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.
Some urban prehistory sites are strange. Some are sad. Some are both.
There is something melancholy about a prehistoric site that has been destroyed with nothing done to compensate. We are now used to the fairly cosy arrangement that we can accept the destruction of archaeological sites in exchange for them being professionally and fully excavated. This is a deal that archaeologists – and society without most being aware of it – have made with the free market economy. We won’t interfere too much with endless development, change and economic progress and the juggernaut won’t completely flatten what is left of the past without first slowing down a bit or taking little detours. The result is jobs in the heritage sector, lots of random data we would otherwise not have, and sometimes local communities benefit from these transactions too. This might be a Faustian pact, it might even be entirely sensible, but it does mean that in 2017 one of the most important and uncontrollable ways we have of finding prehistoric sites and sucking the information out of them is driven by social need for, and the political demands of, development.
But in the nineteenth century when society was still getting to grips with the implications of massive scale urban and industrial expansion, railway line and canal building, and the requirement for the extraction of the necessary aggregates to make these things happen, no such deal existed. Archaeological sites were swept aside simply because they were literally the wrong place at the wrong time. And so inconvenient standing stones were toppled, or ”blown with powder’ as in the case of a stone circle at St Colmac’s, Bute. To add insult to injury, whatever survived these extractions was then put to use as building materials, built into walls and barns, or broken up and utilized serendipitously and randomly e.g. in road and rail foundations. Stone cists and coffins were emptied of their contents, with much of the goodies inside ending up on the mantelpieces of the rich landowner, local vicar or an eccentric antiquarian, soon to be ‘lost’. Of course, this was all underpinned by money as well – but the power relationship was balanced differently than it is now. Archaeological sites could be swept away on a whim, facilitated by the signing of a cheque (one of those big fancy Victorian ones), and the data and information that resulted from any crude interventions that followed could be characterized as limited, selective and often rubbish.
Whoever said that no deal was better than a bad deal?
A dead megalithic monument in Clackmannanshire prompted these thoughts to be re-articulated once again. It is a sad and strange story that represent the ways that even substantial prehistoric monuments, when competing with the demands of nineteenth century economic requirements and the requirements of the landed gentry could come to a very sticky end, reduced to nothing more than an antiquity map symbol.
I have a Cunninghar plan
The site to which I refer was called Cunninghar in Tillicoultry. This is a monument that according to varied accounts was substantial, consisting of a circular or oval setting between 20m and 35m in diameter of standing stones three feet high at the foot of the Ochils. (A bank apparently surrounded this, suggesting to me this was a kerb cairn rather than a stone circle for what it is worth.) No record of the number of stones survives, nor any etchings or drawings of this monument. The enthusiastic recorder of prehistoric lost causes and megalithic wild goose chases, Fred Coles, tried to get to the bottom of the story of this stone circle right at the end of the nineteenth century, his sources of information patched together from conversations with an experienced local forester, an OS Name Book entry and some nifty mapwork.
His informant, the estate forester, gave a vivid description of the stone circle and the fate that it met (for the source of this quote, see the end of this post; Location A is shown on Cole’s map reproduced below):
The rather undignified evisceration and re-purposing of the monument by the local gentry for their own grand designs, and also perhaps with one eye on the quarrying and thus financial potential of this location to come, left the bank and one single standing stone on site, which became the focus of excavations in the 1890s when two cists, one containing a fine Food Vessel, were discovered on site as the ridge was gradually denuded for aggregate extraction. The account of these discoveries was documented fastidiously by R Robertson in a paper written slightly before Coles arrived on the scene, and in his observation that the site was situated on an ‘elevated ridge of sand intermixed with gravel’ lies the seeds its downfall at the hands of quarrying for those materials.
There is no need to rehearse the details here of the discoveries that occurred in harmony with the rhythm of the extension of the gravel quarry, surprising extractions, suffice it to say that several Bronze Age pots, and a stone marked with rock-art, were discovered.
My favourite detail of these impromptu rescue excavations was the discovery by Robertson in the location within a cist that one would have expected a head to be located, ‘a quantity of a fibrous or hairy substance, of dark-red colour’. Analysis was undertaken of this mysterious material by a Professor Struthers who appears to have been something of an expert in these matters, having his own collection of ancient hairs which he sometimes exhibited to the public. He concluded, by comparison with his own reference collection, that this was not the hair of a man, ox or horse – but it might have been the ‘wool’ of a fox, dog or rabbit. (Audrey Henshall later suggested it was otter.) No further analysis of this was undertaken but I like to imagine this was the remnants of a crazy stoat hat. (It is worth noting also that the name of this site derives from something to do with rabbits suggesting this is the kind of location where a rabbit might have burrowed into a cist by accident and died in there. Just saying.)
Fred Coles reported on another cist found here a few years later, although had nothing to say on the matter of the ginger-haired deposit. He also noted that quarrying had not begun at the south end of this ridge by the time of the OS 1st edition mapping of the 1860s, but by then, the stone circle was already gone, for the reasons already noted above. The sand pit to the north suggests the landowner was well aware of the potential value of this location and the pesky stone circle that was on the way of his bank account being further bloated.
Later maps show the outline of the quarrying in more detail, and so show the activities that led to the discovery of Bronze Age burials here as well as completely removing the site where the stone circle / kerb cairn. In a sense the quarrying was more destructive than the standing stone removal, in the same way as extracting one’s teeth is not half as bad as losing your mouth.
This megalith was wiped off the map, and it was on maps that ironically was the only place where it continued to exist.
Gradually, this location became increasingly surrounded by housing estates and the trappings of the modern urban landscape. Using a really helpful map that Coles made of the archaeological discoveries at Cunninghar, and subsequent mapping, it is possible to roughly plot where these key discoveries were made in relation to the modern Tillicoultry – sandwiched between Dollar Road and Sandy Knowe with a fine view over a cemetery and war memorial.
It was no surprise to me when I visited on a quiet Saturday morning that there is no sense whatsoever that in this corner of Tillicoultry once stood a substantial multi-phase Bronze Age monument. The Cunninghar sand and gravel ridge that so attracted quarriers survives within the urban setting, in the form of a wide grass-covered bank that runs north-south between two housing estates. A path runs along this ridge and I mounted it, from my parking position on the appropriately named Sandy Knowe, via a set of steps. Once on the embankment I followed a rough path that lead to a broader and uneven overgrown area with a mast atop it. This metallic tower stood within a steel cage with warning signs adorning it.
This area betrays little to nothing of its former purpose, other than that it is possible to imagine this as a prominent viewing point with views down to the River Devon. The ridge came to a sudden end at a wall on the fringe the A91, while an escarpment topped with a feeble fence which meandered from east – west marked the limit of the sand and gravel quarry that was once here that finally removed the remnants of this monument, the conclusion of a slow-motion series of interventions.
As I wandered around in the faint hope of seeing something, anything, that might hint at megaliths, burials or an embankment, I noticed a large stone lying on the other side of the fence on the edge of what was once the quarry. This had previously been identified by the Northern Antiquarian as being a remnant from the stone circle, and although it seemed to me too small to have fulfilled this purpose, it did look out of place and may once have been a prehistoric something or other.
