and ‘many of the stones have been sprayed with unfortunately-worded graffiti, the majority in the same green paint’. Less than 20 years after the hopeful rebirth of this cairn, it now lay in a state of desolation and abandonment.
A series of recommendations were made in this brief report, namely to add signage and information, to keep on top of the vegetation, remove the offending green daubings and improve access.
I have no idea if these plans came into fruition at that time, but the monument is certainly now looking fine and dandy thanks to another community initiative: the site has been the focus of one of Archaeology Scotland’s excellent adopt-a-monument schemes. The idea is to encourage and empower local communities to play an active role in the protection, management and promotion of archaeological sites which are perhaps not on the radar of national designations. The Archaeology Scotland webpage notes:
Monuments of any age from anywhere in Scotland can be proposed (no matter how unusual), with the focus on helping volunteers to improve sites which they are passionate about. Taking part in the scheme will equip volunteers with new skills in archaeological fieldwork and conservation, which can be used again and again to promote the heritage of their local area. It’s also a great way to keep active, develop new skills, meet new people and achieve real results.
And so Archaeology Scotland worked with Raigmore Community Council, and local schools, to revitalise the kerb cairn. The interior of the monument was exposed and tidied up, access improved and a fancy new information board installed, cleverly situated on the side of a standing stone. A new vegetation management plan was established, and the overall aspiration of the project was to make the kerb cairn more than just a pretty landscape garden feature. A local adult learners group did some research into the site and produced a leaflet.
In May 2013 the excavation of parts of the interior of the monument took place with the aim of getting local schools involved and also uncovering what – if anything – was left of the internal features established within the monument in the 1970s. The end result is a fascinating insight into how much of the original monument was actually reconstructed, including cobbles and various minor internal features. It also demonstrates that excavation is a powerful tool to help people work together and learn, and that archaeological techniques can help shed light on the contemporary, as well as the ancient, world.
On my recent A9 roadtrip, I paid my first visit to Raigmore, and got lost in the process. Inconvenient roadworks and a housing estate that appeared to have only one entrance meant I drove about for ages until finally I worked out where the cairn was. On several occasions I thought I had spotted the monument only to realise what I was seeing was in fact some large stone boulders scattered around the hospital car park as ‘landscaping’. When I finally got to Ashton Road Park, I found the kerb cairn situated behind a community centre and play park, with a metal green fence, hospital outbuildings and a white industrial unit framing the monument. I could find no evidence of signage, although this may be in the pipeline and the access route in was certainly pleasant.
The monument itself looks spick and span, nice and tidy, shiny even, when approached from one or other of the paths that runs towards it. The stones are pinky grey, but dotted with green moss and white lichen, paradoxically both ancient and modern at the same time. This is a monument that has been erected twice, named twice, excavated twice and adopted twice after all.
The monument is certainly being put to use, albeit it perhaps not for a function envisaged by the community. When I was there, a woman loitered within the monument making a phone call, and smoking. When she had finished, she stubbed out the fag on one of the stones and threw the butt onto the ground, where is nestled amidst a small selection of similar items. She then returned to the hospital from whence she came. The utilisation of this monument for any kind of activity is to be welcomed, and this is creating its own use-wear patterns, material culture and sense of place. Perhaps an ash tray should be provided however.
So next time you are on the A9, passing through Inverness, pause (not literally) to think when you are just south of the big A96 roundabout of the original location of this enigmatic monument of ritual and death that you are driving over at quite some speed.
And if you have time, turn off the road and make the pilgrimage to the kerb cairn in its latest iteration – it is worth getting lost to find.
Sources and acknowledgements: for information on the original Raigmore monument, see James Fraser’s 1884 article ‘Descriptive notes on the stone circles of Strathnairn and neighbourhood of Inverness – with plans &c.’ in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS) volume 18. Simpson’s excavation report can be found in PSAS 126 (1996). Google them, they are freely available online. The ‘stone circle’ plan was sourced from the former, the excavation drawing from the latter. The adopt-a-monument excavation photos appear here with the kind permission of Cara Jones and Archaeology Scotland, and the poster for the excavation was sourced from the website of the Inverness Field Club. Finally, the photo of Raigmore from 2006 was posted by Tim Prevett on the megalithic.co.uk site.