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The last days of a stone circle Part 2

7 Apr

One year ago, on 7th April 2016, the Sighthill stone circle in Glasgow was dismantled and buried.

Permanently closed.

Permanently closed

The first part of my story of the final months of the Sighthill stone circle can be found here. This is the second, and final part of my account, focused on the last 18 days of this remarkable urban megalith. When discussing the use of stone circles from prehistory, we at best can hope to have a resolution of a decade or generation; for Glasgow’s stone circle , which stood for little more than one generation, I was able to refine my study almost day-to-day, with a visceral immediateness. So immediate that at times the charcoal was still smoking when I recorded it and I witnessed events as they happened, the ultimate fantasy of the archaeologist.

visits table

My documentation of the Sighthill stone circle – constructed by a team lead by Duncan Lunan in 1979 – began in early 2013, with my objective to use archaeological field methods and psychogeographical activities to document the ways that the stone circle was used. This included the assessment of use-wear patterns, the collection of found objects, photographic documentation and urban wandering. During the months leading up to the removal of the stone circle from the Glasgow skyline, I visited the monument repeatedly to monitor and record activities taking place there (see table above). I also inveigled myself into the destruction process itself, attending meetings in portacabins, learning about plans, drinking powdered coffee, wearing a hard hat. This culminated in access to the demolition itself.

As previously reported, my visits in February became technical fieldwalking exercises, picking over the stuff of old industrial Glasgow that had been used to construct the artificial park that the monument was located in. I collected fragments of gravestones, constructed by other monumental sculptors for very different reasons, lead squashed onto marble in memoriam.

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This was a landscape imploding, undergoing the brutal process of being demolished but also de-toxified due to its industrial past, and in the final days and weeks Sighthill the housing estate and Sighthill the park became home to big machines, fences, piles of rubble and horrid smells. Outsiders looked on in wonder at the plan to remove the standing stones even as they celebrated the demise of the High Rises.

Herald 14th Feb 2016

The Herald, 14th February 2016

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21st March

On a dull and overcast morning, I visited the Sighthill stone circle for the sixth time that year, this being the morning after a final equinoxal celebration had taken place within and around the standing stones. The afternoon and evening before, people gathered amicably, fires had been set, liquids were consumed, pottery was fired, and positive but bitter-sweet words were spoken.

solstice bike

I wanted to see what archaeological traces these activities had left behind. Like a detective chasing a serial killer, this was the hottest crime scene visited yet, with the maximum chance of collecting good quality evidence before the weather and by-standers intervened and the trail, once again, went cold. This was my big chance and I was not disappointed.

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Hearths and firespots littered the stone circle, and these were photographed with scales and sketched in my notebook. Some of the megaliths had been scorched by the fires which had danced amidst the stones just 12 hours previously. Fragments of ceramic and all sorts of other bits and pieces were collected from the stone circle. The monument was sampled and narratives constructed.

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The stones themselves had been changed in other ways, marked with clay-soaked hands, caressed with slippy fingers. I could have, had I wanted, taken fingerprints. I could have, had I wanted, sampled for DNA.

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Atop one of the stones, ashy powder was evident, although whether residue or deposit I could not tell.

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Weird inexplicable bits of wood were strewn around the stone circle, like props from the workshop of a serial killer; Ed Gein’s charred rocking chair?

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The evidence spoke of what I had witnessed the day before: fire, fun and feasting. A fitting end for this magnificent megalith.

 

 

4th April: Monday

The Final Countdown had begun and I knew the monument was to be removed in a few days’ time. Helen Green and I had been invited to the official dismantlement of the stone circle, and so now I was killing time, visiting almost aimlessly.

It was a miserable day. The park looked terrible, like a hungover clown.

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This green space, as a functional place of leisure, had been given days to live.

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As I walked up to the stone circle I passed a park bench upon which had been daubed the word: G O I N G

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The Sighthill stone circle itself glowed in the rain, the stones having an almost liquid quality, straining from their roots in the mud and concrete, trying to walk away from this mess, trying to escape their fate. And failing.

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wotrkman low res

Traces of the equinoxal fire remained, albeit reduced.

Pathetic dampness.

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There was a new development too – a grey fence had been erected to form a rough circular enclosure immediately to the north-west of the stone circle. Within this profane space, an enormously deep circular shaft was evident, a shaft that led down to an abandoned and forgotten railway line deep beneath the park. Two workmen with hi-vis jackets stood within looking shifty and feckless, watching me with suspicion as I recorded the stones, perhaps thinking I was secretly recording them. A thin young man dressed in a cheap black suit walked up to the stones, asked what I was doing, scuffed his shoes on the grass, and slouched off again.

Surveillance was increasing, the stones disappearing into a chaos of paranoia and misinformation. This was the beginning of the end of the beginning of the end I sagely thought to myself.

 

 

5th March: Tuesday

48 hours to go and at least the sun was out. So was Jack Forbes, the man whose mother and wife has enjoyed the stone circle so much that their ashes had been scattered in the circle, and the central megalith acted as a memorial to both women. I met Jack for the first time at the Equinox event and found him to be humorous and humble, surprised that anyone was interested in his story or that of his family. Shocked that Council plans for the demolishing of the stone circle had taken note if his circumstances. It was a privilege and great coincidence to be there at that time with Jack, as the removal of the stone circle began on this day.

As I approached from the park below, I saw that the metal fence around the railway shaft had been extended to wrap around the stone circle as well.

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Inside this arena, groaning crunching pawing machines could be heard, and as I reached the top of the treeless slope, having waded through sawdust and bone dry leaves, approaching the circle in the only way that was possible now that the park had largely been closed, I saw that work was afoot.

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A turquoise digger (a peculiar colour for such a machine I thought at the time and still do) raised its crooked arm up and down as if serving tea and biscuits, while a dumper truck say nearby, its bucket raised in supplication. One lump or two?

Monitoring the activity carefully was Lindsay Dunbar, an archaeologist, whose task it was to ensure as topsoil was stripped in advance of the removal of the stones themselves that nothing was damaged. Lindsay works for AOC Archaeology Group, and they had been contracted to do some of the archaeological work related to the Sighthill re-development, with one of their tasks being the documenting of the stone circle and monitoring of dismantlement. The day before they had carried out a laser survey of the standing stones, creating crazed images that would have made great JG Ballard book covers.

AOC scan2

Provisional data from the laser scan (c) AOC Archaeology Group.

Lindsay had also been party to implementing the mitigation strategies put into place to (as sensitively as possible) deal with Jack Forbes’ family matters. The topsoil where ashes had been scattered was scraped away carefully and would subsequently be buried with the standing stones for future resurrection. Offerings that had been laid around the base of the central standing stone for several years (as I have been documenting) were gathered up before machining started although I cannot now recall whether these would be stored for later, or returned to Jack.

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Jack was genuinely touched by these gestures, and I was pleased to see promises made by the Council and remediation specialists VHE were made good upon when it would have been just as easy to sweep all away in the quiet of a dull Tuesday morning. I had a nice chat with Jack and Lindsay, and we watched together as the fabric of the stone circle was gradually peeled away, exposing little else other than stark standing stones jutting from soil like dirty teeth in dirty gums.

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To the side of the stone circle, the railway shaft was clearer than earlier in the week, a sinister wormhole. What was down there?

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I can have a good guess. I’ve watched lots of horror films.

Everything must GO.

 

7th April – Thursday

This story has been told before, in many papers and by many observers. In a sense the very last day of this stone circle was the least interesting of its many last days because of its inevitablity and necessity. The journey had been so much better than the destination. As Jarvis Cocker once sleazily crooned: What exactly do you do for an encore? 

The day was stage-managed of course, perhaps even spun. The Council and VHE wanted to ensure nothing that looked bad would happen, and so had ensured that a stone was ready to be lifted, the effect that they were after a painless tooth extraction with minimal use of anesthetic and oral numbness fading as quickly as possible. A little film was made, and my presence at the dismantlement was viewed as an act of support for what was happening, and perhaps I was condoning all by being there.