Down I went into the quarry, now an overgrown edgeland betwixt road, mound and back gardens, nothing but weeds and rubbish strewn about. Spatially, if not physically, there had been a stone circle here once, perhaps elevated 5m above my head. But all that remained were random sad objects: a twisted child’s car seat, a hoard of charity shop sacks and the splayed and stretched out tendons of a Venetian blind.
This made me melancholy. A stone circle had been lost – so be it. But it had been lost and not adequately compensated for. A Food Vessel, Urn and a clump of dead rabbit / otter had been added to the archaeological record, dots on a distribution map (except for the rabbit unless there is a distribution map of Bronze Age wigs), but we don’t even know how many megaliths once stood here. Tillicoultry House with its amazing standing stone lined drain was demolished around 1960, another victim of progress, while the current location of the rock-art-marked stone, visited and visible to Ronald Morris in 1966, is unknown. The Food Vessel is held in the collections of the National Museum of Scotland.
There is nothing to let people whose houses are literally metres from where a prehistoric centre of ritual, ceremony and burial once stood know about this, no noticeboards that might inform casual passers-by, a lack of an app or virtual reality ancient version of this place to download. This monument has gone, a victim of all sorts of Victorian hoo-ha. And not only was the monument destroyed, but the place where this monument once stood was destroyed, atomically removed. Once it was removed, the megalith was split up into pieces and then it was later destroyed again, a second death. The burials that were left behind were recovered to an extent, but are now hopelessly dispersed.
There was no deal here – this was a hard extraction, and once the stones had fallen from this cliff edge there was no going back.
I have often said in the past that urban prehistory is not about a sense of loss, or sadness, and this is still the case. But for Cunninghar there have only been bad outcomes, as bad as it gets, and it seems a hopeless case, all that remains being this sad story and footnote in the National Monuments Record of Scotland.
Melancholy is not the same thing as sadness, nor is regret. What I regret about some urban prehistoric sites is that their destruction was in vain, the price paid too high.
Sources and acknowledgements: This post benefited from many conversations with Helen Green about heritage, development and compensatory measures (or lack thereof).
Little has been published on Cunninghar, or the variants of spelling of that name that are out there (Cuninghar, Cunningar). Two articles were published in close succession in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland about this site, both referred to above. The first of these was Robertson’s 1895 effort, ‘Notice of the discovery of a stone cist and urns at the Cuninghar, Tillicoultry’, in volume 29; the second Cole’s 1899 ‘Notices of the discovery of a cist and urns at Juniper Green, and of a cist at the Cunninghar, Tillicoultry, and of some undescribed cup- marked stones’ (volume 33). Both can be read online for free via the Society webpage. The image of the Food Vessel came from the Robertson paper, the cist plan and rock-art ‘photo’ from Coles, and the latter also provided the quote near the start of the post.
As we drive across a motorway intersection, through the elaborately signalled landscape that seems to anticipate every possible hazard, we glimpse triangles of waste ground screened off by a steep embankment. What would happen it, by some freak mischance, we suffered a blow-out and plunged over the guard-rail onto a forgotten island of rubble and weeds, out of sight of the surveillance cameras? [JB Ballard, Introduction to Concrete Island]
The perceived wisdom is that it is not a good thing to always be under the flight path of an international airport.
Or adjacent to a busy motorway intersection.
Although I suspect this was a state of affairs that would have please JG Ballard with his Shepperton home.
But that is the fate of one of the strangest and least understood prehistoric monuments in central Scotland – Huly Hill, located in the village of Newbridge just to the west of Edinburgh.
The monument sits right beside a busy road intersection, where the M9 and M8 motorways meets, along with the A8 and the A89. There is a small service area just to the south of the Huly Hill which includes a petrol station and a MacDonald’s. Industrial units abound. Just to the north are a series of luxury car showrooms.
Like the protagonist in Ballard’s Concrete Island, Maitland, this monument is trapped amidst the infrastructure of the car. But with added airplane noise. And the central conceit of that novel has strange parallels with Huly Hill: by stumbling off the motorway, it is possible to become marooned in a very different kind of place, an enclosure with its own rules, temporality and ruins.
The close proximity of multiple roads and places for purchasing Mercedes motorcars is not the only way that Huly Hill has become entangled with cars. A much more violent encounter has been recorded in this online account, an incident in 2001 where an attempt was made to drive a vehicle across the central barrow.
This shocking act of violation would have, one imagines, resulted in smashed front wings, bent bumpers, a twisted bonnet and climaxed with radiator fluid spilling all over the earthy lip of the mound – a megalith-motorcar mounting.
Around the same time a burnt out vehicle was dumped beside the standing stones, a sacrifice to some insane pagan car god, cremated and melted and tagged, offered in mitigation for the scarification of the burial mound.
The constant hum of cars all around, and the frequent roar of steeply banking planes overhead, is a product of the gradual wrapping of the site within the trappings of modern transport infrastructure and urbanisation over the past 100 years.
Yet it was not always like this.
In fact, Huly Hill (NT17SW 8) is a remarkable monument which surprisingly little is known about consisting of a setting of three standing stones, with a circular barrow or cairn off-set within this stone setting. It was described in the Statistical Account of 1794 as ‘circular mound of earth’ with surrounding standing stones, and in the 19th century was known locally as The Heelie Hill. Crude investigations by Daniel Wilson into the centre of the cairn in 1830 apparently revealed only ‘a bronze daggerblade, a heap of animal charcoal, and small fragments of bones’. Fred Coles carried out a ‘survey’ of the monument in 1899, and was unable to ascertain the true extent or location of this excavation, or the fate of the contents found therein.
At the time of his visit, the monument still had a rural setting, and Coles offers this detailed account of his visit:
The Heelie Hill, as this Cairn is locally called, can easily be reached by taking the first turn to the left after quitting the train at Ratho station on its north side. As one walks westwards, the first object to arrest the eye of the antiquary is a great monolith, over 9 feet in height, in a field close to Lochend farm.
He noted that the standing stones and round mound did not appear to relate to one another concentrically, and produced a very useful survey plan to make this point.
Coles also mentioned in his description of the mound the presence of a low wall surrounding its base, which most certainly was not prehistoric and so may have been an addition to the monument after Wilson’s poking about, or some other form of landscaping / tidying up.
Thereafter, there is little sense of any attempts by archaeologists to understand this site further, with two geophysical surveys, one in the 1970s and one in the 2000s, failing to add anything else to our knowledge of Huly Hill other than to confirm there does not appear to have been a more populous stone circle in this location or a ditch surrounding it. We do not even know what it was that Wilson found: a dagger, or spearhead have both been suggested. But it likely that this was a Bronze Age burial mound with attendant standing stones, which may have been earlier components of the complex.
Not that any of this meager information is available to local people or casual visitors. A noticeboard that introduced the site that once stood here was removed many years ago.
It is clear is that urbanisation and modern infrastructure began to envelope this monument as the twentieth century went on. This is indicated by the gradual increase in size of Newbridge shown across the 1st and 2nd edition OS 6 inch maps. (These maps also show nearby railway lines and a main Glasgow – Edinburgh road, so this has not been a quiet place for quite some time….)
