The cairn and the caravans

‘The enemy of the nomad is the authority that wants to take the space and enclose it and to create fixed and well-directed paths for movement. And the nomad, cut free of roots, bonds and fixed identities, is the enemy of authority, resisting its discipline’ (Mike Pearson (2010) Site specific performance, pg 20)


This is the story of a Neolithic chambered long cairn that has gradually become wrapped by caravans, enclosed by campervans, ringed by campers. En-camped. It’s right in the middle of the caravans!

Keltie Bridge campsite sign

The life of the caravan owner: pottering about, mobile yet static in a mobile yet static home. A space that is compact and nested, no sharp edges, no wasted space. Things slide away, fold up and compress. Awkward spaces and strangely angled rooms, the dance to get through doors. Claustrophobically small with 360 degree window walls and pleated patterned curtains.

Caravan parks: Ballardian gated communities, members only, private entertainment and private bars, communal bins and roadways that have rules of their own, obscure parking regulations. Hardstands and hook ups. Shower blocks and toilet blocks. Phone boxes and flower pots.

Signs of warning and advice: private, keep of the grass, no ball games, no littering, clean up your dog waste, use the bins provided, please ensure this gate remains closed, call this number if reception is closed, phone out of order, park here, do not park here, site closed until 1st April.

This is an orderly world, everything in its place and a place for everything within and without, just so. Intruding into this space: a massive megalithic mound. Right in the middle of the caravans!

Auchenlaich long cairn and caravan

Now, the archaeology bit.

Auchenlaich Neolithic long cairn (NMRS number NN60NW 4) is near Callander in Stirling (historic Perthshire). It is the longest long cairn in Scotland, a lengthy but low mound of rocks, which runs for over 320m in an almost north-south alignment, over three times the length of the average football pitch. At the northern end, the cairn is 15m across, and for much of its length the monument is little more than between knee and thigh height. The southern end is enlarged due to the presence of a trapezoidal chambered tomb, almost 50m in length, and here the cairn swells to a more impressive 1.6m height. A possible forecourt is evident here, and a second ‘burial chamber’ is probably located about 110m to the north (the ‘lateral chamber’), the remnants of which protrude from the low mound.

Auchenlaich long cairn

Almost no work has been done here other than a modern site survey. The lateral chamber may have been ‘cleaned out’ by a local farmer in the 1950s but the outcome of this clandestine activity is unknown. Amazingly the monument was only identified in its entirety by the county archaeologist Lorna Main in 1991. The expansion of the caravan park in the mid-1990s to enclose the cairn on three sides meant that some limited archaeological evaluation work had to be done in the vicinity of the cairn’s southern end but little of note was found. There remains the possibility that this is a hugely long pile of stones with no burials ever having been placed here; even if human remains were interred here in the Neolithic, it is likely that 95% of the cairn is a solid pile of stones, an extravagant adornment to someone’s final resting place, a folly.

The cairn is now thoroughly entangled with the caravan site which is called Keltie Bridge. When I visited, the campsite was closed, and so I affected an entry by climbing over the boundary fence which straddled a linear glacial mound on the edge of the park. From here, I walked through some trees, then down a rough slope and out into the exposed, open expanse of the deserted caravan site. Empty dark windows surrounded me, a hibernating middle-class middle-aged panopticon. Nothing moved and there were no sounds. Random careless landscaping abounded: white painted rocks, a weird monument of boulders topped with tree rings and a planter with a dead plant within.

The weird monument
The weird monument

The dead-eyed caravans were the only witnesses to my walk towards the grassy mound right in the middle of this urban nomad encampment, the huge cairn surrounded by a tokenistic wire and wood fence. I wandered around this pointless boundary, on the silent caravan park roadway, past the cream coloured empty shower and toilet block and towards some parked campervans. The monument stretched out ahead of me, to the end of the caravan site and then beyond, straddled by a wall which marked the northern boundary of the campsite. Although unimpressive in terms of height and girth, this is still a dramatic monument, of almost comical length, extended beyond all utility and seriousness, fading towards the obscure and distant northern terminal.

Path through Auchenlaich, looking to the west
Path through Auchenlaich, looking to the west

Two threadbare trees grow from the monument, a small one on the southern cairn, a much larger one with destructive roots infiltrating the mound near the lateral chamber. This damage can be surveyed from the comfort of a formal pathway that bisects the long cairn, a curiously decorated shortcut across the monument, with gateways at either end, festooned with empty half-moon planters. Both ends of this path are marked by a single grey-black post with a light atop at waist height. This routeway takes the trespassing explorer and caravan-er alike from one side of the cairn to the other across a ‘break’ in the bank, and allows impressive if unheralded views north and south along the mound.