 

 

What was I doing there? Was I a neutral and dispassionate observer, documenting a necessary (lets not say evil) sad event? Was I there to leer at the demolition porn being played out in front of me, in the thick of throbbing machines and lots of men dressed like the castoffs from the Village People? Maybe I was just a useful idiot after all. However, Helen was also there, and she is far too sensible for any of these roles, and so I assume in reflection that we were there to the bitter end to pay our respects.

The morning started hi-vis and portacabin-style.

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Everyone was shuttled up to the stone circle and we gathered together there, in a controlled members’ only space which reminded me of the UFO scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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There was a ‘genuine sense of anticipation’ as a huge digger loomed over one of the standing stones, the chosen sacrificial victim, which had been bound in yellow straps and now mutely dangled from the digger’s grip.

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Duncan Lunan was photographed – papped in fact – along with Linda. He was interviewed. Even I was interviewed (but not photographed, except by Helen, and only because I asked her to).

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me being interviewed low res

The stone was slowly popped from its pre-broken concrete socket and hoisted into the air. The small crowd of Council and VHE staff, friends of the stone circle, journalists and vaguely interested machine drivers, looked on, er, agog.

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The stone dangled for a little while and was, after being photographed a few million times with smiling humans standing in front of it, carefully laid into the back of a truck and covered over like a corpse. It would be remiss of me not to mention that as it dangled it swayed slightly in the wind like the aforementioned hungover clown.

Cameras and notebooks were packed away, the crowd queued up to hitch a ride back to the portacabin HQ, and we all drifted away from the scene. As we left, we were aware that the remainder of the monument would be quickly dismantled away from the gaze of onlookers, and indeed within a few days the megalith was gone, and the stones buried in a huge pit a few hundred metres away, one day to rise again. As I drove past on the M8 a week later, something was missing. How quickly will this feeling dissipate? And how soon will that damned devilish shaft be filled with concrete?

 

 

The last days of a stone circle in summary

A monument impossible to reduce to photographs.

A monument impossible to reduce to memories.

A monument impossible to reduce to images with scales.

A monument impossible to reduce to spreadsheets and context numbers.

A monument impossible to reduce to sketches and plans.

A monument impossible to reduce –

A monument impossible –

A monument.

 

FOR JACK FORBES

 

Sources and acknowledgements: I would first of all like to thank VHE and Glasgow City Council for inviting Helen and I to the dismantlement of the Sighthill stone circle and to allow me to be part of conversations in the run up to this event. In particular, I would like to thank Graeme Baillie, Gareth Dillon, Jackie Harvie, Peter Patterson, Ed Smith and Muir Simpson. I would also like to thank Andy Heald for keeping me abreast of AOC Archaeology Group’s work at Sighthill, and to Lindsay Dunbar; thanks also to AOC for providing me with some of the initial laser scan images for my records, one of which is reproduced above. Thanks to Duncan and Linda for information and advice related to the stone circle, and finally thanks to Helen for giving up so much of her precious PhD time to visit Sighthill with me, always pushing me to think about the monument in new and interesting ways.

 

 

 

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The last days of a stone circle Part 1

22 Sep

In prehistory, occasionally, stone circles were dismantled. Perhaps they had come to the end of their useful life. Perhaps they had become taboo or problematic places. Maybe the stones were required elsewhere for another monument. The dismantlement of a stone circle would have been no small task, akin in labour requirements to the construction of such a monument, and it may have been more difficult to remove monoliths from their sockets than it was to place them there in the first place. As Mike Parker Pearson has noted in this recent post for The Conversation, the removal of standing stones was sometimes a precursor to the creation of a ‘second hand monument’ using the same stones in a different arrangement in another place. This would be no trivial task, physically or spiritually.

The discovery of a monument dubbed ‘Bluestonehenge’ by the River Avon presents one such example. Here, a 10m diameter circle or oval setting of standing stones was dismantled towards the end of the Neolithic, with the removed bluestones perhaps being moved to, and erected at, Stonehenge itself. Mike Parker Pearson (MPP) in the aforementioned blog post has suggested that megaliths in south Wales were dismantled and transported to Salisbury Plain, once again to build Stonehenge. And it’s not just about Stonehenge (it never is). Stuart Piggott identified a stone circle had once stood within the henge monument of Cairnpapple Hill, West Lothian, which was subsequently taken down, with the stones used to build a large Bronze Age burial cairn within the henge. Although others have since argued that the holes Piggott found once held timber posts, not standing stones (notable Gordon Barclay and myself in the past), it seems Piggott may well have been correct. Josh Pollard convinced me recently that the section drawings published by Piggott were indeed stone sockets, not postholes.

At my own excavations at Forteviot Henge 1 in 2008-2009 (part of the University of Glasgow’s SERF Project), Gordon Noble and I found at least one broken standing stone associated with a Late Neolithic cremation cemetery and we have argued that a stone circle was dismantled here before the henge was constructed. The stones may then have been broken up, some ending up in the henge ditch.

broken standing stone at Forteviot

Broken standing stone at Forteviot (c) SERF Project

Why go to this effort? MPP has argued at this summer’s Hay Festival, “Why dismantle an original monument? We’re wondering if it actually might have been a tomb with a surrounding stone circle which they dismantled. If that were the case they were basically carting the physical embodiment of their ancestors to re-establish somewhere else. Their idea of packing their luggage was rather more deep and meaningful than our own. They are actually moving their heritage, and these stones represent the ancestors. They are actually bringing their ancestors with them.”

We can, therefore, find physical evidence for the removal of standing stones and the staged destruction of stone circles. And we have suggestions from MPP, Alison Sheridan, Colin Richards, Gordon Noble and others that there was a mortuary element to this process. But much less ink has been spilled on the process leading up to the dismantlement of the stone circle. How would such processes have been mediated? What rituals had to be performed to ensure the safe transformation of the stone circle in such a dramatic way? How much access was granted to the process and what did people think as they saw the stones, as MPP puts it, carted away for another purpose in another place?

The Sighthill stone circle in Glasgow offers a wonderful opportunity to reflect on these questions because it was dismantled in April 2016. I was fortunate enough to be allowed access to the plans for dismantlement and invited to observe the process itself, and in the run up to dismantlement visited the stones obsessively to document their final weeks and days. This was a powerful and emotional experience, and I got a sense that most who were involved in this process took it very seriously, so much so that the dismantlement of the monument had the quality of a solemn ritual rather than a straightforward demolition job. This post and the next one tell the inside story of the last days of Glasgow’s stone circle.

[For the back story to the stone circle and its dismantlement, see one of my previous blog posts on the topic and Duncan Lunan’s excellent book The Stones and the Stars].

British Arch mag article front page

From British Archaeology magazine, July 2014

Early in 2016 it became clear that the stone circle was to be removed. Demolition and landscaping work in the Sighthill area began to increase as early as January. This prompted me to start to visit the stone circle and the surrounding, collapsing landscape, on a much more regular basis than previously. In fact, I visited nine times between 29th January and demolition day, 7th April, with a frenzy of visits in the final month of the monument’s life.

visits table

I first became aware that the long-delayed landscaping of Sighthill Park was actually happening during a regular field recording visit to the standing stones with Helen Green on 29th January, where we also bumped into dowser extraordinaire Grahame Gardner and big crane expert Martin Conlon in heavy rain. As well as muddy tire tracks cutting through the park’s sickly grass, we saw a large strip of land that had been cleared of vegetation and a foot of topsoil, creating a rough roadway from the bottom of the park up to within about 10m of the stone circle itself. This cursus-like incision into the land appeared to threaten the standing stones with its violent intent, and signaled the beginning of the end.

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road low res with annotation

Around that time Glasgow City Council began to publish information on the progress of the re-development of Sighthill and this included hints on the fate of the stone circle, such as this entry from their Spring 2016 Sighthill Regeneration Newsletter.

Extract from Spring newsletter

A ‘second-hand monument’ was to be the outcome of this megalith dismantlement, echoing prehistoric practices.

