Oh stones of Scotland!
When will we see your likes again?
Probably next time there is a lot of money swimming about to find quirky ways to celebrate some kind of important event or date, like the millennium of Scottish independence or something.
The introductory bit
How quickly can you travel around Scotland?
360 degrees, from region to region, council area to council area, local authority to local authority.
Shetland, Orkney, Highland, Moray, Aberdeenshire, City of Aberdeen, Angus, Perth and Kinross, City of Dundee, Fife, Clackmannan, Falkirk, City of Edinburgh, East Lothian, Midlothian, West Lothian, Scottish Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, South Ayrshire, East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire, North Lanarkshire, City of Glasgow, East Renfrewshire, Renfrewshire, Inverclyde, East Dumbartonshire, West Dumbartonshire, Stirling, Argyll and Bute, Western Isles.
Step by step.
Slab by slab.
Stone by stone.
Round and round the stones of Scotland.
The bit about the monument
The Stones of Scotland, located in Regent Road Park near Edinburgh City Centre, was created by artists George Wyllie, Kenny Munro, Lesley-May Miller and Stuart Rogers ‘of the Paul Hogarth Company’. In a leaflet for the monument produced by the Edinburgh Geological Society (available online as a pdf) as much is made of the political dimension as the geological logic of this artwork. There is an explicit connection with the new Scottish Parliament which the stone circle ‘commemorates’ and overlooks – although it was officially ‘opened’ on 30th November 2002, St Andrew’s Day, two years before the parliament building itself was opened. But there appears to be a general appeal for Scots to involve themselves in the democratic process rather than any party politics evident here.
Wyllie died in 2012, and during his late burgeoning career as an artist, created some memorably artworks in Glasgow, such as the ‘straw locomotive’ dangled from one of Glasgow’s Big Cranes, and the huge nappy pin that now sits in the location of the former Rottenrow maternity hospital (which happens to be the end point for my central Glasgow Urban Prehistory walking tour). This monument, in a different city, appears to have been a project which Wyllie was especially passionate about and followed on from a previous numerically and thematically similar collaboration he undertook in Ireland called Spires for Hibernia.
The Stones of Scotland is a stone setting consisting of a circle of 32 squat or flat stones of varying geological type, each sourced from one of the Local Authority Areas in Scotland. These are supposedly representative and indeed some have a familiar ring: the grey granite of Aberdeen, the red sandstone of East Ayrshire, gneiss from the Western Isles, Andesite from West Dunbartonshire and so on. Each stone has a wee metal sign next to it which names the Council area the stone is from (but does not say what the stone actually is geologically, for that you need the leaflet).
These stones are set in a ring of grey granite chips (like the kind you can get from a garden centre) and around this, defining the edge of the monument, is a ring of grey-silver metal, hard up against a single cobble setting. When I visited, sun bathers lay extended out from the monument in a downhill direction catching the last rays of the low autumnal sun.
Inside the circle itself is a paved area, a mixture of rectangular slabs of grey and red granites. And the monument incorporates vegetation too, with a tree in the centre softening the hard edges of the monoblock circle interior. Grass creeps through the cracks between the paving stones. One of the aspirations of the monument was to allow lichen and moss to grow on the stones themselves and at various times of the year, the monument becomes less, or more, hirsute. At the foot of the tree is yet more gravel and a white quartz-like boulder.
Perhaps the most clearly political symbols here are not the stones that form the boundary, but rather two statements that sit within the circle itself, carved in stone. One is a reddish granite slab that contains a short quotation taken from a poem by nationalist writer Hugh McDiarmid (the poem that also adorns the notice at the edge of the circle pictured above). The words are appropriate for describing the process of bringing the stone circle into being, ‘gathering unto myself all the loose ends of Scotland’ – an ‘attempt to express the whole’.
Nearer the centre of the circle is a raised Caithness flagstone slab which has, indented on the surface, a footprint. This petrosomatoglyph (that’s the second blog post in a row I have been able to use this word!) is accompanied by another quotation: ‘whose the tread which fits this mark?’ and it is dated 2000. Of course this draws strong parallels with Dunadd, an early medieval power centre in Argyll. There, a footprint was carved into the living rock and it was here that kings inserted their smallish foot and were symbolically married to the land. The use of this symbol is evocative and democratizing – anyone can place their foot into this imprint as they gaze over towards the parliament. This stone circle is the preserve of the few, not the many.
