Antiqua sub urbana

For most people, decolonial narratives are largely confined to the world of academics and cultural organisations getting on and doing this good work, except when government ministers and journalists decide to make a scary anti-woke fuss about it. However, in spring 2021, as we emerged from yet another lockdown, a carved critique of familiar colonial narratives was erected on a pavement in the centre of Falkirk, a statement in stone aimed at giving back agency to Iron Age people who once lived in this area. This public display of ‘flipping the script on colonial narratives’ as Louisa Campbell has so memorably put it has the power to open up new conversations about both Roman and ‘native’ relations, although there are problematic aspects of this new Antonine Wall distance sculpture that I want to reflect on here.

This political carved stone – a newly created distance sculpture for the Antonine Wall – was installed in central Scottish town Falkirk as part of the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall Project which is delivering a programme of instillations across the five council areas in central Scotland that the Antonine Wall traverses – from west to east, West Dunbartonshire, Glasgow, East Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire, and Falkirk. This has included Roman-themed children’s playparks and art installations as well as a series of replica distance sculptures.

Callander Park playpark (photo: Warren Baillie)
The Silvanus sculpture, near Croy, during construction in February 2021 (by Svetlana Kondokova and Big Red Blacksmiths)

For me (as I am not a 7 year-old child), the most exciting is the series of replica sandstone distance sculptures which are (almost all) copies of original carved stones found along the Antonine Wall. These iconic stones included information about the construction of the Wall in that location as well as a good deal of aggrandisement of the Emperor by blowing smoke up his ass in Latin abbreviation format. The Hunterian Museum has a fine collection of these stones, and a range of replicas. These objects are perhaps better known as ‘distance slabs’ but I am in agreement with Campbell’s deconstruction of this terminology.

Screengrab during a talk by Louisa Campbell to Glasgow Archaeological Society in December 2020 (image: NMS)

While much ink has been spilt on the imagery, wording and position of these stones, their study has more recently been elevated by Louisa Campbell, based at the University of Glasgow, whose brilliant analysis using pXRF (portable X-ray fluorescence) and Raman spectrometry has shown that these stones were originally painted, adding to the psychological impact these stones would have had on the indigenous population.

Bridgeness slab colour visualisation (by Lars Hummelshoj, reproduced from Campbell 2020 with permission)

The bold colours such as reds and yellows with white would have added to the effect of these stones as they often depicted poor Iron Age people being trampled under Roman horses or killed by their colonisers, making the locals face up to their trauma on a near daily basis. This was the Iron Age equivalent of the impact of the rich claret of a Hammer Horror film on a cinema audience in 1957 and I suppose in some cases would also have been ‘triggering’ for certain Iron Age people to use contemporary parlance.

The replication of a range of these distance sculptures over the past 18 months does not perhaps present the public with the bold colours of the originals, but nonetheless they do have an impact on the viewer even today as stunning and powerful pieces of art. These were all sculpted old-school style with actual hand tools and real craftsmanship, by artists including City of Glasgow College stonemasonry students. These are generally set into sandstone walls and have accompanying information boards. Jan and I managed to visit all of these, mostly during lockdowns.

The Eastermains sculpture, Twechar, still under wraps in January 2021
Eastermains unveiled by February 2021
The Old Kilpatrick installation, in June 2021
The Arniebog distance stone plinth awaits the distance stone, January 2021, at Auchendavie
Bridgeness, July 2021, an earlier replica with new noticeboards

I must admit that one of the things that always put me off Roman archaeology was the depiction of non-Roman people as ‘natives’, a term I have always found unsavoury. The terminology being used is now changing, and the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall team are doing their bit to humanise the ‘defeated’ locals who were no more and no less Iron Age people living a typical farming lifestyle who ended up in the path of an expansionist empire with a professional army. Think of the opening scenes of the movie Gladiator but set in Kilsyth. There is a little content on Iron Age people on the project website, and a wooden Iron Age ‘chief’ stands at the entrance to the Callander playpark. Also included is a (wooden) hoard of Roman coins, of more later.

Callander Park entrance (The Scotsman)

But the most interesting element of this change in messaging about the militarised Roman focus on the Wall is the new Falkirk distance sculpture. This really rather special piece of art was commissioned by the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project with the aspiration of disrupting the colonial narrative of Wall sculpture. The stone itself was designed and carved by Jo Crossland and Luke Batchelor. It depicts a subversion of the normal sculpture imagery, showing Iron Age people at peace in their daily lives or at war defending themselves. By depicting aspects of their lives that are not defined by their defeat and subjugation, it renders local people as active agents, not passive fools.

