Shadow of the stone

27 Dec

Granny Kempock Stone (Gourock, Scotland): Top Tips Before You Go from TripAdvisor

“If you’re interested in anything historical, this is for you. 

There is something eerie about being near this stone….perhaps it’s the witchcraft that it’s suposedly linked to?!

We only stopped off at this for a matter of minutes, but worth it, if you like this type of thing.”

Andrew W, Trip Advisor

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The avenues and alleyways
Where the strong and the quick alone can survive
Look around the jungle 
See the rough and tumble

Sometimes we must creep around the avenues and alleyways to find truly ancient things, rake amongst the bins for the rubbish of the ancient past that refuses.

Sometimes we need to seek out the rough in order to make the tumble way back into the past.

But…..sometimes the stories of standing stones become more interesting when they become urban.

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Gourock, Inverclyde, is perched on the edge of the firth of Glasgow’s river, at the end of the line, and the beginning of so many journeys to the islands, doon the watter. Here, there are avenues and their are alleyways, wynds and braes, urban sandstone cliffs and serpentine staiways. Here be the Kempock Stone.

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This remarkable megalith, as so often with urban standing stones contained within a cage for whose protection it is not clear, is a well kent character locally, reflected in for instance a playful iron sign located on a roadside about 100m away.

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A sign that reveals the affectionate local name for this standing stone – Granny Kempock Stone. The stone is said to have the appearance of an old hag standing looking out to the sea, and folk myths have become attached to this stone like limpets, with the modern reference point for most stories drawing almost exclusively from an account of the Kempock Stone which appears in the Rev David MacCrae’s 1880 book Notes about Gourock, Chiefly Historical. This account tells of the mostly historical life of this prehistorical monument.

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Maccrae’s account of the Stone is almost the only source we have for the association with the eponymous granny (who might have been a witch), and a series of Lovecraftian rites that were once (and may still be) performed around this stone. It is worth reproducing key elements of that account here (and pictured is the original, above). Macrae’s lurid and tabloidesque description of the stone and its possible functions through time are at stark odds with the middle class designed garden context within which it sat even in the late nineteenth century.

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He notes upon walking up to the monument that “you behold, standing erect, a remarkable block of grey mica schist, that might (had Gourock been near Sodom) have passed for the bituminous remains of Lot’s wife.”

His feverish historical account then turns to darker matters still (at least for a man of the cloth as the author was) – the pagan activities and beliefs that this megalith provoked both in the ancient past, and the uncomfortably near past.

“It is supposed that the Kempoch Stane marks the site in Druid times of an altar to Baal; and that it was wont to gleam, more than two thousand years ago, in the light of the Baal-fire, with the blood of human sacrifices flowing round its base. [Hmm, wonder if there is potential for phosphate analysis around the base of the stone?!]

However that may be, the Kempoch Stane was for many centuries an object of superstitious awe and reverence. The very ballast for ships from Gourock Bay was judged sacred in old time for its connection with the “Kempoch Stane”. Marriages in the district were not regarded as lucky unless the wedded pair passed around the “Lang Stane” and obtained in this way Granny Kempoch’s blessing.

It was chiefly in connection with the winds and the sea that the Kempoch Stane was regarded with superstitious dread. Standing forth on the top of the rock….Granny Kempoch must have been a marked object to ships sailing up or passing down the firth; and would look like someone placed there to rule the winds and the waves, and watch the ships as they came and went.

At one time, according to tradition, a monk made money by giving his blessing to sea-going ships, on this spot. Another tradition tells of a withered hag, reputed to be a witch, who for years dwelt beside the mystic stone, dispensing favourable winds to sea-faring men, who secured her favour by suitable gifts before sailing from Gourock Bay. But long before, and long after, the witch’s day, the sailors and fishermen were wont to take a basketful of sand from the short and walk seven times round Granny Kempoch, chanting a weird song, to ensure for themselves a safe and prosperous voyage” (MacRae 1880, 5-7).

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This incredible account of a scandalous standing stone that was exploited for sex and money was derived from, one would imagine, local tales, with no written sources provided. Perhaps Macrae made some or most of it up, not beyond the realms of possibility for a Victorian clergyman with an interest in antiquarian matters. But it is a narrative that has endured, and a plaque located next to the corner of the cliff-top pathway that the Stone itself occupies reproduces in full generous extracts from Macrae’s account, perhaps appropriately set within a halo of rusting screws.

