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Dynamic

8 Dec

DYNAMIC

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

General view low res

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

Stone row from bottom low res

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

stone pile low res

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

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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.

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The solace of deep Anthropocene time

30 Oct

Megaliths are often utilized as war memorials, usually with the memorial taking the form of ‘replica’ standing stones, precise stone settings or highly stylized megalithic tombs. These very often occur in urban contexts, and fall into my category of urban prehistoric sites that evoke ancient forms of monument rather than being genuinely ancient in themselves.

Howard Williams has explored this phenomenon in much more depth than I, for instance in relation to the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire, in a paper in the International Journal of Heritage Studies (2014). This remarkable landscape of remembrance consists of hundreds of memorial gardens, memorials and monuments, and 30,000 plus trees (many dedicated to individuals and organisations), numbers that are being added to constantly giving the place a sense of dynamism as well as stoicism. Memorials include concoctions of stones from various parts of the UK and France, mnemonics for represented organisations and memorialized events; these include ‘a cairn commemorating the Loch Class Frigates … incorporating stones from each of the Scottish lochs after which the Frigates were named’ (pg 10). Williams calls the Arboretum a ‘megalithic landscape’ noting the presence of five stone circles, including one made of rubble from Dresden. There are also numerous ‘hewn megaliths’, cairns and mounds, what Howard characterizes as ‘material citations’ of the past.

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The Ulster Ash Grove monument, deploying standing stones and megalithic boulders (Image source: http://www.thenma.org.uk/)

I have blogged about this phenomenon in other locations also, such as Cardiff and Glenrothes, while there are other famous examples internationally such as the replica Stonehenge at Maryhill, Washington. The latter was built in the aftermath of the First World War by Samuel Hill, ‘as a reminder of those sacrifices and the “incredible folly” of the war.’

falkland war memorial cardiff low res

glenrothes war memorial newsclipping

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Top to bottom: Cardiff, Glenrothes, Maryhill war memorials.

In all these cases, the enduring quality of standing stones appeals to those designing and building memorials, foregrounding timelessness, continuity and authenticity.  A crucial element of all of these kinds of megalithic memorials is their hybrid quality, an ability to mash up different architectural styles and time periods, ‘a conflation of multiple pasts’ as Williams calls it (pg 20).

Prince Charles megalith photo

Prince Charles with a memorial ‘dolmen’ behind him. Location unknown. Photo: The Guardian

I recently visited a rather unusual instance of a war memorial that might actually be utilising a genuine prehistoric megalith, or at least a stone that has been recognised as such locally. Whether this really was the case or not barely matters, but it otherwise conforms to many of the characteristics identified by Williams elsewhere.

The war memorial in the small Clackmannanshire town of Tullibody is a weird re-purposing of a monument known as the Haer Stane (or Samson’s Button). Essentially, the memorial now consists of a huge basalt boulder sunk into a depression that has had a red granite Celtic cross inserted into it, and a pair of placques with a list of names on them stuck on the side. What makes the war memorial of interest to me are antiquarian – and locally maintained – accounts that this massive shapeless lump of stone was once part of a stone circle or perhaps more likely some kind of kerb cairn. The National Monuments Record of Scotland page for this site notes:

The Haer Stane of Tullibody is a shapeless mass of basalt about 8ft high and 30ft round the base which stands on the declivity in front of Baingle Brae Villa. Within the memory of persons living in 1874, it was surrounded by a great number of rough upright stones, about 2 to 3ft high, methodically arranged. North-east of the stone, but within the enclosure, was an old well.

This suggests that in the decades before 1874, when the monument was documented in Crawford’s book Memorials of the town and parish of Alloa, a stone setting surrounded the boulder. Nothing is known about this stone circle at all, and nothing is documented on any map I could find, which must cast some doubt on its existence. The association of this tale with what is far more likely to be a glacial erratic could suggest that this was little more than a set of boulders lying about and locally misinterpreted as anthropogenic.

This boulder, perhaps of archaeological significance, certainly of local historical importance, had another layer of meaning attached in 1921 when a massive red granite standing stone was stuck on top of it upon which was carved a Celtic cross.

