My dad Michael is a very talented and creative man. I’m pretty sure his skills working with wood and carpentry would have made him an invaluable member of any Neolithic community. Good with his hands. A solver of problems. An improviser. When I was growing up I remember seeing on a shelf at my gran’s house a rabbit he carved from a block of wood, and to me it looked almost alive, life breathed into it by my father’s hands. It was dad who made the lovely little unit that I display my prehistoric style WH Goss pots on so you have probably seen his handiwork before if you follow this blog.
When we took my parents off for a few days to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary between lockdowns in autumn 2020, it struck me that both of them, and in particular my dad, were to some extent entangled with prehistoric rock-art. The hotel where my parents went on their honeymoon was the Cairnbaan Hotel, just on the southern edge of the Kilmartin Glen, a hotel with rock-art branding and a cup-and-ring marked stone on display just behind it.
I asked my parents about the rock-art and the cairns and standing stones that this area is so famous for – had they visited them on their honeymoon? No came the answer, although in 1970 they would have all been extant and presented to the public to some extent. To rectify this regrettable omission in the honeymoon programme, we took them to Temple Wood stone circles, Nether Largie South chambered cairn, and one of my favourite urban prehistory rock-art sites, Kilmichael Glassary. The name of the site – Kilmichael, the church of Michael – was not lost on me and my father was all too happy to oblige when we arrived on site.
The location of this large rock-art panel has always excited me, as it offers a viewing platform over houses and gardens, and is surrounded by a wonderful grey Ministry of Works Fence. In contrast to almost all of the other prehistoric sites in Kilmartin, this is proper urban.
This is a bit of an urban rock-art hotspot with the main panel showcased to the public being Kilmichael Glassary 1. KG 2 and 3 are smaller individual rocks while KG4 could not be located during recent Scotland’s Rock-art survey work at this locale.
The main panel is richly decorated outcrop of schist with wonderful natural cracks, fissures and hollows perfectly complementing the wide range of carved motifs to be found here.
The ScRAP team recorded the following description of this site:
A large, exposed rectangular area of outcrop measuring 7.4m by 3.8m and up to 0.7m in height, which slopes gently to the SE at a roughly 20 degree angle. The rock is a friable, medium grain schist with numerous fissures, natural hollows and has – in places – a rough surface. The panel as been decorated with over 150 motifs, including 110 cup marks, 7 large cup marks, 2 dumbbells, 5 cups with tails, 4 extended oval shaped motifs, 8 cups with partial rings, 1 cup with a tail and a partial ring enclosing the cup, 1 cup with a tail and a partial ring enclosing the cup and tail, 1 cup with a ring and tail from the cup to beyond the ring, a group of three cups enclosed by a ring, and three key hole shaped motifs: two of which are open at one end and the third of which is completely enclosed. There are also additional grooves, up to 5, which partially enclose a number of motifs on the lower E side of the panel.
This is of course not the first time I visited this site; this happened with friends many years ago when we were enjoying the NVA Half Life festival in Kilmartin Glen back in 2007. In the gloom we crawled across the surface of the rock, tracing out the cups and rings with our hands, most of them with deep shadows in their bases, the darkness of the ancient past unknown. There was an earthy dampness about the outcrop and it felt soft to the touch.
I had my fish eye camera with me that day and after some digging around in an old photo album, I found analogue documentation of that visit. One image (top left below) was an accidental double exposure which intermingled two carved rocks of very different eras – Glassary and Dunadd.
Rock-art is very common in Kilmartin Glen, and there are bigger and better panels to be found, notably Achnabreck which like Glassary is surrounded by a grey metal fence but is also perhaps the largest panel yet found in Scotland. It has its merits but it is rather….rural. I have visited this site many many times on fieldtrips and I recall once that a student found a golf ball jammed into a cupmark.
These kind of juxtapositions were at the heart of Half Life, and I looked back at a review I wrote about the experience for the Scottish Archaeological Journal. I noted a booklet that was issued as part of this event with essays by archaeologists real (Mark Edmonds!) and fictional. (I have no memory of this booklet nor do I know where in my dump of an office I might find it.) My review notes:
There I was handed a handsome booklet and map to accompany the Half Life experience, part tour guide, part spiritual wayfinder. I love maps, and the beautifully produced map of Kilmartin Glen with my pack depicts 16 key sites to visit and details of how to get there, but also features near invisible silver contours one can only see by moving the map against the light. The booklet itself is lavishly illustrated, with thought-provoking essays by archaeologists and artists. One of the themes of the booklet is the role of archaeologists in making the past opaque and mysterious through our activities and discourse, a sentiment I have a great deal of sympathy with. Fictional ‘journal’ notes by the archaeologist at the centre of the evening ‘play’ describe a local rock-art panel as ‘a ‘heritaged’ ancient monument, surrounded by railings and the static and safe interpretations that neuter the real power of a site’. This was brought home by my visit to site 15, a wonderful series of panels of rock-art at Achnabreck, each outcrop surrounded by a grey metal fence, one with a ‘wet paint’ sign still hanging from it. Each panel was approached by a wooden walkway, reeking of wood preservative, disenfranchising the visitor from the pastness of the place.
I am not sure I would be so negative now, the creosoting heightening the power of the experience, laying bare the stark otherness of the past, rather than watering down the pastness of this kind of place. The stink of this place was the smell of the intermingling of the ancient and the contemporary, ritual freedom and managerial stricture, a powerful intoxication. The fence around Kilmichael Glassary serves the same kind of role, framing the rock-art panel as if it were really art, offering a buffer between past and present, living rock and houses.
There is a lovely description of a first visit to Auchnabreck by Thomas Legendre, the writer of the play that formed an evening centrepiece of Half Life:
At Achnabreck I approached an outcrop – one of several at that site – and gazed at the carvings. They seemed like depictions of atoms, solar systems, dartboards, raindrops with ripples fanning outward, and they looked like none of these things. Some included tails or gutters connecting with others to form compound motifs, or else they simply merged into natural cracklines and clefts in the rock. I crouched down and traced the designs, comparing their worn texture with the cracks and fissures of the rock scoured by glacial action – and with a jolt I realised the carvings had been fitted between natural breaks or rifts in the surface, incorporating its complex microtopography. These designs hadn’t been imposed on the landscape as if it were a blank canvas. They included the rock itself.
These tactile revelations were not for my dad, mobility issues stopping him from walking up to Kilmichael, crossing the stile back to the Neolithic, dropping to his knees to trace the symbols with his carpenter’s hands. Nonetheless, I will continue to regard Kilmichael Glassary as my favourite panel in the area, elevated by its urban surroundings and the fact that I visited it mid-pandemic with my mum and dad.
Sources: my review of Half Life can be found in Scottish Archaeological Journal 28, 153-55 (spine date 2006, actually published 2008). The Legendre piece of writingcan be found here: Legendre T (2011) Landscape-Mindscape: Writing in Scotland’s Prehistoric Future. Scottish Literary Review 3(2):121-132.
Hanging around outside a gents toilets may not seem the most obvious way to do archaeology but needs must. That’s exactly what I did on a recent visit to Southerness, a beach with benefits south of Dumfries.
In many ways Southerness is a throw back to British holiday resorts of old, with its holiday park, amusement arcade, dingy pubs and garish fish and chip shops. Super-sixed plastic ice cream cones are propped outside cafes and it is possible to buy small buckets, spades, fishing nets, flippers and multi-coloured sticks of seaside rock. So it was the last place I expected to stumble upon potentially previously unrecognised rock-art. As part of a wall outside the gents toilet behind the bins.
