You might think that prehistoric monuments and things that happened thousands of years ago have nothing to do with contemporary political debates about identify, nationalism and borders. You may well also agree, as I do, with Niall Sharples who wrote over two decades ago that “… the archaeological record of earlier periods should not normally contribute to the discussion of a nation’s identity”.
But not everyone thinks like this.
Prehistoric monuments can become the plaything, for innocent or sinister reasons, of those who wish to make claims about national boundaries, ethnic or national identities – or to influence your vote. Such appropriation of the prehistoric past is always troubling in my opinion, although it could be argued that there is a sliding scale of badness at play here. At the (far right) end of the scale we have a recent iteration of the mission statement of the British National Party (from the 2000s, now removed from their website) which stated: “We enthuse with pride at the marvels of architecture and engineering that have been completed on these islands since the construction of the great megaliths 7,000 years ago”. Papers in the book pictured below warn against such corruption of prehistory for political ends: we should always be vigilant for such occurrences and expose them.
It is with interest then that appeals to the ancient past have become embedded in the discourse of Scottish independence, a process which concluded in 2014 with a vote of 55% to 45% to retain the status quo, but which inspired widespread political debate and continues to resonate strongly today.
I became aware of how this can manifest itself even in that most banal of places, the TV archaeology documentary. There is no doubt that nationalistic passions were released by the BBC TV programme Britain’s Ancient Capital: secrets of Orkney, broadcast on the BBC in January 2017.
Social media responses to this show included ‘the BBC is scandalously pushing…Neil Oliver’s tendentious, ludicrous and anachronistic British unionist line’. The well-known political persuasion of lead presenter Neil Oliver (clue: it’s NO, not YES) has been taken by some viewers as a driver behind the ‘Britain – not Scotland’ narrative evident in the programme, Oliver being accused of ‘shrill British patriotism’ and of being a ‘British patriot’ (which may or may not be an insult depending on your perspective). Although I was publically critical of the content of this show, I happen not to buy this politicized critique of the show, with my reservations about this programme rooted more in its repetition of the tired old tropes of Neolithic studies in Britain.
It came as something of a surprise to me to find out last year that a cairn had been constructed in 2014 right on the border between England and Scotland, a cairn that was an explicit rallying call for British unionism, a monument for those who did not want Scotland to become independent from the UK in the aforementioned referendum that took place in September of that year.
This is a ‘Scottish’ cairn: it is called The Auld Acquaintance Cairn, a Rabbie Burns name, located on the Scottish side of the Border, a reconstruction of a Bronze Age Clava Cairn. But it had a ‘UK’ team of builders and cheerleaders, invited to come from all corners to help in its construction, emerging into the world through shared labour, motivations and symbols, to create a whole that was stronger than its parts, Better Together.
It is a NO monument, not a YES monument.
It was built by the 55 for the other 45.
But. Despite being infused with unity and togetherness, constructed with good intentions as well as sweat and tears, I fear that its existence has, and continues to have, the potential to be divisive, festooned as it is with symbols and words that could be interpreted by some as divisive, even offensive.
Built in the months leading up the referendum in a frenzy of fear that YES might win, it could be argued that this is a cairn that has served its purpose. But, since the conclusion of that debate, the cairn has become something of a monument to victory, a celebration of something not being lost, a vindication but perhaps also a warning from the past, literally a folly.
The Auld Acquaintance Cairn was the brainchild of the polymathic Conservative MP Rory Stewart. The project to construct the cairn over summer 2014 was in part crowd-funded through an organisation called Hands Across the Border, whose website offers an archival (pre)history of the cairn. It is in a location that is cupped by a the gentle meander of the River Sark, the border between Scotland and England, but sits in the shadow of a placeless shopping mall.
The cairn was constructed in the period June to August 2014, and is a spectacular monument, consisting of some 130,000 stones.