An intriguing note is added by an OS Antiquity mapping visit in 1973: ‘encircling the boulder are approx. 60 small loose stones giving a diameter of about 10m. These stones are not in situ due to the construction of a pond, precluding positive identification of a stone circle’. This seems to be unrelated to the antiquarian story, and old postcards of the Haer Stane show the memorial sitting in the middle of a pond with boulders defining the edge of this small body of water, many of which are clearly sitting on the surface and not deeply embedded prehistoric features. Quite why a war memorial had a pond created around it I’m not sure, but it was in a declivity I guess…..

Postcard Haer Stane ebay

Source: http://tullibody.org/history/ Date unknown

Dog in pond Angelfire

Date and dog unknown. Note the green placque on one stone, pictured below. Source: http://www.angelfire.com/sc3/tullibody/

The Haer Stane has a timeless, geological, impressive quality as I found when I visited the monument recently – although it no longer has the pond and circle of stones around it.

The memorial is accessed via the Lych Gate, a wooden gatehouse that was itself recently refurbished as it had fallen into decline. In this old postcard (date unknown) the gate can be seen in its glory before trees grew here, and the Celtic cross element of the memorial can be seen jutting into the air in the background with the Ochils as a spectacular backdrop.

Postcard Tullibody gate

Source: www.warmemorialsonline.org.uk/memorial/142155

Lych Gate low res

Signs outside memorial low res

Pathways lead to the Haer Stane through trees, creating a buffer from the urban surrounds and generating a ‘peaceful’ ambiance albeit one punctured by the neighbouring school currently being a building site. Huddled in a corner was a boulder (presumably found during building works), acting as a weird megalithic table surrounded by four plastic school chairs. I wonder if this was a survivor of the kerb that once defined the pond around the Haer Stane?

Megalithic table low res

The Haer Stane came into view, a spectacular brute of a boulder, set in the centre of a circle of trees, paths and park benches. Neighbouring house windows overlooked the complex, while dog walkers patrolled at all times. I spoke to one local guy with a dog who told me that the location had become problematic with youths coming into the memorial park drinking (hence the sign at the entranceway) and he also complained about the omission of certain names from the new placque on the Stane itself, some kind of local grumble that I could make little sense of.

Haer Stane view from north low res

Haer Stane low res

Up close, the monument was more complex than I had imagined it could have been. The juxtaposed granite cross seemed to grow from the erratic beneath it, and the two stones displayed no discernible harmony with one another. The Haer Stane itself seems to have cracked in the past, with these cracks evident and filled with some kind of stone-glue. Perhaps this damage was done converting this into a war memorial, cracking it open to insert the cross-stone, enforcing this new role and identity onto the boulder against its will.

Megalith glue low res

Megalith glue.

The boulder was also coated in a thin mud-slip in places, and a few mud ball splats. It was possible to identify child-sized soil handprints around the belly of the stone. The haptic qualities of this monument has clearly been explored by local youths with dirty exuberance.

Stains on the Stane.

Handprint 1 low res

Hand print 2 low res

A green metal placque on a small stone at the base of the monument (the one that had in the past been on the edge of the pond) displayed the following information.

1921

To the memory of

the 27 men who gave their

lives for us in

The Great War 1914-1919

This memorial was raised by their

relatives and friends in

Tullibody Cambus District

Placque low res

Attached to the Haer Stane itself are two black stone squares with names carved into them; these were appended to the stone in 2013 replacing an earlier version (as reported in the local newspaper).

War memorial 626 squadron

(c) Alloa Advertiser

These too had been smeared with mud.

Black placques low res

The re-purposing of this ancient glacial boulder – by definition prehistoric in the broadest sense of this word – into a war memorial fits in well with the hybrid traditions identified by Williams. Here we have a mixture of the ancient, the early medieval and the twentieth century, shaped into an immovable and timeless focus for commemoration. But it also fits well with another tradition, that of archaeological monuments that find themselves in urban settings. The biography of this site since it emerged from the mists of time has been erratic, unpredictable, at times marked by acts of folly. It is now part of the urban landscape, surrounded by the trappings of such places, and despite increased maintenance and watchfulness from the local community, I doubt if it has reached its final form.