As Jan and I stood enjoying the sun and our ice cream cones, I noticed a red sandstone block in the wall that had multiple small circular depressions on its surface. After a closer look I felt I could not rule out the possibility that these were cupmarks and that this was part of a larger panel that had been broken up during quarrying. Thankfully I always travel with a scale!
As you can see from these photos, there are no other stones with this pattern, which one could argue suggests that this is not a common natural erosion pattern for this rock. On close inspection the ‘cupmarks’ had regular edges, consistent shape and depth, and did not look natural. Checking along the wall I came across one other piece of rock like this, which had the same characteristics.
I am no expert, and it would need someone from Scotland’s Rock-Art Project (ScRAP) to come down and visually check these two stones and ideally survey the rest of the wall (which is actually quite extensive), but my sense is that there is a decent chance that these are remnants of a prehistoric carved stone that was quarried for wall material. When the wall was built and from whence the stone came from would be interesting to find out, an avenue for future research in the council archives and old maps.
I was heartened also that when I tweeted about this discovery, Joana Valdez-Tullett, an actual rock-art expert with ScRAP, could not rule these stones out this being prehistoric. However Hugo Anderson-Whymark’s (National Museum of Scotland prehistorian) response urges caution, which is fair enough. I’m not sure however that I agree that these marks could have been made by limpets (see here for info and images) but that does not mean we can rule of a natural (or non-prehistoric) causes.
I guess the other thing that makes me confident about my identification is the similarity of the closely-spaced small cupmark design to other panels in the vicinity. In particular it immediately reminded me of High Banks, a wonderful linear outcrop near Kirkcudbright c 24km to the west.
This is an absolute cracker of a rock-art panel that I last visited with Julian Thomas during a day off from excavations at the Holywood cursus monuments in 1997. Carved across a linear group of outcrops some 30m in length, it consists of scores of closely packed cupmarks, some set in parallel lines, as well as other motifs such as cup-and-rings and grooves.
This remarkable panel was replicated as plaster casts which are now propped up outside The Stewarty Museum in nearby Kirkcudbright (a town better known to some as the location of some scenes from the 1973 movie The Wicker Man), a carved stone identity parade.
In themselves these wonderful casts are an urban prehistory pleasure to enjoy, but I won’t dwell on them here as fine words have already been written about these by others such as Gavin MacGregor. Gavin describes this ramshackle collection of carved stones (real and casts) thus:
I quickly looked outside to see a nest of carved stones sheltering together through the ages: piled up in front of the casts, quern stones and fonts, Medieval cross and prehistoric rock art reworked as architectural elements of later buildings. A glass and steel framed disparate assemblage of esoteric forms revealing : a compelling urge to collect and display over the ages?
Inside the museum is a lovely historic record to accompany the casts, again here I am indebted to Gavin from whose blog I have taken this image.
He also noted that the panel itself had close connection to the artist Edward Atkinson Hornel, who probably first found the rock-art site in 1887, two years before the museum outside the casts are now propped was established.
The aforementioned Hugo of National Museums of Scotland carried out a 3D scan of the cast and was able to compare this with the original, which had been donated to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in 1892 before going back to the south-west again. Once again I am prompted to note that there is a wonderful research project waiting to be done on casts (and rubbings) of cup-and-ring marked stones, the value of which has been demonstrated by wonderful research on carved stone replicas by Sally Foster and Sian Jones.
So the Southerness stones are not out of character for rock-art in this part of Scotland, and it is also not unique to find a carved stone built into a wall. Joana Valdez-Tullett very kindly sent me a list of such sites suggesting this practice has been going on for 2000 years. Some of these are cup and cup-and-ring marked stones built into the walls of Iron Age structures such as souterrains and brochs. These include Kildrummy, Tealing and Leckie – clearly deliberate acts of inclusion which suggest a fascination with the past in this period.
However, there are closer parallels to Southerness in Scotland in terms of inclusion in post-medieval and modern walls. Here are the five examples identified by Joana; all images are from the ScRAP website. In four cases these are large stones that must have acted as wall foundations, so there is pragmatism at work here but perhaps also some stone dyker aesthetics.
Kinmylies, near Inverness, Highland: a stone with 26 cupmarks and three ‘dumbbells’ set near the base of stone dyke.
Glasvaar 4, near Ford, Argyll & Bute: built into a garden wall, a stone with multiple carvings. Nice! One of several carved stones in this location, but the only one wall-bound.
Others are similar. Kilmahumaig 1, near Kilmartin, Argyll and Bute, is a stone with a large carved basin set into a wall in the grounds of a fancy house, while Druim Mor 2, north of Dingwall, Highland, consists of a cracking block with 24 cupmarks on it near the base. The wall denotes the edge of a Christmas tree plantation, so paganism is alive and well in this location.
Helmsdale, Highland: a rather different – urban – setting, and this one reminds me a lot of Southerness. The cupmarked stone is part of a wall, a former building, on Stittenham Road. It is a stone that has been broken from a larger panel, with 16 cupmarks, some of which may be natural. I’ve driven through Helmsdale many times over the past few decades but not stopped to look at this before; I will next time.
As it happens, I was fortunate enough to document a stone with a single cupmark built into a garden wall at Auchnacraig 1, West Dunbartonshire, during my excavations there in 2019. This was spotted by Gavin MacGregor during a visit to the site and is another aspect of the connection between 20th century garden landscaping and rock-art in this locale.
Joana also included in a list she sent me rock-art on gateposts, sitting beside walls, and stones found on estates that may once been included in walls. The latter case is Kirkdale House, Dumfries and Galloway, where a small shack has been constructed that contains six carved stones of various sizes and forms. This collection is located west along the coast from Kirkcudbright.
So being moved and stuck into a wall is a rare but not isolated phenomenon in other words so on this basis we cannot rule out Southerness being genuinely prehistoric in origin.
What is seaside rock? Wikipedia defines it as ‘a type of hard stick-shaped boiled sugar confectionery most usually flavoured with peppermint or spearmint’ but perhaps the most notable thing about this tooth-breaking sweet is the presence of words that run along the entire length of the sticky stick. There is something magical about this, and the process by which this happens is remarkable and surprisingly physical (although I guess this is now probably all done by robots and machines).
Of course rock does not have to be bought or branded at the seaside, although it often is. Rock-art is the same of course, sometimes located on the coast but not always. The writing that runs through the heart of a stick of rock – SOUTHERNESS – tells us something of the character of this product and where it came from (even if it were not made there). In the same way, the crowded cupmarks evident at High Banks and Southerness 1 and 2 (as I will now grandly call them) speak of the character of the region, symbols of such power and tenacity that they ran through the heart of communities like words in a stick of rock. They are distinctive, and deeply embedded.
The two sandstone blocks at Southerness may contain hollows made by people in the third millennium BC, or they may simply be strangely eroded rocks that fortuitously look like they are artificial. If rocks do erode like this along this coastline then perhaps this was what inspired the distinctive look of High Banks? If rocks with this erosion pattern were spotted in the Neolithic, would it have been possible (or even necessary) to see them as either cultural or natural? This distinction was probably not as clear in prehistory if it existed at all.
I am content for these two stones located outside a holiday camp toilet block to be retained in the ‘possible’ file for the time being, and perhaps some future research or fieldwork will shed more light on their origin. Regardless of whether these are prehistoric carved stones or not, they are very much urban prehistory. Go and have a look for yourself and let me know what you think.
Sources andacknowledgements: I am deeply indebted to Joana Valdez-Tullett for her comments on the Southerness stones and also for providing me with a list of rock-art with wall associations in Scotland. The data in that list was brilliant and much appreciated. Thanks also to Hugo Anderson-Whymark for his thoughts.