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This account renders Baal as Baai, but otherwise evokes the almost spell-like enchantment of Macrae’s words, a rap sheet against this misunderstood lump of rock. (Incidentally, given how close the stone sites to the edge of an old sea cliff, the act of moving around it would actually have been more perilous than it sounds especially is one were in a hurry or a drunken sailor.)

Perhaps these words were also carved on the curious cream-coloured marble plaque adhering to a stone walled structure that sits right beside the Kempock Stone, a touch which gave the whole setting a cheesy Hammer horror feel.

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I was unable to get close enough to this weird feature – which looked rather like a heavily weathered grave slab covered in tidy tiny (but inhuman?) writing – to read its surface. It added to the sense of mystery of this tiny portion of Gourock.

Archaeologists have done little to nothing to resolve any of this mystery and this is perhaps because our traditional tools – survey, excavations, careful recording, scientific analysis – are almost powerless in the face of a single standing stone. 

The National Monuments Record of Scotland has little to say about this standing stone, which has NMRS number NS27NW 5. Field notes for the stone from the 1960s record the size (6 feet tall, 2 feet across) and petrology of the monument (mica-schist) as well as repeating some of the points made by Macrae. And that is it. Nothing else of archaeological note to help someone wanting to make sense of this stone other than the vague assertion on the metal sign on-site that it was Bronze Age and erected around 2000BC which is, frankly, a stab in a millennium long bit of dark.

The NMRS fieldworker’s account adds one further detail though, another layer in this intriguing story set in stone, which adds depth and historical incident to Macrae’s biography of the Baal-stone.

In 1662, Mary Lamont, who was burned as a witch confessed to having attended a meeting when it was intended to throw the stone into the sea.

Huh? That must be the lamest confession ever made by a witch – basically attending a meeting that was convened for the discussion of the fate of an ancient monument. No doubt she appeared in the minutes of the meeting as ML and made the tea and biscuits at the end of the night.

In fact, the story of Mary Lamont, or Marie Lamont, was far more complex than the NMRS gives it credit for and, inevitably, rather tragic.. Of Innerkip (now Inverkip) near Gourock, Mary was 16 when she confessed 13 articles associated with witchcraft and consorting with the devil presumably in less than legally fair surroundings. She claimed the devil had given her his mark, and a new name – Clowts. Thus convicted, she was burned at the stake, with the locals apparently taking pity on her and throttling the young woman before the pyre was lit.

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From a nice little film about Mary Lamont, Clowts and the Serpent (embedded below)

Her confession related to the Kempock Stone was, perhaps fittingly, the thirteenth and last. That she danced around the megalith, ‘plotting to cast it into the sea in order to destroy ships and boats’ (Clowts and the Serpent).

This tragic story, the full truth is which is lost in the mists of time, is unlikely to have involved any real magic or witchcraft, nevermind the very devil himself,  but it has cast a potent spell over modern perceptions of this standing stone in a way I have rarely encountered for any other megalith. What is more, Mary’s story inspires creativity to this day. Bloggers behind the Inverclyde myth and folklore website, Tales from the Oak, have been involved in the production of graphic novels such as Identity, which was HLF funded and developed from working with local school children to celebrate their heritage. This included the tale of Mary Lamont and the Kempock Stone.

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A page from the Identity graphic novel

Perhaps a higher profile attempt to tell the story of Mary was a STV children’s TV show from 1987 called Shadow of the Stone.

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This show was a tea-time-at-the-weekend kind of thing, and is best remembered now as the big break for actors Shirley Henderson and Alan Cumming.

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Shirley Henderson and Alan Cumming on the set of The Shadow and the Stone. Photo believe it or not (c) Alan Cumming himself

The plot revolves around a 1980s’ school girl who, through the medium of the Kempock Stone, develops a strong and supernatural connection with Mary Lamont. The writer of the programme, Catherine Czerkawska recently described the plot:

Shadow of the Stone is a spooky tale of witchcraft, possible possession and burgeoning adolescent sexuality, all set in picturesque Gourock and Greenock on the Clyde. A young girl, Lizzie, becomes fascinated by the story of Marie Lamont, who was burnt as a witch in seventeenth century Scotland. Lizzie has a troubled family background and thwarted ambitions to sail, so when a yachtsman arrives from America, having navigated the Atlantic alone, Lizzie develops a crush, not just on him, but on his beautiful yacht. 