A new chapter of the biography of Huly Hill was metaphorically written when it found itself under the flight path of Edinburgh airport. This airport started life as a military base in 1916 before becoming a commercial airport in 1947 although initially flights over the prehistoric monument would not have been frequent. However, located about 500 m to the WSW of the main runway at Edinburgh, Huly Hill has planes flying low over it either taking off, or landing, depending on the prevailing wind, what seems like every few minutes.
As well as the airport expansion, the Newbridge junction next to Huly Hill has expanded several times in the past few decades, as a major hub in the motorway network, where the M8 and M9 meet. The junction here was first established in 1970 around the same time the motorways were opened, and underwent a massive expansion in 1997 to accommodate the sheer volume of traffic.
Therefore, this ancient, prehistoric ceremonial and burial monument is being crowded out by the trappings of the modern world, in the middle of a vortex of fast-paced and loud commuters, wrapped by noise and neon lights. It seems so far removed from the rural location that this must once have been that it takes an effort of will to imagine what this monument might once have been like: a place of death and memory. Now it is place of lorries, fast food wrappers and paint.
There have been other modern interactions too. Last year I visited Huly Hill to find a group of travellers had moved into the space between the central barrow and one of the standing stones. The caravans and four wheel drives made a car park of the monument, and I was threatened by one of the inhabitants when I tried to take photos of planes flying over the site. There was clearly also tension amongst the locals about this development, although when I passed a few weeks later, the site had been cleared, and another transient phase in the life of Huly Hill was over.The ebb and flow of urban life continues, regulated by the needs of our consumerist and consuming society. Yet who is consuming Haly Hill?
The settlement of Newbridge is just to west of Edinburgh Airport, offering great views of incoming aircraft and access to the M8 and M9.
No mention of the prehistoric cairn or the three standing stones that sit in a green space within this village. Only the proximity to ways and means to leave the place, or the opportunity to watch machines of mass transport go by.
In Concrete Island, all that Maitland can do with a growing sense of futility and frustration is watch cars go flying by, their drivers staring at the road ahead and paying no attention whatsoever to an increasingly dishevelled character waiving at them for help.
I don’t usually bemoan the state of urban prehistoric sites. I am all about positivity, about seeing the potential in places with deep-time regardless of the inherent rubbishness of some of them, and about accepting changes that happen to what we blithely call the archaeological record as being the normal way of things since prehistory. However, Huly Hill does trouble me.
This is a monument in a prime location: thousands of drivers and passengers must see it every day from the luxurious viewing position of their cars. It has a local urban population, some of whom walk past the standing stones and barrow frequently. It is right next to a busy bus stop and clearly visible from the McDonald’s restaurant across the road. Even a casual glance up while pumping fuel will allow drivers to catch a glimpse of a standing stone or two. Airplane pilots and co-pilots see it frequently, and maybe some passengers grab a glance as well. This must be one of the most visible prehistoric monuments in Britain.
Yet as archaeologists what have we done to tell people about this monument, encourage visitors, protect it against further decline and in general used it for the common good?
It is a partially re-instated mound with a modern-ish wall around it. The standing stones may or may not be in their original locations. A new noticeboard and some signs would cost money. There are roads and cars and lorries and noise all around. The landscape context has been compromised. It is under the flight path….. I can hear all the excuses now.
But actually, how much time and effort would it be to raise awareness of Huly Hill and do interesting things there?
I’ll just need to do something and find out.
He had now gone beyond exhaustion and hunger to a state where the laws of physiology, the body’s economy of needs and responses, had been suspended. He listened to the traffic, his eye on the red disc of the sun sinking behind the apartment blocks. The glass curtain-walling was jewelled by the light. The roar of the traffic seemed to come from the sun (JG Ballard, Concrete Island).
The Tebay Three, condemned to stand guard over a picnic area and access road to overflow car parks.
Three ‘standing stones’ arranged in a tight circle – a symbolic community, perhaps, but one of a very different era…. If the roof claims silently, ‘I am not a building’, the columns, portico and standing stones counterclaim ‘…but I am still a monument’, a monument incomplete, a monument barely human that yet accommodates the human (Austin 2011, 219-220).
More of a triangle than a circle. Enclosing a tiny space no larger than required for one adult to squeeze into, standing in an upright cist, shielded from the incessant back and forth of cars. Insulated from the motorway in a time capsule made of quarried stone.
A chocolate box masquerading as a postcard, retrieved from the other side of the bridge….
…and an erroneous plural….
….before carefully gathered debitage is assembled.
Calderstones – arrival
The final postcards posted – on Druids Cross Road.
Then into the vortex of Calderstones Park –
And megalithic Liverpool –
South Liverpool –
Sources and acknowledgements: Spirits of Place was dreamt up and organised by John Reppion, and my interest in Calderstones was very much inspired by his definitive article on the urban prehistory of this part of Liverpool, here reproduced in The Daily Grail. The ‘druid temple’ postcard is based on a photo from that post. The Calderstones postcard was sourced on ebay and by the time you read this will probably have been sold. The text in red pen on the back of my sent postcards is adapted from Georges Perec’s ‘Two hundred and forty-three postcards in real colour’ (1978).
Yet when I recently visited for the first time, it became apparent to me that the landscape, both urban and rural, has a prehistoric quality to it.
This is an island that is defined by extremes of stone, and this has thrown up (in some cases literally) strange and beautiful arrangements of rocks. But not all of these megaliths are natural – there are standing stones, dolmen, stone circles too, commonplace in laybys, parks, street corners and on roadsides and pavements. This is immediately apparent on the road leaving the airport, with huge stone blocks with stone heads – stone people – looming over the road sides of Keflavik.
There is also something deeply prehistoric about the belief systems of the Icelanders, whether the over-played-for-the-tourists stuff about faeries and little people, or the Norse sagas and stories of gods, men and giants. The land has been ripped apart and reborn by prehistoric and geological forces, shaping the people just as much as the people shape the land with stories, place names and monuments. Little people live in the stones. Giants and gods fought with stones. People became stones, and are stones. The stones lived too once as well, oozing down the side of volcanoes, spewed across the land, swept up in flood waters, scraped and shaped by ice. Here, prehistory is a living condition, not a distant past, not even a real past, just an ever-present quality the land seems to have.
The standing stones that I saw often reflected the grain of the land, dark grey basaltic blocks with square or pentagonal or hexagonal profiles.
Cairns have been built on hilltops and roadsides of orange-hewed lava, or carefully constructed from small balanced flat stones.
Rocks are still on the move, continually being re-arranged and juxtaposed, put to use – to memorialise, to pin information boards on to, as boundary markers, to decorate hotel forecourts and car parks. In some cases it is unclear if the stones are in situ and have been utilised where they were found (a kind of expedient architecture), or if they have deliberately been erected.
But in some cases formal monuments appear to have been constructed, such as the German Memorial on the edge of the town of Vik. Here, a stone circle with central monolith has been constructed on the edge of a black sand beach, with the objective of remembering seamen who died on one or more German fishing boats off the coast of Iceland, and to thank locals for trying to help.