This blog contains images and details from the work of Scotland’s Rock-art Project, the National Museums of Scotland, and Gavin MacGregor – due credit for these have been included in the text or captions. These images are reproduced with much appreciation and admiration to my talented colleagues.
I recently wrote this short blog post for a website promoting University of Glasgow School of Humanities schools activities and resources but misunderstood my brief, and what I wrote was condensed into one short paragraph. Oh well, never one to let writing (and several hours of my time) go to waste, here is a summary of schools activities around the Faifley Rocks! Project and the Cochno Stone. If any teachers would like to explore using cups and rings in the classroom please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org
Since 2015, I have been working with community members, organisations, and schools in Faifley and Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire, to celebrate and tell the story of a series of prehistoric rock-art sites on their urban fringe. These are outcrops of sandstone that were carved with a range of circular markings in the Neolithic or early Bronze Age, probably between 5000 and 4000 years ago. These are known as cupmarks (hollows) and cup-and-ring marks (hollows with concentric circles carved around them).
Over a dozen such rocks are found in a park and woods near Faifley, the most famous being the Cochno Stone. This is one of the largest rock-art panels in Britain and is covered in hundreds of examples of prehistoric carved symbols and modern graffiti. As if this were not dramatic enough, in summer 1937 the Glasgow antiquarian Ludovic Mann covered much of the surface of the Cochno Stone in a painted grid of his own conception and he also painted all the prehistoric symbols. The Cochno Stone was finally buried in 1965 by the heritage authorities due to damage being done to the stone by visitors, including dozens of people carving their name into the rock’s surface.
My engagement with the community really began in earnest with the temporary uncovering of the Cochno Stone in 2016 for it to be digitally recorded for future research. This catalysed further work including workshops, public talks, exhibitions, walking tours, and several seasons of archaeological fieldwork. Right from the start I was keen to work with local schools, and this has led to some great classroom sessions and working with creative and engaged teachers at primary and secondary level. Much of this work has been improvised and most of it has not yet been tied into the curriculum. However, I hope this is a useful case-study of the range of activities that I and many helpers have been doing in the classroom and the playground around the topics of prehistoric rock-art and contested heritage.
Pop-up Rock-art Lab
During the excavation, lots of children visited the dig and came to see the Cochno Stone, and this allowed conversations about the stone and also the memories of the stone that their parents and grandparents had. Some kids even found out that a relative had carved their name onto the stone in the 1950s or 1960s! These official school visits and post-school wanders were encouraging, but I wanted to do something more formal and structured. So, we came up with what we called the Pop-up Rock-art Lab, where we provided groups of school pupils recording sheets, cameras, photographic scales, and blackboards, to allow them to work together to record the rock-art in the park at Faifley. This allowed children to spend time studying cup-and-ring marks, tracing their shape with their fingers, counting the number of cupmarks, describing the symbols in their own words, and thinking about the meaning of the symbols. This has been done with groups of children from primary and secondary levels, during my excavations, and on open days, and generally results in a lot of fun and some mixed quality photographs!
Soon after I started working at Faifley, I was invited to go into a primary school in Hamilton to talk to children about rock-art and told that I could do whatever I wanted to do. After a bit of head scratching, I came up with a concept that I now call the Chalkno Stone. To do this all one needs is some pavement chalk and a big measuring tape, a plan of the Cochno Stone, and a large flat paved or tarmac area e.g a playground. The children help me to draw out the outline of the Cochno Stone in the playground at 1:1 scale using the plan and some large 15m measuring tapes. This shows how big the stone actually is – it measured 15m by 8m and has a carved surface of some 100 square metres. The children are then let loose with chalk to decorate the playground within the boundaries of the stone with prehistoric symbols. Cup, cup-and-rings, spirals and other related symbols of all shapes and sizes and colours soon abound.
This opens up opportunities to discuss what the symbols might have meant in prehistory, and it is empowering to children of all ages to find out that archaeologists don’t know what the symbols meant. In other words, the question “what do you think the symbols might mean?” becomes one of opportunity and creativity for everyone I work with, teachers and pupils. Some of the theories that have emerged from this process have been as interesting and plausible as anything I have read in archaeology textbooks!
Beyond this we can then ask the kids to add their own symbols to the Chalkno Stone – school and house names and logos, names, initials, nicknames and so on are duly added to the stone, and then a discussion about identify can begin. What symbols do we use to describe ourselves and our culture?
I have found this an exciting and enjoyable activity that takes about an hour and works well with primary and secondary children although it does use up a lot of chalk!
In 2017 I secured funding from the Being Human festival to commission a comic book by Hannah Sackett that tells the story of the Cochno Stone and in particular the interactions of Ludovic Mann. Mann’s painting of the Cochno Stone in 1937 was an act that captured the imagination of school kids when I had spoken to them about this previously, probably because of the idea of a multi-coloured large rock surface and maybe also the inherent naughtiness in this act! Mann had a theory that the cup-and-ring marks told the story of how prehistoric people explained eclipses – that a monster ate the sun then spat it back up again – and this became the basis for comic book workshops that I have been running in schools in central Scotland ever since.
The workshops allow the pupils to learn about the story of the Cochno Stone and its problematic heritage but they are also able to get creative, drawing their own ‘eclipse monsters’ and comics telling stories that revolved around rock-art symbols and monsters. This mythmaking very much reflects the kinds of stories people have probably always told to explain cup-and-ring marks. At the end of each session, the pupils are allowed to keep their own copy of the comic book thanks to funding by Being Human and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
This session has been run in several schools and seems to work best with primary 3-7, although using the comic in secondary setting does allow discussion about the heritage management of the Cochno Stone and its burial. Teachers I have worked have been very positive about this session. One told me the “lower ability class … really do benefit from more visual learning”. Another informed me that, “the open-ended nature of the [workshop] tasks proved very effective in engaging a wide range of abilities …for those at the lower end this meant that they remained engaged and part of the lesson without being singled out with differentiated material. For those at the upper end … the comic book / graphic novel nature of the task allowed for them to make more nuanced, higher order, links between the text and images”. You can find out more about the comic book in a chapter Hannah and I wrote about it for a book which you can download here.
People and Society
The story of the Cochno Stone has become more integrated into the secondary curriculum through the People and Society course. This has been driven by a teacher based in Falkirk and I have spent a few years helping to develop this with her and colleagues. People and Society is aimed at National 3 and 4 levels. This is a course that provides opportunities for lower achieving students to study a range of social subjects together, instead of focusing on only one discipline. There are three units within People and Society, one of which is ‘making decisions’, a suitable theme for Cochno because we wanted to challenge the pupils to reach a considered decision regarding the fate of the Cochno Stone going into the future. Should it stay buried or should it be uncovered permanently?
To do this, a series of lessons were developed which included topics such as the story of the Cochno Stone, how archaeologists have studied British prehistoric abstract rock-art, and the social context of rock-art around Faifley. Where possible we have done fieldtrips and I have led a few teaching sessions, in person and more recently on Teams. This has led to really good levels of engagement and creativity with the pupils who have produced clay rock-art, posters, stories, cartoons and reports on the theme of rock-art and the social value of the Cochno Stone. Resources around this coursework are available for all secondary teachers on Scotland via Glow.