One thing that does seem to be a consistant aspect of this monument is the recurring and locally maintained story that the Haer Stane had prehistoric monumental origins. The local Heritage Centre webpage for instance prominently states:

Tullibody – One of the oldest villages in Scotland. We now know that the first peoples were living in this very area. Tullibody looked very different in those days as it was a peninsula, surrounded by water. The early people worshipped the sun and it is now known that Tullibody War Memorial stone formed part of a Druid Circle.

This is also the story given on war memorial websites such as this one where the site is explicitly called the Druid Stone.

Screen grab from war memorial web page

There seems to be a desire to attribute to this monument something more than just random glacial activity, I would imagine because an origin in the deep-time of human (pre)history fits better with the narratives of memorial and myth-building that mourners, descendants and the local community need this place to be. The  truth of it will probably never be known nor does it matter.

Solace has been sought in deep Anthropocene time.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: The Howard Williams paper to which this blog post is heavily indebted has the following citation: Williams, H 2014 Antiquity at the National Arboretum. International Journal of Heritage Studies 20.4., 393-414. To get information about Tullibody’s past, I made use of a few really good local sources of information and images, and these are all cited as sources of the old postcards in the post above. Most of this post was written on a train, hence its untidiness.

Melancholia

18 Oct

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):

McClaren statement from Coles 1899

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.

Food Vessel from Tillicoultry Robertson paper

Rock-art photo Robertson paper

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.)

Cist plan Tillicoultry Coles paper

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.

OS 1866

OS 1866

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.

OS 1866

OS 1951

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.

Location map

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.

The mast

Grassy knoll

The skull

Tree symbol

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.

The quarry

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.

Remnant

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.

Remnants

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.

Tillicoultry House

Tillicoultry House. Drain not visible. Source: http://www.ochils.org.uk

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.

Prehistorica melancholia.

 

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.

The last days of a stone circle Part 2

7 Apr

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

Permanently closed.

Permanently closed

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

visits table

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

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

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

Herald 14th Feb 2016

The Herald, 14th February 2016

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21st March

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

solstice bike

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

4th April: Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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wotrkman low res

Traces of the equinoxal fire remained, albeit reduced.

Pathetic dampness.

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

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

 

 

5th March: Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

AOC scan2

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

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

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

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

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

Everything must GO.

 

7th April – Thursday

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

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

 

 

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

The morning started hi-vis and portacabin-style.

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

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

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

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me being interviewed low res

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

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

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

 

 

The last days of a stone circle in summary

A monument impossible to reduce to photographs.

A monument impossible to reduce to memories.

A monument impossible to reduce to images with scales.

A monument impossible to reduce to spreadsheets and context numbers.

A monument impossible to reduce to sketches and plans.

A monument impossible to reduce –

A monument impossible –

A monument.

 

FOR JACK FORBES

 

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

 

 

 

Shadow of the stone

27 Dec

Granny Kempock Stone (Gourock, Scotland): Top Tips Before You Go from TripAdvisor

“If you’re interested in anything historical, this is for you. 

There is something eerie about being near this stone….perhaps it’s the witchcraft that it’s suposedly linked to?!

We only stopped off at this for a matter of minutes, but worth it, if you like this type of thing.”

Andrew W, Trip Advisor

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The avenues and alleyways
Where the strong and the quick alone can survive
Look around the jungle 
See the rough and tumble

Sometimes we must creep around the avenues and alleyways to find truly ancient things, rake amongst the bins for the rubbish of the ancient past that refuses.

Sometimes we need to seek out the rough in order to make the tumble way back into the past.

But…..sometimes the stories of standing stones become more interesting when they become urban.

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Gourock, Inverclyde, is perched on the edge of the firth of Glasgow’s river, at the end of the line, and the beginning of so many journeys to the islands, doon the watter. Here, there are avenues and their are alleyways, wynds and braes, urban sandstone cliffs and serpentine staiways. Here be the Kempock Stone.

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This remarkable megalith, as so often with urban standing stones contained within a cage for whose protection it is not clear, is a well kent character locally, reflected in for instance a playful iron sign located on a roadside about 100m away.