The nine external stones, graded for height, are grey hexagonally cooled magma columns, similar to those illustrated above, while the central block is a vibrant orange sandstone boulder, with metal plates attached.
But perhaps the most dramatic and perplexing megalithic monument I spotted in Iceland was in the surprising surroundings of a small fishing town on the southern coast of the Reykjanes Peninsula, Grindavik. On driving through the centre of town, it was clear that there were a lot of mounds and standing stones by the roadside, concentrated mostly on roundabouts and at road junctions.
On one side of the road was something altogether more coherent and remarkable – an extensive reconstruction of a passage grave, complete with a dolmen at the entrance. I spent some time wandering through this complex of stone walls, earthworks, standing stones and passages marvelling that such a structure should be built here, in a country with no prehistory (in a technical sense), and certainly no tradition of megalithic passage graves. No signs or information were evident anywhere to explain what was going on here – this was a most unexpected megalith.
In Grindavík, on Reykjanes in Iceland, a modern interpretation of a pagan temple has been erected. While it’s not clear that the designers and builders of this modern temple had any special insight into how pagan temples were built during the Norse era, it is fun to see all the motifs from the various temple descriptions brought together into one structure.
It seems clear that the passage grave has been built in a Nordic tradition, with walling for instance reminiscent of Danish passage graves, although some aspects of the monument reminded me of Neolithic tombs in Brittany as well. The reconstruction seems to conflate various different megalithic monument elements (and not just Neolithic tombs): there are forecourts, recesses, orthostats, a stone cist, standing stones, mounds, cairns, a trilithon and facades – and a very narrow long and low passage I could not get through. It was a right jumble of all sorts of things in other words.
The monument lay open and exposed, bisected by pathways and pavements, with a road running along one side. Weeds grew from the paved surfaces, and graffiti was evident on the dolmen or trilithon setting. This was an altogether unremarkable place, typically quiet for Iceland, and this faux tomb almost – almost – did not seem out of place and time.
And so my visit has changed my mind-set.
Iceland does have a prehistory.
Iceland is prehistoric – in the nicest possible sense of that word.
This is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than the recent project to build Arctic Henge, on the north coast of Iceland at Raufarhöfn (I did not manage to visit). This huge monument was planned in 2008, and is yet to be completed, and combines aspects of pagan religion with geology in a very Icelandic way. The project website states:
Similar to its ancient predecessor, Stonehenge, the Arctic Henge is like a huge sundial, aiming to capture the sunrays, cast shadows in precise locations and capture the light between aligned gateways. The ambitious series of circles and stacked basalt columns were placed according to a complex system based on old Norse mythology. Utilising the ideas of a pastor named Kolbeinn Þorleifsson (who believed dwarves corresponded to seasons in the Edda) there are 72 stones, each one representing a different dwarf name. There are also four gates corresponding to the four seasons, and a range of other symbols to explore. Along with the outer circle, the final henge will be a massive 52 metres in diameter.
It is interesting that the iconic Stonehenge is evoked here, just as it is in the trilithon that crowns the Grindavik passage grave. In both cases Icelanders appear to be looking to other parts of Europe for prehistoric inspiration. Yet all they need to do is to look around them, to their own landscape and their own post-pre-history.
I did not expect to think about prehistory when I was in Iceland and yet it seemed I was confronted by it constantly, in the art, the land, the people, the stories, and the stones.
‘The enemy of the nomad is the authority that wants to take the space and enclose it and to create fixed and well-directed paths for movement. And the nomad, cut free of roots, bonds and fixed identities, is the enemy of authority, resisting its discipline’ (Mike Pearson (2010) Site specific performance, pg 20)
This is the story of a Neolithic chambered long cairn that has gradually become wrapped by caravans, enclosed by campervans, ringed by campers. En-camped. It’s right in the middle of the caravans!
The life of the caravan owner: pottering about, mobile yet static in a mobile yet static home. A space that is compact and nested, no sharp edges, no wasted space. Things slide away, fold up and compress. Awkward spaces and strangely angled rooms, the dance to get through doors. Claustrophobically small with 360 degree window walls and pleated patterned curtains.
Caravan parks: Ballardian gated communities, members only, private entertainment and private bars, communal bins and roadways that have rules of their own, obscure parking regulations. Hardstands and hook ups. Shower blocks and toilet blocks. Phone boxes and flower pots.
Signs of warning and advice: private, keep of the grass, no ball games, no littering, clean up your dog waste, use the bins provided, please ensure this gate remains closed, call this number if reception is closed, phone out of order, park here, do not park here, site closed until 1st April.
This is an orderly world, everything in its place and a place for everything within and without, just so. Intruding into this space: a massive megalithic mound. Right in the middle of the caravans!
Now, the archaeology bit.
Auchenlaich Neolithic long cairn (NMRS number NN60NW 4) is near Callander in Stirling (historic Perthshire). It is the longest long cairn in Scotland, a lengthy but low mound of rocks, which runs for over 320m in an almost north-south alignment, over three times the length of the average football pitch. At the northern end, the cairn is 15m across, and for much of its length the monument is little more than between knee and thigh height. The southern end is enlarged due to the presence of a trapezoidal chambered tomb, almost 50m in length, and here the cairn swells to a more impressive 1.6m height. A possible forecourt is evident here, and a second ‘burial chamber’ is probably located about 110m to the north (the ‘lateral chamber’), the remnants of which protrude from the low mound.
Almost no work has been done here other than a modern site survey. The lateral chamber may have been ‘cleaned out’ by a local farmer in the 1950s but the outcome of this clandestine activity is unknown. Amazingly the monument was only identified in its entirety by the county archaeologist Lorna Main in 1991. The expansion of the caravan park in the mid-1990s to enclose the cairn on three sides meant that some limited archaeological evaluation work had to be done in the vicinity of the cairn’s southern end but little of note was found. There remains the possibility that this is a hugely long pile of stones with no burials ever having been placed here; even if human remains were interred here in the Neolithic, it is likely that 95% of the cairn is a solid pile of stones, an extravagant adornment to someone’s final resting place, a folly.
The cairn is now thoroughly entangled with the caravan site which is called Keltie Bridge. When I visited, the campsite was closed, and so I affected an entry by climbing over the boundary fence which straddled a linear glacial mound on the edge of the park. From here, I walked through some trees, then down a rough slope and out into the exposed, open expanse of the deserted caravan site. Empty dark windows surrounded me, a hibernating middle-class middle-aged panopticon. Nothing moved and there were no sounds. Random careless landscaping abounded: white painted rocks, a weird monument of boulders topped with tree rings and a planter with a dead plant within.
The dead-eyed caravans were the only witnesses to my walk towards the grassy mound right in the middle of this urban nomad encampment, the huge cairn surrounded by a tokenistic wire and wood fence. I wandered around this pointless boundary, on the silent caravan park roadway, past the cream coloured empty shower and toilet block and towards some parked campervans. The monument stretched out ahead of me, to the end of the caravan site and then beyond, straddled by a wall which marked the northern boundary of the campsite. Although unimpressive in terms of height and girth, this is still a dramatic monument, of almost comical length, extended beyond all utility and seriousness, fading towards the obscure and distant northern terminal.