I followed this visit with another a month later, this time part of a circular walk from the city centre. This time, the sun split the sky, and it was clear that little had happened since the last visit.

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I walked up and down the machine cutting, staring at the freshly revealed materiality of this park, exposing the fact that the hills of this place were created by large-scale landscaping using industrial material and domestic rubble.

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Tiles. Bricks. Metal and plastic pipes and tubes. Aggregates. Misshapen concrete forms. Wood. String. Bones.

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Rubber tubes emerged from the ground like intestines, or pieces of surgical equipment.

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I even found fragments of granite and marble gravestones.

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This industrial incision into the park and the exposure of its Glaswegian gut demonstrated that the park was made of Old Glasgow itself, the living and the dead, the factory and the tenement.

There followed more and more visits, fumbling around for some final truth related to the stone circle and the park, feverishly recording as much as I could while Sighthill fell apart around me. I visited again with Helen on 11th March, once again in the rain. The park itself was being torn apart.

the park ripped apart

Yet the stone circle endured, the Forbes’s memorial stone in the circle still clearly maintained with new offerings and attachments.

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New graffiti appeared, overlapped with once dripping, now congealed, red wax. E M I T

EMIT

Fire around the circle exposed further deposition. Business as usual, but with a new urgency. More and more visitors leaving their mark on the circle, in defiance of its certain fate, because of its imminent removal. Wringing every last drop out of the megaliths and this place before its too late. Because soon it will be too late.

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This was evident when I visited again a few days later, this time to attend a meeting I had been invited to, in a series of Kafkaesque portacabins. These were the temporary offices of VHE, the company who got the contract to do the first phase of landscaping ahead of the new Sighthill development. This huge £11 million task involves removing loads of smelly industrial waste, knocking things down….and removing the Sighthill stone circle. The meeting was attended by Council and VHE staff and architects; I had no influence in matters, and was there as an observer only. All sorts of plans and big pieces of paper were laid out on the table in the meeting room, and I was given a cup of coffee. I was impressed by how seriously they took the fate of the stone circle, with one eye of course on not getting any bad publicity, but also a genuine desire to treat the standing stones and the Forbes’ family memorial element of the monument with respect.

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After the meeting I walked around Sighthill, a landscape suffering major transformation, with fences being erected all over the place, pathways closed, and buildings abandoned and demolished. In order for Sighthill to reborn, it would have to die.

Sighthill Youth Centre

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Four days later, I was back again, for the final equinoxal event to be held in the stone circle, on 2oth March. Jan and I went for a walk through the development area, and the huge and austere Sighthill cemetery, with the dust of demolition never far away, even on a Sunday.

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As we approached the stone circle, it was, amazingly, a hive of activity, something I had personally never seen before. The event here was organised by the Glasgow Arts Trail, and brought together residents, friends of the stone circle and of course the man behind the standing stones, Duncan Lunan. The event focused on a series of paper pottery kilns constructed within the stone circle by artist Kevin Andrew Morris, with clay objects made by local school kids fired within the kilns.

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solstice activity

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I was lucky enough during the afternoon to meet Jack Forbes, the guy whose wife and mother have their ashes scattered within the stone circle and who are memorialised by the offerings placed on and around the central standing stone. It was humbling to meet him, a man who has probably been to the stone circle more than anyone else in recent years, and who was pragmatic about its removal. I also got the chance to speak once again to dowser and geomancer Grahame Gardner and recorded a short interview with him.

Later in the day, after I had gone, Duncan addressed the crowds and the story of the stones was, I am sure, told once again. Perhaps for the last time. Certainly, the last time the story of the stones would be told within the stones.

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Duncan addresses the crowd. Photo by Linda Lunan and sourced from http://www.duncanlunan.com/thestonesandthestars.asp

And so the final ritual played itself out with music, fire, laughter and probably some nostalgia and sadness too. Because reality had to be faced. These were now the last days of the stone circle, and the fences would be going up soon.The stone circle had 18 days, or 430 or so hours, left in its current form and location and inclination.

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A climax was being reached

dowsed in smoke and fire and music and love

smeared with urbanisation and tears and wet wet clay

hanging on by its fingertips

ready for change

to become something new

something different.

 

To be continued.

 

 

 

 

Oh Stones of Scotland!

6 Oct

Oh stones of Scotland!

When will we see your likes again?

Probably next time there is a lot of money swimming about to find quirky ways to celebrate some kind of important event or date, like the millennium of Scottish independence or something. 

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The introductory bit

How quickly can you travel around Scotland?

360 degrees, from region to region, council area to council area, local authority to local authority.

Shetland, Orkney, Highland, Moray, Aberdeenshire, City of Aberdeen, Angus, Perth and Kinross, City of Dundee, Fife, Clackmannan, Falkirk, City of Edinburgh, East Lothian, Midlothian, West Lothian, Scottish Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, South Ayrshire, East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire, North Lanarkshire, City of Glasgow, East Renfrewshire, Renfrewshire, Inverclyde, East Dumbartonshire, West Dumbartonshire, Stirling, Argyll and Bute, Western Isles.

Step by step.

Slab by slab.

Stone by stone.

Round and round the stones of Scotland.

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The bit about the monument

The Stones of Scotland, located in Regent Road Park near Edinburgh City Centre, was created by artists George Wyllie, Kenny Munro, Lesley-May Miller and Stuart Rogers ‘of the Paul Hogarth Company’. In a leaflet for the monument produced by the Edinburgh Geological Society (available online as a pdf) as much is made of the political dimension as the geological logic of this artwork. There is an explicit connection with the new Scottish Parliament which the stone circle ‘commemorates’ and overlooks – although it was officially ‘opened’ on 30th November 2002, St Andrew’s Day, two years before the parliament building itself was opened. But there appears to be a general appeal for Scots to involve themselves in the democratic process rather than any party politics evident here.

Leaflet to accompany the monument with an emphasis on poetry and geology

Leaflet to accompany the monument with an emphasis on poetry and geology – and strongly connects the new Scottish Parliament with the stone circle

Wyllie died in 2012, and during his late burgeoning career as an artist, created some memorably artworks in Glasgow, such as the ‘straw locomotive’ dangled from one of Glasgow’s Big Cranes, and the huge nappy pin that now sits in the location of the former Rottenrow maternity hospital (which happens to be the end point for my central Glasgow Urban Prehistory walking tour). This monument, in a different city, appears to have been a project which Wyllie was especially passionate about and followed on from a previous numerically and thematically similar collaboration he undertook in Ireland called Spires for Hibernia.

George Wyllie (source: The Guardian)

George Wyllie (source: The Guardian)

 

Spires for Hibernia (George Wyllie 1994) (source: George Wyllie Foundation)

Spires for Hibernia (George Wyllie and Kenny Munro 1994) (source: George Wyllie Foundation)

The Stones of Scotland is a stone setting consisting of a circle of 32 squat or flat stones of varying geological type, each sourced from one of the Local Authority Areas in Scotland. These are supposedly representative and indeed some have a familiar ring: the grey granite of Aberdeen, the red sandstone of East Ayrshire, gneiss from the Western Isles, Andesite from West Dunbartonshire and so on. Each stone has a wee metal sign next to it which names the Council area the stone is from (but does not say what the stone actually is geologically, for that you need the leaflet).

City of Aberdeen

These stones are set in a ring of grey granite chips (like the kind you can get from a garden centre) and around this, defining the edge of the monument, is a ring of grey-silver metal, hard up against a single cobble setting. When I visited, sun bathers lay extended out from the monument in a downhill direction catching the last rays of the low autumnal sun.

The circle and the sunbather

The circle and the sunbather, with various elements of the monument evident: monoblock, standing stones, garden centre gravel and metal edging.

Inside the circle itself is a paved area, a mixture of rectangular slabs of grey and red granites. And the monument incorporates vegetation too, with a tree in the centre softening the hard edges of the monoblock circle interior. Grass creeps through the cracks between the paving stones. One of the aspirations of the monument was to allow lichen and moss to grow on the stones themselves and at various times of the year, the monument becomes less, or more, hirsute. At the foot of the tree is yet more gravel and a white quartz-like boulder.