Having worked with a lot of schools and teachers over the past few years, one of the most exciting things I have found is that some of the information and resources have taken on a life of their own thanks to the creativity and enthusiasm of teachers I have worked with. In one school in Edinburgh, children have been creating Cochno Stone board games, while in a primary school where I have been running comic book workshops this led to children doing creative writing around the subject. I am constantly in awe of how teachers can take the archaeological bits and pieces I tell them about and then turn them into classroom sessions and activities. This has also led to other activities, such as getting pupils involved in survey and excavation work in and around the rock-art sites.
For this reason, I would love to work with more teachers and more schools with some or all of these resources and sessions, and where this can be connected to local archaeology so much the better. In Falkirk I have been working with teachers to develop resources around a local rock-art site that builds on teaching around Faifley’s rock-art but celebrates a place that some of the pupils I worked with were familiar with. This process is captured in an earlier blog post of mine.
There is massive potential for cup and rings to work really well in the classroom, and hopefully I can get back into schools post-pandemic with some new ideas!
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank all of the teachers I have worked with so far from schools in Faifley, Clydebank, Falkirk, Hamilton and Edinburgh. So many thanks to Jan Brophy, Michelle McMullan, Sam McKeand, Catriona Morrison, Lynne Allison, and Christine Emmett.Without your enthusiam and creativity none of this would have been possible!
I also want to thank Cochno Stone team members who helped to deliver various sessions with kids especially Alison Douglas, Lauren Welsh, Mar Roige Oliver, and Fionnuala Reilly.
What should we make of an archaeological site that does not exist in official records of archaeological sites? Without the seal of approval from the authorities, inclusion in the list of record of such sites, is there some doubt as to the authenticity of such a site? And in the void of archaeological engagement, what myths and tales might emerge for those who know the site better than anyone – dogwalkers, nighttime imbibers, those in the know, those who spend time at the site but don’t even know it is there? Is there a value in such urban urban prehistory myths?
In this post I want to consider these issues of archaeological invisibility through examining the unusual case of an abstract prehistoric rock-art site that in local walking routes is known as Site G. This is the story of how this site is gradually been reclaimed from obscurity by local people and school children, and highlights the enduring potential of prehistoric sites in urban places to have significance and value even in the least promising of situations. So let me transport you to the green belt border zone between Bonnybridge and Denny, in central Scotland.
Caught in the jaws of urbanisation, increasingly hemmed in by housing expansion, compressed in scope in the vice-like grip of progress, horizons narrowing, the Chacefield Wood rock-art site is a true survivor. It is a genuinely ancient site, a relic of a bygone age, a carved rock outcrop that increasingly only has the solace of the quiet trees that stand around it to rely on, timber guardians of an ancient secret that is mostly the preserve of local people, pram-pushers, lockdown walkers. Located within proximity to two motorways and the intersection that connects them, this place is better connected than most rock-art sites because of these arterial routes to big cities – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling, Perth. On a map even these roads take on a jaw-like quality, closing in on the carvings which are situated in a green tongue of woodland. Yet this connectedness, being on a route, has done little to benefit the profile of this this site which appears – until recently – to have been ignored by all archaeological recording processes in Scotland, left to the warm embrace of local knowledge, lore, and just about on a walking trail in a rapidly diminishing green space.
Surprisingly, little has ever been written about this lonely outcrop. It is not documented in the National Record of the Historic Environment in Scotland (with canmore its online portal). It is therefore not even officially an archaeological site, just a thing of conjecture. Is it real? If it is real surely it would be recorded somewhere officially? This is a place that is doubted in its authenticity, and a google search does little to breed confidence due to some mostly fuzzy photos of a rock in the shadows.
Yet this is also a rock-art site that appears in the marketing of leisure by the local council, Falkirk. In a leaflet entitled Discover the Paths in and around Bonnybridge, that can be found online, the rock-art site appears as part of the Drove Loan to Chacefield Wood walk.
Marked in a general map of the area showing historic sites of interest with a G (although the location is not really made that clear due to the scale of the map and the size of the G) the site in described thus:
Chacefield Wood Cup and Ring Marks: The term “cup and ring carving” describes a range of rock carved symbols that are found mainly in northern Europe, although similar carvings occur in other countries around the world. In Britain the carvings are estimated to be around 4000 – 5000 years old which dates them to the Neolithic and Bronze ages. The purpose and meaning of the symbols is unclear. Many of the rock carvings are sited near or on cairns and burial mounds, linking the symbols with death, ancestors and an afterlife.
A very small image of part of a cup-and-ring mark is also included in this leaflet, a tantalising glimpse.
A more detailed map of the walk does not show the actual location of the rock-art site, perhaps inviting the intrepid explorer to spot the outcrop from the path, or preserving the enigmatic mystique of this place.
The site is on the database map for Scotland’s Rock-art Project which is the step before becoming an official site in the national record, although as far as I can tell the site has not been formally visited yet (they are nearing the end of the recording phased of the project). This at least gives the exact location of the site and a good grid reference (the site is ScRAP ID 3085), but the record form remains incomplete and there are no photos or 3D models in the system yet. The site remains, for the time being, unverified. Still, official recognition is getting closer, so perhaps this is a real site after all.
Abstract prehistoric rock-art is having something of a renaissance in archaeology. Her excellent recent book, Design and Connectivity, Joana Valdez-Tullett (of Scotland’s Rock-art Project) places sites such as Chacefield into a broader Atlantic rock-art tradition, which sort of reflects what the Bonnybridge walk leaflet was hinting at. Suddenly Site G is looking a whole lot more significant, and its splendid isolation (it is the only site of its type in Falkirk Council area) is to extent mitigated by spiritual and cultural connections that have routes that expand beyond the motorway network of central Scotland. Plus, no rock-art site is alone that has friends….
Photos online (there are very few) show a humble site, a rather rough boulder with a set of at least three deeply-incised cup-and-ring mark symbols in a line on the upper part of the rock, with assorted cupmarks, some of which may be natural features that have been augmented or included in the pattern. On some images there appears to be the remnants of graffiti painted onto the stone in red, ghostly letters rather like those you would see painted above an old shop.
With this basic information in mind, I went on a series of visits to this rock-art site during the summer of 2020, after a tip off that it existed from a friend, Michelle, who lives nearby. I was somewhat confused why this site was not documented in canmore, despite the fact that it looked legit. On my first visit I recorded a short bit of film on my mobile phone about my visit which has since been used for a teaching session in a local school. After parking nearby, and with only a vague sense of where the carved stones might be, the chase was on!
I followed a busy A road from the cul-de-sac where I parked, which was resplendent with front gardens containing boulders and standing stones, a good start. As I walked past, a postman emerged from his van and dropped several parcels into the gutter, perhaps surprised by my sense of purpose. I strode on, my walking style enlivened by the presence of a good old metal red and white 1m ranging rod, which would act as photographic scale, but was currently employed as a walking stick.
The trail into the woods was a good one, and I followed the main track, all the while tapping my metal pole into the ground with a regular metallic ping like a demented woodpecker. Looking from side to side in the time-honoured fashion, I eventually spotted a suspiciously conspicuous outcrop about 50m to the south of the path.
I walked over with a renewed sense of purpose and sure enough, this was Site G! The site was actually spread across two adjoining outcrops, with one zone of cup-and-ring marks (north stone), the other just cupmarks (south) although on later visits I came to suspect there were rings here too. Simply staring at cup-and-ring marks and tracing their depth with your fingers often seems to conjure up additional aspects of the assemblage, sometimes real, other times imagined.
There is no doubt in my mind that these are genuinely prehistoric markings, deeply incised, in a location that if there had been no trees would have had quite dramatic views of the surrounding landscape. Now the site is dominated by the hum of the nearby M876 and the murmur of dogwalkers talking to one another or on phones. The smooth rolling of pram wheels was another background aspect to my first visit, utter normality as I perched on a stone covered in 5,000 year old markings.