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A sign that reveals the affectionate local name for this standing stone – Granny Kempock Stone. The stone is said to have the appearance of an old hag standing looking out to the sea, and folk myths have become attached to this stone like limpets, with the modern reference point for most stories drawing almost exclusively from an account of the Kempock Stone which appears in the Rev David MacCrae’s 1880 book Notes about Gourock, Chiefly Historical. This account tells of the mostly historical life of this prehistorical monument.

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Maccrae’s account of the Stone is almost the only source we have for the association with the eponymous granny (who might have been a witch), and a series of Lovecraftian rites that were once (and may still be) performed around this stone. It is worth reproducing key elements of that account here (and pictured is the original, above). Macrae’s lurid and tabloidesque description of the stone and its possible functions through time are at stark odds with the middle class designed garden context within which it sat even in the late nineteenth century.

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He notes upon walking up to the monument that “you behold, standing erect, a remarkable block of grey mica schist, that might (had Gourock been near Sodom) have passed for the bituminous remains of Lot’s wife.”

His feverish historical account then turns to darker matters still (at least for a man of the cloth as the author was) – the pagan activities and beliefs that this megalith provoked both in the ancient past, and the uncomfortably near past.

“It is supposed that the Kempoch Stane marks the site in Druid times of an altar to Baal; and that it was wont to gleam, more than two thousand years ago, in the light of the Baal-fire, with the blood of human sacrifices flowing round its base. [Hmm, wonder if there is potential for phosphate analysis around the base of the stone?!]

However that may be, the Kempoch Stane was for many centuries an object of superstitious awe and reverence. The very ballast for ships from Gourock Bay was judged sacred in old time for its connection with the “Kempoch Stane”. Marriages in the district were not regarded as lucky unless the wedded pair passed around the “Lang Stane” and obtained in this way Granny Kempoch’s blessing.

It was chiefly in connection with the winds and the sea that the Kempoch Stane was regarded with superstitious dread. Standing forth on the top of the rock….Granny Kempoch must have been a marked object to ships sailing up or passing down the firth; and would look like someone placed there to rule the winds and the waves, and watch the ships as they came and went.

At one time, according to tradition, a monk made money by giving his blessing to sea-going ships, on this spot. Another tradition tells of a withered hag, reputed to be a witch, who for years dwelt beside the mystic stone, dispensing favourable winds to sea-faring men, who secured her favour by suitable gifts before sailing from Gourock Bay. But long before, and long after, the witch’s day, the sailors and fishermen were wont to take a basketful of sand from the short and walk seven times round Granny Kempoch, chanting a weird song, to ensure for themselves a safe and prosperous voyage” (MacRae 1880, 5-7).

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This incredible account of a scandalous standing stone that was exploited for sex and money was derived from, one would imagine, local tales, with no written sources provided. Perhaps Macrae made some or most of it up, not beyond the realms of possibility for a Victorian clergyman with an interest in antiquarian matters. But it is a narrative that has endured, and a plaque located next to the corner of the cliff-top pathway that the Stone itself occupies reproduces in full generous extracts from Macrae’s account, perhaps appropriately set within a halo of rusting screws.

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This account renders Baal as Baai, but otherwise evokes the almost spell-like enchantment of Macrae’s words, a rap sheet against this misunderstood lump of rock. (Incidentally, given how close the stone sites to the edge of an old sea cliff, the act of moving around it would actually have been more perilous than it sounds especially is one were in a hurry or a drunken sailor.)

Perhaps these words were also carved on the curious cream-coloured marble plaque adhering to a stone walled structure that sits right beside the Kempock Stone, a touch which gave the whole setting a cheesy Hammer horror feel.

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I was unable to get close enough to this weird feature – which looked rather like a heavily weathered grave slab covered in tidy tiny (but inhuman?) writing – to read its surface. It added to the sense of mystery of this tiny portion of Gourock.

Archaeologists have done little to nothing to resolve any of this mystery and this is perhaps because our traditional tools – survey, excavations, careful recording, scientific analysis – are almost powerless in the face of a single standing stone. 

