Stone-circling

Stone circle is a category of monument that does not, in its definition, and despite what you might think, have a stipulated time period. There is no point beyond which a stone circle is no longer a stone circle. A circle of standing stone will always be a stone circle. I have written about this elsewhere in a short piece called Stone circle (21st century). These are some of my words:

The implication that we might consider building a stone circle as an active living tradition is not as daft as it sounds. You are unlikely to travel much distance by road in the UK without passing a roundabout with a stone circle inside it, while megaliths seem to be default landscaping elements when a gap in a new development needs to be filled.

Recently I visited two stone circles which very much belong to the 21st century (this century, not the BCE one). I encountered one by accident, the other by design. This reinforced to me that there are, in effect, endless permutations and purposes to the simple act of arranging stones in a roughly circular setting. (The circle thing is a bit of a misnomer if you are looking for geometrical perfection.) There is a kind of magic to this simple concept, transforming both the materials used, and the space defined, into something altogether different through a bringing together and re-arrangement of some geological raw materials. Under the correct circumstances making a stone circle might also change the maker, while there may be a hope that the stone setting will affect some or all potential users.

Megalith creation might be an act of decoration, of convenience, even of whimsy. Or it could be deadly serious, done with the purpose of remaking a place, engaging with people, offering a service, perhaps enhancing wellbeing.

This is what one might call stone-circling: verb, the creation of a stone circle. At any time in the past, present, or future for whatever purpose. It doesn’t get much more niche, or vague, than that.

Retail therapy

During a recent visit to Mainsgill Farmshop on the A66 in the north of England, I noticed by chance when looking out of the upper floor window a bloody stone circle! My views of this monument shifted as I moved from window to window, creating a series of surreal vignettes, a juxtaposition of gift shop nonsense with a neatly organised circle of stones.

Framed – a triptych of stone circle views from a gift shop

The origins of the stone circle at Mainsgills Farmshop are not precisely known, its construction sometime before 2010.

This is a confection, a jumble of farm detritus, with random gateposts and, perhaps, lintels, gathered together and set in a circle. A stone lies recumbent in the centre, and picnic benches intrude on the northwest side.

The monument itself has its own page in the Megalithic Portal, categorised as Modern Stone Circle. Editor Andy Burnham quotes Andy Farrington who noted that this monument “is made up of old farm gate posts and has been built in the last 5 years as a tourist attraction for visitors to the farm shop and tearooms”. This would date this monument to the years before 2010, and since then the expanding farm shop has begun to encroach on the fringe of the circle as this photo of the monument, below, taken by Farrington in 2011, suggests.

Photo: Andy Farrington (c) Creative Commons, source

This stone circle seems to me a superficial gesture to rurality in a highly commercial environment, part of an attempt to make this place as farm-like as possible. Slightly ruinous barns, muddy roads, animals, the faint whiff of shit in the air – are all part of the farminess of Mainsgills Farmshop. One can almost imagine a brainstorming session where stone-circling was conceived of as another layering of authenticity.

Actual therapy

This contrasts with another modern stone circle I visited recently, this time as part of my Death BC project. This circle is equally recent in terms of its construction and also sits within a business premises, but could not be more of a contrast.

The stone circle at The Lost of Village of Dode, Kent, is part of a different set of transactional rural practices, built with marriage, death and other life landmarks in mind. The church itself was sealed shut during a bout of the old Black Death back in the 14th century. It was brought back to life by Doug Chapman in the 2000s, who lovingly restored the building. An income stream was found through this becoming a wedding venue, and things have evolved further since. The church itself is stunning.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Doug for the project about his barrow columbarium, built during lockdown.

This partially overlaps Dode’s stone circle, known as Holly Henge. This is – despite the name – a stone circle consisting of seven stones set in a circle with a single stone towards the middle. This was added to the church grounds as the services provided here expanded. It is now used for hand fasting and baby naming ceremonies, and memorial services. The additions of the barrow means that the major rites of passage in life can now all be marked at Dode.

Those marketing Dode make much of the potential prehistoric depth of these kinds of interactions with stone circles.

The Handfasting ceremony has its roots on Ancient Celtic Tradition and dates back as far as 7,000BC.

Traditionally a handfasting involved a couple, holding hands which are bound by cords and declared that there is only one life between them; much in the same way as vows are made now. The couple would then exchange a gift, most commonly rings or a gold coin, broken in half; a token of their love and commitment.

Where better to continue this meaningful tradition that at Holly Henge, the stone circle of Dode. To declare the significance of your relationship and future journey together, witnessed by your guests and the centuries old stone that has seen so much of the history of our world. (from Dode website, link above).

(c) Belle Art Photography (source)

It is interesting that an appeal is made here not only a timeless human tradition, but also the timelessness of stone – the stone is ancient, and so therefore the stone circle has an ancient quality. These are appeals to perceptions of prehistory rather than any reality we can prove archaeologically but why should that matter? Doug’s stories about his time at Dode and online testimonies show that this, for many people, all works.

(c) Lost Church of Dode

This says something about the mutability of the stone circle form and the spiritual benefits that stone-circling can bring. Yet my earlier example, bereft of emotion, shows another side of stone-circling – the creation of atmosphere. At both Mainsgill and Dode, the stone circle serves a purpose to evoke a certain kind of atmosphere – of the rural in one case, the pagan in the other. Stone circles therefore can be – and perhaps always have been – deployed to create a temporal jump, recalling some imagined, wished-for, past to serve a specific purpose. In that sense, stone-circling retains its important social purpose even today, and what’s more, folk relate to this, they buy into it, there is an unspoken contract that we all sort of know what stone circles mean. That is real power.