The power of the stone can be seen here in rather simplistic brush strokes as a conduit to the past, enabled by touching or hugging the stone, as Shirley Henderson seems to be doing here. (Note the signage for the stone, now gone.) The megalith acts as a literal touchstone with deeply encoded messages that only a kindred spirit to those who once danced around the stone can access. Forbidden knowledge, dangerous and confusing to adults (i.e. men).

shirley-henderson-at-the-stone

This programme makes the connection once again between this stone, and the sea, and women, and sexuality, and fertility, threads which run through all of the stories about Granny Kempock.

Alan Cumming, on his own website, reminisced briefly but fondly about working on this show.

Also made by Scottish Television for the ITV network,Shadow of the Stone is a six-part series about a girl and her alter ego from a century ago who had been burned at the stake as a witch. I played her boyfriend Tom, her boyfriend in both time zones. 

He notes that in every scene he was involved in, his character was said to be ‘lurking’ and this sums up nicely the role men have had in the story of the Kempock Stone – sleazy, exploitative, sadistic, judgemental. It is often said in folk myths that to be turned into stone was a common punishment for witchcraftery and covorting, and it is perhaps no surprise that the modern cutesy name for the stone derives from the apparently physical similarity between the stone and an old woman, or crone, or hag, or gran. Yet there is nothing about this stone that suggests it looks more like a man and a woman.

Mhairi Robertson's depiction of Granny Kempock, reproduced with permission

Mhairi Robertson’s depiction of Granny Kempock, reproduced with permission

 

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I visited the stone on a mid-December Saturday, parking down by the waterfront where the denim-grey waves pounded against megalithic sea defences, the fusion of stone and water occurring at a point that I was unable to adequately determine – in the same way as it was now almost impossible to tell where the sea began and the Clyde ended. Fusions of horizons on the horizon, creating fluid boundaries that barely exist. I turned my back to the roaring river to look inland and up to the urban horizon where past and present blurred, another fusion and confusion.

the-sea-low-res

Through the car park, up some stairs, not using a map, working from memory, I skipped across the main road – KEMPOCK STREET- and randomly turned left. Almost immediately I came across the entrance to a narrow alleyway that led to some steps. An iron sign bridged the alleyway – KEMPOCK STONE. Names pointing me in the correct direction, propitious omens for success. Over the avenue, up the the alleyway. Up the steps, to my destination.

kempock-steps-alley

kempock-steps

All the while I was climbing up a cliff face, sandstone outcrops overhanging gardens on all sides. At the top, I turned right and immediately saw….her.

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The standing stone was in a curious location, perched on the cliff edge and set within a compound of strangeness, with a stumpy stone tower with marble slab beside it, and an ornate gothic green fence around it, some upright post adorned with corrupted fleur de lis. Unsurprisingly, the megalith was caged.

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A closer look at the surface of the stone showed that three sides of if were adorned with carved initials and symbols. I was unable to see the fourth, dark, side of the stone. My notes, scrawled with cold hand and blue pen, documented these markings as best I could, subsequently let down by a botched scan on the work photocopier which it is now too late to rectify.

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Amidst the markings, aside the usual mixture of big initials and dates, and some bold lines and delineations, were what appear to be at least two mason’s marks.

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Reproduced from wikipedia under a creative commons licence (see list of sources at end of post)

Reproduced from wikipedia under a creative commons licence (see list of sources at end of post)

Perhaps here we can see the hand of men in the story of the stone at last, and we can also assume that the fence around the stone and the constructions around it were likely to have been a male domain when this work was undertaken. Superficial scrapes in the deep surface of this stone, nothing more.

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Around the base of the Kempock Stone was a collection of offerings (or perhaps I have been studying Neolithic pit deposition for too long, and this was just rubbish). And there was a hole in the stone, of which I can find no discussion anywhere. It was respected and perhaps even incorporated into one especially grand carving, a large ‘shield’ containing big writing and the date 1815.

