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The old, Old Town of Edinburgh

9 Jan

Is it possible to rewrite the history books with a prehistoric discovery? How old is Old?

Recently, I spent a pleasant few hours following self-guided walking tours from the excellent Edinburgh’s Hidden Walks book (by Stephen Millar, Metro Publications 2017), walks which took us from the bottom of the Royal Mile and Holyrood Palace right up to the Grassmarket via a couple of local hostelries and three cemeteries. This is an area steeped in history of course, reflected in interesting anecdotes about famous people, amusing historical incidents and terrible hygiene.

Book cover

What struck me in particular while walking was the number of instances when historical locations and buildings were marked on the ground in some way, even when the buildings were long-since gone and the places completely transformed from when they were in use back in the day.

At the bottom of the Royal Mile, a circle of beige bricks set into the road between a taxi rank and the Scottish Parliament gift shop mark the location of the Girth Cross for instance. This was the edge of the sanctuary zone of Holyrood Abbey and a place for announcements and executions. Apparently it was removed by 1767, and as this was AD, not BC, its not old enough for this blog really.

Girth Cross location

Further west into Canongate, also on the road although this time towards the southern side of the Royal Mile is another circle of cobbles set into the tarmac, this one with the shape of a ‘Maltese Cross’ in the middle and with black and red colouration. This marks the location of where St John’s Cross once stood, a boundary marker between Edinburgh and Canongate.

St John Cross location

A plaque explaining what this brick circle denotes is on a wall nearby. In the OS Name Book of 1852 is says that this cross was removed ‘long ago’ but clearly not as long ago as prehistory. The Cross itself now sits in Canongate cemetery apparently, although when I was there I was more interested in finding the grave of Ebenezer Scroggie.

St John Cross plaque canmore_image_DP00160533

Plaque © HES canmore_image_DP00160533

Nearby, yet another indicator of a historic structure is marked on the ground but in a different format – angular arrangements of ‘brass studs’ (although to my optimistic eye they looked like golden bricks outside the World’s End Pub).

Brass tiles

These show the location and arrangement of the Netherbow Port, a gate in the wall around the town of Edinburgh. It was a place for controlling access and movement, and where executed heads were displayed on spikes; the gate itself was demolished in 1764, not that long ago really.

Netherbow Port British Museum

Netherbow Port (British Museum)

So, we are actually quite good at marking historical landmarks in urban landscapes, and tourists and visitors are expected to understand this vocabulary well enough to make sense of arrangements of bricks in the street. This sometimes needs additional prompting with plaques, while apps and walking guides can aid the imagination.

But we are nowhere near as good when it comes to marking the former (or even current but buried) location of prehistoric sites, structures and things. We should be lighting it up with neon signs.

IMG_3006

Graham Fagan, A drama in time, Calton Rd, Edinburgh (2016)

That is a shame because prehistory can lurk unheralded and unmarked in the most unexpected of places – such as Edinburgh Old Town.

I came to realise this when turning to the final page of the section of the book on the Grassmarket walk which had kept us amused between pubs for an hour or so. In a throw-away line just before another Burke and Hare anecdote, it was noted that:

Just past the White Hart is the Beehive Inn, also a former coaching inn. In 2008 archaeologists discovered signs of human habitation near to the Beehive that have been dated to between 1500 and 1300 Bc [sic]. Previously it had been thought that part of Edinburgh had remained uninhabited until the 13th or 14th century.

Book extract

#urbanprehistory!

A little research brought me to the stunning realisation that during works associated with the laying of a water pipelines and general improvements in the Grassmarket, Headland Archaeology Ltd had found TWO BRONZE AGE PITS deep beneath almost 2m worth of layers of urban crap in 2008. The Scotsman newspaper did not hold back in its excitement about this discovery.

EVIDENCE unearthed in the Grassmarket has revealed humans were there 3000 years earlier than previously thought. The surprise find – which experts say will “rewrite Scotland’s history books” – puts the earliest known civilisation in the area as far back as the Middle Bronze Age, or around 1500 to 1300BC.

Quite why this was all so surprising is not clear to me, given that this seems a perfectly reasonable place, perhaps on an animal drove route, that would have appealed to an itinerant prehistoric pit digger.

Little of detail has been published about this discovery as far as I can tell. The Discovery and Excavation in Scotland entry (2008, page 69) for the prehistoric features found during the excavations (which revealed much more significant later material as one would expect) was brief but probably comprehensive.