The sculpture knowingly adopts the tropes of the Roman originals, in terms of composition, writing and the Roman numeral dating (MMXX) but also subverts at every opportunity from language to the pictures. It shows a broch (and indeed there is a rare lowland broch near Falkirk, Tappoch) and a carnyx, the Iron Age battle horn. A Roman soldier is trampled underfoot by a horse, a direct reversal of imagery on stones such as Bridgeness. The stone also acts as a tribute to the ‘legion’ of volunteers who engaged with the project, although to me it works best as a political statement. The commissioning brief for this piece of work asked for such an approach: “The design should include reference to the local Iron Age population…”. 

Louisa Campbell has written about the replica sculptures and in particular the Falkirk example. She notes that the images on this new stone directly respond to consultation responses from the public. “These images explore wider perspectives in the story of the Roman occupation of Scotland as requested by members of the local communities consulting on the project who expressed a desire to incorporate scenes of local people fighting back against hostile Roman attacks” (2021, 21). This is about a desire to see a community marginalised in Antonine Wall imagery and narratives given a voice; it shows an underdog story.

Original drawing by and © Josephine Crossland and Luke Batchelor, first published in Campbell 2021, reproduced here with permission

However, this aspect of the consultation does trouble me a little. Are we in danger of replacing one myth with another, the evil colonist replaced by the noble colonised? The violent imagery on the new distance sculpture may serve for some viewers as a revenge narrative: are you not entertained? This reminds me a little uncomfortably of what many kids who grew up in Scotland at the same time as me thought about the Romans in Scotland – something I recounted in a recent paper about the past and Scotland’s independence referendum:

“…..dogged Pictish resistance against Roman invaders, the unconquerable Scots, in contrast to the English
who folded at the first sight of a Roman ship (a silly mythology engrained in the minds of Scottish
school children of my generation!) (Brophy 2020, 59).

Perhaps unsurprisingly media coverage of this new carved stone focused on the ‘fighting back’ narrative, such as a headline in The Scotsman on 30th April 2020, Northern warriors who fought the Romans in Scotland to be celebrated at Antonine Wall. So there could be a problem with the messaging here. On the other hand perhaps my stance here could be interpreted as victim blaming, not my intention. This is about nuance.

For me, the most significant element of the sculpture occurs in the bottom right-hand corner. Here we have a scene showing the handing over of the hoard of coins from Romans to locals (rendered in wood in the new playpark). This can be interpreted in a number of different ways – a bribe, a payment for services rendered, a transactional arrangement, a gift perhaps creating an obligation. Here we have in one image all of the complexity of the Roman-Iron Age relationship that is not truly reflected in images of violence regardless of who the perpetrator is, because not everyone who lived here when the Romans were about was killed, and some may have done rather well out of the situation. This is not to downplay the physical and psychological violence of colonisation, but the hoard does allow I think a springboard to open up new conversations amongst the public about the short occupation of southern Scotland. Perhaps more broadly it forces reflection on other colonial narratives, where Scots were the colonists and did the trampling underfoot.

And this is rooted in archaeological reality. The hoard is a real thing, a clay pot found in 1933 containing 1925 Roman silver coins the latest of which date to the 3rd century AD, which is incidentally long after the Wall was built and in use. Were the locals ‘paid to behave‘? Todd in 1985 argued that the hoard “represents payments to a barbarian leader or dynasty in return for the maintenance of peace and order north of the Antonine Wall in the period c AD 160-230” suggesting how complex these colonial relationships probably were. The deposition of these coins, perhaps with ritual overtone as suggested of such hoards in the ScARF Roman panel report, adds another dimension to the significance of this deposit.

The Falkirk hoard (c) National Museums of Scotland

A fragment of textile – a ‘tartan’ – was found with this hoard and this informs the clothing worn in this sculpture by the non-Romans which is a nice touch, but perhaps adds another layer to the rebellious free-spirited Scot narrative that lingers in our national consciousness.

(c) National Museums of Scotland

This new distance sculpture is located on Cow Wynd, a street than runs south from the pedestrianised heart of modern Falkirk. This is also the location of a Roman Fort that once stood here, but now it sits surrounded by a tattoo parlour, a cafeteria, a hair salon and a ladieswear boutique. The closeness to the main shopping strip in town and the thoroughfare of commuters and walkers will ensure that this new monument gets plenty of glances. Those who pause to read the noticeboards and take in the powerful images on the stone might also pause to think, be provoked, by the message that it conveys, propaganda of a very different type to that practiced by the Romans.