The stones were covered in a carpet of leaves, prematurely autumnal, as if the seasons had sped up in this location, rushing towards winter and the inhabitation of stone hollows with white crisp frost. Time can bend at prehistoric sites and nature dances according to the whim of the power of stone.
There were clear signs that this is a place that is used. Just hidden enough to be off the main trail, but not dark and dingy enough to be a truly secret spot, there was detritus all around of drinking, and the sociable eating of crisps and sweets. Smashed glass concentrated around the southern extent of the outcrop, with some fragments nestling inside the cupmarks themselves. These represented a kaleidoscope of possibilities, their sharp shards and angles contrasting with the smooth flow of the ancient symbols carved into the stone.
There were also a few instances of graffiti on the northern outcrop, near and perhaps overlapping with the cups and rings. Letters of indeterminate form, in red, white, blue, were carelessly daubed across the flow of the cup-and-ring marks, overwritten in paint. Defiant messages shouted into the void, forgotten slogans, passing fancies, fading youth, melting into the past.
My first visit ended walking back to the car, a spring in my step, happy to have visited the best rock-art site in the Falkirk area, guided by a corridor of lush vegetation.
While I was at Site G I noticed that there was a horrible looking green pool of water between the path and the outcrops, full of bottles, half-submerged plastic bags, slick with an oily surface of glossy green rainbows. Even as I was standing at the rock-art two people passed by and one of them pointed to this pond saying ‘That’s stinkin’. I found out later from Michelle that this revolting pool is known to some locally as Shrek’s Swamp.
With this local hydrological phenomenon for orientation, Michelle was able to positively identify the rock-art where in the past she was not so sure. Her kids had a great time playing count the cupmarks!
Being a teacher, the next obvious thing to happen was that Site G, this unofficial, largely unrecognised rock-art site, was to become the focus for some teaching sessions at the fairly local secondary school where she works, with Jan (aka Mrs Urban Prehistorian). As it happens, they had both taught classes for the People and Society course around the Cochno Stone rock-art site, so this was the perfect opportunity to talk about prehistoric rock-art using a local example.
One thing that interested me was the locality next to Shrek’s Swamp and the potential for narratives and stories to emerge that connected the rock-art and this local landmark. Myths and stories about rock-art are something that Joana Valdez-Tullett has been keen to explore and celebrate, and here we had a chance to myth-make about the Chacefield rock-art site, spinning stories about the symbols and how they were carved in the same way as children playing on the Cochno Stone must have done, and Ludovic Mann did with his paints. So the People and Society class were challenged to come up with their own tall tales linking the cup-and-ring marks and Shrek’s Swamp.
I recorded some video about this with Jan, and then the kids were set to work, after learning all about prehistoric rock-art and the Cochno Stone in the classroom. The results were amazing!
These are stories that reflect the current reality of this rock-art outcrop: ‘Its for the teenagers. They all cut about there with there friends’. But there are also stories of escapism and magic that transcend the grey blandness of this stone: ‘The myths behind the stone is every colour represents a colour of life’.
Some stories not pictured above link the creation of the symbols on the stone to the Shrek universe: ‘Donkey wants to kill everyone in the world and so he plans the whole thing on the rock…’, while another tale suggests that the rock was so shaped to allow rain water to gather on the stone so Shrek and donkey can drink from it each morning…’and now it is for people to sit on’.
These fantastical tales are a product of a class that was unusually engaged by this series of classes, so I am told, and mirrors what people have always done about the places that they live and the ancient megaliths they encounter within them. They spin tall tales to tell their children, or let their imagination run riot to the amusement of adults, all to explain the mysterious away. More often than not such stories contain an element of truth, or at least a whole lot of insight. In the past it is not such a stretch to imagine that cupmarked stones were places that people hung about, that water gathered in the hollows, that the carvings had meaning to those who made them, that the symbols reflected the colours of life.
This might not be getting the Chacefield Woods rock-art site a place in the national record of monuments – but this a valuable form of validation.
In the absence of archaeologists trying to make sense of Site G, then why not let these children, some of whom already were aware of the rocks and swamp, having seen them, present their version of events? Who are we to say they are wrong? Will these tales be consulted when the modest story of this rock-art site is told by archaeologists when Chacefield is finally given the official recognition of a canmore entry, a photogrammetry model and completed recording form in the ScRAP database? Probably not. But in the minds of local people, dog walkers, teenagers cutting about with one another, we cannot stop colourful stories being told, and why should we want to. There is more to Site G than meets the eye.
Sources and acknowledgements:I would like to thank Michelle for telling me about this site, and for Jan and Michelle for making this part of their teaching, in what I know is precious classroom time. Thanks to the pupils who took part, who were happy for their artwork to be featured in my post. Jan and Michelle also provided some of the photos in this post.
I would also like to thank Joana Valdez-Tullett and Maye Hoole (both Historic Environment Scotland) for engaging with me about this site. Joana’s book, referred to above, is:
Valdez-Tullett, J 2019 Design and connectivity: The case of Atlantic rock-art. BAR Publishing.
Thanks also to Kenny Baxter aka @SporadicArtist for allowing me permission to reproduce his photograph of the site.
This is a summary account of the excavations at Whitehill 3, 4 and 5 rock art panels between 13th and 19th August 2019. This report was written with co-director, Yvonne Robertson. This is a brief and provisional account, with a more detailed publication to follow in the future.
Faifley Rocks! is a project researching prehistoric rock art sites to the north of Faifley, Clydebank, West (and as it turns out East) Dunbartonshire, using excavation, survey, oral history and archival research. The largest rock art site in the area, the Cochno Stone, has received the most attention, but sits within a small group of c 16 rock art panels. Some of these sites were identified in the late nineteenth century, others through more recent fieldwork, but no comprehensive work has been done on any of these sites since Ronald Morris’s fieldwork in the 1960s and 1970s (reported on in Morris 1981).
This was the second excavation as part of the project, following work at Auchnacraig in June 2019. The summary report of this excavation includes some more background on the project which need not be repeated here.
Whitehill 2019 excavations
In August 2019, excavation took place around three of the rock art sites in the area, sites known as Whitehill 3, 4 and 5 in Scotland’s Rock Art Project (ScRAP) database. These outcrops are situated within a small area of woodland amidst arable fields immediately to the northeast of Whitehill Farm and north of Law Farm on a prominent landscape position with extensive views to the south. The outcrops are sedimentary, being gritstone or sandstone. They are located around NS 5138 7403 and are listed in canmore. These are just inside East Dunbartonshire and hence not quite on the map below right!
Two of these sites were first recorded in the 1960s by Morris unlike the Auchnacraig sites which were first documented in the late nineteenth century. Morris documented these in his 1981 book The prehistoric rock-art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway). The numbering system he used is slightly different to the system adopted here; we are adopting the ScRAP nomenclature.
Whitehill 3 is the most extensive of the panels and located on the edge of an escarpment. Morris called this site Whitehill 5. It was initially briefly documented in the Morris and Bailey gazetteer (1967, 161) as a hilltop or break of slope location decorated with 25 cups and a few cups-with-rings. This is reflected in a sketch that is within his archive at HES (see below).
In 1971, Morris uncovered an area some 10m by 10m (although his plan suggests a smaller area was looked at) and found more symbols. He recorded, ‘5 cups-and-two-rings, at least 21 cups-and-one-ring, and at least 40 cups. Radial grooves were noted in some instances, and dumb-bell shapes identified’ (1981, 130).