McDiarmid slab low res

Perhaps the most clearly political symbols here are not the stones that form the boundary, but rather two statements that sit within the circle itself, carved in stone. One is a reddish granite slab that contains a short quotation taken from a poem by nationalist writer Hugh McDiarmid (the poem that also adorns the notice at the edge of the circle pictured above). The words are appropriate for describing the process of bringing the stone circle into being, ‘gathering unto myself all the loose ends of Scotland’ – an ‘attempt to express the whole’.

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Nearer the centre of the circle is a raised Caithness flagstone slab which has, indented on the surface, a footprint. This petrosomatoglyph (that’s the second blog post in a row I have been able to use this word!) is accompanied by another quotation: ‘whose the tread which fits this mark?’ and it is dated 2000. Of course this draws strong parallels with Dunadd, an early medieval power centre in Argyll. There, a footprint was carved into the living rock and it was here that kings inserted their smallish foot and were symbolically married to the land. The use of this symbol is evocative and democratizing – anyone can place their foot into this imprint as they gaze over towards the parliament. This stone circle is the preserve of the few, not the many.

stones and sign low res

 

The archaeology bit

Despite my cynicism, The Stones of Scotland seems to encapsulate some of the properties that we readily associate with prehistoric stone circles. There has been much discussion in the last decade or so about the importance of the origins of the rocks used for standing stones. Geological properties, petrological accuracy and lithological identification have become fundamental elements of studies of megalithic monuments, in no small part fuelled by the work of the likes of Chris Scarre, Richard Bradley, Emmanuel Mens and perhaps most prominently Colin Richards. The latter has for some time considered that stone circles only make sense when we consider the source of the stones themselves and the journeys these took to the point of erection. More recently, academic sparring between Tim Darvill and Mike Parker Pearson has focused on which of them has identified the most convincing sources of the Stonehenge bluestones in the Preselis. (In fact they probably have both succeeded in finding Neolithic bluestone quarries as there were multiple sources.)

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One of the sources of the Stonehenge bluestones in the Preselis

One of the sources of the Stonehenge bluestones in the Preselis

But you would expect me to make this rather banal parallel. The Stones of Scotland after all is explicitly about bringing together Scotland metaphorically and literally. The act of setting these distinctly different stones in the same location is in effect creating Scotland in miniature just as Andy Jones has argued that the Machrie Moor stone circles are Arran in miniature.

Certainly, the process of sourcing the stones themselves was part of the creative process for The Stones of Scotland:

[a] creative journey was planned visiting each of the 32 regions of Scotland, involving local communities in finding a stone to represent their area in a central sculpture (from the leaflet).

I’ve had more heart-searching trying to place 32 stones than with anything I’ve done before (George Wyllie in a website about the stone circle).

In other words this monument has a spatial and temporal dimension and began to be built before construction started…just like Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles. The monument is a jumble of motivations, symbols, metaphors and lithographies, sources from across the landscape, with many people having played a part in the process …just like Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles. It is a symbol of power, of hope, of ideology, of the places it derives from, of the society which it purports to represent…just like Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles.

But there are perhaps other similarities that are less obvious. One of the aims of The Stones of Scotland seems to be to provoke debate and encourage discussion. George Wyllie has said:

..It’s a shouting place, if you like. There is a stone there and the stone has a footprint in it. The idea is just to put your foot in the ground and say, ‘Hi, I’m Scottish. I’ve got a say.

It is supposed to act rather like speakers’ corner (except it has no corners, it is a circle) but also as a meeting place for debate: ‘a place to inspire people to meet for discussion’ as one of the creators, Lesley-May Miller, put it. In other words, this stone circle is meant to be a moot, a ting, a parliament.

Another extract from the leaflet

Another extract from the leaflet

And I think this is how stone circles may have operated in prehistory, as tools of inclusion rather than exclusion, places where voices were heard and not silenced. The porous boundaries of standing stone monuments had a very different dynamic to the solid earthworks and imposing banks of henge monuments. Participants could move between stones and see in, and out, of stone circles in ways that were not possible at other enclosures. Of course, whether such movement in and out would have been permitted is unclear, but the architecture of stone circles lends itself to inclusion and transparency, characteristics one would also like to think could be associated with our modern parliamentary democracy….

 

The last bit

But then I am a bit of an old cynic.

stones of scotland postcard

I can’t see this stone circle having that kind of galvanising effect anymore (if it ever did). When I was there (admittedly not for long) I saw little interest in the stones, located as they are in a rather quiet spot beside where the tourist buses park. (There were plenty of bored coach drivers hanging about on the pavement.) Some tourists walked past, glanced at the circle, pointed at the parliament beyond it and then moved on. Sunbathers sunbathed. Two women nearby were put through their paces by a ‘personal trainer’ in a scene of American Psycho hollowness. The circle in not indicated by any signs or included on the map of the park (a fate shared with the Sighthill Stone Circle).

IMG_4756

Park information board, with no mention of the stone circle but plenty of stuff about Victorian statues and follies.

The monument itself was adorned by an empty Tennent’s lager can which rolled about in the breeze, coming to a stop beside the medium-grained dolerite of North Lanarkshire. Broken glass was scattered across the monoblock interior and an empty pill blister pack lay beside the metal sign that said ‘Stirling’. Litter was evident too.

north lanarkshire low res

In an era when people in Scotland have become more engaged in politics and the future than at any time in living memory, The Stones of Scotland seems like a relic from the ancient past, when tangible monuments and big gestures were required to enthuse the public and remind them of their political heritage and social responsibilities to engage. The rubbish, the weeds, the casual indifference made me want to go round the stone circle and re-name all of the Council area sources with the stuff of Scotland, or at least the stuff of the mythical Scotland that the circle alludes to – haggis, Irn Bru, mince and tatties, that kind of thing. The Scotland that is overlain on the Scotland that never was, the Scotland of the SNP, Trainspotting (some of which was filmed within a mile of this location) and self-confidence / self-loathing complexity.

irn bru low res

haggis low res

mince n tatties low res

Can the hopes of a nation ever be realised through geology samples?

This Neo Brutalism

15 Jun

This Neo Brutalism

The recent revival of media interest in ‘Brutalism’, a 20th century architectural style mostly associated with grey, chunky concrete office blocks, high rises and municipal buildings, is an interesting example of the ways that urban fashion can change dramatically, with buildings once seen as futuristic in terms of design and materiality becoming reviled and in many cases demolished, before in time being re-evaluated and treated nostalgically.

Of course, this trajectory reflects to some extent Glasgow’s Sighthill stone circle, as the recent article (which I co-wrote) in British Archaeology magazine suggests, but in this post I would like to explore a range of other connections, which will include Stonehenge and its concrete doppelgangers, 1970s artworks in the Scottish new town of Livingston and an architectural doctrine adopted by the Nazis.

But let’s start with the brutal and unforgiving form of Stonehenge.

Stonehenge has been characterised in many ways – awesome, spectacular, impressive and really expensive to visit.

But I think we could also describe it as brutal: imposing in form, cold in materiality, grey in colour and impassive in demeanour. This is, after all, a monument to death according to the recent Stonehenge Riverside Project and Mike Parker Pearson. A monument that would have no doubt caused the deaths and injuries of many in its construction over many centuries, a grim place which imposed itself on the landscape and the people of the 3rd millennium BC.

Brutal

Brutal

But of course Stonehenge was about so much more, and despite the appearances of the so-called concrete monstrosities that it spawned, the 20th century architectural style sometimes known as Brutalism was not really about grim-ness or grey-ness. It was about modernity, democracy, equality. It was about the future.

Like Stonehenge, Brutalism was ‘the futuristic funhouse fantasy of precipitous balconies sailing through the sky’ as Christopher Beanland has recently argued, with architectural flourishes including megalithic lintels, high rise trilithons and monoliths.