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I took one last look at the stone and its bizarre mashed up contemporary setting, yards away from net curtains and tenement doors, and then wondered at the view from and past the stone, expansive and thrilling. If this is the original setting for the standing stone, it is breathtaking, and the connection with the sea, and the salty tasting air, is satisfying and obvious.

I walked out onto Bath Street where the nice iron Granny Kempock sign had been installed, defiantly beside the local church and a dog shit bin.

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By the time I reached the bottom of the hill I had almost completed my loop back to the start of my short urban walk, when I came across a rather creepy nativity scene in a small park. Here, offerings were being placed around a crypt, but perhaps the motivations behind this story were little different to the stories of deposition and ritual at the standing stone up the road, acts with the intention of paying respect to awesome forces, whether that be god …. or the sea.

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KEMPOCK PLACE. THE KEMPOCK BAR. Names, names, names.

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My walk had come to an end. The Kempock Stone had been revealed to me, although I had not yet had enough, and continued to sneak up alleyways into gardens for one last look at the dark, western, side of the megalith from below. I peered between bins and through wet washing like a megalith junkie, eager for one more hit of Granny K. A clear view remained beyond my grasp, but the peculiar and spectacular location of the stone was evident.

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Urban standing stones are rarely as accommodating, or have such rich biographies, as the Kempock Stone. The stories, myths and people who have an association with this stone, whether witch, mason, sailor, school girl or granny, give a richness of narrative that we rarely, if ever, get for the prehistoric incarnations of such monuments, and even excavation would scarce furnish us a fraction of this level of detail. It is the modern biographies of prehistoric monuments that maintain these stones, not the work of archaeologists or fence-builders or heritage managers. We should cherish and celebrate these stories, told in the Shadow of the Stone.

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Sources and acknowledgements: The lyrics that start the blog are from the song Avenues and Alleyways, written by Mitch Murray and Peter Callander, and most famously performed by Tony Christie. I would like to thank Fiona Watson for information about the stone, and Gourock-based artist Mhairi Robertson for kind permission to reproduce her wonderful and evocative drawing of Granny Kempock. The image showing the graffiti possible mason’s mark on the Kempock Stone was reproduced under a creative commons licence via Wikipedia – By Mgordon42 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, while the image showing mason’s marks was sourced from Edward D Galvin (1987) A History of Canton Junction. Finally, I have used the photo of Alan Cumming and Shirley Henderson without actually asking permission from Mr Cumming, an actor of some repute, who I am sure is far too busy to be dealing with unsolicited messages from bloggers asking for permission to use obscure photos from the collection of Mr C himself and first published on his extensive, entertaining and authentic blog. I hope that’s OK with everyone.

 

 

 

 

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8 Responses to “Shadow of the stone”

  1. YMIL December 28, 2016 at 5:25 am #

    very interesting. well written.enjoyed the way you described the various possibilities.Y.M.I.L

  2. Gary Brindle December 30, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

    Fascinating as usual and in this example the source of many tales which you have gathered together forming a great mix of old and almost new. There is a small stone built into the kerb of a wall near the police station in Forres,said to be where a witch in a barrel ended up after being rolled from Califer hill. I glimpsed a reference to it being a remnant of astone circle in an old book, but lost the reference. Suenos stone is nearby. If you are ever planning to be up in Moray drop me a note and I can give you some locations from my ramblings.

    • balfarg January 5, 2017 at 9:49 am #

      Thanks Gary, the witch barrel stone sounds interesting! Sadly I rarely get to Moray, the last time being a tour of Neolithic cursus monuments in the NE back in 2000…
      Kenny

  3. Ali Isaac January 4, 2017 at 7:27 pm #

    Fascinating! And so beautifully and creatively written, as always. A positive and productive 2017 to you! I’m looking forward to reading what you ‘dig up’ next… if you’ll pardon the terrible pun… just couldn’t help myself! 😁😂😃

    • balfarg January 5, 2017 at 9:47 am #

      Thanks very much Ali, that’s very kind of you. I hope 2017 will be more about doing things than writing about them, funding permitting of course…
      Kenny

      • Ali Isaac January 5, 2017 at 10:02 am #

        Absolutely, but I’m selfish… I hope you find time to write about them too. 😁

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