Prehistoric deposits – Two pits were exposed c6m apart in the excavation of an open cut pipe trench located along the S edge of the existing road on the N side of the Grassmarket. The pits were both sealed by a layer of colluvium and lay c1.8m below the modern ground surface. Radiocarbon analysis of material from the pits returned calibrated dates of 2200–1950 BC with a 95.4% probability (SUERC-19840) and 1500–1380 BC to 95.4% probability (Beta-242133). These features are considered indicative of sporadic use of this low-lying area in the Middle Bronze Age.

So there is an old town beneath the Old Town, as if we didn’t already know this, Edinburgh Castle itself having its origins as a fortification in the Iron Age.

But one problem remains – there is no plaque, no marker on the ground, to show tourists, visitors and rubber-neckers and the like exactly where this pair of ANCIENT pits were found. Until the day that Edinburgh City Council get their beige bricks out and become creative, you will find me sitting there, outside the Beehive Inn, pointing deep down into the depths of time. Possibly forever. Please bring me a pint.

Me Grassmarket

Sources and acknowledgements: I want to once again acknowledge the excellent walking book by Stephen Millar which in the end inspired this blog post, and I believe he has also produced three books of similar nature and tone for London. Jan accompanied me on the walk and took all the photos in this post (except the out of focus one of the book extract). The other images have been credited in the captions. For more information on Graham Fagan’s neon artwork, go here.

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Dynamic

8 Dec

DYNAMIC

There are a lot of standing stones outside Dynamic Earth, a geological visitor attraction, and within stone’s throw of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.

General view low res

This grand collection of megaliths is in reality a very expensive collection of rock samples, erected around 10 years ago, part of a grant from the Millennium Commission of £432,959 to utilise the large open ‘amphitheatre’ like space at the front of weird tent-like original building that is the visitor centre itself.

Stone row from bottom low res

The arc-shaped linear setting of eight standing stones (some actually stacks of rocks arranged into vertical cairns) are essentially a (very) quick-fire geological tour of Scotland. What was expressed at the time of their erection as “a walk through Scotland’s journey in geological time”.

stone pile low res

Each of the monoliths and stone-piles has a label appended to it, stating where each rock was formed on earth as Scotland oozed around the world carried on a tectonic plate like a huge slug.

DSC_1381

At the bottom of the steps that lead up past the stones to the entrance and ticket-desk in the tent-like visitor centre is a noticeboard that states: ‘Around us here in the amphitheatre you can see “Scotland’s Journey” from deep in the southern hemisphere to where we are today….The walk up the ramp reflects Scotland’s landscape and tracks its long geological history’

noticeboard low res

On a slope running down from the standing stones is a bit of fake bedrock, and each time I have been there I have felt an overwhelming temptation to squat and carve rock-art onto this dull landscape feature. However, the nearby policemen with guns protecting the parliament always look a bit bored and I don’t want to give them an excuse to open up on me.

Bedrock 2016 low res

I suppose it is pretty dynamic though, as some weeds have grown in the cracks, between January 2016 and December 2017.

Bedrock 2017 low res

On my most recent visit, I was cheered to notice signs of emergent vandalism on some of the standing stones, including faintly carved initials and a splat of black paint.

Paint splat low res

It’s nowhere near as good as the megalithic rock sample collection at Bournemouth University though.

Bouremouth Uni rocks 1 low res

Bouremouth Uni rocks 2 low res

Sorry Dynamic Earth.

Your megaliths are just a bit rubbish.

Drive Chariot Drive

1 Dec

Drive Chariot Drive

Drive, chariot, drive

 

Beneath Chariot Drive – a chariot

Before Chariot Drive – a chariot

 

After the chariot –

PTS Plumbing

DHL Express

HSS Hire

Premier Deliveries Ltd

Fast food litter

Me sitting in a car eating crisps.

 

 

Chariot Drive sign 1 low res

Chariot Drive sign 2 low res

Chariot Drive sign 4 low res

Chariot Drive sign 3 low res

Background: an Iron Age chariot burial, the first discovered in Scotland, was found by Headland Archaeology during excavations in advance of the extension of an industrial estate on the edge of Newbridge, near Edinburgh, in January 2001. Subsequently, a new road through this industrial estate, running a few metres to the south of where this amazing discovery was made, was named Chariot Drive. This is location a few hundred metres from the stone setting and cairn monument known as Huly Hill. The chariot was reconstructed for the National Museums of Scotland and the excavation results published in a paper in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society volume 76 (2010), pages 31-74 (written by Carter, Hunter and Smith). The archaeologist who discovered and excavated the chariot was Adam Hunter Blair.

Were it not for the construction of these industrial units, the chariot would probably never have been found.

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. 

view from road low res

 

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.

the stones of scotland low res

notice low res

 

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’.

footprint low res

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.)

colin richards book cover

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?