Trellick Tower with monolith tower and lintels

Trellick Tower with monolith tower and lintels

Indeed, I think Stonehenge shares many characteristics with Brutalist buildings. It is a monument about strength, it is ‘precisely functional’, and has at its core amazing simplicity when one gets beyond the awe and grandeur. The dramatic repetitive uniform sarsen blocks are the ‘repeated modular elements’ so favoured by modernist architects. Stonehenge was (and still is) transparent, with the internal workings visible from the exterior – in architectural terms, the ‘exposure of the building’s function’. The scale and angles created in the design of Stonehenge created crazy geometric arrangements that almost seem to be impossible.  And many Brutalist buildings of the 1950s and 1960s were public buildings, places of work and learning, architectural foci for lots of people to gather, ‘civic megaliths’ as Beanland called them.

And of course, Stonehenge is now held up with a hell of a lot of concrete (usually hidden from sight as concrete is a material that can easily be disguised and hidden in many ways).

This is a material connection that seems to have been made by those who have made reproduction Stonehenges around the world, because these often consist of solid concrete blocks, arranged in sarsen-like trilithons. Achill-henge in County Mayo, Ireland, is a concrete version of Stonehenge that was built over a weekend in November 2011. This ‘protest’ monument is built of 30 or so concrete monoliths, each 4.5m high; blocks lies across the top, connecting these together, acting as lintels and completing the concrete trilithons. The Stonehenge memorial in Maryhill, Washington, is another concrete Stonehenge-alike. This is a memorial to US soldiers who died in the 1st World War, and construction was completed in 1929. Built of reinforced concrete, it consists of a complete exterior ring of trilithons, with various other concrete monoliths inside. And the New Zealand Stonehenge, Stonehenge Aotearoa (which I have blogged about previously) is made of concrete blocks including 24 external monoliths which support the inevitable continuous lintel motif.

stonehenge aotearoa

The Stonehenge form seems to be universal, and in many cases concrete has been used, referencing the austere and blocky nature of the original, a monument that inspires brutal mimicry.

And it seems that other prehistoric monuments have in other ways become entangled with Brutalist architecture. Jonathan Meades has recently noted the inspiration that Bronze Age burial mounds were for the designers of concrete bunkers and gun emplacements in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

And Cornelius Holtorf has written of the role of prehistoric megaliths and ruins in the apparent Nazi doctrine of ‘ruin value’.  “In a nutshell, what Speer and Hitler proposed was to build monumental architecture in the present in a way so that the ruins of those buildings in a thousand or more years’ time would still be impressive and speak favourably about the time when they were built”.

Flak towers of Vienna

Flak towers of Vienna

Therefore massive hideous concrete bunkers and flak-towers designed by the liked of Friedrich Tamms (whom Meades said was “arguably, the first brutalist”)were built at least in part with serious consideration as to how the building would look as a ruin once it had fallen out of use or ceased to have a function. This in turn would evidence the greatness of the culture who built them in the first place rather like the pyramids of ancient Egypt. Tamms himself wrote later of the incomplete but impressive form of German megaliths, a product of another of the ancient cultures the Nazis wished to connect themselves to.

But what does all of this have to do with Livingston? I went there recently on a fieldtrip to visit a series of artworks that mimic or are inspired by standing stones. This New Town, as with others in Scotland such as Glenrothes, developed with plenty of open spaces and public art, especially in the 1970s. This is celebrated in a really great booklet called Out in the open, a celebration of public art in West Lothian with a particular focus on Livingston.

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My first stop was the Almondvale Business Park, where I wandered about for a while amidst lunching workers and car parks looking for two artworks called Floral Stone and Celtic Stone (both dating to 1995). These were located at either end of an angular building and more or less situated at the bottom of fire escapes.

The Celtic stone

The Celtic stone

The stones are thin angular slabs and they explicitly reference megaliths: Out in the open notes: “their monolithic nature makes them like prehistoric standing stones, a marker in the landscape, all the more powerful in a new urban environment as they seem to tap into ancient times”. In reality they tap into places where workers can have a fag, or in the case of the Celtic Stone, sits between some rather unprepossessing picnic tables in a small square hedged off area beside a road.

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Around the business park, entrances to car parks were marked by huge chunky boulders with the name of various buildings etched into them, a roll call of business park banality: Barbara Ritchie House.  Earlston House. Denholm House. Note to business park landscapers: big inscribed boulders don’t make the place any less banal.

From here, I visited a decidedly brutal piece of art nearer the shopping mall dystopia of the town centre – Standing Stones.  This piece of work was erected in 1978 by the artist Denis Barns, and consists of a series of large cast concrete blocks, including tubes, cheese-segment like blocks, and some tall rectangular monoliths. Barns was the Town Artist at the time and this is a number of his artworks around the town. This piece was located right next to what was at that time the HQ of Livingston Development Corporation. Out in the open notes:

“at the time of construction, the whole area was carefully landscaped. The artwork would have stood sentinel near the entrance, conveying the timeless solidity of ancient obelisks together with the modernity of man-made material”.

The original grey look of the 'monument'

The original grey look of the ‘monument’

The location has gone downhill a bit since then, with underpasses on two sides, the Council building no longer in use, and a rather grim car park just behind it. And at some point recently, the whole thing has been painted, transformed from the original Brutal Grey to an off-white and salmon combo.

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Perhaps this was because, as the photo below shows, the monument was in 2003 covered in graffiti, although even the new lick of paint has not stopped subversive daubings / gratuitous graffiti on this piece of art.

Standing Stones in 2003

Standing Stones in 2003

Graffiti in 2014

Graffiti in 2014

This is a very strange piece of work, of course recalling the blocky Stonehenge sarsens, but also industrial pipes, and giant cheese triangles, as locals jokingly refer to the squatter elements of the monument. And of course it also surely draws on Paul Nash’s 1935 painting Equivalents for the Megaliths.

Paul Nash Equivalents for the megaliths (1935)

Paul Nash Equivalents for the megaliths (1935)

I am not sure how much this strange sculpture evokes actual megaliths, but it has a certain brutal charm that fits well with the Clockwork Orange location.

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There is something brutal and Brutal about standing stones, because in some ways they share the ethos and appearance of modernist and Brutalist architecture. These are not direct equivalences of course, but perhaps allow a different way into thinking about prehistoric and 20th century structures, concrete or otherwise.

Sources and acknowledgements: my incredibly basic level of information about Brutalism came from a few media articles cited in the text above, as well as watching Jonathan Meades’ recent BBC series Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness (and Wikipedia!). The Cornelius Holtorf material comes from a section of his amazing online thesisInformation about concrete trilithons in part comes from a paper I gave at the EAA Conference in Plzen in September 2013 (Something henge: an archaeology of Stonehenge replicas) which was jointly written with Glasgow University PhD student Rebecca Younger. The Flak Tower image comes from a webpage related to an Open Architecture project related to these structures, while the Nash painting is available widely online. The photo of the original form of the Livingston Standing Stones came from the Out in the Open booklet, the graffiti version from 2003 came from WLC Public Art flickr stream. The photo of Trellik Tower was sourced from an architecture blog, credited to Andy Spain.

This post was edited on 26th September 2016 to remove correct the wrong attribution of an artist to the works Celtic Stone and Floral Stone.

Playground prehistory

20 May

Can urban prehistory help contribute to the improvement of our landscape today and to social well being? Is there a demand for the construction of new prehistoric monuments? Is it possible to re-engage people with their landscape and their past by drawing inspiration from stuff that happened thousands of years ago?

I think that the answer to these questions is yes, and in the next few posts, I want to look at a few contemporary prehistoric style monuments that have been built recently, and the potential social, educational and environmental benefits they are bringing.

Strathearn community campus timber circle

For thousands of years, prehistoric monuments have been in decline. They have been falling apart, eroded, damaged and diminished in number. But in the past few years this trend has changed. Megaliths, henges and other monuments are being built now in increasing numbers, with numerous contemporary functions.