The National Monuments Record of Scotland has little to say about this standing stone, which has NMRS number NS27NW 5. Field notes for the stone from the 1960s record the size (6 feet tall, 2 feet across) and petrology of the monument (mica-schist) as well as repeating some of the points made by Macrae. And that is it. Nothing else of archaeological note to help someone wanting to make sense of this stone other than the vague assertion on the metal sign on-site that it was Bronze Age and erected around 2000BC which is, frankly, a stab in a millennium long bit of dark.

The NMRS fieldworker’s account adds one further detail though, another layer in this intriguing story set in stone, which adds depth and historical incident to Macrae’s biography of the Baal-stone.

In 1662, Mary Lamont, who was burned as a witch confessed to having attended a meeting when it was intended to throw the stone into the sea.

Huh? That must be the lamest confession ever made by a witch – basically attending a meeting that was convened for the discussion of the fate of an ancient monument. No doubt she appeared in the minutes of the meeting as ML and made the tea and biscuits at the end of the night.

In fact, the story of Mary Lamont, or Marie Lamont, was far more complex than the NMRS gives it credit for and, inevitably, rather tragic.. Of Innerkip (now Inverkip) near Gourock, Mary was 16 when she confessed 13 articles associated with witchcraft and consorting with the devil presumably in less than legally fair surroundings. She claimed the devil had given her his mark, and a new name – Clowts. Thus convicted, she was burned at the stake, with the locals apparently taking pity on her and throttling the young woman before the pyre was lit.

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From a nice little film about Mary Lamont, Clowts and the Serpent (embedded below)

Her confession related to the Kempock Stone was, perhaps fittingly, the thirteenth and last. That she danced around the megalith, ‘plotting to cast it into the sea in order to destroy ships and boats’ (Clowts and the Serpent).

This tragic story, the full truth is which is lost in the mists of time, is unlikely to have involved any real magic or witchcraft, nevermind the very devil himself,  but it has cast a potent spell over modern perceptions of this standing stone in a way I have rarely encountered for any other megalith. What is more, Mary’s story inspires creativity to this day. Bloggers behind the Inverclyde myth and folklore website, Tales from the Oak, have been involved in the production of graphic novels such as Identity, which was HLF funded and developed from working with local school children to celebrate their heritage. This included the tale of Mary Lamont and the Kempock Stone.

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A page from the Identity graphic novel

Perhaps a higher profile attempt to tell the story of Mary was a STV children’s TV show from 1987 called Shadow of the Stone.

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This show was a tea-time-at-the-weekend kind of thing, and is best remembered now as the big break for actors Shirley Henderson and Alan Cumming.

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Shirley Henderson and Alan Cumming on the set of The Shadow and the Stone. Photo believe it or not (c) Alan Cumming himself

The plot revolves around a 1980s’ school girl who, through the medium of the Kempock Stone, develops a strong and supernatural connection with Mary Lamont. The writer of the programme, Catherine Czerkawska recently described the plot:

Shadow of the Stone is a spooky tale of witchcraft, possible possession and burgeoning adolescent sexuality, all set in picturesque Gourock and Greenock on the Clyde. A young girl, Lizzie, becomes fascinated by the story of Marie Lamont, who was burnt as a witch in seventeenth century Scotland. Lizzie has a troubled family background and thwarted ambitions to sail, so when a yachtsman arrives from America, having navigated the Atlantic alone, Lizzie develops a crush, not just on him, but on his beautiful yacht. 

The power of the stone can be seen here in rather simplistic brush strokes as a conduit to the past, enabled by touching or hugging the stone, as Shirley Henderson seems to be doing here. (Note the signage for the stone, now gone.) The megalith acts as a literal touchstone with deeply encoded messages that only a kindred spirit to those who once danced around the stone can access. Forbidden knowledge, dangerous and confusing to adults (i.e. men).

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This programme makes the connection once again between this stone, and the sea, and women, and sexuality, and fertility, threads which run through all of the stories about Granny Kempock.

Alan Cumming, on his own website, reminisced briefly but fondly about working on this show.

Also made by Scottish Television for the ITV network,Shadow of the Stone is a six-part series about a girl and her alter ego from a century ago who had been burned at the stake as a witch. I played her boyfriend Tom, her boyfriend in both time zones. 