Location map of the Falkirk Distance Sculpture (Google Maps)

However, the information board to the right of the sculpture notes that this stone celebrates the native people, a phrase I am uneasy with and I am surprised was included. Indeed I think that more information could have been included here to help the casual passer-by to have an informed perspective on what the carved stone is signifying and how subversive its message actually is. There is no doubt this carved stone will provoke shoppers and commuters as they pass by – exasperans transeuntes – but what message will they read into the scenes depicted?

As Campbell notes, “The depicted scenes conflict with the originals as a means of eliciting an emotional response in the viewer … inviting them to consider different dynamics and new dimensions from the contradictory perspectives of local Iron Age peoples who had a different experience of events than the Roman military personnel that typically frames the narratives of existing scholarship” (2021, 23-4). It would be interesting to do some research around how this carved stone is consumed and what message punters take from it; as ever, texts of any kind convey messages that are difficult to control. There is also an assumption that the reader of this stone has a familiarity with the other distance sculptures and their imagery that are being subverted.

This is an interesting intervention and an innovative way to re-present an often mythologised and misunderstood period of the past of this part of Britain. As a means to challenge colonial narratives I think it is partially successful although it presents a white – and still largely male – version of this story and simplifies some complex issues. This is inevitable given the format that has been chosen to convey the message. Perhaps the contextualisation around this could be stronger, and more scenes that convey non-violent relationships would also have helped.

Heritage is at its best when it discomforts us and forces a re-evaluation of what we think our past was, and so in many ways this carved stone is a success at telling a story about the ancient beneath our feet – antiqua sub urbana. How the stone is consumed by locals and visitors remains to be seen.

Sources and acknowledgements: this blog post owes a lot to Dr Louisa Campbell who brought the Falkirk stone to my attention and shared her expertise with me. Her papers were also very helpful (full references below). Louisa, Jo and the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project gave me permission to reproduce images in this blog post for which I am grateful. I would also like to thank the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project and Emma McMullen for help in writing this post.

Sources mentioned in the text (all are open access and available online via links or googling):

Brophy, K 2020 Hands across the Border? Prehistory, Cairns and Scotland’s 2014 Independence Referendum. In Howard Williams, Pauline Clarke and Kieron Gleave (eds) Public Archaeologies of Frontiers and Borderlands. Archaeopress. Download here.

Campbell, L 2020 Polychromy on the Antonine Wall Distance Sculptures: Non-destructive Identification of Pigments on Roman Reliefs. Britannia 51, 175-201.

Campbell, L 2021 Flipping the Script on Colonial Narratives: Replicating Roman Reliefs from the Antonine Wall. Public Archaeology DOI: 10.1080/14655187.2021.1961438

Todd, M 1985 The Falkirk hoard of denarii: trade or subsidy?, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 115, 229-32.


Satnav crannogs

Punching the word crannog into the satnav in my phone reveals several possible destinations within relatively easy drive of Glasgow, and none of them involve time-travelling back to the Iron Age (ha ha). (Come to think of it, there is a certain allure to a four-dimensional satnav.) There are in fact six streets in Scotland that have crannog in their name, and I have visited all of them in the preparation for this blog post. They are located in western Scotland, in largely coastal locations as one might expect, although it is not immediately obvious in all cases why crannog has been chosen to name the thoroughfare. These streets have different chronological origins to, spanning a century or so. They represent a Way, a Lane, two Roads, and a Court. There is no pattern that connect these locations (other than that they are all in the southwestern quarter of Scotland) but what they do indicate is an ongoing desire to presence prehistory in urban settings. Anyway, let’s explore these crannog roadways in the order that I visited them and find out their stories.

Here is my fancy location map!

Firstly, a brief definition. The recent Historic Scotland membership magazine defined crannogs as ‘artificial islands mostly found in lochs’ and these have been found in Scotland to date from the Neolithic to the medieval period. Hundreds are known in northern Britain, but for the most part nowadays they are visible only as overgrown small islands or lost to landscape change over the past few centuries. I have blogged about crannogs before, such as the crannog that erupted out of Kilbirnie Loch due to the dumping of iron age slag in the late nineteenth century, or the muddy excavations at Lochend Loch that inspired a children’s playpark to be constructed in 2017. If you would like to experience a crannog in the future, I highly recommend supporting the Scottish Crannog Centre near Kenmore, Perth and Kinross; their crannog tragically burned down on the very same evening that I originally posted this online and so will now need public support more than ever.

Now if you have a car, tune your satnav, and within a few hours be standing next to a road sign that says crannog (assuming you live in Glasgow area). Tweet your satnav crannog selfies!