Sources and acknowledgements: I would very much like to thank Doug Chapman for showing Andrew Watson and I around Dode and for being interviewed. Thanks also to Andrew for accompanying me on the visit and helping with the interview and logistics on this project. Photos in this blog post with no attribution were taken by me.

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Galoshans

Halloween on the banks of the Clyde, chasing down a witch in swirling wind and spluttering rain, weather fitted for late October. Early evening is neither the witching hour nor the devil’s hour but this does not mean that a haunting would not take place.

Galoshans – guising – trick or treat in descending order of Scottishness – terminology for transactional temporary arrangements entered into between children and adults. Deals are made at this time of year – allowance to walk the street, dress up, paint faces, stay up late, demand sweets from friends and strangers, all in exchange for a performance, however feeble. These contracts may last for only minutes but can echo across a lifetime.

And so the pavements are alive with ghouls and vampires, superheroes and robots, and sometimes even wizards, warlocks and witches. But not midnight, more like just-after-dinner time, as more than likely this will be a ‘school night’ and even the generosity of parents can only be stretched so far.

To Gourock, the car park of the railway station to be precise. Here be Galoshans, giant puppets manipulated by three people, one anonymously buried deep inside the torso, the other two working the hands and arms with sticks. Jerking unnatural movements, always on the edge of falling over, vulnerable to puffs of wind and surges of enthusiastic children, the giants weaved their way back and forth, moving to the beat of George Ezra and Taylor Swift.

Kids followed the giants around the car park, safely protected from the real dangers of the world and the night by gazebos, catering vans, an ice cream van, even a minibus and a static portaloo. This was an enclosure, the children and their patient parents wrapped in the kinds of things children really like – ice cream, crap burgers, terrible pop music. Amidst the whirling and the screaming wandered a whole family, each with an illuminated pumpkin for a head.

The giants were weirdly scary – a pirate, a white-skulled ghoul, Mel Gibson from Braveheart, a creature that looked like a living giant white loaf. In the middle of it all was the witch that we were looking for – Granny Kempock. Her trio of puppeteers steered her around the car park, swaying to Lizzo, awkwardly posing for photographs. Her green horrible face was topped by straggly grey hair and a black pointed hat of the type that seems only to be worn by cartoon witches. Around her neck was a rope connecting green skulls, neon death jewellery. The arms had too many joints and were serpentine, the hands like five-headed snakes. Her clothing hung around her like dirty white rags, and this translucent garb meant that the operator inside was visible, almost as if the giant witch had swallowed a human who was then forced to wriggle through Granny’s guts to escape.

The looming witch and the other giants tirelessly roamed the car park compound even as we retreated. We had witnessed history – local history, but we had also seen reflected back on us prehistory, local prehistory.

Just a few hundred metres away from this street party, solace was to be found with a silent and altogether more dignified incarnation of Granny Kempock, a standing stone on the edge of a cliff overlooking the back of the main street in Gourock. Standing stones always transform in the dark, and this one is no different, even if it was illuminated by a sickly orange street light. Located within a caged enclosure, mimicked by the enclosure of facilities down at the railway station event, Granny Kempock remained immobile, completely un-moved by the new single from Lewis Capaldi. If local myths are to be believed however, a person is also trapped within this version of Granny, a petrified witch, consumed by stone.

The contractual nature of Halloween was evident here too – this is a standing stone that is fogged up with stories of deals made with the devil or god, promises of protection, blood vows, eternal life, lost souls. Salacious stories collected by local historians and repeated by generations of locals bring this stone to life as surely as if they were her puppeteers. Dressing up the stone as a New Year’s Day rite continued until the 1970s, another key point of the year where Granny Kempock rises from the dead and de-petrifies.

The dual nature of this late October evening was powerful and moving. Two Granny Kempocks, one alive with movement and rhythm, surrounded by children dancing with the scary witch. The other dead, danced around in the past only by the recklessly heathen. Traces of prehistoric cosmologies, ancient ways of understanding the world and the passing of the seasons, preparation for the cold dark winter where witches haunt the alleyways and car parks.

Two Granny Kempocks. Polar opposites, doppelgangers, still holding this small Inverclyde town in their spell after all these years.

Notes

The Galoshans Festival is an annual event in the run-up to Halloween held across Inverclyde. An element of this event is street performance by local musicians and the Galoshans giants, all based on local myths and legends. The street party I attended on evening of 28th October 2022 described above was a street party, one of three that weekend, with others in Greenock and Port Glasgow.

The Kempock Stone is a standing stone in Gourock town centre, almost certainly prehistoric, perhaps not in its original location. There are many local stories and myths and rites focused on this stone, including an association with Granny Kempock, supposedly a local witch. I have blogged about this stone before and working on a paper on the local value of this monument with geographer Tim Edensor.

Some of the photos from this blog post were taken by Jan Brophy. The book extract comes from Rev David MacCrae’s 1880 book Notes about Gourock, Chiefly Historical.

Buried alive

For the next issue of History Scotland magazine, I have written an article on Scotland’s urban standing stones. In this blog post I want to expand on the rich story of one of those standing stones, the Lang Stane in Aberdeen. At the end of the blog post there can be found links to posts I have written about some of the other stones mentioned in the article.

