My dad Michael is a very talented and creative man. I’m pretty sure his skills working with wood and carpentry would have made him an invaluable member of any Neolithic community. Good with his hands. A solver of problems. An improviser. When I was growing up I remember seeing on a shelf at my gran’s house a rabbit he carved from a block of wood, and to me it looked almost alive, life breathed into it by my father’s hands. It was dad who made the lovely little unit that I display my prehistoric style WH Goss pots on so you have probably seen his handiwork before if you follow this blog.
When we took my parents off for a few days to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary between lockdowns in autumn 2020, it struck me that both of them, and in particular my dad, were to some extent entangled with prehistoric rock-art. The hotel where my parents went on their honeymoon was the Cairnbaan Hotel, just on the southern edge of the Kilmartin Glen, a hotel with rock-art branding and a cup-and-ring marked stone on display just behind it.
I asked my parents about the rock-art and the cairns and standing stones that this area is so famous for – had they visited them on their honeymoon? No came the answer, although in 1970 they would have all been extant and presented to the public to some extent. To rectify this regrettable omission in the honeymoon programme, we took them to Temple Wood stone circles, Nether Largie South chambered cairn, and one of my favourite urban prehistory rock-art sites, Kilmichael Glassary. The name of the site – Kilmichael, the church of Michael – was not lost on me and my father was all too happy to oblige when we arrived on site.
The location of this large rock-art panel has always excited me, as it offers a viewing platform over houses and gardens, and is surrounded by a wonderful grey Ministry of Works Fence. In contrast to almost all of the other prehistoric sites in Kilmartin, this is proper urban.
This is a bit of an urban rock-art hotspot with the main panel showcased to the public being Kilmichael Glassary 1. KG 2 and 3 are smaller individual rocks while KG4 could not be located during recent Scotland’s Rock-art survey work at this locale.
The main panel is richly decorated outcrop of schist with wonderful natural cracks, fissures and hollows perfectly complementing the wide range of carved motifs to be found here.
The ScRAP team recorded the following description of this site:
A large, exposed rectangular area of outcrop measuring 7.4m by 3.8m and up to 0.7m in height, which slopes gently to the SE at a roughly 20 degree angle. The rock is a friable, medium grain schist with numerous fissures, natural hollows and has – in places – a rough surface. The panel as been decorated with over 150 motifs, including 110 cup marks, 7 large cup marks, 2 dumbbells, 5 cups with tails, 4 extended oval shaped motifs, 8 cups with partial rings, 1 cup with a tail and a partial ring enclosing the cup, 1 cup with a tail and a partial ring enclosing the cup and tail, 1 cup with a ring and tail from the cup to beyond the ring, a group of three cups enclosed by a ring, and three key hole shaped motifs: two of which are open at one end and the third of which is completely enclosed. There are also additional grooves, up to 5, which partially enclose a number of motifs on the lower E side of the panel.
This is of course not the first time I visited this site; this happened with friends many years ago when we were enjoying the NVA Half Life festival in Kilmartin Glen back in 2007. In the gloom we crawled across the surface of the rock, tracing out the cups and rings with our hands, most of them with deep shadows in their bases, the darkness of the ancient past unknown. There was an earthy dampness about the outcrop and it felt soft to the touch.
I had my fish eye camera with me that day and after some digging around in an old photo album, I found analogue documentation of that visit. One image (top left below) was an accidental double exposure which intermingled two carved rocks of very different eras – Glassary and Dunadd.
Rock-art is very common in Kilmartin Glen, and there are bigger and better panels to be found, notably Achnabreck which like Glassary is surrounded by a grey metal fence but is also perhaps the largest panel yet found in Scotland. It has its merits but it is rather….rural. I have visited this site many many times on fieldtrips and I recall once that a student found a golf ball jammed into a cupmark.
These kind of juxtapositions were at the heart of Half Life, and I looked back at a review I wrote about the experience for the Scottish Archaeological Journal. I noted a booklet that was issued as part of this event with essays by archaeologists real (Mark Edmonds!) and fictional. (I have no memory of this booklet nor do I know where in my dump of an office I might find it.) My review notes:
There I was handed a handsome booklet and map to accompany the Half Life experience, part tour guide, part spiritual wayfinder. I love maps, and the beautifully produced map of Kilmartin Glen with my pack depicts 16 key sites to visit and details of how to get there, but also features near invisible silver contours one can only see by moving the map against the light. The booklet itself is lavishly illustrated, with thought-provoking essays by archaeologists and artists. One of the themes of the booklet is the role of archaeologists in making the past opaque and mysterious through our activities and discourse, a sentiment I have a great deal of sympathy with. Fictional ‘journal’ notes by the archaeologist at the centre of the evening ‘play’ describe a local rock-art panel as ‘a ‘heritaged’ ancient monument, surrounded by railings and the static and safe interpretations that neuter the real power of a site’. This was brought home by my visit to site 15, a wonderful series of panels of rock-art at Achnabreck, each outcrop surrounded by a grey metal fence, one with a ‘wet paint’ sign still hanging from it. Each panel was approached by a wooden walkway, reeking of wood preservative, disenfranchising the visitor
from the pastness of the place.
I am not sure I would be so negative now, the creosoting heightening the power of the experience, laying bare the stark otherness of the past, rather than watering down the pastness of this kind of place. The stink of this place was the smell of the intermingling of the ancient and the contemporary, ritual freedom and managerial stricture, a powerful intoxication. The fence around Kilmichael Glassary serves the same kind of role, framing the rock-art panel as if it were really art, offering a buffer between past and present, living rock and houses.
There is a lovely description of a first visit to Auchnabreck by Thomas Legendre, the writer of the play that formed an evening centrepiece of Half Life:
At Achnabreck I approached an outcrop – one of several at that site – and gazed at the carvings. They seemed like depictions of atoms, solar systems, dartboards, raindrops with ripples fanning outward, and they looked like none of these things. Some included tails or
gutters connecting with others to form compound motifs, or else they simply merged into natural cracklines and clefts in the rock. I crouched down and traced the designs, comparing their worn texture with the cracks and fissures of the rock scoured by glacial action – and with a jolt I realised the carvings had been fitted between natural breaks or rifts in the surface,
incorporating its complex microtopography. These designs hadn’t been imposed on the landscape as if it were a blank canvas. They included the rock itself.
These tactile revelations were not for my dad, mobility issues stopping him from walking up to Kilmichael, crossing the stile back to the Neolithic, dropping to his knees to trace the symbols with his carpenter’s hands. Nonetheless, I will continue to regard Kilmichael Glassary as my favourite panel in the area, elevated by its urban surroundings and the fact that I visited it mid-pandemic with my mum and dad.
Sources: my review of Half Life can be found in Scottish Archaeological Journal 28, 153-55 (spine date 2006, actually published 2008). The Legendre piece of writing can be found here: Legendre T (2011) Landscape-Mindscape: Writing in Scotland’s Prehistoric Future. Scottish Literary Review 3(2):121-132.