In prehistory, occasionally, stone circles were dismantled. Perhaps they had come to the end of their useful life. Perhaps they had become taboo or problematic places. Maybe the stones were required elsewhere for another monument. The dismantlement of a stone circle would have been no small task, akin in labour requirements to the construction of such a monument, and it may have been more difficult to remove monoliths from their sockets than it was to place them there in the first place. As Mike Parker Pearson has noted in this recent post for The Conversation, the removal of standing stones was sometimes a precursor to the creation of a ‘second hand monument’ using the same stones in a different arrangement in another place. This would be no trivial task, physically or spiritually.
The discovery of a monument dubbed ‘Bluestonehenge’ by the River Avon presents one such example. Here, a 10m diameter circle or oval setting of standing stones was dismantled towards the end of the Neolithic, with the removed bluestones perhaps being moved to, and erected at, Stonehenge itself. Mike Parker Pearson (MPP) in the aforementioned blog post has suggested that megaliths in south Wales were dismantled and transported to Salisbury Plain, once again to build Stonehenge. And it’s not just about Stonehenge (it never is). Stuart Piggott identified a stone circle had once stood within the henge monument of Cairnpapple Hill, West Lothian, which was subsequently taken down, with the stones used to build a large Bronze Age burial cairn within the henge. Although others have since argued that the holes Piggott found once held timber posts, not standing stones (notable Gordon Barclay and myself in the past), it seems Piggott may well have been correct. Josh Pollard convinced me recently that the section drawings published by Piggott were indeed stone sockets, not postholes.
At my own excavations at Forteviot Henge 1 in 2008-2009 (part of the University of Glasgow’s SERF Project), Gordon Noble and I found at least one broken standing stone associated with a Late Neolithic cremation cemetery and we have argued that a stone circle was dismantled here before the henge was constructed. The stones may then have been broken up, some ending up in the henge ditch.
Why go to this effort? MPP has argued at this summer’s Hay Festival, “Why dismantle an original monument? We’re wondering if it actually might have been a tomb with a surrounding stone circle which they dismantled. If that were the case they were basically carting the physical embodiment of their ancestors to re-establish somewhere else. Their idea of packing their luggage was rather more deep and meaningful than our own. They are actually moving their heritage, and these stones represent the ancestors. They are actually bringing their ancestors with them.”
We can, therefore, find physical evidence for the removal of standing stones and the staged destruction of stone circles. And we have suggestions from MPP, Alison Sheridan, Colin Richards, Gordon Noble and others that there was a mortuary element to this process. But much less ink has been spilled on the process leading up to the dismantlement of the stone circle. How would such processes have been mediated? What rituals had to be performed to ensure the safe transformation of the stone circle in such a dramatic way? How much access was granted to the process and what did people think as they saw the stones, as MPP puts it, carted away for another purpose in another place?
The Sighthill stone circle in Glasgow offers a wonderful opportunity to reflect on these questions because it was dismantled in April 2016. I was fortunate enough to be allowed access to the plans for dismantlement and invited to observe the process itself, and in the run up to dismantlement visited the stones obsessively to document their final weeks and days. This was a powerful and emotional experience, and I got a sense that most who were involved in this process took it very seriously, so much so that the dismantlement of the monument had the quality of a solemn ritual rather than a straightforward demolition job. This post and the next one tell the inside story of the last days of Glasgow’s stone circle.
Early in 2016 it became clear that the stone circle was to be removed. Demolition and landscaping work in the Sighthill area began to increase as early as January. This prompted me to start to visit the stone circle and the surrounding, collapsing landscape, on a much more regular basis than previously. In fact, I visited nine times between 29th January and demolition day, 7th April, with a frenzy of visits in the final month of the monument’s life.
I first became aware that the long-delayed landscaping of Sighthill Park was actually happening during a regular field recording visit to the standing stones with Helen Green on 29th January, where we also bumped into dowser extraordinaire Grahame Gardner and big crane expert Martin Conlon in heavy rain. As well as muddy tire tracks cutting through the park’s sickly grass, we saw a large strip of land that had been cleared of vegetation and a foot of topsoil, creating a rough roadway from the bottom of the park up to within about 10m of the stone circle itself. This cursus-like incision into the land appeared to threaten the standing stones with its violent intent, and signaled the beginning of the end.