Two threadbare trees grow from the monument, a small one on the southern cairn, a much larger one with destructive roots infiltrating the mound near the lateral chamber. This damage can be surveyed from the comfort of a formal pathway that bisects the long cairn, a curiously decorated shortcut across the monument, with gateways at either end, festooned with empty half-moon planters. Both ends of this path are marked by a single grey-black post with a light atop at waist height. This routeway takes the trespassing explorer and caravan-er alike from one side of the cairn to the other across a ‘break’ in the bank, and allows impressive if unheralded views north and south along the mound.
Looking back to the east it became clear that the directing mind behind this peculiar arrangement had established an axis mundi that wilfully cut across the cairn, connecting a caravan with the shower block, a ley of some kind to compete with the more tangible megalithic line of power it crosses.
On the other side of the cairn, a row of ghostly empty caravan plots runs parallel to the fence. A single caravan occupied one of these plots, but the others remained vacant, rectangles of grey gravel with a green power outlet jutting from the ground beside each. Here we have lines of power, both megalithic and electrical – all impotent, limp and inactive but rich with possibility.
And so I took my leave of this place, leaving the campsite the way I had arrived, with no-one apparently around to witness my walk. And it struck me that this was a place of frustration and emptiness, with the long cairn at the heart of this vacuum. Here, the megalith has been caged and enclosed, with the coming and going of holidaymakers and residents incidental. No-one notices the monument even if it can be walked over and around. I read 93 reviews of the Caravan Park and campsite and only one mentioned the ‘largest burial chamber in Scotland’; another noted the enclosure, within which ewes and lambs grazed. The cairn wills itself to be noticed, to retain relevance, to matter – but it does not.
Caravans can induce such feelings of despair, receptacles of plastic and twee banality, dependent on cars or lorries to move them around. Such a caravan features prominently in the 1978 BBC ‘Play for Today’ Red Shift (recently released on DVD by the BFI). This remarkable and challenging drama flits between the stories of three young men in the present day, the English Civil War and during the Roman occupation of Britain. The play is ostensibly about the power of place, with all stories revolving around significant events which occurred near or on Mow Cop, Cheshire, a village beside a strange rocky ridge with a ruined castle on top of it. The protagonists are connected by a polished stone axe, wielded as a weapon against the Romans, buried and found on numerous occasions subsequently. This powerful object is found in a void in a wall on top of Mow Cop in the 1970s by Tom and his girlfriend Jan (having been placed there after a violent event in the 17th century) and soon becomes something of an obsession for Tom: he caresses it, and studies it, hiding it in his small bed space in the caravan he shares with his overbearing parents. It is in this caravan that the first shift between times occurs in the film, after a very heated argument that hints at the troubled narratives that lie ahead. The caravan signifies the confined spaces that Tom feels constrain him in all aspects of his life, but it acts for a time as a suitable museum and reliquary for his prized stone axe before he finally accepts he must hand the axe over to an expert.
Auchenlaich long cairn is confined as well, within layer after layer of enclosure – fence, grass verge, road, caravans and the boundary of the campsite itself. The cairn and caravans have come to resemble one another: the megalith and its setting has become caravanesque, fitted into its compartment, folded away, neat and tidy, not in anyone’s way. Even in prehistory stone cupboards served as hidden and efficient storage spaces for bones. Perhaps too the caravans have become like chambered cairns, repositories of memories and places of routine, spatially compact with standardised exteriors. This is an orderly world, everything in its place and a place for everything within and without, just so.
But for how long can this monstrous monument be subdued? In Red Shift, Tom smashes the caravan kitchen window and thus connects with the ancient past. At Keltie Bridge, there is a chance for all the campers and caravanners to make a similar and tangible connection with prehistory, from the comfort of their own mobile home. They need only step outside their tents and caravans and take a deep breath before the plunge.
Sources and acknowledgements – the primary source of information on the Auchenlaich long cairn comes from a short report by Sally Foster and Jack Stevenson to be found in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 132 (2002), part of an excavation report on the nearby Claish Neolithic timber hall (Barclay, Brophy and MacGregor, pages 65-137). The plan of the cairn in this blog post is an amended version of a plan that appears in that report, which I have amateurishly embellished. For more on the monument, see also its CANMORE entry. The image of the Red Shift DVD front cover is widely available online, while the still showing Tom and the axe was sourced from the TV Cream website. The reviews of the Caravan Park that I read (up to 10th March 2015) were from Trip Advisor and UK Campsite.
Not a walk, but a crawl. An urban prehistory crawl.
Crawling, not walking.
Cardiff. It is the megalith city.
Four locations, all within easy reach of the massive malls of central Cardiff, reached via paths through parks and underpasses, suburban streets and dual carriageways, over bridges and under tunnels.
The first in parkland, Bute Park, the Gorsedd Stones. This monument is one of many in Wales that have been constructed for the annual Eisteddfodd, this example being built in 1978. (This practice has now stopped, with a ‘portable’ stone circle now in use instead.) The stone circle sits in open grass beside an extremely large circular metal bin dressed with a big green bin bag. It consists of 12 reddish sandstone monoliths of various heights and shapes.
Within the centre lies a huge flat block (known as a Logan Stone), inviting outlandish interpretations of a sacrificial altar, but in reality a fine vantage point for visitors to clamber on to. Wear to the ground surrounding this large block, and assorted litter, testifies to its popularity. Leafy matter is smeared on the upper surface.
The stones themselves are marked with various episodes of graffiti – large and small writing, abstract squiggles in red, blue and white and an enigmatic compass-point design adorns one stone on the northern side of the circle.
This monument was constructed for modern druidical ceremony but now serves the more prosaic role of urban parkland furniture, with a different form of sun worshipping preferred in the summer. The circle can now be admired and framed if viewed from the south, partly shielded by the ill-conceived bin.
Something to do with death next.
To Alexandra Gardens, where megalithic memorials are commonplace, one of the most prominent being the Falklands War memorial – a large granite megalith sourced from the Falklands sat atop a large plinth. (I have mentioned this in a previous blog post.) This sits in the centre of manicured grass and periodically a gull landed on its head and surveyed the city. A man sat on a bench behind reading a newspaper in the sun.
Nearby, a jagged megalith was apparent with a brass plaque on the side, memorialising volunteers from Wales who fought in the Spanish Civil War. The plaque shows a tree, thus meaning this monument embodies stone, metal and wood. It reads: You are history. You are legend.
We spiral helter skelter down towards a less noble looking monument. Beside an infamous fairground (the ‘Winter Wonderland’), overlooked by the no doubt oxymoronically named ‘Fun House’. We crawl up to the edge of a caged stone circle past a lamp post sprayed with almost wilfully illegible initials and a bin vomiting its contents all over the threadbare grass upon which it sits.
This is a grubby monument, spoiled by the detritus of alcohol consumption, fast food gluttony and puzzling quartz eruptions. Underlying this façade, a sense that this was once, and could still be, an arena for shady sex acts, consummated amidst the conglomerate, beating about the bushes, surrounded by erected monoliths. A place where Tom Jones could hide. This is a degraded monument, the thrusts of drills to extract the stones from wherever they were quarried displayed on the sides of the stones like whiplashes or tattoos scraped into the rock, exposing its irregular character and knobbly inclusions. As Pulp once said, this is hardcore, or at least it looks like it might have been destined to be hardcore, but was hijacked by someone in the local council who felt that some cheap and cheerful public art was required in this grubby parkland corner whose peacefulness was frequently punctuated by the screams of visitors to the fun house, and the steady beep beep beep of an adjacent well-used pedestrian crossing.