In March 2019, these panels were subject to detailed recording and photogrammetry as part of SCRAP. RTI survey of Whitehill 3 was also undertaken by a team from Glasgow School of Art. The SCRAP record for this site notes that 22 cupmarks, 13 cup-and-ring variants and 7 grooves were recorded; the latter are distinctive oblong cupmarks that the record sheet calls ‘courgettes’. An enigmatic graffiti symbol was also noted; this had been pointed out to me on previous visits. Connections between symbols and ‘fissures’ were noted.
During the SCRAP and Glasgow School of Art surveys, the site now called Whitehill 4 was discovered c20m to the south. This is described in the SCRAP Project database as a ‘domed sandstone outcrop’ that has four cupmarks, one of them dubious. Morris noted additional cupmarks at Whitehill but did not formally document them; this is probably one he spotted and referenced (1981, 133).
The third panel in this location, 25m south of Whitehill 3, is known as Whitehill 5 in the SCRAP database. The survey in March 2019 identified seven cupmarks on this stone, which was entirely covered in turf at the time.
It is not clear if this is the same as Whitehill 6, a site was first recorded by Morris during the visit to the location in 1971 already noted above, having been found by a JM Stables (Morris 1971; 1981). Morris noted that the rock was carved with a ‘much-weathered cup-and-two-complete-rings, slightly oval’ (1981, 133) and suggested it was 55m south of SCRAP Whitehill 3. This site appears similar in Morris’s Plates 123 and 125 (see images below) but the presence of a clear cup-and-ring mark, and its location info, suggests this is a different panel.
Objectives: August 13-19th 2019 excavation
The specific research questions for the excavation of these three panels were:
Do carvings extend beyond the currently exposed outcrop?
What evidence is there for activity in prehistory, and in the twentieth century?
How do the panels physically and spatially relate to one another?
Are there any other carved stones in the vicinity? Morris noted others that are not accounted for in the SCRAP survey eg Morris’s Whitehill 6 and 7.
Is there additional historic graffiti on the rock art at Whitehill?
What is the significance of the location of these sites eg in relation to views and other rock art such as Law Farm sites and SCRAP Whitehill 1-2?
The excavation was conducted between the 13th and 19th August 2019 by Glasgow University staff and students, and local volunteers. Upon arrival, the area was subject to a visual inspection to ascertain the condition of the outcrops containing rock art and any further possible features and archaeological remains.
Essentially we ended up clearing vegetation from the outcrops rather than excavating the surrounding area due to the extensive nature of the bedrock.
Three ‘trenches’ were laid out focusing on the exposed outcrops at Whitehill 3, 4 and 5. Seven small test pits were also excavated (all but one measuring 1m by 1m) which were positioned in the surrounding woodland targeting areas of archaeological potential both on the ridge and in the valley below. The trenches and test pits were all hand dug, with contexts and rock art being recorded in plan and section, as appropriate, by measured drawing, digital photography, and written descriptions on pro forma sheets. Photogrammetry was also conducted on all three exposed rock art outcrops. After excavation and recording the excavated material was replaced and the turf reinstated.
Trench W3 aimed to investigate the largest of the three known Whitehill rock art sites, Whitehill 3, where a number of cup marks were already visible on an exposed outcrop of bedrock.
A trench measuring 5.0 m by 5.0 m was opened over the exposed outcrop and the flat top to the west and north covered with a shallow layer of turf and topsoil. An extension measuring 2.5m by 1.0m was opened to the west of the trench as well as an extension to the north-east measuring approximately 2.5 m by 2.0 m in order to investigate a wider area for potential rock art symbols. Turf was also cleared off the steep slope of the outcrop to the east in order to investigate the potential for further symbols.
Where present, the topsoil comprised a shallow layer (0.15m) of loose medium to dark brown silt loam (context number 301/303) which contained modern glass, plastic and metal as well as a small quartz pebble (Find 1) recovered from a crack in the bedrock. The topsoil directly overlay the natural bedrock (300) in the majority of the trench although pockets of a medium orange brown silt clay with infrequent small pebble inclusions (302) and a medium dark grey silt clay with frequent angular stone inclusions measuring 0.05-0.10 m (304) were recorded in pockets across the trench within natural fissures in the bedrock. This material was relatively sterile and was interpreted as natural hill wash. Disturbance caused by tree roots was apparent throughout deposits across the trench.
Bedrock (300) was encountered across the entire trench. The bedrock was a large flat-topped sedimentary outcrop which sloped steeply downwards to the east and gently sloped to the north, west and south. Up to 65 carved symbols, including c. 33 cupmarks, 16 cup-and-ring marks, six cup-and-ring marks with double rings, eight oval/elongated cupmarks or grooves and at least two radials, were recorded within the trench, largely concentrated on the flat top of the outcrop (see photos). The symbols were of varying size, depth and quality, and dispersed in no clear pattern across the outcrop, and some had clearly been weathered as a result of having been exposed. Large natural cracks where the bedrock had fragmented in parts were visible across the surface in a north-east to south-west orientation and these areas were devoid of markings. A graffiti symbol was also recorded on the bedrock (300) where the rock had previously been exposed; the meaning of this symbol remains unknown.
Trench W4 measured 4.0 m by 3.0 m and was centred on a bedrock outcrop to the south-west of Whitehill 3 known as Whitehill 4. Prior to excavation, four cupmarks were visible on the bedrock outcrop and the trench aimed to investigate whether further symbols were present as well as whether any further archaeological features were present in the area surrounding the outcrop.
The trench was largely covered by topsoil (401) comprising a friable dark black brown clay loam with occasional angular stone inclusions (measuring 0.05 – 0.20m) as well as rare charcoal flecks. Modern glass and plastic as well as a post-medieval or modern ceramic fragment (SF 2) were present within the topsoil. The topsoil directly overlay bedrock (400) in the centre of the trench, however, an underlying clay silt wash comprising dark brown clay silt with occasional angular stones and frequent charcoal (402) was recorded in pockets of the trench within undulations in the bedrock (400).
This deposit also overlay what initially appeared to be a rubble stone wall comprising angular stones (measuring 0.08m – 0.30m) in the north-west corner of the trench. Further rubble material was encountered to the immediate east of this within a large sub-rectangular depression (404). Fragmented bedrock as well as other fragmented stone within a grey silt wash matrix similar to (402) filled the depression and may have been a leveling deposit within a natural hollow, purposefully placed for a platform or trackway or naturally occurring.
To the south of the Whitehill 4 outcrop, a clean light grey sand was recorded below (402). The material was sterile and appeared to have been a naturally washed in deposit directly overlying the bedrock.
No further symbols were observed on the bedrock (400) nor were any further archaeological features recorded in the surrounding deposits.
Downslope and to the south of Whitehill 4, a trench measuring 2.0 m by 0.5 m with a roughly rectangular extension to the south-east measuring 2.5 m by 2.5 m was excavated. The trench focused on an outcrop recorded as Whitehill 5, previously exposed by SCRAP, where three cupmarks were visible on the exposed outcrop prior to the removal of any material. Topsoil (501) was found to extend across the rest of the trench and comprised a friable medium orange brown silt loam with extensive root disturbance and organic material and generally had a depth of 0.10m. The topsoil directly overlay bedrock in much of the trench although a silt clay wash deposit (502) formed a subsoil between the topsoil (501) and the bedrock (500) in the east of the trench. This material was largely sterile and there was clear root disturbance.
In addition to the cluster of three previously recorded cupmarks associated with Whitehill 5, a further seven possible cupmarks were observed approximately 1.5 m east on the same bedrock outcrop (500) (Plate 7). These were recorded to the east of a large sub-circular area of conglomerate within the bedrock (500). No further features were encountered within the trench and no small finds were recovered.