Volunteers and visitors were encouraged to bring to the location stones from wherever they were from, thus ensuring the cairn was constructed of stones from across the UK, and beyond (with for instance a fragment of the Berlin Wall included). It is claimed over 10,000 people added a stone or helped with building the monument, with dry stone dykers doing the fiddly bits. Visitors were also encouraged to paint messages onto the stones, giving the cairn a colourful appearance which still survives several years later.
Various ‘celebrities’ spent time helping build the cairn or visiting the monument: Scotland’s only Tory MP David Mundell was there when the foundation was laid, grizzled explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes made an appearance on 28th July, and actor Joanna Lumley put in a shift three days later. “Historians Simon Schama, David Starkey, Max Hastings and Antony Beevor, the philosopher AC Grayling, Field Marshal Sir Charles Guthrie, and the writer Alain de Botton have all contributed stones to the cairn” (Cumbria Crack) as has the famous mountaineer Doug Scott CBE (Cairn Builder Extraordinaire?).
The cairn was a focus for events such as barbeques, teddy bear picnics, public shows of emotion, and a music festival called Brit Rocks! A poem – Cornerstone – was written for the cairn by Charlotte Higgins and carved onto two flat square slabs which were placed within the interior chamber. And apparently, some No voters and those who supported their campaign but who could not vote (i.e. anyone not living in Scotland) camped on the cairn overnight as the results of the referendum came in.
A large map was erected on site where visitors could mark where they and their rocks had come from, although the map appears to have had no room for 80% of Orkney, all of Shetland or much of western Ireland. Europe’s not there, natch.
As the cairn was being constructed, a short film was made about the project by The Economist. In the film, Rory Stewart described the monument as ‘a model of our country’ and the only physical manifestation of Better Together evident in the UK at that time. More emotively, he suggested that Scotland and the Rump UK were rather like a couple whose marriage was on the rocks and that one partner only needed to say ‘I love you’ to reconcile the partnership. (Was he really saying that the UK was basically just like a very unhappy marriage that neither partner should leave?) The Project Manager Angus Aitken went further, calling the cairn a ‘geological love letter to the Union’, that far into the future would stand as reminder of a time when the people of the UK came together through the medium of dry-stone walling.
Then – the referendum happened and the NO / Better Together campaign won. The border upon which the cairn sits remained softer than an egg that had been in boiling water for 60 seconds, and all inhabitants of Scotland were encouraged to pull together and move forward.
Hand Across the Border state on their website: “Now is the time for everyone to reconcile their differences and create a stronger better Britain.”
Whether this is better facilitated by the retention, or destruction, of the Auld Acquaintance cairn, depends if you are one of the 55 or the 45. Like megaliths, divisive political debates can have a long afterlife.
On a visit to the cairn in 2015, a year after it had been completed, Ian Jack recounted in The Guardian how the cairn was less noble in appearance than in aim. The banality of personal messages painted onto little stones was a little too much for him. He noted, “A monument intended to celebrate beautiful generalisations – political unity, friendship between peoples – has been altered (an old-fashioned aesthete would say damaged) by the intrusion of the specific and the everyday.” The solitude of the cairn was also noted (ie no one else visited while he was there), but so too was the noisy traffic flying past on the nearby M74 (the article calls it the M6, what this border zone of the motorway is known as in England). This sense of loss and disappointment is shared by a few (but by no means most) visitors to the cairn who have recorded their impressions on Trip Advisor (‘#4 of 5 things to do in Gretna’). One visitor called the monument ‘a mis-managed pile of stones’ which is actually quite a good definition of cairn.
The cairn was also vandalised that year, with Stewart saying at the time, “I respect that nationalists will continue to put forward their own arguments, but I fail to see what these vandals hoped to achieve by targeting the cairn at Gretna, other than to manifest their bitterness and resentment for the way in which the Scottish people ultimately chose to vote last year.” (Cumbria Crack). This vandalism appears to have included the daubing of ‘offensive slogans’ on the cairn, the breaking of one of the poem stones in the cairn interior, and removing the noticeboard next to the site and throwing it into the River Sark. This noticeboard floated down river, and was found on a beach a few months later by a dog walking former local MP, who returned this back on site for a photo shoot.