My engagement with the Sighthill stone circle is where I started to think about this. Why don’t we still erect stone circles and timber posts? And I am not just thinking here about reconstructions of damaged or destroyed prehistoric monuments (although of course there is a role for this kind of thing), but also of new monuments, built today from scratch. These could well be inspired by one or more ancient monumental forms, but with modern utility.

A fantastic example of this has, within the past few weeks, been built in Crieff, Perth and Kinross. A new timber circle for the town, constructed within the Strathearn Community Campus. At an archaeological level, the circle is a half size version of a timber circle with central four poster  found and excavated at nearby Pittentian during excavations in advance of the Beauly to Denny power line.

Preparing the ground

Preparing the ground

The first post going up

The first post going up

Construction nearing completion

Construction nearing completion

The circle was constructed over a few days using a heavy machine and enthusiastic workers with hard hats on. The wood used is larch. In other words, there is not much that is authentic about this new timber circle. But this does not stop it working. This does not stop is being beautiful. This does not stop it being a structure that inspires and provokes reactions. The weirdly leaning central four-poster is based on excavation evidence, but is sure to get visitors talking, if not hugging the timbers as I did when I visited last week.

circle and path low res

Strathearn community campus timber circle 2

SCC timber circle from school balcony

This new timber circle is part of an ambitious programme of interventions in the Strathearn Community Campus, inspired by the school and campus senior management, with the support of local enthusiasts, Northlight Heritage archaeologists and Scottish and Southern Electric (SSE), builders of the new power line. The programme aims to presence the prehistory of the local area in the campus, to educate and inform, inspire and amaze, to put into practice the potential social and education benefits of urban prehistory.

As we left the campus last week, standing beside the timber circle was a teacher and a group of school kids. This was a drama class and they were discussing using the circle as a ‘stage’ for part of a forthcoming play. And the first visualisations of this new monument were produced by technical teacher Michael O’Kane very much within a classroom environment. Almost as soon as it was erected, this monument has a use, a function, a role in the community, an educational purpose.

I hope that the children in the school will feel able to use this timber circle, to touch the posts, spend time within the circle, view the monument as an amenity for their benefit.

The vision

The vision

Temporary exhibition in school entrance area

Temporary exhibition in school entrance area

By being useful, and inspiring children I think urban prehistory, new stone circles and megaliths can have a purpose in our contemporary digital society even although standing stones and timber posts are essentially analogue technology.  I look forward to collaborating with the Crieff timber circle team a lot more in the coming months and years.

Sources and ackowledgements: the timber circle has very much been driven by the enthusiasm of head teacher Christine Ross, and her supportive team. The pre-construction image comes from her blog, while the digital vision was prepared by Michael O’Kane. The circle was funded by SSE and suppored by the campus management team, and particular thanks must go to the shamanic genius that is Ally Becket of Northlight Heritage. The two construction photos came from Ian Hamilton and Colin Mayall, the second of which was sourced from Colin’s excellent local history blog. Thanks to everyone involved for allowing me to be involved!

 

Requiescant

3 Apr

Motivations behind the erection of modern standing stones exist in stark juxtaposition. They are either incredibly banal, casually thrown up in the middle of roundabouts or business parks, largely ignored and made to order.

Or they are incredibly poignant, powerful places that become a focus for memorialising something, or someone.

The former are easy to explain: they are little more than cheap perfunctory landscaping, filling a hole in the middle of a road junction, or a corner in a park, or a spare bit of ground next to a car park. The latter are much more difficult to make sense of. Because there does seem to be something about standing stones that compels people to use them as memorials, something to do with death and memory and stone.

In this post, I want to consider, using some examples that I have recently encountered, the enduring emotional connection people can have with standing stones, and how these can become a focus for communal and personal mourning.

sighthill central stone 2013

Personal mourning and memorialisation were very evident when I visited the Sighthill stone circle in Glasgow earlier this week, probably for one of the last times. The monument has become, in its last months, the focus of almost frenzied activity, with deposits around the central standing stone, evidence of various ceremonies, and the establishment of a rag tree next to the circle. In the final months of the circle’s life, even as tower blocks are torn down chunk by chunk nearby, the circle is blossoming into life, perhaps used more than ever, or at least having the appearance of being used more than ever.

Ironically, the circle is surrounded by the collapsing ruins of Sighthill.

Demolition at Sighthill

The central stone has been for quite some time a memorial to a lady whose ashes were scattered in this modern stone circle. Last year, there was a cross and some candles, but now there are many more items: postcards and pictures, a child’s money box, a cigarette lighter, flowers (real and artificial). The stone itself is wrapped in two red (now faded red) ribbons, attaching to the stone a wreath, flowers, a mobile phone, feathers. I don’t know how much of this curious assemblage relates to the deceased, yet this standing stone seems to be more closely associated with her and her family and their memories than any granite grave stone.

sighthill stone circle march 2014

I wonder how the connection between a family’s memories, and this standing stone, will be negotiated when the stone is finally removed with the rest of the monument later this year?

Standing stones are supposed to be eternal, unchanging, unflinching, which is perhaps why they so readily become a focus for memories that cannot be lost.

This apparently natural human reaction came to the fore earlier this year, when a small boy went missing in Edinburgh, only to be found dead in Fife a few days later. This tragic set of circumstances became a national obsession for a few days, and much to the fore of media coverage was the ‘community spirit’ shown in that part of the city. Once the bad news had been confirmed, a memorial sprung up in a small corner of parkland near where the boy had lived, a park that is decorated with a line of grey standing stones. Media images captured the sea of flowers, cuddly toys and objects left in this place with the standing stones overlooking it all, impassive.

floral tributes daily record

Perhaps standing stones are so comforting because they are mute, they don’t pass judgement.

It may have just been a coincidence that this outpouring of emotions for a child happened to focus on a place with standing stones. But there is no doubt that in some cases, rather than spontaneous memorialisation as was the case in Edinburgh, standing stones are explicitly built as part of memorials.

In an excellent lecture at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in Bournemouth last December, Howard Williams of the University of Chester, spoke (in the context of a session on the archaeology of Margaret Thatcher) about the memorialisation of the Falklands War, both in the Falklands, but also in the UK. In his paper, ‘Commemorating Thatcher’s war: The South Atlantic Task Force Memorial’, Howard considered a series of memorial places and monuments, and it is striking how many of these explicitly include standing stones.

national-memorial-arboretum

In 2012, the South Atlantic Taskforce Memorial was opened at the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire. This monument includes a number of materials from the Falklands, notably rocks used in the construction of elements of the memorial. To enter the memorial, one has to pass through a pair of austere grey-white standing stones that flank the entrance.

Falklands_War_Memorial,_Alexandra_Gardens

And this is not the only Falklands memorial that includes megaliths: the memorial pictured above is a monument to the men of Cardiff who died in that conflict, and it stands in Alexandra Gardens, Cardiff.

glenrothes war memorial

Standing stones are recurring motifs for war memorials around the UK. One of the most remarkable examples is the relatively recent war memorial consisting of six Westmoreland slate standing stones in Glenrothes, Fife. This monument was erected in this New Town in part because of the death of two local men during the Iraq War. The use of standing stones as a motif makes complete sense in Glenrothes, a New Town with ancient monuments already within its midst at Balfarg. And the design of the memorial is supposed to evoke the ‘past, present and future’.

glenrothes war memorial newsclipping

In this brief post, I have reflected on the recurring modern functionality of standing stones as  memorials for people, through serendipity, spontaneity or design. I am sure that I have only scratched the surface of this most serious of uses of prehistoric archetypes within very modern contexts.

Yet what these stone circles, settings and megaliths represent transcends time – the emotions of mourning, the pain of remembering, the need to have somewhere tangible to focus on, places to place flowers and to grow flowers, softening the hardness.

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It seems to me likely that many Neolithic and Bronze Age standing stones either memorialised, or came to be associated with, someone dead. Like hard, consistent, dependable stone, some things never seem to change.