Crannog Lane, Oban, Argyll and Bute

This Obanian lane is hidden behind an increasingly large retail park that is in turn located near the new Cal Mac ferry terminal where one might depart to islands such as Mull and Tiree. The area is dominated by an assortment of industrial units with Crannog Lane being a cul-de-sac running off Lochavullin Road.

The latter name indicates the watery past of this location, with this area being largely under water in the past. Indeed the crannog the lane is named for was found during draining operations of Loch a’ Mhuillin in 1888. It was located just to the east of where the lane now is, a place occupied by a business called Oban Garages.

The crannog itself was documented by the wonderfully named Rev F Odo Blundell in the pages of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1913. In his own words:

Sadly the photo was not reproduced with this article and little else is known about this site although its memory lives on in the street and business names of this coastal town. In canmore it is further noted that, “A stone structure measuring about 26 metres by 16.2 metres was found to be resting on a platform of horizontal timbers consolidated by a number of upright piles. During examination of the site, a number of human and animal bones were recovered” but the source of this additional information is not given.

It seems that it is not just the crannog that won’t go away.

Urbanisation is not half as clever as it thinks it is.

Crannog Way, Kilwinning, North Ayrshire

When driving from Lanarkshire to Ardrossan to get an early ferry over to the island of Arran it is a no brainer to drop into Kilwinning to visit Crannog Way. That is exactly what I did one sunny spring morning although I almost missed the ferry due to a massive roadworks-caused traffic jam on the south side of the town. The trusty satnav was fired up and guided me to my destination in a mellifluous corporate tone.

Upon arrival in a large housing estate on the north side of town I was annoyed to note that there was only one street sign to indicate that this winding street was called Crannog Way. In fact the only sign was in the side of a house. After some swithering I parked round the block and walked towards the house determined to somehow discretely photograph the house (people do not like their houses being photographed as I have discovered over many years of doing this kind of thing). I was able to stand across the road and pretend I was looking at my phone while I actually was taking a photo. Cunning!

I think I got away with it. I would not be so lucky next time (see below). After exploring a little around the various cul-de-sacs that form this suburban street, I headed back to the car where I was hoping the weird guy who was staring at me from his door when I parked had gone away.

Just round the corner was a bus-stop and it was nice to see that Crannog Way featured here and then I wished I had got the number 27 to this spot just so I could have asked the driver for a return to Crannog Way and avoided the dreaded weird guy glare.

The reason for this Crannog street name did not seem as clear for Kilwinning and it did for Oban. So I sent out a tweet to ask for help. A helpful reply by @abstractnarwhal pointed me in the direction of a crannog on Ashgrove Loch about 2km to the west of Crannog Way. The latter is now little more than an irregular mound of stones in a small loch that was once a much bigger loch; it was found during draining of this area in 1868 and excavated by Smith. For some reason this small body of water is depicted on current OS maps as Stevenston or Ashgrove Loch, hinting at some conflict or indecision.

Archaeologist Tom Rees of Rathmell Archaeology who is a total Kilwinning expert noted that there were ‘tons of crannog sites hereabouts’ including at Todhills. In fact there are only a few crannogs in the vicinity of Kilwinning; in his excavation report on Ashgrove, Smith notes that he felt there were five other crannogs in that loch alone and maps certainly suggest this was once a bigger body of water but no evidence for any of these now survives. The Todhill site mentioned by Tom is located about 2km to the south of the street. This site was documented again by Smith in his 1895 book Prehistoric Man in Ayrshire, in effect a series of large and rough oak beams found during the construction of a railway bridge.

The crannogs that surround the western side of Kilwinning represent a curious group of sites to name a street after but then there are only so many names to go around. There is perhaps an informal heritage theme in this estate, with Foundry Wynd and Forge Vennel nearby. It is also nice to see mention of the Ashgrove Crannog on a local heritage website accompanied by this nice reconstruction drawing (I think this is by Alan Braby).

As I walked back to the car, anxiously consulting the ferry timetable once again, I passed a funny little pile of stones and a cairn, careless lazy landscaping that I have long since stopped considering of interest. I climbed back into my vehicle, glad to see the weird man was gone, and the only weird man left in the area was me sat in my car with my hard-earned photograph.

Crannog Road, Milton, West Dunbartonshire

I was itching to get to the third one now, and the opportunity came when I had to make a rare trip into the University library, from which it was only another nine miles or so drive along Great Western Road to Crannog Road in Milton. Now, this is a place that has big crannog credentials, being located on the north side of the Clyde and less than a kilometre to the east-north-east of Dumbuck Crannog. This famous crannog was excavated in 1898 by the dynamic team of John Bruce and William Donnelly (who had three years previously undertaken the first scale drawing of the completely cleared Cochno Stone, explored in an earlier blog post).