He notes that in every scene he was involved in, his character was said to be ‘lurking’ and this sums up nicely the role men have had in the story of the Kempock Stone – sleazy, exploitative, sadistic, judgemental. It is often said in folk myths that to be turned into stone was a common punishment for witchcraftery and covorting, and it is perhaps no surprise that the modern cutesy name for the stone derives from the apparently physical similarity between the stone and an old woman, or crone, or hag, or gran. Yet there is nothing about this stone that suggests it looks more like a man and a woman.

Mhairi Robertson's depiction of Granny Kempock, reproduced with permission

Mhairi Robertson’s depiction of Granny Kempock, reproduced with permission

 

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I visited the stone on a mid-December Saturday, parking down by the waterfront where the denim-grey waves pounded against megalithic sea defences, the fusion of stone and water occurring at a point that I was unable to adequately determine – in the same way as it was now almost impossible to tell where the sea began and the Clyde ended. Fusions of horizons on the horizon, creating fluid boundaries that barely exist. I turned my back to the roaring river to look inland and up to the urban horizon where past and present blurred, another fusion and confusion.

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Through the car park, up some stairs, not using a map, working from memory, I skipped across the main road – KEMPOCK STREET- and randomly turned left. Almost immediately I came across the entrance to a narrow alleyway that led to some steps. An iron sign bridged the alleyway – KEMPOCK STONE. Names pointing me in the correct direction, propitious omens for success. Over the avenue, up the the alleyway. Up the steps, to my destination.

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All the while I was climbing up a cliff face, sandstone outcrops overhanging gardens on all sides. At the top, I turned right and immediately saw….her.

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The standing stone was in a curious location, perched on the cliff edge and set within a compound of strangeness, with a stumpy stone tower with marble slab beside it, and an ornate gothic green fence around it, some upright post adorned with corrupted fleur de lis. Unsurprisingly, the megalith was caged.

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A closer look at the surface of the stone showed that three sides of if were adorned with carved initials and symbols. I was unable to see the fourth, dark, side of the stone. My notes, scrawled with cold hand and blue pen, documented these markings as best I could, subsequently let down by a botched scan on the work photocopier which it is now too late to rectify.

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Amidst the markings, aside the usual mixture of big initials and dates, and some bold lines and delineations, were what appear to be at least two mason’s marks.

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Reproduced from wikipedia under a creative commons licence (see list of sources at end of post)

Reproduced from wikipedia under a creative commons licence (see list of sources at end of post)

Perhaps here we can see the hand of men in the story of the stone at last, and we can also assume that the fence around the stone and the constructions around it were likely to have been a male domain when this work was undertaken. Superficial scrapes in the deep surface of this stone, nothing more.

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Around the base of the Kempock Stone was a collection of offerings (or perhaps I have been studying Neolithic pit deposition for too long, and this was just rubbish). And there was a hole in the stone, of which I can find no discussion anywhere. It was respected and perhaps even incorporated into one especially grand carving, a large ‘shield’ containing big writing and the date 1815.

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I took one last look at the stone and its bizarre mashed up contemporary setting, yards away from net curtains and tenement doors, and then wondered at the view from and past the stone, expansive and thrilling. If this is the original setting for the standing stone, it is breathtaking, and the connection with the sea, and the salty tasting air, is satisfying and obvious.

I walked out onto Bath Street where the nice iron Granny Kempock sign had been installed, defiantly beside the local church and a dog shit bin.

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By the time I reached the bottom of the hill I had almost completed my loop back to the start of my short urban walk, when I came across a rather creepy nativity scene in a small park. Here, offerings were being placed around a crypt, but perhaps the motivations behind this story were little different to the stories of deposition and ritual at the standing stone up the road, acts with the intention of paying respect to awesome forces, whether that be god …. or the sea.

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KEMPOCK PLACE. THE KEMPOCK BAR. Names, names, names.