Was this a ‘nationalist stunt’? Graffiti on the cairn stones, reported on by The Daily Record, would suggest some political motivation for at least this aspect of the vandalism, with phrases added to the monument such as “Nicola Sturgeon is coming to get ye!” and “Don’t blame me a voted Yes”. In a poll, 54% of Record readers found the graffiti offensive, 46% did not (number of participants unknown) which mirrors almost exactly the result of the referendum.
When I visited recently with Jan, I was surprised how tidy and well-maintained the cairn is, almost three years after construction started. I was also surprised that there were no signs to tell visitors where to park or how to walk to the cairn, the only indication we were in the right place being a pair of plain noticeboards beside a gate in the car park of the Old Toll Bar Café, the first or last chance for refreshments in Scotland depending on your direction of travel across the Scotland – England border located 100m to the south on the red sandstone bridge over the River Sark. The noticeboards explain briefly the history and ethos of the cairn and advertise some internet links of varying currency, and also include sketches that were prepared when the cairn was being planned.
The noticeboard text is explicitly political. It is noted that the cairn “is a testimony to the United Kingdom”, situated right on the current border, but in a place that was once neither Scotland nor England, but rather ‘Middleland’. As far as I can tell, this is a tenuous-to-mythical historical convenience, promoted in the writing of Rory Stewart for instance on his website. Here, he argues that there is ‘nothing natural’ about a border between England and Scotland, and that the fact there is a border at all simply relates back to the Romans drawing straight lines on maps for their own convenience. (It’s amazing how some of the most potent legacies of colonialism can be traced back to the gratuitous use of such an innocent piece of stationery, the ruler.) Stewart argues that Gretna and the cairn sit in what used to be a Middleland, an ill-defined ‘upland’ zone between Edinburgh and Sheffield with heartlands in Northumberia, Cumbria and the Scottish Borders.
This frontier zone is the focus of Stewart’s most recent book The Marches (Jonathan Cape, 2016), where he recounts walking along parts of Hadrian’s Wall with his late father as well as a solo long distance walk across Cumbria. I have not read this book, only reviews, but it seems to fit well with a man who is passionate about the Borders and the borders and borders that should not be borders, restless to understand how the past, and landscapes, can help people define themselves. The Middleland theme is played out in this book too: it is an upland rural landscape (although it is far from all being upland and rural) “… a land naturally unified by geography and culture for 2,000 years, but repeatedly divided by political frontiers”. It all sounds a bit W G Hoskins to me.
Before Scotland and England, and amidst the periodic enforcement of a border here by ruler-wielding praetorians, Stewart in his website musings suggests that this area belongs to a misty-eyed time when there was “no single English ethnicity, or Scottish language”, and people on either side of what we now see as a border “married each other…wore the same clothes, ate the same food, lived the same life…and sung the same ballads about their exploits”. And yet why chose these specific traits to suggest cultural similarity? Why select certain centuries in the past and then set them up as a norm? This Borders romanticism would be less of an issue had it not been an explicit driver for the loud cairn construction campaign, drawing on the ancient past to legitimize modern political decision-making. In fact, it could be argued that Stewart misunderstands the nature of identity, mistaking shared actions, material culture and pragmatic accommodations for shared hearts and minds. Stewart’s arguments echo long-running discussions about the Dalriadan Scots in Ulster and Argyll, where archaeological and historical evidence has been used to argue for, and against, modern political boundaries. Such claims and connections can be dangerous, contested and illogical – on both sides of the argument.
More troubling still, the cairn builders seem to suggest that the political unity that a Yes vote in the referendum threatened has its origins in prehistory. The noticeboard goes on to say: “A cairn is a traditional northern English and Scottish marker in the landscape”, going back as far as the Neolithic. (Stewart repeats this in the short film linked to above.) This is nonsensical and a dangerous argument to make: are we now to define modern identities due to shared Neolithic monument traditions? Again, this reminds me of arguments related to Ireland. Matthew Stout (1996) has written about archaeologist Emyr Esten Evans’ ‘Ulster exceptionalism’, an attempt to demonstrate that megalithic tombs in Northern Island were different from those elsewhere on that island, with obvious political motivations. And cairns are not just found in Scotland and northern England – they are found across Britain and Ireland, and if anything you could argue there is an east-west divide. Furthermore, cairns come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and dates – it could be argued they are a very human thing to do.