Hidden in plain sight, only the throw of a fish supper away from Union Street in Aberdeen, stands the Lang Stane, a most peculiar example of urban prehistory. This angular standing stone is squeezed into a niche in a wall, looking remarkably like a human corpse that has been crammed into a coffin, buried alive. The stone has a kinetic, restless energy, as if at night it tries to escape from the confines of its premature burial. Inscribed – branded – across this stone cadaver in what I assume to be the torso area is the word LANG STANE in capital letters, with a suggestive slight pause between the two halves of its name, the deep breath taken before the coffin lid closes. Curious linear marks run across the stone, mostly natural erosion lines – wrinkles – but some hint at rough treatment at some point in the stone’s life – scars.

Is this actually a prehistoric standing stone? If it is, clearly something happened between 2000 BCE and AD 2000 that caused the stone to end up in this unorthodox setting. It’s shape has led some to suggest that it was once part of a recumbent stone circle, commonplace in North-east Scotland, although it is unknown what happened to the remainder of this monument, most likely a victim of more interventionist farming practices and early urbanisation in the post-medieval period. Canmore offers little more than a description of the stone, largely drawing on a brief note from Wyness’s 1965 book City by the grey North Sea: Aberdeen, a surprisingly rare mention of this stone in a book about the city.

The stone is shown alone in the 1746 Map of the Burgh of Aberdeen by G&W Paterson, here a solitary stone near a windmill; it sits poised to be swallowed up a tidal wave of urbanisation coming from the east, beside the track that would become Union Street. When the inevitable happened at some point after this map was made, according to Wyness, the stone was “built into the niche at the rear of Messrs. Watt and Grant’s building” and the street named Langstane Place. The niche is on the corner with Dee Street, named for the river, not the Tudor alchemist.

Extract from G&W Paterson’s 1746 map of Aberdeen (National Map Library of Scotland)

Appropriately for Aberdeen this stone is made of granite, and so it blends in with the background stonework and niche, three shades of grey. This is a big lump of stone, measuring 1.8m height, 0.68m breadth and 0.3m thick. It is pointed at both ends, more so at the bottom, which has a slightly green tinge. We have no way of telling which way up this monolith stood in any earlier incarnation in a stone socket; for all we know it is propped upside down, a cruel fate indeed. Little more can be said about this stone now, and I don’t think any form of direct analysis of the stone itself could shed more light on the story; this has moved from the purview of prehistorians to those who like to dig in archives.

The stone is enjoyed by some regardless of how old it is or how it got there despite the unpromising surrounds. A series of wonderfully strange photos can be found online showing the stone in various compromising situations. In the Megalithic Portal, The Captain documents the stone is “now presented in an alcove behind Burger King …. The poor thing seems neglected amongst the bins and street signs, but at least it is still here.” This is reinforced by a Google Street View image that looks like the work of Cold War Steve. Why not create your own versions?

7 Dee Street, Aberdeen (from The Megalithic Portal)
My own google street view attempt looking west along Langstane Place

There is a really lovely blog post written about the Lang Stane by the author Ailish Sinclair, who includes the stone in her historical novel Fireflies and Chocolate (GWL Publishing, 2021). She suggests the stone was moved to the niche in the 1960s but this must be a confusion with the published note on the stone by Wyness. She also notes a “faint six pointed star just below the text” carved onto the stone although I confess I could not find this on my visits to the stone. She also notes, “I like to pay the stone a wee visit when I’m in the vicinity, all tucked away and squished into its alcove as it is. There’s no scenic rolling hillsides or lush forests for the Lang Stane as enjoyed by its contemporaries!”. Such standing stones are indeed in unfamiliar surroundings, their present setting having been occupied perhaps for only 5% of the lifetime of the megalith.

I visited the Lang Stane twice in preparation for this blog post and the magazine article. I was of course drawn to the incongruity of the stones and its context, an unintentional masterpiece of urban juxtaposition. It sits on a curving street corner in the aforementioned bespoke niche, raised slightly from the pavement level on a sort of kerb, but not the kind of kerb that was in common use in the Bronze Age. Above it is an antiquarian road sign with a portentous finger pointing up the street and over the head of the stone.

The niche itself is in many ways as interesting as the stone itself, as I also found to be the case at the London Stone. It is defined by clean rectangular grey granite blocks, with shaped blocks forming an arch. The tidy look is somewhat let down by a metal cable concealer running vertically just to the left of the stone and a downpipe beyond this has caused unsightly water stains to form on one side of the niche. No history has been written about the niche, nor do blueprints or architect’s drawings exist (so far as I know) to show if and how it has developed through time. However, this old archival photo (source) suggests that at one point like so many urban standing stones this one was caged or held in position, in effect pinned down to avoid resurrection. And there was a much larger niche at this point too, coarser in stonework, wider in girth; indeed the different stonework suggests that this is a different niche, although presumably in the same location. Hints in the current stonework suggest there have indeed been modifications here.

The Lang Stane (date unknown)

I could see no offerings behind or beneath the stone, and nothing was draped from it, although surely from time to time football scarves are wrapped around it. The stone shares this streetside location with bins – a lot of bins as most of the images above show. Graffiti can also be found nearby: SAVE TREES FREE SPIRIT according to a 2007 photo on the the Megalithic Portal. This is a city centre edgeland, a place of smells and oozing liquid, a visceral street corner location, no place for a standing stone. But exactly the kind of place where we do need standing stones.