Seven test pits were opened in all, all bar one measuring 1m by 1m. The location of these is shown in the general site plan above.
Test Pit 1
Test Pit 1 was located at the most northerly point of the ridge on which Whitehill 3, 4 and 5 were situated, c. 45 m north of Trench W3. The test pit targeted this area as it was the highest point on the ridge and found to be relatively level with views of the landscape extending south-east towards the Clyde Valley and to the north-west towards the Kilpatrick Hills. The test pit measured 1.0 m by 1.0 m and was excavated to a maximum depth of 0.30 m.
Topsoil extended across the entire test pit and comprised a friable dark black brown silty loam with occasional angular stone inclusions (0.02m – 0.08m in size) (1001). The topsoil was rich in organic material with some root disturbance. Frequent glass was encountered within the deposit. Beneath the topsoil, medium orange brown clay silt with occasional stone inclusions (1002) was recorded which extended to a maximum depth of 0.20m. This overlay the bedrock (1000) which had an undulating surface within the test pit and sloped downwards from west to east.
No symbols or archaeological features were observed in Test Pit 1, nor were any artefacts recovered.
Test Pit 2
Test Pit 2 was located c. 24 m to the north-west of Trench W3 in a relatively flat area, devoid of turf and simply covered in organic woodland debris. The test pit was placed in this location to determine if there were any archaeological features within this area which could be related to the rock art sites to the south. The test pit measured 1.0 m by 1.0 m and was excavated to a maximum depth of 0.35 m.
A friable medium black brown silt loam with occasional angular stone and rare charcoal inclusions formed the topsoil (2001) within the test pit and continued to a maximum depth of 0.10m. Modern activity in the area had clearly occurred as glass and modern metal cans were observed throughout. A firm medium orange brown sandy silt with frequent small roots and rare small angular stones formed a natural subsoil (2002) beneath the topsoil and this directly overlay the bedrock (2000). The subsoil deposit was relatively sterile, although some charcoals flecks were noted likely as a result of surface burning and root bioturbation.
No significant archaeological finds or features were recorded.
Test Pit 3
Test Pit 3 was situated c. 7 m north-west of Trench W4 in the centre of a shallow sub-circular hollow. The hollow, although appearing natural, was thought to have archaeological potential and the trench was situated within it to investigate whether features may be present within the area. The test pit measured 1.0 m by 1.0 m and was excavated to a maximum depth of 0.20 m.
An organic vegetation layer (3000) covered the test pit and overlay topsoil comprising a loose light brown organic loam (3001). Beneath this, a natural subsoil comprising a clay silt wash (3002) was observed which continued to a maximum depth of 0.19m which contained patches of compact orange disintegrated sandstone (3003) and overlay the undulating bedrock (3004) (Plate 8).
There were no traces of significant archaeological remains within the test pit.
Test Pit 4
Test Pit 4 was positioned c. 5m south-west of W3 and targeted a partially exposed outcrop of bedrock. The aim of the test pit was to investigate if further unrecorded rock art symbols were present on smooth outcrops in the immediate area. The test pit measured 1.0 m by 1.0 m with a maximum depth of 0.10m.
A small outcrop of bedrock (4001) was already exposed and only shallow topsoil was found to cover the bedrock in all areas of the test pit. The topsoil comprised friable dark black brown silty loam (4000) and modern glass fragments were observed throughout. There was no evidence for archaeological features within the excavated area and no markings were observed on the bedrock which was found to be undulating.
Test Pit 5
Test Pit 5 was located c. 5m east of W5 at the southern extent of the site. The location was chosen as it appeared to be a flat area with the potential for a bedrock outcrop to be directly beneath the turf topsoil. The test pit measured 1.0 m by 1.0 m and was excavated to a maximum depth of 0.30 m.
The topsoil comprised a shallow loose light brown organic sandy loam (5000) which overlay a very compact light brown sand with frequent angular stones up to 0.25m in size. Beneath this a compact layer of dark brown black sandy silt with some large angular stone inclusions was observed (5002). No significant archaeology was recorded within the test pit.
Test Pit 6
Test Pit 6 was located approximately 22 m west of W4 within a level area in the valley below the ridge. The test pit was excavated to investigate whether there were any features associated with quarrying activity in this area. The test pit measured 1.0 m by 1.0 m and was excavated to a maximum depth of 0.50 m.
The topsoil (6000) comprised a dark red brown silty loam which contained modern glass. This was overlying a light red brown clay sand with angular and rounded stone inclusions of various size (6001). Bedrock was not reached within the test pit. No archaeological finds or features were recorded within the test pit.
Test Pit 7
Test Pit 7 was located c. 21 m west of W3 within a slight hollow on the west edge of the ride. The test pit targeted a supposed flat-topped bedrock outcrop and was also located within this area to investigate the potential for features related to the occupation of the site. The test pit measured 1.50 m by 1.50 m and was excavated to a maximum depth of 0.20m (Plate 9). Peck marks on the flat bedrock surface were identified and probably related to someone trying to get purchase on a tent peg…..
Under the guidance of Megan Kasten, teams of students undertook photogrammetry of the three outcrops, which supplemented work already undertaken by SCRAP. In each case more of the rock was exposed than during this earlier survey, and in two cases (W3 and W5) more symbols were exposed as well. These models are still being worked on and final versions will be added to this post, or linked to, in due course.
The excavations at Whitehill have shed further light on three of the known rock art panels at Whitehill. Previously unrecorded symbols were observed and recorded on both Whitehill 3 and Whitehill 5, as parts of the outcrop previously left covered by Morris and SCRAP were exposed, and the areas around the outcrops also investigated.
Whitehill 3 was found to be the largest and uppermost decorated outcrop with a huge number of symbols observed on its flat top and the top of the smooth slope on the eastern side. A wide variety of symbols were recorded with no obvious pattern deciphered. The mixture of type, depth and quality does, however, potentially suggest the rock art was conducted by different people at different times. This is the second most extensive rock art site in the area after the Cochno Stone. The rock art panel known as Whitehill 4 was occupied by four simple cupmarks only while up to 13 single cupmarks were recorded as part of Whitehill 5. There is no evidence as of yet to allow interpretation of the relationship of the individual panels or to either confirm or deny that these cupmarks are contemporary with one another as no datable material was recovered in or around the outcrops.
The symbols on all three panels were limited to areas of smooth bedrock enclosed by glacial striations, with only the best areas for carving having been selected. It was also noted that the symbols were largely limited to the top of the flat-topped outcrops with few symbols on vertical faces. Several other rock outcrops were investigated on the ridge to determine whether other panels were present in the area, however, none were found. The shape and aesthetics of the natural rock surface therefore appear to have played a major role in the selection of the outcrops as well as potentially the design of the carvings, a notion also apparent at Hunterheigh Crag, Northumberland (see Waddington et al 2005).
While the areas around the panels were investigated, few further archaeological features were observed. The only notable feature was observed in Trench W4 focusing on Whitehill 4 where an area of fractured bedrock was found to potentially signify the remains of a wall or leveled area. This feature may be related to prehistoric use of the site, with ‘rubble platforms’ having been found to be contemporary with carvings at Copt Howe (Bradley et al 2019) and also, interestingly, at nearby Auchnacraig 1; however, it could also be a result of later quarrying or landscaping activity in the area. No material was found within the cracks on any of the outcrops despite investigation, based on the results of rock art sites such as Torbhlaren, Argyll and Bute (Jones et al. 2011). The quartz pebble found in W3 was in an area removed from the carvings and more likely ended up there through natural processes.