The archaeology bit
Despite my cynicism, The Stones of Scotland seems to encapsulate some of the properties that we readily associate with prehistoric stone circles. There has been much discussion in the last decade or so about the importance of the origins of the rocks used for standing stones. Geological properties, petrological accuracy and lithological identification have become fundamental elements of studies of megalithic monuments, in no small part fuelled by the work of the likes of Chris Scarre, Richard Bradley, Emmanuel Mens and perhaps most prominently Colin Richards. The latter has for some time considered that stone circles only make sense when we consider the source of the stones themselves and the journeys these took to the point of erection. More recently, academic sparring between Tim Darvill and Mike Parker Pearson has focused on which of them has identified the most convincing sources of the Stonehenge bluestones in the Preselis. (In fact they probably have both succeeded in finding Neolithic bluestone quarries as there were multiple sources.)
But you would expect me to make this rather banal parallel. The Stones of Scotland after all is explicitly about bringing together Scotland metaphorically and literally. The act of setting these distinctly different stones in the same location is in effect creating Scotland in miniature just as Andy Jones has argued that the Machrie Moor stone circles are Arran in miniature.
Certainly, the process of sourcing the stones themselves was part of the creative process for The Stones of Scotland:
[a] creative journey was planned visiting each of the 32 regions of Scotland, involving local communities in finding a stone to represent their area in a central sculpture (from the leaflet).
I’ve had more heart-searching trying to place 32 stones than with anything I’ve done before (George Wyllie in a website about the stone circle).
In other words this monument has a spatial and temporal dimension and began to be built before construction started…just like Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles. The monument is a jumble of motivations, symbols, metaphors and lithographies, sources from across the landscape, with many people having played a part in the process …just like Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles. It is a symbol of power, of hope, of ideology, of the places it derives from, of the society which it purports to represent…just like Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles.
But there are perhaps other similarities that are less obvious. One of the aims of The Stones of Scotland seems to be to provoke debate and encourage discussion. George Wyllie has said:
..It’s a shouting place, if you like. There is a stone there and the stone has a footprint in it. The idea is just to put your foot in the ground and say, ‘Hi, I’m Scottish. I’ve got a say.
It is supposed to act rather like speakers’ corner (except it has no corners, it is a circle) but also as a meeting place for debate: ‘a place to inspire people to meet for discussion’ as one of the creators, Lesley-May Miller, put it. In other words, this stone circle is meant to be a moot, a ting, a parliament.
And I think this is how stone circles may have operated in prehistory, as tools of inclusion rather than exclusion, places where voices were heard and not silenced. The porous boundaries of standing stone monuments had a very different dynamic to the solid earthworks and imposing banks of henge monuments. Participants could move between stones and see in, and out, of stone circles in ways that were not possible at other enclosures. Of course, whether such movement in and out would have been permitted is unclear, but the architecture of stone circles lends itself to inclusion and transparency, characteristics one would also like to think could be associated with our modern parliamentary democracy….
The last bit
But then I am a bit of an old cynic.
I can’t see this stone circle having that kind of galvanising effect anymore (if it ever did). When I was there (admittedly not for long) I saw little interest in the stones, located as they are in a rather quiet spot beside where the tourist buses park. (There were plenty of bored coach drivers hanging about on the pavement.) Some tourists walked past, glanced at the circle, pointed at the parliament beyond it and then moved on. Sunbathers sunbathed. Two women nearby were put through their paces by a ‘personal trainer’ in a scene of American Psycho hollowness. The circle in not indicated by any signs or included on the map of the park (a fate shared with the Sighthill Stone Circle).
The monument itself was adorned by an empty Tennent’s lager can which rolled about in the breeze, coming to a stop beside the medium-grained dolerite of North Lanarkshire. Broken glass was scattered across the monoblock interior and an empty pill blister pack lay beside the metal sign that said ‘Stirling’. Litter was evident too.
In an era when people in Scotland have become more engaged in politics and the future than at any time in living memory, The Stones of Scotland seems like a relic from the ancient past, when tangible monuments and big gestures were required to enthuse the public and remind them of their political heritage and social responsibilities to engage. The rubbish, the weeds, the casual indifference made me want to go round the stone circle and re-name all of the Council area sources with the stuff of Scotland, or at least the stuff of the mythical Scotland that the circle alludes to – haggis, Irn Bru, mince and tatties, that kind of thing. The Scotland that is overlain on the Scotland that never was, the Scotland of the SNP, Trainspotting (some of which was filmed within a mile of this location) and self-confidence / self-loathing complexity.
Can the hopes of a nation ever be realised through geology samples?