Diagonally across from the stone is a carry-out food place called Langstane Fish & Chips. This ensures a regular supply of punters walking to and fro to collect kebabs, sausage suppers, burgers and pizza slices. The standing stone is an irresistible place to eat beside, with the ritual consumption of food likely the kind of thing that happened around this stone millennia ago.

I started this blog post with the observation that this stone reminds me of Victorian photos of open caskets, the public display of bodies, memento mori. This postmortem photography was very popular for a while, a means to memorialise the dead on film. In some cases, the corpse was arranged as if asleep to give this impression in the photograph. Sometimes this was done publicly with the bodies notorious criminals, to show that they were indeed dead, and to kill myths and legends there and then, yet unintentionally creating a legend nonetheless.

This process, quite alien to us now, as alien in many ways as erecting a standing stone, captures for me some of the more ghoulish elements of urban prehistory. The Lang Stane sits on display, exposed, and for all intents it plays dead as drunks stagger past, and tourists trace the contours in the granite with their fingers. Photographers are drawn to it, not for the beauty of the stone but the weirdness of its setting, and like the dead it can do nothing except accept how it has been posed for our benefit.

But the Lang Stane, like other urban standing stones, does not ask for our sympathy, but might benefit from our thoughts, our concern, our whispers, a little care. It is resilient and will no doubt outlive us all. At least it is still here.

Weep not for me my parents dear,
I am not dead but sleeping here
‘.

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan who accompanied me on both visits and took the night-time photos in the blog above.

Links to blog posts about some of the standing stones in my Historic Scotland article (details of this article will be added when it is published):

Granny Kempock, Greenock – In the shadow of the stone (Urban Prehistorian post 84)

Dagon Stone – Dagon Day (UP post 7)

Hoar Stane, Tulllibody – The solace of deep Anthropocene time (UP post 97)

Ravenswood Avenue standing stone, Edinburgh – Behind bars (UP post 28)

Hot mess

Hot mess: a person or thing that is spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered, especially one that is a source of peculiar fascination.

Is that really a standing stone?! So must passers by in cars on the A8 near Edinburgh Airport ejaculate with great frequency as they pass by a very prominent megalithic upright in the shadow of an industrial unit. And well they might wonder what is going on when they spot out of the corner of their eye a right old hot mess of temporal entanglements.

Yet this standing stone demonstrates a key characteristic of urban prehistory – resilience in the face of change. These kinds of monuments act as a sort of fulcrum around which change happens, but yet retain their own internal integrity. This can be in the face of indignities such as bad planning decisions, a lack of care, vandalism, or even just being ignored.

The more cynical observer might even presume that this ancient survivor is giving our world of cars, commerce, and industry, the megalithic finger.

What is going on here? A quick visual inventory adds up to the sum of nothing much that makes sense. A standing stone. A cairn. A picnic bench. A fire escape. Some kind of rusty ventilation unit. A generic industrial estate building. It is all rather confusing: these seemingly random and largely disconnected things appear to lack synergy. It is as if some kind of time travel experiment has gone wrong and smashed together a whole load of things that existed in this single space but in different times. More of a peculiarity than a singularity. It is all rather surprising.

I guess a small percentage of the curious drivers or passengers in passing vehicles who spot this crazed arrangement might do some research when they get home or when it is safe to google. They might then stumble upon the fact that this is indeed a ‘real’ standing stone and not an unreal standing stone (in itself an interesting concept) and that it has stood here for rather a long time. Indeed of all of the things that are arranged in this location, it is by far the oldest, even older than the rusty ventilation unit. It is everything else that is out of time, disparate elements of this tableaux that have gradually accrued around the standing stone as if it were a magnet attracting 20th century crap.

This standing stone has been in the shadow of buildings for a long time, in the nineteenth century being close to a farm, Lochend Farm, which gives the stone its modern name. It’s prehistoric name? Who knows. By the 1940s the stone had moved (in context, not literally) from relatively rural isolation to being situated within a knotwork of rail lines and roads. Soon it would lie directly beneath the flightpath of the airport, and be made to ever so slightly vibrate according to flight schedules; the busy A8 road nearby is another source of vibration and gives this stone no peace.

1955 map. The standing stone is shown as an un-marked dot to the SW of Lochend Sch.

This is a standing stone that has been a mute witness to an ever-changing set of surrounds, from the turn of the seasons, to constructions and activities associated with thousands of years of human activity, the churn of change. One might imagine a stop-motion film of the life of this stone, extracted from the stability of bedrock or an outcrop, dragged, heaved into position, followed by a process of slowly moving from the centre of the lives of people, to the peripheral vision of a tired commuter.