Around that time Glasgow City Council began to publish information on the progress of the re-development of Sighthill and this included hints on the fate of the stone circle, such as this entry from their Spring 2016 Sighthill Regeneration Newsletter.
A ‘second-hand monument’ was to be the outcome of this megalith dismantlement, echoing prehistoric practices.
I followed this visit with another a month later, this time part of a circular walk from the city centre. This time, the sun split the sky, and it was clear that little had happened since the last visit.
I walked up and down the machine cutting, staring at the freshly revealed materiality of this park, exposing the fact that the hills of this place were created by large-scale landscaping using industrial material and domestic rubble.
Tiles. Bricks. Metal and plastic pipes and tubes. Aggregates. Misshapen concrete forms. Wood. String. Bones.
Rubber tubes emerged from the ground like intestines, or pieces of surgical equipment.
I even found fragments of granite and marble gravestones.
This industrial incision into the park and the exposure of its Glaswegian gut demonstrated that the park was made of Old Glasgow itself, the living and the dead, the factory and the tenement.
There followed more and more visits, fumbling around for some final truth related to the stone circle and the park, feverishly recording as much as I could while Sighthill fell apart around me. I visited again with Helen on 11th March, once again in the rain. The park itself was being torn apart.
Yet the stone circle endured, the Forbes’s memorial stone in the circle still clearly maintained with new offerings and attachments.
New graffiti appeared, overlapped with once dripping, now congealed, red wax. E M I T
Fire around the circle exposed further deposition. Business as usual, but with a new urgency. More and more visitors leaving their mark on the circle, in defiance of its certain fate, because of its imminent removal. Wringing every last drop out of the megaliths and this place before its too late. Because soon it will be too late.
This was evident when I visited again a few days later, this time to attend a meeting I had been invited to, in a series of Kafkaesque portacabins. These were the temporary offices of VHE, the company who got the contract to do the first phase of landscaping ahead of the new Sighthill development. This huge £11 million task involves removing loads of smelly industrial waste, knocking things down….and removing the Sighthill stone circle. The meeting was attended by Council and VHE staff and architects; I had no influence in matters, and was there as an observer only. All sorts of plans and big pieces of paper were laid out on the table in the meeting room, and I was given a cup of coffee. I was impressed by how seriously they took the fate of the stone circle, with one eye of course on not getting any bad publicity, but also a genuine desire to treat the standing stones and the Forbes’ family memorial element of the monument with respect.
After the meeting I walked around Sighthill, a landscape suffering major transformation, with fences being erected all over the place, pathways closed, and buildings abandoned and demolished. In order for Sighthill to reborn, it would have to die.
Four days later, I was back again, for the final equinoxal event to be held in the stone circle, on 2oth March. Jan and I went for a walk through the development area, and the huge and austere Sighthill cemetery, with the dust of demolition never far away, even on a Sunday.
As we approached the stone circle, it was, amazingly, a hive of activity, something I had personally never seen before. The event here was organised by the Glasgow Arts Trail, and brought together residents, friends of the stone circle and of course the man behind the standing stones, Duncan Lunan. The event focused on a series of paper pottery kilns constructed within the stone circle by artist Kevin Andrew Morris, with clay objects made by local school kids fired within the kilns.
I was lucky enough during the afternoon to meet Jack Forbes, the guy whose wife and mother have their ashes scattered within the stone circle and who are memorialised by the offerings placed on and around the central standing stone. It was humbling to meet him, a man who has probably been to the stone circle more than anyone else in recent years, and who was pragmatic about its removal. I also got the chance to speak once again to dowser and geomancer Grahame Gardner and recorded a short interview with him.
Later in the day, after I had gone, Duncan addressed the crowds and the story of the stones was, I am sure, told once again. Perhaps for the last time. Certainly, the last time the story of the stones would be told within the stones.
And so the final ritual played itself out with music, fire, laughter and probably some nostalgia and sadness too. Because reality had to be faced. These were now the last days of the stone circle, and the fences would be going up soon.The stone circle had 18 days, or 430 or so hours, left in its current form and location and inclination.
A climax was being reached
dowsed in smoke and fire and music and love
smeared with urbanisation and tears and wet wet clay
hanging on by its fingertips
ready for change
to become something new
To be continued.