For the next issue of History Scotland magazine, I have written an article on Scotland’s urban standing stones. In this blog post I want to expand on the rich story of one of those standing stones, the Lang Stane in Aberdeen. At the end of the blog post there can be found links to posts I have written about some of the other stones mentioned in the article.
Hidden in plain sight, only the throw of a fish supper away from Union Street in Aberdeen, stands the Lang Stane, a most peculiar example of urban prehistory. This angular standing stone is squeezed into a niche in a wall, looking remarkably like a human corpse that has been crammed into a coffin, buried alive. The stone has a kinetic, restless energy, as if at night it tries to escape from the confines of its premature burial. Inscribed – branded – across this stone cadaver in what I assume to be the torso area is the word LANG STANE in capital letters, with a suggestive slight pause between the two halves of its name, the deep breath taken before the coffin lid closes. Curious linear marks run across the stone, mostly natural erosion lines – wrinkles – but some hint at rough treatment at some point in the stone’s life – scars.
Is this actually a prehistoric standing stone? If it is, clearly something happened between 2000 BCE and AD 2000 that caused the stone to end up in this unorthodox setting. It’s shape has led some to suggest that it was once part of a recumbent stone circle, commonplace in North-east Scotland, although it is unknown what happened to the remainder of this monument, most likely a victim of more interventionist farming practices and early urbanisation in the post-medieval period. Canmore offers little more than a description of the stone, largely drawing on a brief note from Wyness’s 1965 book City by the grey North Sea: Aberdeen, a surprisingly rare mention of this stone in a book about the city.
The stone is shown alone in the 1746 Map of the Burgh of Aberdeen by G&W Paterson, here a solitary stone near a windmill; it sits poised to be swallowed up a tidal wave of urbanisation coming from the east, beside the track that would become Union Street. When the inevitable happened at some point after this map was made, according to Wyness, the stone was “built into the niche at the rear of Messrs. Watt and Grant’s building” and the street named Langstane Place. The niche is on the corner with Dee Street, named for the river, not the Tudor alchemist.
Appropriately for Aberdeen this stone is made of granite, and so it blends in with the background stonework and niche, three shades of grey. This is a big lump of stone, measuring 1.8m height, 0.68m breadth and 0.3m thick. It is pointed at both ends, more so at the bottom, which has a slightly green tinge. We have no way of telling which way up this monolith stood in any earlier incarnation in a stone socket; for all we know it is propped upside down, a cruel fate indeed. Little more can be said about this stone now, and I don’t think any form of direct analysis of the stone itself could shed more light on the story; this has moved from the purview of prehistorians to those who like to dig in archives.
The stone is enjoyed by some regardless of how old it is or how it got there despite the unpromising surrounds. A series of wonderfully strange photos can be found online showing the stone in various compromising situations. In the Megalithic Portal, The Captain documents the stone is “now presented in an alcove behind Burger King …. The poor thing seems neglected amongst the bins and street signs, but at least it is still here.” This is reinforced by a Google Street View image that looks like the work of Cold War Steve. Why not create your own versions?
There is a really lovely blog post written about the Lang Stane by the author Ailish Sinclair, who includes the stone in her historical novel Fireflies and Chocolate (GWL Publishing, 2021). She suggests the stone was moved to the niche in the 1960s but this must be a confusion with the published note on the stone by Wyness. She also notes a “faint six pointed star just below the text” carved onto the stone although I confess I could not find this on my visits to the stone. She also notes, “I like to pay the stone a wee visit when I’m in the vicinity, all tucked away and squished into its alcove as it is. There’s no scenic rolling hillsides or lush forests for the Lang Stane as enjoyed by its contemporaries!”. Such standing stones are indeed in unfamiliar surroundings, their present setting having been occupied perhaps for only 5% of the lifetime of the megalith.
I visited the Lang Stane twice in preparation for this blog post and the magazine article. I was of course drawn to the incongruity of the stones and its context, an unintentional masterpiece of urban juxtaposition. It sits on a curving street corner in the aforementioned bespoke niche, raised slightly from the pavement level on a sort of kerb, but not the kind of kerb that was in common use in the Bronze Age. Above it is an antiquarian road sign with a portentous finger pointing up the street and over the head of the stone.
The niche itself is in many ways as interesting as the stone itself, as I also found to be the case at the London Stone. It is defined by clean rectangular grey granite blocks, with shaped blocks forming an arch. The tidy look is somewhat let down by a metal cable concealer running vertically just to the left of the stone and a downpipe beyond this has caused unsightly water stains to form on one side of the niche. No history has been written about the niche, nor do blueprints or architect’s drawings exist (so far as I know) to show if and how it has developed through time. However, this old archival photo (source) suggests that at one point like so many urban standing stones this one was caged or held in position, in effect pinned down to avoid resurrection. And there was a much larger niche at this point too, coarser in stonework, wider in girth; indeed the different stonework suggests that this is a different niche, although presumably in the same location. Hints in the current stonework suggest there have indeed been modifications here.
I could see no offerings behind or beneath the stone, and nothing was draped from it, although surely from time to time football scarves are wrapped around it. The stone shares this streetside location with bins – a lot of bins as most of the images above show. Graffiti can also be found nearby: SAVE TREES FREE SPIRIT according to a 2007 photo on the the Megalithic Portal. This is a city centre edgeland, a place of smells and oozing liquid, a visceral street corner location, no place for a standing stone. But exactly the kind of place where we do need standing stones.
Diagonally across from the stone is a carry-out food place called Langstane Fish & Chips. This ensures a regular supply of punters walking to and fro to collect kebabs, sausage suppers, burgers and pizza slices. The standing stone is an irresistible place to eat beside, with the ritual consumption of food likely the kind of thing that happened around this stone millennia ago.
I started this blog post with the observation that this stone reminds me of Victorian photos of open caskets, the public display of bodies, memento mori. This postmortem photography was very popular for a while, a means to memorialise the dead on film. In some cases, the corpse was arranged as if asleep to give this impression in the photograph. Sometimes this was done publicly with the bodies notorious criminals, to show that they were indeed dead, and to kill myths and legends there and then, yet unintentionally creating a legend nonetheless.
This process, quite alien to us now, as alien in many ways as erecting a standing stone, captures for me some of the more ghoulish elements of urban prehistory. The Lang Stane sits on display, exposed, and for all intents it plays dead as drunks stagger past, and tourists trace the contours in the granite with their fingers. Photographers are drawn to it, not for the beauty of the stone but the weirdness of its setting, and like the dead it can do nothing except accept how it has been posed for our benefit.
But the Lang Stane, like other urban standing stones, does not ask for our sympathy, but might benefit from our thoughts, our concern, our whispers, a little care. It is resilient and will no doubt outlive us all. At least it is still here.
‘Weep not for me my parents dear,
I am not dead but sleeping here‘.
Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan who accompanied me on both visits and took the night-time photos in the blog above.
Links to blog posts about some of the standing stones in my Historic Scotland article (details of this article will be added when it is published):
Granny Kempock, Greenock – In the shadow of the stone (Urban Prehistorian post 84)
Dagon Stone – Dagon Day (UP post 7)
Hoar Stane, Tulllibody – The solace of deep Anthropocene time (UP post 97)
Ravenswood Avenue standing stone, Edinburgh – Behind bars (UP post 28)