In fact, like our first stone circle of the day, this circle was once a Gorsedd circle although it was moved a few years after its initial erection in 1899 and elements of the circle have since been removed. These amputations have not served the monument well.
Thus we crawled deeper into suburbia. Gorsedd Gardens Road. Across Park Place. St Andrews Place. Park Lane. The Pen and Wig public house. Park Grove. St Andrews Place. Salisbury Road. Lowther Road. Richmond Road.
After the crawl, The Walk.
Turning the corner, it opened itself up to us, a remarkable miniature Neolithic-style passage grave, in the garden of a very ordinary looking but nice old building. Behind a fence but this time not caged. This ‘folly’ was built to mark the opening of this building as the Prince of Wales Hospital for Limbless Sailors and Soldiers in 1918, paid for by Miss Cory of Duffryn House. This lovely little thing is a scale replica of the chamber of Maes-y-Felin cromlech found in South Glamorgan. It is known as James Howells Folly (after the house).
It is a ruggedly beautiful structure, a box made from thick water worn rocks with gravel aggregate flooring. Flat abstract paving stones around the chamber may be suggestive of other elements of this tomb, and one had half an orange laid atop it. This is a garden feature but also a strange and wonderfully conceived and realised gift.
The end of the walk had been reached, and sustenance was sought as the light faded. In a few hours, within a short walk of the commercial heart of Cardiff, we had been fortunate to experience the good, the bad and the ugly of urban prehistory. Megaliths act as memorials and gifts, while stone circles are badly treated and / or ill-conceived. Yet why should we expect the traces and echoes of prehistory in our city centres to be anything other than messy, difficult, challenging or poignant places? How could they not mark some of the great events and themes of our time – war, culture, charity, art, revolution, neglect, creativity.
Crawling, not walking.
Cardiff. It is the megalith city.
I still haven’t got my breath back.
Sources and acknowledgements: My New Year treat on 2nd January was to be taken on an urban prehistory tour around central Cardiff by Meli and Steve, both of whom shared memories and information about the locations discussed in this blog post as well as other points on our walk. Jan and I really had a great time. For information on the Gorsedd stones and Bute Park, and some of the excellent archaeological work Meli as done there thanks to the HLF, see the park webpage. And the brief history of the fairground Gorsedd stones can be found here.
When I visited Dolmen de Bagneaux, Saumur, France, in April 2007 with Jan, Helen and Bam, the monument was for sale along with the pub, whose garden the dolmen sits within. The Bar contains a pool table and a small prehistoric exhibition.
The asking price for the lot was 1 million euros. I did not place a bid.
The sale is still being advertised on the website for the monument – and so for all I know you can still purchase the Dolmen and the Dolmen Bar if you want. The perfect present for the hard-drinking-pool-playing-prehistorian in your life? (Are there are other types of prehistorian?)
The current owners encourage visitors with the tantalising information that:
‘Through text panels, a collection of prehistoric tools and passionate owners, we invite you to discover this megalith whose construction is still of mystery accents as this behemoth of Neolithic architecture is impressive’ (via Google translate).
Sources: This dolmen’s website was the source of the two images of the bar, and the old postcard was sourced from here. The modern postcards were purchased at a nearby shop.
There is something powerful about the A9, the lengthy road which runs from the urban central belt of Scotland through the misty mountains to the far northern shore of the mainland. It is a line of power, not just the power of access and travel, but also the power that will be carried by the newly constructed Beauly-Denny transmission line which connects the wind-generated electricity of the Highlands with the electricity-hungry consumers of the south. Then there is the power of the landscape – from the big forests of Perthshire, to the big mountains of Drumochter, to the big bridges across the firths north of Inverness.
But the A9 is also all about frustrating in-car experiences. Jenny Turner, in a recent piece in The Guardian, described the longest A road in Scotland in terms most drivers would be familiar with. It is ‘an odd road, both a major trunk route and a scenic byway, crammed with slow-moving lorries, coach tours and caravans’. And so the respite of dual carriageways and laybys is fundamental to a happy journey.
I drive up and down this road relatively frequently, usually heading for Caithness, each journey from home to Dunbeath some 244 miles (392.7km), of which all but the first 20 miles of so are driven on the A9.
On my most recent drive north earlier this month, I decided to visit Raigmore, a very strange Bronze Age kerb cairn with a checkered history, currently located in the shadow of a massive modern hospital in Inverness. Raigmore has been through a lot over the past few decades, from total excavation and reconstruction in a new location, to neglect and vandalism, and finally rebirth as a community resource.
This is a piece of urban prehistory that is completely entangled with the A9. It is currently located a few hundred metres from the A9 although it cannot be seen from the road. Its original location is right beneath the A9, and its excavation was prompted by the expansion of that road and its connections with the A96 road to Aberdeen.
But in order to visit this monument, I had to once again drive the A9.
I’ve got the A9 under my skin. I know the road almost too well. Each long journey north from Glasgow to Caithness a staccato succession of familiar junctions, recognisable signage and caravan-following. A journey to treasure but a journey to dread as well, interminable mile after mile, kilometre after kilometre.
Dragging myself north. Falling south.
Overtaking. Not overtaking. Breaking to avoid overtakers.
Parking. Not parking.
Stopping. Not stopping.
Sightseeing. Not looking.
Noticing. Not noticing.
Alert. Not alert. The very opposite of alert.
Highs and lows. Mountains and forests. Bridges and tunnels.
Glasgow. North Lanarkshire. Stirling. Perth and Kinross. Highland.
Highland. Perth and Kinross. Stirling. North Lanarkshire. Glasgow.
All of this, time and again, over and over again, to get to archaeology. To do archaeology. To see prehistory. Up valleys and on mountainsides. In fields and on moors. Caithness. Sutherland. Ross and Cromerty. Inverness.
The complex Neolithic and Bronze Age Raigmore cairn (NMRS number NH64NE 6) was initially known as Stoneyfield, and antiquarian accounts described it erroneously as a stone circle (a misconception still evident today). The destruction by road development and excavation that was the ultimate fate of this monument was presaged by attempts to drill explosives into a few of the stones at some unknown time in the past; this is an unlucky megalith.
For much of the 20th century however it was interpreted as some form of burial monument, the standing stones thought to be the kerb which once held together a denuded cairn some 18m in diameter but of original height unknown. Yet when the site came under threat of complete destruction to make way for the A9 upgrade in 1971-72, excavations there revealed an altogether more complex monument. The excavations were carried out by Derek Simpson, a leading prehistorian of his time, and funded by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works.
The monument was dismantled and taken apart in the knowledge the location was about to be destroyed to make way for commuters and caravans. Therefore, we have an excellent level of detail and a strong sequence, from initial pit-digging and deposition activity in the earlier Neolithic, followed by the construction of a weird rectangular timber structure which may or may not have been a roofed building with central stone hearth. It was only later in the sequence that the megalithic component of the monument was erected as the site was converted to a cairn which covered a number of cist burials.