Once again I set my controls to the heart of Crannog Road and headed off, annoyingly having to drive a couple of miles beyond my junction due to a pesky central reservation. I wheeled up a narrow suburban street called Colquhon Road weaving between parked cars, swung a left and then parked up just below a sign pointing back downhill to the right and Crannog Road!

I walked down, once again aware that I appeared to be behaving suspiciously and followed the road down a steep slope and then to the right along to a block of flats. The road mostly runs parallel to the A82, overlooking it and with fine views over the Clyde. It had houses only on one side and I tried my old ‘casually looking at the phone whilst taking a photo’ trick when I saw a house with a nice slate Crannog Road number sign. Sadly I was rumbled and a guy bounded straight out and asked if I needed help with anything. To be fair he did actually believe my bizarre explanation for standing outside his house taking a photo and I re-assured him the photo was for my archive, not publication on my blog. We left things on good terms but I suspect he thought I was daft.

The chap had not heard of Dumbuck Crannog but knew that a lot of old stuff had been found in the vicinity. In fact in its day this crannog was a big media story, firstly due to the high profile excavations, followed by a scandals surrounding apparently faked finds. All of this is documented in a wonderful book by Hale and Sands called Controversy on the Clyde (2005, downloads can be found via a wee google) and I recommend you check it out for a slice of Scottish archaeology strangeness.

Anyway, I headed on to the block of flats which to my delight are called Crannog Court, even with a nice pink metal sign back down at Great Western Road level that I must have driven past dozens of times without noticing. So much urban prehistory is like this: we just drive past, eyes fixed on the road (to be fair that is the safest way to drive).

This is not the first building here to be named for the crannog. Canmore documents a house here called Crannog Cottage. Indeed some of the houses here are known as Crannog Cottages on estate agent websites – ‘rarely available on the open market’ – which perhaps makes them sounds more alluring as a purchase option. Buildings are shown here on the 1862 1st edition OS map (pre-crannog of course) and a couple of these buildings are still standing including a pub.

As I walked back to the car, I stopped at a bus-stop and sure enough, as with Kilwinning, Crannog had made its way onto the bus timetable. Or had it? In fact an egregious spelling mistake means that buses all now stop at Cranning Court….

Crannog Road, Court and View, Lochfoot, Dumfries and Galloway

My epic series of visits ended with a trip to the motherlode of crannog street names, a cul-de-sac complex on the western edge of Lochfoot, a village just outside Dumfries. As it happens I was passing during a short holiday in the area and it was a pleasure to pull up the car as the satnav announced ‘you have now reached your destination’. Here can be found three short residential streets with crannog in the name and I wandered up and down this perfectly charming area for all of three minutes discretely taking photos of the street signs like a naughty train spotter. The crannog streets were deathly quiet, and not even a curtain twitched.

To the south, across the main road, lies Lochrutton Loch; centrally located within is a crannog. This is one of a number of islands and structures within and around this loch, but is the only one which is actually a crannog. A cracker too.

This crannog is a large tree-covered mound, some 40m across, 3m high, and was subject to excavation in 1901 – 1902 and also detailed survey in 2002. The excavation was undertaken by J Barbour and published in the Transactions of the Dumfries and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society volume 17 (1905). Wooden supports and structures were noted, and objects dating from pre-1300AD found. Detailed survey of the crannog as part of the South West Crannog Survey (SWCS) project showed the huge potential for this site to contain well-preserved organic materials including worked wooden supports and troughs.

The copyright on this image is owned by James Allan and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

The SWCS team noted (to add some local colour to this account) that, “Freshwater oysters were living all over the mound, suggesting that the water is of good quality, notwithstanding local reports of slurry-dumping” (Henderson et al 2003).

Back in the car, and satnav switched off, I reflected on what I had learned at the end of my ‘epic’ travels across western Scotland to visit all the Crannog streets, while trying not to draw any conclusions from the fact that every Crannog street I visited is a dead end. I suppose I was surprised there were so few, but also encouraged by the sometimes tendential nature of associations being made between urban streets and prehistoric sites in the vicinity.

Stuff from prehistory is resilient, and continues to have a presence in our contemporary landscapes despite indignities including excavation, draining, forgery and bad spelling.

Acknowledgements and sources: Thanks to those who I mentioned above who gave me help tracking down the crannog stories for each location on twitter. Three canmore images appear in the Crannog Road section, one showing an air photo of Dunbuck Crannog from 2005 (c) HES, one an aerial view of Lochrutton and Lochfoot from 2016 (c) HES, and the other showing visitors to the crannog excavations, from the J Harrison Maxwell collection.