Most ludicrously of all, the design template for the Auld Acquaintance cairn is a Clava Cairn, a monument style that is found almost exclusively in Inverness-shire. Very regionalised traditions in prehistory were commonplace and do not lend themselves well to narratives of British or UK wide continuity. And so all we need to do is select which monument types fit our argument depending on what boundaries we want to break down, or defend.
Back to our visit. We went through the gate and walked the short distance to the neat and tidy cairn, which has lost the fringe of slates and stones that were evident when it was first constructed. A noticeboard was located here too, although the aforementioned map which had stood on the site in 2014 showing where the component stones had come from, had been removed. I was immediately impressed with the scale and quality of the construction: this would have taken a lot of work, supporting claims from those involved in building that this was a project that meant something personal to them.
The cairn material consisted of many different types of rock and stone, with some of the stones brightly painted, with unsurprisingly a preponderance of red, white and blue. Personal messages with names, thanks and so on were commonplace, as were union flags.
One of the stones was painted red and referred to a place neither Scotland nor England: Ulster. Taken together with the Butcher’s Apron graffiti shown above, this demonstrates that political gestures, no matter how well meaning, will be appropriated for all sorts of different (or tangentially related) agendas, old scores being settled, old wars being refought. If you make claims to deep time, expect others to do so as well.
Another contained a message for our post-Brexit times: THE PEOPLE SPOKE FOREVER, the idea that a decision has been made, and everyone should now get together and make it work. A decision that cannot be overturned or even argued with. Maybe it is a warning. As with everything about this megalith, it depends on who you are: the 55 or the 45.
Another stone was decorated with a more primeval symbol – a prehistoric cup-and-ring mark. Using the logic of this cairn we perhaps need to abandon more national boundaries, as these symbols can be found across many EU countries.
There was evidence that some messages were becoming less focused on the ethos of the stone, with an Orcadian flag (which itself was defaced by vandals in 2015), and stones with messages written by tourists visiting the monument on holiday. There is a growing sense of the routine about this monument, and as time passes it will be more and more difficult for Hands Across the Border to retain the meaning of this cairn despite their aspiration for this to be a permanent reminder of the NO vote.
The interior of the monument was entered by a narrow corridor lined by smart red sandstone blocks, topped with stacked slates, and with gravel crunching underfoot.
At the end of the passage was the circular central chamber with high walls, 2m tall, enclosing and restricting views of the outside borderzone. Inside, a yellow stone slab was propped up against the back wall, containing one half of Charlotte Higgins’ poem; the other stone, broken in 2015, was only partially restored. The relative peace and solitude of the interior of the cairn, surrounded by beautiful stone work, and words which spoke of wars and memorialisation, was the most impressive and sombre element of an otherwise garish monument. Powerful or exploitative? It all depends. 55 or 45?
We wandered back out, and away from the cairn. There was a low hum caused by a tanker spewing wood chips into a metal container beside the cairn. The surrounding field was scrubby and untidy, a ghostly and abandoned camp site with electrical power fittings for caravans jutting from the ground like gravestones. These were arranged around a derelict and boarded up toilet block. Ahead, we saw a massive blue sign on the northbound side of the M74. It was a giant metal flag, the saltire, adorned with the words ‘Welcome to Scotland’ with some tiny YES stickers stuck to it. Lying twenty or so yards from this sign was a discarded and broken placard, the one quarter or one eighth remnant of a very different roadside message that once said NO THANKS. Right on the border, on the banks of the Sark, YES and NO not so far apart after all, both little more than a blur in the eyes of motorway-hypnotised drivers speeding past, even in the slow lane.