What happened next? Simpson recounts this in his 1996 excavation report:
Finally, the stones were moved to a new site some 500m to the south-west, and were erected along with the stone cists and wooden posts to mark the position of the timber structure located during the excavation. This work was undertaken by the Inverness Burgh Planning Department under the direction of Mr W T Jack, Burgh Planning Officer. The restored monument is now open to the public.
Even before the monument was moved, it was being monkeyed about with by the locals. When describing the modern contents of a few pits found during the excavations (one being a sheep burial for instance), Simpson noted that ‘a further pit was dug by persons unknown between the 1972 and 1973 seasons’.
The movement of the monument itself was a communal, volunteer driven exercise, following on from a campaign by local people, and the work itself took place over the winter of 1974-75. The story of the migration of this monument was recorded in the April 1976 edition of The Scots Magazine. The campaign to save the ‘stone circle’ was apparently prompted by a claim from a ‘Town Council Official’ that the megalith was going to be dumped in landfill for a new industrial development. The outcry led to a proposal for the re-siting of the major elements of the monument, co-ordinated by Burgh Planner Bill Jack.
And so the stones were moved, one by one, across the 500m distance from old site to new. The new noticeboard at the site (of more later) nicely evokes the image of the stones walking to their new location.
This is a remarkable story, and suggests that there was a real desire from the community to preserve what they saw as a valuable resource in a tangible form (rather than merely through objects in a museum and memories although of course both also still matter). The stones themselves seemed worthy of preservation, perhaps even memorialisation, even if the location where the monument stood was to be destroyed. Given the nature of the waste ground that the site originally stood on, by moving it, the stones were actually being drawn closer into the community, less peripheral, and perhaps more relevant. And the monument was reconstructed in loving detail, stone by stone.
Yet it seems that the original noble (and idealistic) objective of creating a new educational community focus did not work quite as planned.
A ‘condition report’ written in May 1993 (presumably for the council) noted that the monument was by this time in a state of disrepair. No signs or information were available to lead people to the site or explain it to them. Access routeways were unsuitable. Worse still was the condition of the monument – ‘completely overgrown with grass and small bushes’, the internal interpretive markers were gone (i.e. the wooden posts) and ‘many of the stones have been sprayed with unfortunately-worded graffiti, the majority in the same green paint’. Less than 20 years after the hopeful rebirth of this cairn, it now lay in a state of desolation and abandonment.
A series of recommendations were made in this brief report, namely to add signage and information, to keep on top of the vegetation, remove the offending green daubings and improve access.
I have no idea if these plans came into fruition at that time, but the monument is certainly now looking fine and dandy thanks to another community initiative: the site has been the focus of one of Archaeology Scotland’s excellent adopt-a-monument schemes. The idea is to encourage and empower local communities to play an active role in the protection, management and promotion of archaeological sites which are perhaps not on the radar of national designations. The Archaeology Scotland webpage notes:
Monuments of any age from anywhere in Scotland can be proposed (no matter how unusual), with the focus on helping volunteers to improve sites which they are passionate about. Taking part in the scheme will equip volunteers with new skills in archaeological fieldwork and conservation, which can be used again and again to promote the heritage of their local area. It’s also a great way to keep active, develop new skills, meet new people and achieve real results.
And so Archaeology Scotland worked with Raigmore Community Council, and local schools, to revitalise the kerb cairn. The interior of the monument was exposed and tidied up, access improved and a fancy new information board installed, cleverly situated on the side of a standing stone. A new vegetation management plan was established, and the overall aspiration of the project was to make the kerb cairn more than just a pretty landscape garden feature. A local adult learners group did some research into the site and produced a leaflet.
In May 2013 the excavation of parts of the interior of the monument took place with the aim of getting local schools involved and also uncovering what – if anything – was left of the internal features established within the monument in the 1970s. The end result is a fascinating insight into how much of the original monument was actually reconstructed, including cobbles and various minor internal features. It also demonstrates that excavation is a powerful tool to help people work together and learn, and that archaeological techniques can help shed light on the contemporary, as well as the ancient, world.
On my recent A9 roadtrip, I paid my first visit to Raigmore, and got lost in the process. Inconvenient roadworks and a housing estate that appeared to have only one entrance meant I drove about for ages until finally I worked out where the cairn was. On several occasions I thought I had spotted the monument only to realise what I was seeing was in fact some large stone boulders scattered around the hospital car park as ‘landscaping’. When I finally got to Ashton Road Park, I found the kerb cairn situated behind a community centre and play park, with a metal green fence, hospital outbuildings and a white industrial unit framing the monument. I could find no evidence of signage, although this may be in the pipeline and the access route in was certainly pleasant.
The monument itself looks spick and span, nice and tidy, shiny even, when approached from one or other of the paths that runs towards it. The stones are pinky grey, but dotted with green moss and white lichen, paradoxically both ancient and modern at the same time. This is a monument that has been erected twice, named twice, excavated twice and adopted twice after all.
The monument is certainly being put to use, albeit it perhaps not for a function envisaged by the community. When I was there, a woman loitered within the monument making a phone call, and smoking. When she had finished, she stubbed out the fag on one of the stones and threw the butt onto the ground, where is nestled amidst a small selection of similar items. She then returned to the hospital from whence she came. The utilisation of this monument for any kind of activity is to be welcomed, and this is creating its own use-wear patterns, material culture and sense of place. Perhaps an ash tray should be provided however.
So next time you are on the A9, passing through Inverness, pause (not literally) to think when you are just south of the big A96 roundabout of the original location of this enigmatic monument of ritual and death that you are driving over at quite some speed.
And if you have time, turn off the road and make the pilgrimage to the kerb cairn in its latest iteration – it is worth getting lost to find.
Sources and acknowledgements: for information on the original Raigmore monument, see James Fraser’s 1884 article ‘Descriptive notes on the stone circles of Strathnairn and neighbourhood of Inverness – with plans &c.’ in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS) volume 18. Simpson’s excavation report can be found in PSAS 126 (1996). Google them, they are freely available online. The ‘stone circle’ plan was sourced from the former, the excavation drawing from the latter. The adopt-a-monument excavation photos appear here with the kind permission of Cara Jones and Archaeology Scotland, and the poster for the excavation was sourced from the website of the Inverness Field Club. Finally, the photo of Raigmore from 2006 was posted by Tim Prevett on the megalithic.co.uk site.
On the edge of the Perthshire village of Comrie, sandwiched between a row of houses and a cemetery, is a rather sorry looking set of stumpy stones, one of which is still standing, which go by the rather grand name of the Roundel (one of several names this site has as we shall see). It is a monument that has obviously declined (even in the last few decades), yet like all urban prehistory it still has a story to tell, which concludes with the identification of a surprising international twin.