I mentioned the following sources in the text:

Blundell, F. (1913). Further Notes on the Artificial Islands in the Highland Area. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 47, 257-302 [available free online]

Hale and Sands, A and R. (2005) Controversy on the Clyde, archaeologists, fakes and forgers: the excavation of the Dumbuck Crannog. Edinburgh.


Smith, J. (1894) On a stone crannog in Ashgrove Loch near Stevenston’, Archaeological and Historical Collections of Ayrshire & Galloway, vol. 7, 1894 (at least I think that is what this journal is called).

Henderson, JC, Crone, BA & Cavers, MG 2003. A condition survey of selected crannogs in south west Scotland. Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society, 77, 79-102.

An t-Eilean

I am alone on the campus in the dark, testing the surfaces slippery with rain with care beneath my feet. The relentless Christmas rain.

Surrounded by formless buildings, contained by road and railway lines, deflated and lonely. Sheltering beneath the awning of a bus-stop even although at this time of evening no bus will pass.

On this Ballardian edgeland campus within which I am interned, I’m avoiding going back to my prison cell room, killing time, getting wet.

Working off school dinner turkey dinner, a damp squib cracker, the limp party hat, a lukewarm beer from the car boot of a well-known archaeologist.

Then I see the crannog.

It is a geometrical wonder. A square island – a platform – set within an asymmetrical pentagonal loch. A black pool of water, illuminated by a white streak, seasonal lights, street lamps, the mysterious tower glowing red nearby.

On this island grows a tree, in defiance of the urban coldness of its surroundings, the sterility of this ground, slick with University money.

Illuminated by uplights, dampened by downlights, cathode uppers and downers. I approach and then cross the bridge – the causeway – to the crannog. An t-Eilean – The Island.

The route across the eldritch dark water, the only way onto this island, is lit up blue, like a runway begging me to land. Except it is not land. The surface is lubricious with precipitation.

The square arena of the interior of the crannog is floored with fake wooden tumble, branches that never lived. Gaps in this crazed paving have filled with organic detritus, washed there by the wind and rain. Leaves, twigs, brush, pile. These cracks are fecund with the mechanism of pollination in an otherwise infertile place.

Amidst this inorganic floor, a sort of prehistoric linoleum, are set dazzling white lights that point to the sky, and neon strips.

For a while I am disorientated. Blinded by the light.

The tree was no illusion even although I fancied it was before I crossed the water. How could a living tree exist on this concrete island? Yet it lives although I could not determine how its roots were arranged or what this tree was growing from aside from a brown puddle of soil. It jutted through the floor of this crannog, a living tree that connected water with sky, only stopped from soaring away by its shackles and chains.

The walls of the crannog mixed materials and levels of porosity – cold concrete, dark metal, hard wood. Windows in the walls afforded views of the surrounding campus world, framing the blank canvas in this blank campus. The west side of the compound was a palisade of squared concrete posts, a defensive line.

Wet through with rain, salt-less tears on my face, I squatted over a hot white light and

just

melted

away.

Notes

An t-Eilean – The Island is an award winning installation within the UHI Inverness College campus by architect Lisa MacKenzie. She notes that the work offers a space for reflection in a public civic space. Key questions in the genesis of the work: How do we challenge the management of public spaces at an Institutional level to make landscapes that are real and enlivening? What are the principles that lie behind our encounters with public space and public art? 

Internal view: (c) Gillian Hayes, Dapple Photography 2016

It was constructed by Applied Engineering Design (AED) at a cost of £325,000 in 2013. Their website notes that, it is an unique object in many ways: a gallery; an island and a bespoke structure/art object in its own right. They do not call it a crannog, but rather suggest it is an iconic structure….a surprise and a delight.

Hardwood causeway (c) AED

Ruaraidh MacNeil, HIE Inverness Campus project director, told the Press and Journal newspaper in January 2015: Our plan for Inverness Campus is to create a world-class setting for business, research and education. HIE has created a high quality built environment with interesting landscape, public realm and water features in order to help create global interest in Inverness and Highlands as a business location.

The Island (c) Michael Carver photography, Press and Journal

This interesting landscape, this University building site, this sterile edgeland…..

Lots of money, shiny buildings, iconic structures. The University of the future, wanting to appear embedded in the past in its architecture and the names it gives its buildings. But will its values, its principals, the ways staff and students are treated: will these also be in the spirit of the past, the traditions of Scotland’s Universities? Or will they succumb to a neoliberal fantasy that is so very un-crannog?

From the air (Google maps)

This installation is located a few hundred metres from, and on the other side of the A9 to, the Raigmore Neolithic monument reconstruction, the subject of a blog post of mine from 2014. Prehistory cannot be suppressed but it can be appropriated.