Sources and acknowledgements: I was accompanied on my most recent visit to Sighthill by Helen Green, and she helped clarify my thoughts for this post. I am grateful to Howard Williams for drawing my attention to the Falklands memorials, and for stimulating my thoughts on the recurring use of modern standing stones for memorialisation. The Edinburgh image of the spontaneous memorial came from the Daily Record, and the Cardiff war memorial is a Wikipedia Commons image. The photo of the Falklands memorial was sources from TripAdvisor, while the Glenrothes war memorial image is commonly found online. The news clipping about this memorial was sourced from a forum discussing Scottish War Memorials.

Postcards from the edgelands

1 May

Recently I have been thinking about postcards. These low grade cardboard rectangles, measuring typically 105mm by 148mm, with a picture on one side, and space on the other side for a message, address and postage stamp, are an ideal medium to present a bold, tacky and / or representative image, or series of images, of a place, with the added bonus that it can be posted from that place to another place (or just taken home and stuck on the wall / fridge).

Recently, I purchased a fascinating, if rather strange book, entitled Ancient Stones on Old Postcards. This is a collection of black and white / sepia postcards, compiled by Jerry Bird, and first published in 2011 by Green Magic.

ancient stones on old postcards book cover

This book contains many postcards of genuine prehistoric megaliths, and other notable (ancient) stones, such as glacial erratics and big boulders on street sides. Some of these postcards depict long forgotten urban prehistory, and all are arranged thematically and accompanied by interesting narratives. Many of the postcards depicted are Victorian or Edwardian.  The example shown below, from my favourite section of the book entitled ‘Oddities and Follies’, shows a typically strange ancient stone, which may or may not have once been a standing stone, but certainly has some colourful associations, and somehow ended up in an urban context.

page from old postcards book

I love postcards like this, sometimes with staged participants gathered around the object of the card, or perhaps more accurately bemused bystanders watching the photographer intently. Postcards have a certain simplicity and magic to them, and it is a pity that many now have no room for bystanders. The images below are more typical of the type of postcard you can buy at prehistoric monuments today; I especially like the Stonehenge card which reminds me for some reason of a Ford Capri. These depict the touristic essence of places, but perhaps not the reality of the visitor experience.

stonehenge capri postcard

orkney postcard

Often, postcards seem to catch the essence of a thing or place, either by design or accident, and their purpose appears to be to represent the best – or the typical – of the subject. This spirit has recently been used in very interesting ways by the Caravan Gallery, an artistic venture which utilises the power of photography and a psychogeographical perspective through a series of projects. One of these is their exciting Pride of Place project, a participatory exercise within local communities across the UK where people are encouraged to reflect on an exhibition of photos that capture the spirit of their place. The collaborative and communal activities that follow on from this are an attempt to inspire people to think afresh about where they live and promote creativity. The images that start this process are also depicted on a wonderful series of postcards that have been produced by the Caravan Gallery, many of which I have purchased in various shops in central Scotland. These are postcards that, like the ancient stones images, capture a sense of place very well, of course accepting places are not necessarily as glossy as depicted on officially sanctioned postcards.

sunny scotland postcard

A typical Caravan Gallery postcard

My small collection of Caravan Gallery postcards was the inspiration behind the simple postcard-type image I created of the Sighthill stone circle for my last blog.

Sighthill stone circle Glasgow

I liked this effect, and so I have been working on a series of urban prehistory postcards, which are shown below. Like my blog, these postcards are a celebration of the sometimes forgotten, often ignored, occasionally abused, and rarely celebrated traces of the past that intrude into the modern landscape. Some are not from urban locations, but do capture the essence of the modern (concrete) lens through which visitors often view prehistoric monuments. But don’t let that put you off visiting.

Monuments of Scotland

Ancient Edinburgh Huly Hill

Cairnpapple Hill

Prehistoric Glenrothes

The tombs of Neolithic Rousay

Megalith signs of France

Carnac by train

Edited on 27th January 2014 to replace the erroneous Dalry version of this postcard!

Edited on 27th January 2014 to replace the erroneous Dalry version of this postcard!

Sources: The cover of the book Ancient Stones on Old Postcards is widely available online, and The Blowing Stone extract is sourced from that book. The Stonehenge with go-faster stripes postcard was sourced from a blog that looks at postcards and stamps associated with World Heritage Sites, while the Orkney postcard came from a blog about postcards. The bottom image in the Huly Hill postcard came from the Spine of Albion website, and the ‘Balbirnie buckfast’ image was staged and photographed by a former archaeology student at Glasgow University – if I can remember his name, I will update this!  

Thatcher’s petrified children

24 Apr

As far as I am aware, there was only ever one bit of urban prehistory that crossed the consciousness of the late Margaret Thatcher, the Sighthill stone circle, located near Glasgow city centre. This rather surprising monument has recently been thrust back into public consciousness due to the threat by Glasgow Council to forcibly evict the stone circle from its parkland location overlooking the M8 to a location unknown, an act that may involve dynamite and the total destruction of this classic piece of urban prehistory. This will not be the only blog I will write about this monument and its fate, so please indulge me as I introduce the monument, and my first visit to it, and place it within its highly politicised context, from Thatcher to more contemporary political concerns. The fate of the circle in the coming months and years will be the subject of future updates.

general view low res

The stone circle is located in parkland, surrounded by the M8 motorway, industrial units, cul-de-sac canals and Sighthill, an estate in Glasgow that was part of the historic regeneration of the City’s east end in the 1960s, built in a location that was previously largely industrial. The stone circle itself had rather more peculiar origins, built using labour from a Labour government Jobs Creation Scheme in the city in 1978-79, and constructed as part of the amazingly named Glasgow Parks Department Astronomy Project under the leadership of Duncan Lunan. The site was supposed to be a ‘mini-Stonehenge’ or at least copy an existing stone circle, although in the end it was constructed bespoke for the location it ended up and arranged relative to the night sky in that position. It was intended to be explicitly an ‘astronomical megalith’, and the chosen location, overlooked by tower blocks, and overlooking the M8, has spectacular views over the city.

The raw materials for the circle were 22 stones (in quarrying terms, ‘hard rock’, aka whinstone) of varying size and shape sourced from Beltmoss quarry in Kilsyth to the north of Glasgow, and these were brought to Sighthill by a Ministry of Defence Sea King helicopter, watched by a crowd of over 1000 people.

helicopter over stone circle

Most of the circle had been constructed by the time of the general election on 4th May 1979, which of course the Conservatives won. This is when – perhaps mythically – Margaret Thatcher turned her beady eye northwards towards this unique piece of urban prehistory. Duncan Lunan recounted in a recent interview in The Guardian that:

‘Six days after the election, I remember our shop steward coming in and saying that he had just heard Thatcher on the radio: ‘we shall be restoring full employment by the end of 1980 and there will be no more nonsense like the Glasgow Parks astronomy project’’

With that, work on the stone circle came to a premature end, with unused megaliths lying near the circle, and the henge bank only partially completed. Thatcher got wind of, and put a stop to, a project that was viewed by the Tories as indicative of socialist, lefty, arty, waste-of-tax, self-indulgent activities, and thus showed herself to be an enemy of urban prehistory.

building scotland's future

There are few finer indications of Thatcher’s indifference to prehistory – and the value that it still retains for society even today – than the ongoing conflicts around Stonehenge solstice events, notably in the 1980s, culminating in the so-called Battle of the Beanfield in 1985. Investigative journalist Andy Worthington recounts:

‘..over 1,300 police from six counties and the Ministry of Defence, with the approval of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, used unprecedented violence, in a civil context, savagely attacking 450 new age travellers, green activists and festival-goers as they attempted to make their way to Stonehenge’.

In the space of six years, the Ministry of Defence had shifted from providing support to build a stone circle, to flexing its muscles to stop people congregating at a stone circle.

Battle of the Beanfield as captured by Alan Lodge

Battle of the Beanfield as captured by Alan Lodge

Since Thatcher’s death, it has become commonplace to use the expression ‘Thatcher’s children’ in a range of different contexts, and it could be argued that the Sighthill version of Stonehenge represents – monumentalises – the lack of imagination and humour that characterised the Tory administration of the 1980s, shutting people out, shutting things down, petrifying the children.