But when I visited, none of this was apparent, and it didn’t even feel that welcoming. I parked beside the big out-of-town cemetery and walked along the roadside to see the stone up close. Beside the monument was a wooden stick with a board stuck to it, and taped to this was a piece of paper with the following written on it (in CAPS, which I have spared you from):
THE COURT KNOLL
Known also in Gaelic as Dunmhoid (Dunvoid) or the judgement mound, this is one of two such “four poster” monuments in the country and the only one containing a cist burial.
It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and protected under the 1979 Act, with the scheduling also including the surrounding land.
It is neither access to the private woodland nor a footpath. As it is being damaged by foot traffic, please do not use it as such.
There is a public footpath through the woods some 40 yards to the west. Please use this for access and respect and protect this unique monument and burial place.
I am not sure who the author of this rather pompous sign is, but it reveals little about the monument itself, and offers more questions than answers. For the casual visitor may well ask themselves: what on earth is a ‘four poster’? Normally, it means an extravagant bed found in fancy hotels and stately homes with curtains that both conceal the sleeping form within, but also could conspire to be a trip hazard (or a shield from ghostly visitors as in most Scrooge films). But not in prehistoric archaeology. In this very specific context, a four-poster (the hyphen is optional) means a square setting of four standing stones with each ‘post’ marking the corner of the square. In other words, square stone circles. Stone squares. Strange now I come to think of it.
I am puzzled by the assertion that there are only two such “four poster” monuments in the country – a quick search in CANMORE reveals there are 53 such monuments in Scotland, over half of which are in Perth and Kinross. A few of these are cropmarks, and may well have been timber post structures, but most are ‘four poster stone circles’ which usually means Bronze Age, certainly ceremonial, possibly burial, and definitely geometrically not a circle.
The form of the monument today makes it very difficult to make sense of, more of a one-poster than four-poster, with one angled grey monolith standing to waist height, and a few fallen stones scattered around it. The site as a whole sits on a low flat-topped mound (possibly why it also has a tradition of being called a ‘court hill’) which has a low, intermittent line of small stones around the top of the mound. But the site looked slightly more coherent even as late as the 1940s.
The most detailed archaeological account of this monument was based on a visit on 19th August 1942 by the legendary archaeologist V Gordon Childe. What was Childe doing in this corner of Perthshire, and why was he recording this particular monument? He was working as part of a programme of Emergency Surveys carried out by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland, survey work carried out during the Second World War primarily by Childe, and Angus Graham, who was secretary of RCAHMS at the time.
The rationale for the survey is recorded in the introduction to RCAHMS’s Edinburgh Inventory (published 1951):
The war brought special risks to ancient monuments in all parts of Scotland, not only through enemy action but through field-training of troops, and we endeavored to forestall such damage by preparing emergency records. Under this programme some two thousand three hundred photographs were taken of buildings situated in counties not yet covered by Inventories, and six hundred and thirty-six monuments were visited by and recorded in military training areas. We have to thank Professor Childe, who was then a member of the Commission, for having done on the bulk of this later work himself.
Much of the survey was undertaken in areas that RCAHMS had not previously worked, for even by the middle years of the centuries full and detailed inventories had only been prepared for a fraction of the country. The survey was recognition of the vulnerability of archaeological sites and monuments to warfare, invasion and accidental damage (the monumental equivalent of friendly fire). This is at a time when people would have been forgiven for having more pressing matters to attend to, and so we should be thankful that all contingencies of the impact of total war were taken into consideration for the benefit of future generations. It also benefited future archaeological fieldworkers, because thanks to the hard work of Childe and others it was ensured that future inventories had some content already prepared, and some notable research successes were also recorded, such as Childe’s identification of Neolithic burial monuments in the Black Isle.
Childe’s description of this monument suggests it was in a better state then than now.
Here he records that two stones were standing when he visited, and a further two fallen stones were present. And he suggests that the low mound upon which the monument is situated is ‘modern’ although exactly what this means, I’m not sure.
Earlier accounts of the monument suggest that it has had a chequered history in terms of appearance. An account in the Chronicles of Strathearn by Rev John MacPherson in the late 19th century for instance notes that three fallen stones were erected in 1876 (to make the total of standing stones three or four is unclear). Prehistoric burials are suggested by accounts of both a cist, containing a human thigh bone, as well as a cremation urn, being found ‘within living memory’.
In a more fulsome account, Fred Coles wrote in 1911 that the monument was back down to two uprights and two fallen stones. Coles himself seems confused about the relatively recent story of three or four stones standing stones (‘it is assuredly a little strange’), but it is clear that the Comrie masons who did the erection work did a rubbish job. (Childe was right to record this monument as it seems a rumbling tank passing by would have been enough to topple these wobbly monoliths.) Back to Coles who noted:
Whatever inaccuracies of detail there may be [in the MacPherson account] we may at least take it that four Stones originally composed the Circle here, and that the interior was devoted to purposes of sepulture.
Little else is known about this monument, other than in the time between Childe’s emergency visit, and an Ordnance Survey map revision in 1966, one of the remaining two stones had fallen over again, perhaps struck by a falling feather.
And so when I visited the site last year, only one single standing stone remained, and it appears thankfully that no further efforts by the people of Comrie, masons or otherwise, have been made to re-erect any of the fallen stones, or even have a poke around. And now it sits in a little woodland glade, on the roadside, separated from a big cemetery by a wall, guarded by the urban furniture of the ‘Welcome to Comrie’ road sign and the rather less welcoming sign asking visitors to consider walking around the monument, not over the top of it, to get to the trees beyond.
The day I visited, bins were set out on the roadside, presumably poised for collection. This reinforced the sense that this monument sits (literally) on the edgelands of town, a liminal zone between Comrie and not-Comrie, between life and death, on a fork in the road. No doubt in prehistory this was also a liminal place, a gateway of a different kind, perhaps an entry point to another world and a location for rites and rituals. If local people use this square circle for similar activities nowadays, presumably they deposit their materials into one of the nearby wheely bins, not specially prepared pits and stone sockets.
By way of footnote, I couldn’t resist checking out Carleton Place in Ontario, Canada, the place Comrie is ‘twinned with’. Imagine my amazement when I found out they too have a standing stone, albeit of much more recent heritage. A stocky yellowish orange megalith stands at the entrance to the Carleton Community Labyrinth. This feature is an ongoing community project, centred on a labyrinth marked out in big concentric circles on the ground, part of a community garden.
The standing stone was a later addition (erected in 2010), a striking entrance feature to the labyrinth. But what is perhaps most spooky of all is that this megalithic feature consists of a single standing stone flanked by two recumbent stones – a twin for the Comrie megalith.
It would be nice if the inhabitants of these two towns could get together and celebrate their standing stones and lying down stones – and to marvel at the coincidence generated by their twinning.
Sources and acknowledgements: the main source of information for this monument, and the Emergency Survey data, is the site’s CANMORE entry (NMRS number NN72SE 6). Cole’s account of the monument, and the line drawing, were sourced from his 1911 article ‘Report on stone circles in Perthshire, principally Strathearn; with measured plans and drawings’ in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 45, pages 46-116. The photo of the monument in 1942 was taken by Gordon Childe, and held in RCAHMS collections, archive number SC 1436181. Images and information about the Carleton Community Labyrinth and standing stone came from that project’s blog, link in the post. The photo of Childe is available widely online.