Hot mess

Hot mess: a person or thing that is spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered, especially one that is a source of peculiar fascination.

Is that really a standing stone?! So must passers by in cars on the A8 near Edinburgh Airport ejaculate with great frequency as they pass by a very prominent megalithic upright in the shadow of an industrial unit. And well they might wonder what is going on when they spot out of the corner of their eye a right old hot mess of temporal entanglements.

Yet this standing stone demonstrates a key characteristic of urban prehistory – resilience in the face of change. These kinds of monuments act as a sort of fulcrum around which change happens, but yet retain their own internal integrity. This can be in the face of indignities such as bad planning decisions, a lack of care, vandalism, or even just being ignored.

The more cynical observer might even presume that this ancient survivor is giving our world of cars, commerce, and industry, the megalithic finger.

What is going on here? A quick visual inventory adds up to the sum of nothing much that makes sense. A standing stone. A cairn. A picnic bench. A fire escape. Some kind of rusty ventilation unit. A generic industrial estate building. It is all rather confusing: these seemingly random and largely disconnected things appear to lack synergy. It is as if some kind of time travel experiment has gone wrong and smashed together a whole load of things that existed in this single space but in different times. More of a peculiarity than a singularity. It is all rather surprising.

I guess a small percentage of the curious drivers or passengers in passing vehicles who spot this crazed arrangement might do some research when they get home or when it is safe to google. They might then stumble upon the fact that this is indeed a ‘real’ standing stone and not an unreal standing stone (in itself an interesting concept) and that it has stood here for rather a long time. Indeed of all of the things that are arranged in this location, it is by far the oldest, even older than the rusty ventilation unit. It is everything else that is out of time, disparate elements of this tableaux that have gradually accrued around the standing stone as if it were a magnet attracting 20th century crap.

This standing stone has been in the shadow of buildings for a long time, in the nineteenth century being close to a farm, Lochend Farm, which gives the stone its modern name. It’s prehistoric name? Who knows. By the 1940s the stone had moved (in context, not literally) from relatively rural isolation to being situated within a knotwork of rail lines and roads. Soon it would lie directly beneath the flightpath of the airport, and be made to ever so slightly vibrate according to flight schedules; the busy A8 road nearby is another source of vibration and gives this stone no peace.

1955 map. The standing stone is shown as an un-marked dot to the SW of Lochend Sch.

This is a standing stone that has been a mute witness to an ever-changing set of surrounds, from the turn of the seasons, to constructions and activities associated with thousands of years of human activity, the churn of change. One might imagine a stop-motion film of the life of this stone, extracted from the stability of bedrock or an outcrop, dragged, heaved into position, followed by a process of slowly moving from the centre of the lives of people, to the peripheral vision of a tired commuter.

A small noticeboard beside the monument, and its modern-looking cairn, tells the sum total of the story of the stone from our perspective, a banal account of pathetic ignorance, our know-nothing stance on such sites, which don’t make the textbooks, barely trouble maps, and warrant just one sentence in the National Monuments Record of Scotland. The local context is given more prominance in this megalithic short story:

 IT IS POSSIBLE THAT IT IS AN OUTLIER OF THE BURIAL AND RELIGIOUS SITE AT HULY HILL ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROUNDABOUT ALTHOUGH IT COULD HAVE STOOD ALONE. STANDING STONES OF THIS TYPE OFTEN HAD CREMATED HUMAN BONE AT THEIR BASE ALTHOUGH IT IS BELIEVED THAT THEY WERE NOT PRIMARILY BURIAL MARKERS

Situated on the other side of a huge roundabout and intersection is Huly Hill, an enigmatic and rather larger prehistoric monument consisting of a mound and three standing stones. Our industrial estate monolith appears to be little more than an appendix, a footnote, a PS, to this place, despite the fact we know bugger all about Huly Hill either, and what’s more, it is not even as easy to see from a car.