Looking back to the east it became clear that the directing mind behind this peculiar arrangement had established an axis mundi that wilfully cut across the cairn, connecting a caravan with the shower block, a ley of some kind to compete with the more tangible megalithic line of power it crosses.

Axis mundi / modern ley
Axis mundi / modern ley

On the other side of the cairn, a row of ghostly empty caravan plots runs parallel to the fence. A single caravan occupied one of these plots, but the others remained vacant, rectangles of grey gravel with a green power outlet jutting from the ground beside each. Here we have lines of power, both megalithic and electrical – all impotent, limp and inactive but rich with possibility.

Auchenlaich hardstands

And so I took my leave of this place, leaving the campsite the way I had arrived, with no-one apparently around to witness my walk. And it struck me that this was a place of frustration and emptiness, with the long cairn at the heart of this vacuum. Here, the megalith has been caged and enclosed, with the coming and going of holidaymakers and residents incidental. No-one notices the monument even if it can be walked over and around. I read 93 reviews of the Caravan Park and campsite and only one mentioned the ‘largest burial chamber in Scotland’; another noted the enclosure, within which ewes and lambs grazed. The cairn wills itself to be noticed, to retain relevance, to matter – but it does not.

red shift dvd cover

Caravans can induce such feelings of despair, receptacles of plastic and twee banality, dependent on cars or lorries to move them around. Such a caravan features prominently in the 1978 BBC ‘Play for Today’ Red Shift (recently released on DVD by the BFI). This remarkable and challenging drama flits between the stories of three young men in the present day, the English Civil War and during the Roman occupation of Britain. The play is ostensibly about the power of place, with all stories revolving around significant events which occurred near or on Mow Cop, Cheshire, a village beside a strange rocky ridge with a ruined castle on top of it. The protagonists are connected by a polished stone axe, wielded as a weapon against the Romans, buried and found on numerous occasions subsequently. This powerful object is found in a void in a wall on top of Mow Cop in the 1970s by Tom and his girlfriend Jan (having been placed there after a violent event in the 17th century) and soon becomes something of an obsession for Tom: he caresses it, and studies it, hiding it in his small bed space in the caravan he shares with his overbearing parents. It is in this caravan that the first shift between times occurs in the film, after a very heated argument that hints at the troubled narratives that lie ahead. The caravan signifies the confined spaces that Tom feels constrain him in all aspects of his life, but it acts for a time as a suitable museum and reliquary for his prized stone axe before he finally accepts he must hand the axe over to an expert.

Tom clutching the axe, still from Red  Shift
Tom clutching the axe, still from Red Shift

Auchenlaich long cairn is confined as well, within layer after layer of enclosure – fence, grass verge, road, caravans and the boundary of the campsite itself. The cairn and caravans have come to resemble one another: the megalith and its setting has become caravanesque, fitted into its compartment, folded away, neat and tidy, not in anyone’s way. Even in prehistory stone cupboards served as hidden and efficient storage spaces for bones. Perhaps too the caravans have become like chambered cairns, repositories of memories and places of routine, spatially compact with standardised exteriors. This is an orderly world, everything in its place and a place for everything within and without, just so.

But for how long can this monstrous monument be subdued? In Red Shift, Tom smashes the caravan kitchen window and thus connects with the ancient past. At Keltie Bridge, there is a chance for all the campers and caravanners to make a similar and tangible connection with prehistory, from the comfort of their own mobile home. They need only step outside their tents and caravans and take a deep breath before the plunge.

The cairn and the caravans
The cairn and the caravans

Sources and acknowledgements – the primary source of information on the Auchenlaich long cairn comes from a short report by Sally Foster and Jack Stevenson to be found in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 132 (2002), part of an excavation report on the nearby Claish Neolithic timber hall (Barclay, Brophy and MacGregor, pages 65-137). The plan of the cairn in this blog post is an amended version of a plan that appears in that report, which I have amateurishly embellished. For more on the monument, see also its CANMORE entry. The image of the Red Shift DVD front cover is widely available online, while the still showing Tom and the axe was sourced from the TV Cream website. The reviews of the Caravan Park that I read (up to 10th March 2015) were from Trip Advisor and UK Campsite.