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My walk had come to an end. The Kempock Stone had been revealed to me, although I had not yet had enough, and continued to sneak up alleyways into gardens for one last look at the dark, western, side of the megalith from below. I peered between bins and through wet washing like a megalith junkie, eager for one more hit of Granny K. A clear view remained beyond my grasp, but the peculiar and spectacular location of the stone was evident.

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Urban standing stones are rarely as accommodating, or have such rich biographies, as the Kempock Stone. The stories, myths and people who have an association with this stone, whether witch, mason, sailor, school girl or granny, give a richness of narrative that we rarely, if ever, get for the prehistoric incarnations of such monuments, and even excavation would scarce furnish us a fraction of this level of detail. It is the modern biographies of prehistoric monuments that maintain these stones, not the work of archaeologists or fence-builders or heritage managers. We should cherish and celebrate these stories, told in the Shadow of the Stone.

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Sources and acknowledgements: The lyrics that start the blog are from the song Avenues and Alleyways, written by Mitch Murray and Peter Callander, and most famously performed by Tony Christie. I would like to thank Fiona Watson for information about the stone, and Gourock-based artist Mhairi Robertson for kind permission to reproduce her wonderful and evocative drawing of Granny Kempock. The image showing the graffiti possible mason’s mark on the Kempock Stone was reproduced under a creative commons licence via Wikipedia – By Mgordon42 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, while the image showing mason’s marks was sourced from Edward D Galvin (1987) A History of Canton Junction. Finally, I have used the photo of Alan Cumming and Shirley Henderson without actually asking permission from Mr Cumming, an actor of some repute, who I am sure is far too busy to be dealing with unsolicited messages from bloggers asking for permission to use obscure photos from the collection of Mr C himself and first published on his extensive, entertaining and authentic blog. I hope that’s OK with everyone.

 

 

 

 

Under the flight path

19 Jun

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]

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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.


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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.

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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.

 

Air photo screen grab

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.

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(c) Cairnpapple Archaeological Research Association (CARA)

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.

burnt out vehicles photo

(c) CARA

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.

Fred Coles' 1899 survey of the standing stones

Fred Coles’ 1899 survey of the standing stones

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.

The plan of Huly Hull drawn by Fred Coles, with a section through the central cairn / barrow

The plan of Huly Hull drawn by Fred Coles, with a section through the central cairn / barrow

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.

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Missing information board. Missed opportunity.

 

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….)

1853

1853

 

1893

1893

 

6 inch OS map from 1955

1955

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.

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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.

Edinburgh Airport viewed from the west, with the Newbridge Junction bottom centre. Huly Hill is just out of shot.

Edinburgh Airport viewed from the west, with the Newbridge Junction bottom centre. Huly Hill is just out of shot.

 

 © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

 

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.

more graffitti at Huly Hill

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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?

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The Visit Scotland website has this to say about Newbridge:

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.

single standing stone low res

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.

graffiti low res

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?

Nothing.

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

6 Apr

This is a blog post inspired by the Spirits of Place symposium held in Calderstones Park, Liverpool, 2nd April 2016.

 

Three service stations.

Three standing stones – The Tebay Three.

One journey by car from Airdrie to Liverpool.

Drawn by the spirit of a place.

-which is under lock and key.

-which is behind glass.

The Calderstones megaliths.

 

Point of departure

notes

Annandale Water

Annandale Water 1

Annandale Water 2

tube postcard 2

Annandale Water 3

Tebay East

tebay three b and w low res

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).

Travels in Lounge Space, Samuel Austin’s PhD thesis.

Tebay megaliths polaroid

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.

Tebay 1

Tebay 2

tube postcard

Tebay 3

Charnock Richard

A chocolate box masquerading as a postcard, retrieved from the other side of the bridge….

Charnock Richard 1

Charnock Richard 2

…and an erroneous plural….

tube postcard 3

Charnock Richard 3

….before carefully gathered debitage is assembled.

Debitage cropped and low res

Calderstones – arrival

The final postcards posted – on Druids Cross Road.

post box low res

Then into the vortex of Calderstones Park –

Calderstones Park postcard

And megalithic Liverpool –

megalithic liverpool postcard

South Liverpool –

druid temple postcard

Finally arrived.

calderstones pagoda postcard

#SpiritsofPlace

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).