The standing stone is now associated with this industrial unit, part of an industrial complex rather than a sacred prehistoric complex. It stands outside the fire exit of a shapeless and colourless block that is inhabited for the time being by Element. The unit has all sorts of corridors and rooms, containing machines, desks, revolving chairs, meeting rooms and those plastic things that dispense water. This is probably not a permanent state of affairs – this place – this standing stone – was a ‘development opportunity’ in 1982 and will be so again. This building won’t he here in 50 years. But the standing stone will. It will outlive us all.

The standing stone in 1982 (c) HES

I visited this standing stone twice in 2019, in a more innocent age, after many years of yearning to touch its cold surface, rather than view it through rectangular voids in a fence, which has always given the stone the appearance of having been drawn on graph paper to scale. On my second visit I was able to get to the stone itself on a midweek visit. In the reception area, I barely needed to explain myself, as if visitors to the megalith were not as uncommon as I had supposed, something I found re-assuring. Here to visit Standing Stone. This way sir, how do you like its office?

As I was taken along a series of corridors, I began to feel sorry for the standing stone, alone despite the staff who sat at desks just metres away behind tinted glass. There is no escape for this megalith, no chance of peace to be found while humans work around it oblivious to its elegance and mystery. The office block arches around the stone, a semi-panopticon, but only with a dis-interested audience of sandwich munchers. As I approached the fire doors which stood between me and the stone, I speculated as to whether the stone was at times the victim of the tortures of office workers, cigarettes stubbed out on its grey flanks by bored smokers during tea break.

I pushed ‘bar to open’ and emerged into a different sonic environment from the low hum and muted sounds of the office environment. Ahead of me was the standing stone, hemmed in by monobloc and the kind of gravel one can buy in garden centres (sub-standard cairn material imho). This location was haunted by the drone of cars and motorcycles, and the muted roar of overhead planes. These machines fly over the stone constantly, silvery echoes of the comets and shooting stars that must have been witnessed over the monument thousands of years ago when the skies were darker and quieter.

I did not go back through the fire doors, now locked to me, and scrambled around the grassy exterior of the industrial unit to get back to the front of the building.

Despite the hot mess, the botched landscaping and compromised setting of this monument, it remains a constant, a fulcrum point. This is despite the peripheral role it plays in the life of almost everyone who encounters it. The stone has probably never been busier, never been seen by more people, yet it has an invisible quality. Office staff and lab technicians look through its transparent patina, familiar to the point of banality. Oh, you want to see the standing stone? Why?! Drivers and bus passengers shoot by, focused on the forthcoming traffic lights and road intersection, seeing the stone as a blur, never truly in focus except in the eventuality of a traffic jam.

Yet….in this ever-changing world we live in, the Lochend Farm standing stone offers a constant, unchanging, re-assuring presence, not moving or evolving, not in need of an upgrade or reboot, and never becoming obsolete. Just what we need in 2020 if only those who encounter this magnificent megalith would realise it.

Notes: The Lochend Farm standing stone was described by Smith in 1877 as ‘large standing stone..of coarse greenstone’ on the ‘south side of the Edinburgh to Bathgate road’. This brief note concluded, ‘It bears no sculpturing or inscription of any kind and measured about 10 feet in height from the surface to the ground’.

Coles (1903) showing the plan view of the Lochend Stone & Haly Hill stones

Coles, in 1903, added little more to this description in an account more focused on nearby ‘Heelie Hill’. Upon walking from the railway station to the cairn and standing stones, ‘the first object to arrest the eye of the antiquary is a great monolith, over 9 feet in height’. Coles did some recording, as the illustration above shows.

Thereafter there is no further archaeological engagement with the stone, which as the black and white image from 1982 above shows, stood in the farm ground near the expanding A8 road for some time. The post-1982 construction of the industrial estate here was when the landscaping of the stone, with gravel cairn surround, must have occurred.

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to the staff at Element who allowed me access to the standing stone.

Sources used above for images and the notes section:

Smith, JA 1875 Notes of rock sculpturings of cups and concentric rings and ‘The Witches stone’ on Tormain Hill; also of some early remains on the Kaimes Hill, &c; near Ratho, Edinburghshire. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 10, 141-51.

Coles, F 1903 Notes on….(4) a cairn and standing stone at Old Liston, and other standing stones in Midlothian and Fife….Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 37, 193-232.