Acknowledgements: I was in Inverness to speak at a conference on the theme of Ruination and Decay, and would like to thank the organisers for inviting me, and accommodating me in this soulless campus. And now Rebecca and Antonia know why I disappeared and did not go to the pub with them that night!

The suburban broch

As consumers of the past, we have certain requirements for our prehistory. It should be in a bit ruinous but not so knackered that we can’t make sense of it. It needs to be awesome, or dramatic, or have ‘been on a journey’, to hold our attention. And it must be in a rural location, with a green and brown setting, and a big sky overhead. It must be authentic and leave little or nothing to the imagination.

Or so wisdom would have it.

But what happens when visitors encounter prehistoric sites in an explicitly urban setting?

The results can be surprising, as I have been documenting on this blog for the past four and a half years. I have found that communities can be inspired, proud and surprised by even the most denuded of prehistoric sites in their urban midst. Merely the ghostly traces, the essence, need be present to potentially add quality to a place, a value that comes with deep time.

Maybe this holds true for residents, but what about visitors and tourists? This was brought home to me on a recent visit to Shetland, where the rural and coastal idyll that was Jarlshof was shattered the constant chainsaw buzz of a helicopter overhead, and the vacuum cleaner sucking and blowing of aircraft taking off, the multiperiod HES visitor attraction being located right on the edge of Sumburgh airport and within axe-throwing distance of one of the runways.

view of the airport

As I wandered around the perimeter of this Viking settlement I felt like the boy Jim, protagonist in JG Ballard’s book The Empire of the Sun, staring out from his prison camp near Shanghai admiringly to the neighbouring airfield, fantasising over the Japanese aircraft, idolising the pilots and kamikaze, all of which offered a vibrant mechanised counterpoint to the organic, dying camp.

Jim looking at the airfield

Such stark juxtapositions are the very essence of urban prehistory: gazing into the past, observing rituals, secretarying entropy.

Do we fail to understand the significance and story of Jarlshof because of its inauthentic setting? I would argue not, but perhaps the big seascape and even bigger skies airport-proof the archaeology. There is much less room for manoeuvre for urban prehistory – nowhere to hide, few distractions from the reality of the what is out there.

This is very much the case for another HES visitor attraction in Shetland, Clickimin Broch in the main town on the mainland, Lerwick. And I really do mean in the town, located on an island on a small loch in the suburbs, surrounded by the trappings of urbanisation.

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Clickimin broch from the air (c) HES CANMORE id 1203142

The broch was excavated by JRC Hamilton in the 1950s and thus made ready for display to the public as a Ministry of Works guardianship site. Hamilton’s work at this very complex site discovered that the broch had been preceded by earlier settlement sites of late Bronze Age and earlier Iron Age date, and after the main broch phase, the structure was – as a Jarlshof – replaced by a wheelhouse. One of the key outcomes of this programme of work was that the site was made easily accessible to the public although I would argue that in doing this the site has become a little too medieval looking (and I mean this as a bad thing). This work also resulted in the publication of a guidebook by Hamilton for both Clickimin and the taller but far more rural Mousa broch, which has undergone several editions (the guidebook, not the broch).

guidebook front cover

Clickimin was recently nominated in the Dig It! 2017 Hidden Gems competition as the representative for Shetland (the Cochno Stone was the West Dunbartonshire entry) although it is hardly hidden where it stands, wrapped within a transparent urban cocoon. However, the carefully cropped photo of the broch used in that campaign manages to edit out the surrounds.

CLICKIMIN-BROCH Scotland in Six

This remarkable setting contrasts starkly with the often remote, or at least peaceful locations, that most brochs across Scotland are situated within today and yet it has advantages over examples such as Mousa, being easily accessible because of its urban location. And even Clickimin was rural once, as captured in this drawing by W St G Burke from 1875. (Although it could be argued that such big broch complexes were literally urban prehistory 2000 years ago.)