Subsequent landscaping altered the original vision of the stone circle, flattening the henge bank and burying too much of the stones thus diminishing their height. And to this date, Lunan has been unable to complete his vision. Recently, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) carried out some survey work at the site, under their ‘Threatened Building Survey Programme’ and an excellent description of the monument by archaeologist Adam Welfare can be found in the National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS site number NS56NE 5025).

RCAHMS survey Feb 2013

RCAHMS at work

The circle consists of an outer ring of 16 standing stones, in a circular arrangement with diameter 13.75m. These stones are huddled together in four small groupings rather than spaced fairly regularly as one normally sees at stone circles. A single monolith stands in the middle of the setting, the tallest stone at 1.75m. The other stones range in height from 0.85m in height to 1.65m, and they come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Concentric and trapezoidal settings of cobbles lie within, and outwith, the circle. The remaining unused megaliths lie just downslope from the circle. As noted before, this monument is concerned with astronomical alignments, something I may return to in a future blog, and this accounts for the peculiar arrangement of stones and cobble paths.

alignments diagram

This, then, by any standards of nomenclature, is a stone circle. It is not an old stone circle, not a Neolithic or Bronze Age stone circle, but it is a stone circle nonetheless. And what interests me is that it is used rather like stone circles probably were back in the prehistoric day. It is a focal point for the local community, for both positive social gatherings (such as solstice and music events) and also for antisocial activity such as drinking, as evidenced by the large quantity of bottles and cans strewn in the vicinity when I visited, and the graffiti daubed on the stones. The circle is a focus for fire setting and burning, and also has an astronomical character, albeit one only really understood by an elite few users, and the builder himself. It is not an old stone circle, not a Neolithic or Bronze Age stone circle, but it is a stone circle nonetheless.

sighthill postcard

I visited the site for the first time just last week (which is a bit embarrassing given I am the urban prehistorian). I visited in the rain, walking through wet and muddy grass to reach the circle. The first thing that struck me was the constant noise of traffic from the nearby M8, and I was more or less able to appreciate the views across Glasgow afforded by this location, even although it was a little misty. The sensory experience of this monument – the sounds, the sights, the smells – makes it a unique experience. The stones themselves are strangely shaped, some squat, others angular. Bold and bright graffiti adorns many of the megaliths, and beer cans were strewn around, and near, the monument. The central monolith had a small memorial at its base, consisting of a small cross and two candles. This is, to all intents and purposes, a stone circle, and the trappings of modernity do not diminish this sense. With no pre-knowledge, one would not know how old this circle was, or why it was built. Excavation would be pointless – we know what we would find, and it would be mostly cement – and yet even Stonehenge is nowadays largely held together by concrete. The ambiguity of this place is almost painful, urban prehistory that in some ways is neither urban, nor prehistoric.

slot view of stones low res

As I alluded to above, the Sighthill stone circle is threatened with imminent destruction. Those who know Glasgow know that the east end of the city in particular has been undergoing dramatic re-shaping in advance of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The threat to this remarkable monument is slightly more obscure though, related to the city’s application to host the 2018 Youth Olympic Games. As part of this process, the long-awaited regeneration of Sighthill has been brought forward to support the bid (and so redevelopment will happen whether Glasgow wins these games or not). As part of this process, the stone circle apparently has to be removed to carry out ‘chemical checks’, to make way for a pathway, or sits in a location that is going to become a modern housing estate, depending on who you believe.

sighthill-regeneration-image

The new vision for Sighthill

What happens when a stone circle that is not an archaeological stone circle is threatened with destruction? Who speaks up for urban prehistory when it is not prehistory? Who are the advocates for 20th century megaliths? Certainly not Historic Scotland – this is not a scheduled ancient monument and probably never will be. Maybe RCAHMS who undertook the recent survey? Probably not, they simply record the threat as a matter of record.

This threat has not gone down well with the creator of the circle: Duncan Lunan has suggested the circle could only be removed by dynamite, due to the concrete base within which the stones are set which suggests that removal will be a permanent vacation and reduce the whinstone megaliths to aggregate. But this unfortunate series of events has spawned a campaign that has been established by the The Friends of the Sighthill Stone Circle group. They have an online petition that currently has over 3500 signatories and there has been a lot of high profile press coverage, and there are a good few well-known Glaswegian musicians, artists and writers who have spoken up against the circle’s destruction (as well as Julian Cope, the modern antiquarian).

summer solstice 2010

student tour image

A place of modern utility: solstice event 2010 (top), student tour (bottom)

Although I have no real sense of how the stone circle was used – or viewed – by the local community before it came under threat in 2012, it does seem that the Sighthill stone circle is now viewed as a genuine community resource, used for a range of events and regarded fondly by local people, and more widely, Glaswegians (at least those that know about it). I have no idea how much depth there is to this affection, but at least the voices raised in protest have prompted the Council to embark on a period of consultation on the plans including working out if it would be possible to retain the circle, rather than go ahead and just remove the stones as they were apparently set to do earlier this year. Nonetheless, the massive rebuilding of Sighthill is now underway, and on the day I visited demolition work had only just begun on a tower block on Pinkston Road, one of the few remaining remnants of 1960s Sighthill. It seems once again, as in 1979, the future of this monument to the past is in the hands of politicians.

circle and demolition low res

start of demolition 16th April

I suppose I am amazed by a few things here. Firstly, I am amazed that for 20 years I have driven past a stone circle that can be seen from the M8 and never noticed it. I am amazed that Glasgow has not made more of this bizarre and unique attraction, even although it is on the itinerary of some student tours. And I am amazed that in the rush to prioritise work on Sighthill as part of the bidding process for the Youth Olympics that the stone circle has been viewed as an impediment to change, and not a benefit to local people, visitors and the city. It would not take a good deal of imagination to visualise this stone circle as a centrepiece of the new housing and green spaces being constructed here, moving the megaliths from the fringes to the centre of this community, for the potential benefit of all. And I hope that the Council is now coming to that view as well.

I do hope that the ongoing consultation process and the campaign of the Friends will result in a more enlightened and imaginative future for this all too young stone circle. Frequently, as this blog is documenting, urban prehistory is forgotten, abused, invisible, built over or just ignored. At Sighthill there is a remarkable opportunity to use urban prehistory for the good of city dwellers.

Sources: Thanks to Gavin MacGregor for informing me of the stone circle, and the campaign to save it, both of which I was blissfully unaware of until late last year. For almost all information on the stone circle, I consulted the excellent website set up by Duncan Lunan, and I highly recommend it (link in the first paragraph of this blog). Duncan has kindly allowed me permission to reproduce a number of images from his website, which include the RCAHMS survey and solstice 2010 photos (Linda Lunan), the shot from the helicopter (Burnie) and the stone circle plan (by Richard Robertson). For reflections on the Battle of the Beanfield, I highly recommend that you look at Andy Worthington’s webpage (again, link in the blog) and his books on the subject (the former was the source of the quotation I used above). The Thatcher in Scotland image can also be found commonly online. For information on the Glasgow’s games bid, and current redevelopment plans, see the 2018 games website, and Glasgow City Council. The image of Sighthill post-development was sourced from The Glaswegian and is one of many aspirational images that can be found online. Information on student tours to the stone circle can be found at the Student Tours Scotland website, and this is where the student tour photo came from. The photo of the tower block being pulled down came from the Kirkintilloch Herald website. Please do take time to sign the petition.

I was accompanied on my first visit to Sighthill stone circle in the pissing rain by Jimmy Thomson, and it was he who took the opening photo in this blog: thanks for being there Jimmy, even with jetlag and wet shoes….

Updated 26th April 2013 to remove photo of police and miners at Orgreave and replace with an actual photo from the Battle of the Beanfield! Thanks to Welsh Andy for pointing out this error, and suggesting an alternative source of images, from a great account of the Battle by digital journalist Alan Lodge, whose image I have used in the blog.