A small noticeboard beside the monument, and its modern-looking cairn, tells the sum total of the story of the stone from our perspective, a banal account of pathetic ignorance, our know-nothing stance on such sites, which don’t make the textbooks, barely trouble maps, and warrant just one sentence in the National Monuments Record of Scotland. The local context is given more prominance in this megalithic short story:

 IT IS POSSIBLE THAT IT IS AN OUTLIER OF THE BURIAL AND RELIGIOUS SITE AT HULY HILL ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROUNDABOUT ALTHOUGH IT COULD HAVE STOOD ALONE. STANDING STONES OF THIS TYPE OFTEN HAD CREMATED HUMAN BONE AT THEIR BASE ALTHOUGH IT IS BELIEVED THAT THEY WERE NOT PRIMARILY BURIAL MARKERS

Situated on the other side of a huge roundabout and intersection is Huly Hill, an enigmatic and rather larger prehistoric monument consisting of a mound and three standing stones. Our industrial estate monolith appears to be little more than an appendix, a footnote, a PS, to this place, despite the fact we know bugger all about Huly Hill either, and what’s more, it is not even as easy to see from a car.

The standing stone is now associated with this industrial unit, part of an industrial complex rather than a sacred prehistoric complex. It stands outside the fire exit of a shapeless and colourless block that is inhabited for the time being by Element. The unit has all sorts of corridors and rooms, containing machines, desks, revolving chairs, meeting rooms and those plastic things that dispense water. This is probably not a permanent state of affairs – this place – this standing stone – was a ‘development opportunity’ in 1982 and will be so again. This building won’t he here in 50 years. But the standing stone will. It will outlive us all.

The standing stone in 1982 (c) HES

I visited this standing stone twice in 2019, in a more innocent age, after many years of yearning to touch its cold surface, rather than view it through rectangular voids in a fence, which has always given the stone the appearance of having been drawn on graph paper to scale. On my second visit I was able to get to the stone itself on a midweek visit. In the reception area, I barely needed to explain myself, as if visitors to the megalith were not as uncommon as I had supposed, something I found re-assuring. Here to visit Standing Stone. This way sir, how do you like its office?

As I was taken along a series of corridors, I began to feel sorry for the standing stone, alone despite the staff who sat at desks just metres away behind tinted glass. There is no escape for this megalith, no chance of peace to be found while humans work around it oblivious to its elegance and mystery. The office block arches around the stone, a semi-panopticon, but only with a dis-interested audience of sandwich munchers. As I approached the fire doors which stood between me and the stone, I speculated as to whether the stone was at times the victim of the tortures of office workers, cigarettes stubbed out on its grey flanks by bored smokers during tea break.

I pushed ‘bar to open’ and emerged into a different sonic environment from the low hum and muted sounds of the office environment. Ahead of me was the standing stone, hemmed in by monobloc and the kind of gravel one can buy in garden centres (sub-standard cairn material imho). This location was haunted by the drone of cars and motorcycles, and the muted roar of overhead planes. These machines fly over the stone constantly, silvery echoes of the comets and shooting stars that must have been witnessed over the monument thousands of years ago when the skies were darker and quieter.

I did not go back through the fire doors, now locked to me, and scrambled around the grassy exterior of the industrial unit to get back to the front of the building.

Despite the hot mess, the botched landscaping and compromised setting of this monument, it remains a constant, a fulcrum point. This is despite the peripheral role it plays in the life of almost everyone who encounters it. The stone has probably never been busier, never been seen by more people, yet it has an invisible quality. Office staff and lab technicians look through its transparent patina, familiar to the point of banality. Oh, you want to see the standing stone? Why?! Drivers and bus passengers shoot by, focused on the forthcoming traffic lights and road intersection, seeing the stone as a blur, never truly in focus except in the eventuality of a traffic jam.

Yet….in this ever-changing world we live in, the Lochend Farm standing stone offers a constant, unchanging, re-assuring presence, not moving or evolving, not in need of an upgrade or reboot, and never becoming obsolete. Just what we need in 2020 if only those who encounter this magnificent megalith would realise it.

Notes: The Lochend Farm standing stone was described by Smith in 1877 as ‘large standing stone..of coarse greenstone’ on the ‘south side of the Edinburgh to Bathgate road’. This brief note concluded, ‘It bears no sculpturing or inscription of any kind and measured about 10 feet in height from the surface to the ground’.

Coles (1903) showing the plan view of the Lochend Stone & Haly Hill stones

Coles, in 1903, added little more to this description in an account more focused on nearby ‘Heelie Hill’. Upon walking from the railway station to the cairn and standing stones, ‘the first object to arrest the eye of the antiquary is a great monolith, over 9 feet in height’. Coles did some recording, as the illustration above shows.

Thereafter there is no further archaeological engagement with the stone, which as the black and white image from 1982 above shows, stood in the farm ground near the expanding A8 road for some time. The post-1982 construction of the industrial estate here was when the landscaping of the stone, with gravel cairn surround, must have occurred.

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to the staff at Element who allowed me access to the standing stone.

Sources used above for images and the notes section:

Smith, JA 1875 Notes of rock sculpturings of cups and concentric rings and ‘The Witches stone’ on Tormain Hill; also of some early remains on the Kaimes Hill, &c; near Ratho, Edinburghshire. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 10, 141-51.

Coles, F 1903 Notes on….(4) a cairn and standing stone at Old Liston, and other standing stones in Midlothian and Fife….Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 37, 193-232.

Coatbridge Carnac

As I explore the places near where I live on foot, within the approved 5km or so limit, I ask myself: ‘Do I just see urban prehistory everywhere? Is it just me? Or are allusions to the prehistoric hard-wired into our urban spaces, industrial estates, retail parks, and housing estates?’. I am coming to suspect the latter, as the alternative would mean that urban prehistory is simply a product of my own delusional state of mind, a pathological condition.

So that’s fine then. On to the business of this post.