By strange coincidence, on the day of our visit, the front cover of The National newspaper was concerned with borders too. This is a Scottish paper that describes itself as ‘The newspaper that supports an independent Scotland’. The headline read: ‘TRUMP WON’T CROSS HADRIAN’S WALL: State visit will not include Scotland’. Behind this lay a weird montage of Hadrian’s Wall with the disembodied heads of Donald Trump (no hair) and Nicola Sturgeon (with sun rays shining beatifically from her chin like a golden beard, glowing in anti-Trump hirsuteness).
Scottish nationalists can play this game too in other words – here we have the misuse of the ancient past to make a political point about modern borders. Here, we have the common mistake of likening Hadrian’s Wall to the Scotland – England border, the straight line across Britain’s middlelands that Stewart was talking about. Here we have in one gloriously daft image the old myth that Scotland somehow repelled the Romans while England did not, and that this division is ancient and meaningful when it comes to defining modern identity. It is not and it does not, but that will not stop prehistory and our ancient past being used again and again in this ongoing debate. It was no surprise to me when I found out while researching this post that Rory Stewart was also planning a referendum-focused human chain of tens of thousands of people along Hadrian’s Wall in 2014, showing that this boundary is endlessly exploitable to people of all political beliefs.
It is almost too easy to use prehistory as a lesson from which we should learn – and yet, all we are doing is projecting our own concerns and concepts onto the mute archaeological record back to a time when these words and ideas would have made no sense. Often for the best of intentions. I have sympathy with this tweet from only a few days ago (at the time of writing) and yet there are so many assumptions at play here that just I don’t know where to start.
In the Channel 4 TV sketch show from the 1990s, Absolutely, there was caricatured Scottish nationalist character played by Jack Docherty called McGlashan. He was a failed writer who continually pitched ideas for anti-English and pro-Scottish plays to his long suffering posh (English? Scottish?) agent. One of the plays he comes up with is called Nip Nap Shite (‘well, you’ve certainly got an eye for a title’). In this play, the SNP (then a party a million miles from government) stand a candidate called McGlashan in a general election against then Tory MP John Major. “He’s so brilliant and Scottish, right, he wins with a 50,000 majority”. In another and much shorter sketch, McGlashan cycles up to a very non-descript Scotland-England border crossing. He looks around, crosses into England, shouts some abuse and then quickly cycles back into Scotland again. The border is quiet, the road empty.
Here we have Scots comedians laughing at ourselves, our complex identity in relation to England and the UK, our fascination with borders and seeing how far we can push them, for a laugh. The same issues of identity that Rory Stewart has been wrestling with – them and us / them or us? The 55 or the 45? Or just the 100?
The Auld Acquaintance cairn. Built on a border that is not a border. Made in a style neither local nor logical. A monument to British unionism drawing on a mythical ancient past to inform modern political identity. A place that is about uniting that can’t help but divide. Borders and boundaries that still confuse to this day – soft / hard, busy / quiet, first / last, 55 / 45. It all depends.
But one thing I am sure about – should auld acquaintance be forgot that megaliths and Roman walls should never be used to legitimize political arguments, to support the construction of walls, to make claims of identity, or to tell us how to vote.
Sources and acknowledgements: I have throughout this blog made use of information about the Auld Acquaintance cairn from the websites for Hands Across the Border and Rory Stewart (links in the text) – these have both been accessible and useful sources, and have helped document a most remarkable project.
Images used from these sources have been credited as such. I have attempted to give a source for more or less all images used above: no source means the photo is mine. The Marshes book cover is widely available online, as is the Orkney BBC TV show screengrab.
The book pictured at the top of the post was published by Cruithne Press in Glasgow in 1996 and is well worth a read. The Niall Sharples quote and Matthew Stout example both derive from papers in this book.
I did not provide a link to the BNP website. If one wishes to find the current cached source of the quotation from their old manifesto, google the phrase. I’m not doing it for you.
This post benefited from the insights of Steve Driscoll and Dene Wright, and Jan who accompanied me on the visit to the cairn.