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(c) HES and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

I was curious what visitors to this broch made of its urban setting. Anyone who prepared in advance by reading the June 2017 edition of The Rough Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland would have been set up for a disappointing experience:

‘With the modern housing in the middle distance, it’s pretty hard to imagine the original setting’

And yet, this ruined setting does not really seem to be what visitors focus on. I looked at all 177 reviews of the broch on TripAdvisor (as of 17th August 2017) and it is striking that hardly any of the visitors to Clickimin view the urban setting as a problem. Very few reviewers even feel the need to mention the urban stuff, and where they do, it almost overwhelmingly is not a problem, and almost always in the context of a 4 or 5 star review. For instance, Razumovskaya: ‘This is an unusual broch in many ways, set as it is at the edge of its loch among the council houses and across the road from Tesco’ (5 star review). Bathgooner, in another 5 star review, states, ‘despite the developments the neighbourhood retains an aura of its mysterious past’. For others, the location is weird and surreal but not a problem. Amanda K, 4 star review, wrote, ‘It’s in an odd place as near supermarket and houses’, while Cameron S, also 4 star review, wrote ‘Implausibly located in the outskirts of Lerwick, this site is surprisingly atmospheric’. Or what about, ‘This is real history next to a main road and a housing estate. But do not let that put you off as it is well worth a visit’ (argosy2gb, 5 star review).

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In fact, it is remarkable how few visitors express negative feelings about the suburban setting – three out of 177 (1.7%) to be precise. One is relatively measured, accompanying a 3 star review. Tony239 wrote, ‘it’s close to Lerwick, and increasing surrounded by it, which robs it of some of it’s allure’. Alyson M headed her 3 star review with the statement: ‘Spoiled by suburban sprawl’. The other is the only 1 star review for the site to date and is worth quoting in full.

‘The worse thing about this is its location. There is a large Tesco to the South, ugly 80s council housing to the East, huge houses to the West, and the worst part of all, a construction site with massive cranes and other construction equipment to the North! The Broch was from over 2000 years ago and it is encircled by all these ugly modern buildings on all sides. Stonehenge is a much better place to visit. (alvinawh, 1 star review).

Mmmn, not sure about the latter point. More visitors complained about the manicured appearance of the broch and the reconstruction work done there than the urban setting, which in itself says a lot about expectations of authenticity which seem more related to the material than the environs.

tripadvisor

Anyway, the overwhelming sense that comes across from reading these scores of reviews is that the suburban setting is an advantage when it comes to visiting this broch. 16% (28 people) mention the proximity of a Tesco supermarket in either neutral or positive terms (convenience, parking). Almost a third mention that the broch is near the centre of Lerwick or within easy walking distance of town, all positive in terms of ease of access. It appears that rather than ruin the broch experience, the urban setting of this monument has made it much more accessible than most brochs such as the more famous Mousa, which is on a wee island with an irregular ferry access. The pathway to Clickimin broch could be a little more wheel-chair friendly, but this is a broch that most people can visit, regardless of mobility.

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One of the intriguing things about the prehistoric monument is how the stonework of the broch blurs with the surrounding suburbia. Far from being a huge time-gap between now and then, there is a sense of continuity, a flow that is quite wonderful.

Angles are created between the broch and buildings that look like timelines to me. Grey lines form an impenetrable artificial horizon that capture the essence of Shetland.

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The urban and the prehistory bleed into one another and feed off one another, an ancient power source that has not yet run dry.

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HES have unintentionally created a huge optical illusion, turning the broch from a panopticon to a viewpoint. From only a few places inside the monument complex can the water of the loch be seen.

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The overlaps between towering house and town can nowhere better be seen than in the branding of the small service station located a hundred metres or so from the broch. The Sound Service Station has a peculiar logo, which after some squinting on my behalf, revealed itself to be a stylised side-profile view of the broch and its little island.

And on special occasions the broch has been lit up in different colours at night, Shetland’s contribution to international causes, such as World Aids Day.

This is a monument that still lies at the heart of this community.

World Aids Day image Shetland Times
(c) Shetland Times

It seems to me that the urban setting is not a problem to the vast majority of visitors. Perhaps in the heritage sector we need to re-calibrate our understanding of expectation of the public – maybe they can actually handle historic and archaeological sites that are very knackered, not so awesome or in urban settings. Authenticity comes in many forms, and one reading of that word could be the facilitation of an experience that has resonance and meaning, which can transcend tangible material and landscape qualities.

Who would have thought that a prehistoric site in an urban place could be advantageous? The urban setting of Clickimin, beside a supermarket, petrol station, housing estates, walls, roads, traffic lights, roundabouts, warehouses and a leisure centre does not seem to be a problem. For some, it is a surreal bonus, while others were rather more pragmatic.

‘Seems strange to have an ancient monument in a town – but that’s what it is.’ (GertieSquirt, 4 star review)

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Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan for accompanying me on the visit, and for taking the wonderful photos of the Broch that accompany this post (in other words, all of those with no credit in the caption).

The image of the guidebook to the site is available widely online, usually in second hand book websites.

For more on the Dig It! 2017 Hidden Gems competition, go here. This was also the source of the jazzy pic of the broch with writing superimposed on it.

The World Aids Day photo of the broch came from the website of the Shetland Times.