Urban exploration is seldom a walk wasted. And following a path, or a desire line, just that little bit more, towards the end of a long walk, if often the time when unexpected discoveries are made. And so it was recently on a lockdown walk in the Lanarkshire sun. On a wander that had already delivered olfactory pleasure drifting from whisky barrels biding their time in warehouses with their doors flung casually open, Jan and I pushed on just a few minutes more, in the shadow of Tesco Extra that from the rear had the appearance and scale of an airport terminal.

A deserted path ran along the backside of this massive grey warehouse, pitted with black doorways at the bottom of unwelcoming stairways. Someone has spray painted a brick wall ‘Mind the steps’ while a bunch of dying flowers hung from a rusting banister nearby, a plaintive sad simple note attached: RIP. An accident on the stairs? We became overwhelmed by the sound of the shop, a low capitalist hum, as if the building were not really a shop but a huge power station feeding on the energy of queuing shoppers.

I glanced off the the right, along a narrow but concrete-paved pathway that led to a clearance, within which were I glimpsed a few inverted shopping trollies, and a pile of big angular boulders. Attracted to this – what other word can I use? – cairn, I pushed aside the foliage, and emerged out into an opening, where other blocks were arranged in more cairns. Huge sandstone discs, like giant tiddlywinks, were arranged in a snaking line. The chase was on, with each break in the vegetation leading to more megalithic revelations.

This cannot be a coincidence. The place we stumbled upon is some kind of landscaped public art, perhaps industrial in spirit, almost certainly not prehistoric in any way whatsoever in the mind of the creator, and yet I cannot help but see these blocks, these lines, these deposits, as prehistoric-esque, to coin a clumsy compound word. Why would anyone see these piles of boulders as anything other than cairns? One even took the form, I am sure, of a fallen standing stone.

The fallen standing stone (photo: Jan Brophy)

Consider the basic facts of the matter. In a hesitant line some 150m in length, punctuated by bushes, squeezed in a green triangle between the Faraday Retail Park, Coatbank Street, and South Circular Road, there are multiple cairns and fallen megaliths of granite and sandstone.

These stones are a 1980s palette of oranges, greys, and pinks, and arranged casually, but the sheer size of some of the boulders meant that there could have been nothing casual about this. In the shadow of high rises, near the din of traffic noise, this is surely urban prehistory?

In the shadow of high rises

In one clearing, two trollies lay tied to one another by the chains attached to the pound coin slots. One trolley was from Tesco, the other Asda. This unholy coupling appeared to have been deliberately engineered, perhaps for my benefit, a Ballardian touch that I appreciated. Trollies were strewn all around, their metal carcasses ridden in, broken, borrowed, stolen, then finally dumped amidst this Coatbridge Carnac.

The coupled trollies

The abandoned trollies give this place the feel of a mortuary space for excarnation, their defleshed skeletal frames picked clean of their consumer flesh, the tin cans, the multi-packs, the boxes and packets, and left to tarnish in the sun. Exposed to the elements, their wheels silently spinning in the breeze.

Place of trolley excarnation

Gareth Rees recently tweeted about coronavirus and his specialist subject, retail park Car Parks. (Would he choose this topic were he on Mastermind?) One picture, showing ‘bizarre trolley alignments’, made me think about the new affordances that shopping trollies have for us during pandemic. Arbiters of safe social distanced space in shops. Delineations for queues outside shops. And perhaps they should also be viewed as vectors of the transmission of Covid-19 via unwashed hands and surfaces, things to be handled while wearing latex gloves.

It was difficult to make sense of this mostly abandoned piece of landscaping behind the Faraday Retail Park. The gravel surfaces that most of the boulders and stones had been laid atop were overgrown with weeds, and broken bottles and bent cans were strewn all over the place. Litter accumulated around the base of standing stones and collected in the unusual angles created by stones like tangled limbs. Fires had been set in the shadow of some cairns. This was a place that was hidden in plain sight, just off the road, just behind a retail park, and yet seemed like another world that belonged to someone else. We were trespassing, and yet the only life that we could detect here at 4.30pm on a Monday afternoon were rabbits. Lots of rabbits. Some hiding behind shopping trolleys, perspective creating the illusion they were in cages at the whim of a mad scientist.

Someone tweeted later that evening that this place was known as a rabbit run, and the various meanings of this phrase seem apt for this place. Someone else told me it was a failed attempt to establish a Japanese garden behind the Retail Park, although many of the stones looked to me like the byproducts of the heavy industries that used to dominate this landscape. The huge sandstone discs were, I am sure, remnants of bridge supports, although from where I have no idea. Still another theory goes that this is a liminal place that marks the boundaries between the territories of two Coatbridge gangs, perhaps borne out by the tags sprayed onto some of the blocks.

Marking territory, Buckie deposition

Yet the scale of all of this did not quite compute with any of these explanations. The megaliths that we encountered in that liminal space, that edgy edgeland, seemed to me like they belonged to the fantasy worlds of Doug McLure, or James Franciscus, beneath, beyond, impossible, deeply strange, and yet enchanting. It was our world – my world – and yet not quite of that world. Shoppers nearby largely knew nothing about what we had encountered, in this space that in the end was deemed suitable only to plant shrubs and erect standing stones and cairns. It is defiantly not a shop. But maybe a little bit prehistoric.

As we emerged out of this nether region, passers by on a better-used path looked at us suspiciously, as it urban exploration in that place was unusual behaviour even for lockdown walkers. Little did they know that only a few metres away, amidst the trollies, the rabbits, and the rubbish, lay the Coatbridge Carnac.

Great crown of stone

Exactly a year ago, 20th March 2019. the new Sighthill stone circle was officially revealed to the media. Designed, as was the first iteration, by Duncan Lunan, this astronomically aligned stone circle has been constructed as a permanent and unique resource within the emerging new Sighthill just to the north-east of Glasgow city centre.

At the time when this new megalith began to emerge, it sat on a raised island amidst a giant muddy building site. Sighthill itself was yet to be reborn, the old variant having been more or less completely bulldozed and remediated as part of a £250 million redevelopment. The standing stones stood resplendent like teeth, their concrete foundations exposed like white gums. At the time they sat in a noisy landscape of construction, with the closest neighbour being a Mercedes car dealership, a Ballardian crash of epic proportions.

A year on, residential Sighthill is now growing slowly, although the stone circle remains (just) in glorious isolation. It still sits in a brownscape of mud amidst machines of construction, but it is slowly visually and metaphorically being lost in an urban skyline. Yet even now, driving west along the M8 into the city centre, the Sighthill’s second stone circle is a fantastic site / sight, emerging as it does on the horizon off to the left. A similar and wonderful view can be gained by the pedestrian by standing on Baird Street bridge over the motorway.

The stone circle is surely Glasgow’s Angel of the North, a great crown of stone on the horizon.

This photo essay (my rather grand description of what is basically a series of photographs) documents the time I was privileged to spend in and around the stone circle on 20th March 2019 thanks to a kind invitation from Duncan.

Duncan prepares
Media scrum
The gathering
PPE and me
Pilgrims
High vis 1
Mud bath
The mints
Megalith bagging
Camera obscura
Alignment
Photo op
City limits
High vis 2
Through a crack
Great crown of stone
Mounds and megaliths
Artist’s impression of the circle when its new urban setting is completed (artist unknown)

Men of Felben

Resolute.

Men of Felben awakened from their deep slumber.

Looking for fuel.

Felben approach

Unfurling themselves.

Dwarfing standing stones.

Remnants of their former selves.

Giants de-petrifying.

Becoming metal.

Leaving their shackles behind.

Fully erect

Looming over vehicles.

But not looking at them.

The circle of life.

Roundabout.

Over vehicles

Standing guard beside their tombs.

Limestone boxes.

The eternity of stone.

Spirits in the sky.

Revealed

 

Sources and acknowledgements: Die Herrn von Felben (The Men of Felben) is an artwork (artist unknown to me) within a roundabout in the town of Mittersil in the Austrian Tyrol. At the time of its construction in 2014 it was one of 95 in the Salzburg Region, although probably the only traffic island adorned by two metal giants and four portal dolmen. 

Newspaper photo of Felben
Source: Salzburger Nachrichten

The ‘gentlemen’ of Felben were noblemen from the 12th century whose name is commemorated in the nearby Felbertal mountain pass and the tunnel, Felbertauern, that runs through it (source). 

The photos in the post were taken, from a car, by Jan Brophy.

 

A trick of the light

The standing stone stands outside the shop.

The shop is situated beside the standing stone.

But which came first – the shop or the stone?

Odin stone

This is the new Odin Stone, on the corner of Junction Street and Burnmouth Road, Kirkwall, Orkney. Right across the road from Buster’s Diner and a long stone’s throw from the marvellous Bothy Bar.

It is a replica of the old Odin Stone, which once stood between Maeshowe passage grave and the Ring of Brodgar. This was destroyed by an over-zealous landowner in 1814 and apparently built into a barn.

This is a standing stone that was / is distinguished by it’s hole, through which (reputedly) arms were thrust and within which objects were balanced in ancient rites.

canmore_image_DP00038990
The Odin Stone (right) in 1807. The Watch Stone is on the left.

The new Odin Stone might have been erected to mark the launch of a fancy gift shop in Kirkwall in the early 2000s called Odin Stone. (The ‘the’ was dropped.)

Or was the shop called Odin Stone because there was already a replica Odin Stone on this street corner?

Which came first? What is the stratigraphy here?

Odin Stone shop frontage
From defunct Odin Stone website

It was a nice shop, and sold the kinds of things one would expect to find in a high-end gift and souvenir shop. I once bought a nice butter dish from there and from time to time browsed through boxes of expensive black and white prints with little intention of actually buying one.

One travelogue review described how the Odin Stone (the shop not the old or new standing stone) had the aspiration ‘to honor [the] spirit [of the Odin Stone] by representing local artists and craftspeople’ which is a curiously cynical way of describing what was in fact the kind of shop that one would have expected to do well in the new cruise ship reality of Kirkwall, a reality that has changed the character of the town over the last decade.

But sadly this does not seem to have been the case and on my most recent visit to Orkney in June 2019, the shop was gone. Probably long gone.

The standing stone – the fake Odin – abides though. And there is something rather comforting in that.

General view Odin stone 1

General view Odin stone 2

By the standards of replica megaliths, it is a hole lot of fun.

Through the Odin hole

But what’s this? A new business opportunity has sprung up. The Orkney Experience.

The Orkney Experience

The heavily painted windows make it difficult to see inside but this is clearly not a shop, more of an ‘experience’ as, to be fair, the name suggests. Cruise passenger fodder that promises OPTICAL & ORCADIAN on one window, and ILLUSIONS ARTEFACTS on the other. Beneath these bold words are pictures of a wee monster and someone running away from it, dressed like a stereotypical archaeologist. Wearing the books of a pirate.

He is running for the sanctuary of the Odin Stone.

Optical Orcadian

Illusions artefacts

Much of the imagery on the outside of this building now points towards the Norse heritage of the island, and mythology.

Norse imagery

This painted wall sign, to the side of the shop entrance, actually retains the ‘Odin Stone within the O’ motif of the Odin Stone shop, as demonstrated by the ghost sign of the old shop which still protrudes from one wall albeit with the stone viewed from different directions, inverted versions of one another.

Ghost sign

On another window of the Orkney Experience is a curious optical illusion, an Escher Trilithon, imported from Stonehenge. Beneath it, cards or CDs with standing stones on them line the window sill. A mirage of a man runs past in the rain, mirroring the optical illusions that this place seems to sell, obscuring the Odin Stone’s reflected doppelganger.

A trick of the light.

Illusionary trilithon

What is the Experience that this places sells? Entry has it’s price. I confess I couldn’t be bothered going in. It can’t be that big a place inside (the shop wasn’t) so what does £6.50 get an adult punter? Something like this according to BBC Orkney’s Huw Williams…

Huw

The Experience’s website tempts the prospective customer with this offer: ‘Come and dress like a viking, ‘visit’ a Sanday beach, or be caught by Cubbie Roo the giant’. Making a virtue of a small premises with illusions appears to be the name of the game. From various images available online, this seems to be a place with a complex combination of acrylic paintings that act as optical illusionary photo subjects, dressing up props, and real and replica objects, fixtures and fittings. Such as a Skara Brae dresser.

skara brae
From The Orkney Experience website

Not a lot of the consumer offer appears to focus on prehistory or archaeology however.  Is there no Odin Stone inside?

A magic window
A most marvelous confection
But windows are for looking through
Not for checking out your reflection (Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales)

 

The standing stone stands outside the experience.

The experience is situated beside the standing stone.

There can be no doubt.

This stone came first.

 

Sources and acknowledgements:

The old Odin Stone has National Record for the Historic Environment number HY31SW40

There is a fine account of the unfortunate fate of the original Odin Stone in the Orkneyjar website.

The 1807 drawing of the Odin Stone and neighbouring megalith is (c) RCAHMS / HES and was downloaded from canmore.

The pic of the original Odin Stone shop front came from the now defunct website for the shop – the link won’t go anywhere. 

Thanks very much to Huw Williams for permission to reproduce the photo of him with Cubbie Roo.

The lyrics towards the end of the post come from the track A Trick of the Light from the Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales album Room 29.

Finally, by way of balance, check out the wholly excellent and positive reviews (as of 17/6/19) of the Orkney Experience on Trip Advisor.

Heathen temple

churchyard low res

in a yard in the shadow of the church

amidst bent monuments and faded death markers

and dead flowers

protrudes from the earth the last fragment of a

heathen temple

that once stood in this location

now sanctified now a sanctuary

but once an altar upon which offerings were made

of an unholy nature pagan

with liquids unknown returning to the earth

dripping splashing running

to be absorbed into good christian graves

corrupting bones

countless years later many moons

have passed since dark and mysterious

rites were practiced here in a

heathen temple

that stood in this location

now a sanctuary now sanctified

bible-proofed

but chalk dust was spilled here

by antiquarian Mann inquisitive man

sketched out on the north face of this stone stump

mapping out the occult

crossing the cracks transcending planes

imposing acute and right angles

making connections that ignore

the topography of the megalith

inscrutable washed off by rain never repeated

photographed greyscale black and white

the last flourishing of a

heathen temple

that stood in this location

of the dead

Photo 3

 

Notes

The standing stone in the churchyard of Strathblane Parish Church, Stirling, is of unknown date although there is no reason to doubt that it has ancient origins. Nothing is known about the stone at all, although it was recorded in nineteenth century maps in this location and was briefly mentioned by John G Smith in his 1886 book The Parish of Strathblane. The stone itself is no more than 1m in height, with five faces, and a relatively flat top.

Photo 1

strathblane-stone-1886 map Northern Antiquarian
1886 map of the churchyard with standing stone location shown. This map was first posted online on the Northern Antiquarian blog post for the site.

At some point, the archaeologist and antiquarian Ludovic Mclellan Mann drew a grid on one face of the standing stone in what looks to be white chalk. The nature and meaning of this grid, consisting of connecting and overlapping lines and circles, remains unknown. Only one photograph records that this event ever took place.

canmore_image_SC01331278

Paul Bennett, on the Northern Antiquarian webpage for this standing stone, notes:

‘The fact that it stands by the church (rebuilt around 1803 out of its more ancient fabric) suggests that the site was a heathen temple or sacred site, redesignated by the invading christian priesthood’.

The truth of this may never be known.

Sources and acknowledgements: The grid-drawn-on-the-stone photograph is copyright HES and has Canmore image number SC01331278. It was brought to my attention by Katinka Dalglish who attributed the handiwork to Mann. Supplementary information, as is easily gathered from above, comes from Paul Bennett’s Northern Antiquarian page for this site: he always gets there before me! 

Dynamic

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.