Later use of the area was noted with the west side of the ridge having visibly been quarried and more recent graffiti observed on Whitehill 3, which was limited to one area of exposed bedrock on Whitehill 3. There is no indication of what this quarry was or when it was in use in nineteenth century maps.
The excavation was funded by the University of Glasgow archaeology department, as part of the 2019 Cochno Farm Field School. Supervisory support was provided by AOC Archaeology Ltd.
We appreciated the team of helpers who came along and worked on site. Team members (in alphabetical order) were: Zahra Archer, Erin Butler, Samantha Climie, Hayley Drysdale, Todd Ferguson, Adrianna Figacz, Eric Gardner, Alexa Hayes, Joel Karhapaa, Emma Keenan, Caitlin McLeod, Gordon Morrison, Linsey Reid, Nikki Reid, Jean Tumilty, Tom Tumilty, and Ross Wood.
Thanks to the Honours students who worked on the amazing zines shown at the top of this post!
Megan Kasten conducted the photogrammetry of the three outcrops and provided training for students, for which we are grateful. Megan also supplied images for this report.
Equipment was provided by the University of Glasgow. Thanks to Aris Palyvos for organising and transporting tools. We’re also grateful to the staff at Cochno Farm for allowing us to store equipment there.
Finally, we really appreciate the work done at these sites in March 2019 by the SCRAP team, led by Tertia Barnett and Maya Hoole. The 3D models of both rock art panels has been invaluable to this project and images from that project are included in this report. Thanks also to Stuart Jeffrey of the Glasgow School of Art Centre School of Simulation and Visualisation for undertaking an RTI survey of Whitehill 3 in March 2019. Processing work in this image continues at the time of writing but this will be added to the post in time.
Thanks to all those who visited the site especially those who brought cakes (Jeremy Huggett, Ellen Laird) and local knowledge (Stevie Cafferty).
This is a summary account of the excavations at Auchnacraig 1 and 3 rock art panels between 20th and 27th June 2019. This report was written with site supervisor, Alison Douglas. This is a summary and provisional account, with a more detailed publication to follow in the future. The project was featured in the Clydebank Post.
Introduction and background
Faifley Rocks! is a project researching prehistoric rock art sites to the north of Faifley, Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire, using excavation, survey, oral history and archival research. The largest rock art site in the area, the Cochno Stone, has received the most attention, but sits within a small group of c 16 rock art panels. Some of these sites were identified in the late nineteenth century, others through more recent fieldwork, but no comprehensive work has been done on any of these sites since Ronald Morris’s fieldwork in the 1960s and 1970s (Morris 1981).
The starting points for Faifley Rocks have been excavation and survey work related to the Cochno Stone (2015-16, Brophy 2018) and the 3D recording of Faifley’s rock-art undertaken by HES’s Scotland’s Rock-art Project (SCRAP) in 2019.
3D models of Faifley’s rock art (sites Edinbarnet, Whitehill, Law Farm and Auchnacraig) on sketchfab
Faifley Rocks! intends to:
identify features, materials & activity related to rock art decorated outcrops;
recover material related to the chronology & environmental context of the rock art;
identify additional symbols on buried outcrop areas and explore connections between symbols and aspects of the natural rock;
quantify and interpret rock art and graffiti on each rock outcrop;
raise the profile of Faifley’s rock-art locally and more broadly;
inform ongoing local consultation on the future of the Cochno Stone;
support the development of a rock art walking trail in the area and provide information for other forms of public engagement, analogue and digital;
work with local communities and schools to provide information, skills and learning opportunities.
The overall intention of Faifley Rocks is to place the rock art within its prehistoric, and contemporary, context, explore the social value of prehistoric rock art and identify ways to use the rock art for social benefit of the local and broader community. As part of this commitment, summary reports on all fieldwork will be posted on this blog.
Auchnacraig 2019 (AC19) excavations
In June 2019, excavations took place around two of the rock art sites in the area, known as Auchnacraig 1 and 3. These are situated within 10m of one another in Auchnacraig Park at the edge of a clearing that was previously occupied by Auchnacraig House. They are located at NS 5028 7366 and NS 5029 7365 and have this Canmore ID.
These two rock art sites (along with nearby Auchnacraig 4 and the Cochno Stone) were first documented in the late 1880s by Rev Harvey (1889). He noted that the carved stone were at that time located in moorland, and that the outcrops bore marks of glaciation. He identified all rocks as sandstone.
Auchnacraig 1 (Harvey called this Rock B) was said to dip at an angle of 30 degrees and was covered in a profusion of cupmarks (up to 90) and some rings, as well as other markings and a large basin. He noted the connection between natural cracks and ‘ducts’, and some of the symbols. Ronald Morris said of Auchnacraig 1: ‘Prominent smooth gritstone slab sloping 30 degrees from 1m high on the east to ground level on west. 7m by 5m. On it are nearly 100 cups…at least 6 are surrounded by weathered rings, mostly now incomplete. These include 3 cup-and-three-rings, one with two radial grooves in the ‘keyhole pattern’. Largest ring 22cm in diameter’ (1981, 85). When Morris visited this site in June / July 1968, it was situated within the garden and lawn of Auchnacraig House. He wrote in his notes from one visit that this rock was only a few metres from the corner of the building, and that the House looked derelict.
Auchnacraig 3 has received much less attention. Harvey called this his Stone C and noted that it was a rock that had seven cupmarks on it. These were, he noted, of ‘exceptionally large diameter’ (1889, 137). Morris simply noted the presence and the existence of a few cupmarks on this surface of the other panel, Auchnacraig 3. He did not give this site its own number and the label Auchnacraig 3 comes from the SCRAP database.
Both sites were also visited by an OS fieldworker in 1951, when the stones were situated in the garden of Auchnacraig House. It was noted that no rings were visible on any of the outcrops (incorrectly in the case of Auchnacraig 1). Both were partially covered in vegetation and located on the edge of a lawn at this time.
In March 2019, these panels were subject to detailed recording and photogrammetry as part of Scotland’s Rock art Project (SCRAP). By this time, as has been the case since the 1980s, the rocks were situated in a cleared area in an urban park, reflecting the remnants of the footprint of Auchnacraig House and gardens.
The SCRAP survey identified several distinctive long ‘gutters’ running down the slope of Auchnacraig 1 which were not recorded by Morris (who presumably felt them to be natural features of the rock). It was also noted that graffiti, and a cup-and-ring mark, are evident on the vertical eastern face of the stone, again previously unrecorded. A more detailed analysis of the symbols and natural features on all rock art sites in the area is currently underway and will be reported on in the future.
June 2019 excavation
The specific research questions for the excavation of these two panels are:
Do carvings extend beyond the currently exposed outcrop?
What evidence is there for activity in prehistory, and in the twentieth century?
How do the panels physically and spatially relate to one another?
Was the rock-art incorporated into the garden or any other structures associated with 20th century activity here?
Are there any traces left of the house, garden or associated features?
Three trenches were opened as part of AC19, two around Auchnacraig 1 and one around Auchnacraig 3. Furthermore, geophysical survey was undertaken in the area immediately to the east of the rock art in the area of Auchnacraig House and garden. The results of this will be reported on fully once processed.
3.5m east-west by 1.5m running east from the vertical face of Auchnacraig 1.
A number of soil layers were identified within this trench, laid on top of bedrock which sloped to the southwest. These were, in simple terms, an orange-brown soil (105/112) interpreted as a ‘garden soil’ with darker topsoil layers on top (100/113/101).
A concentration of rounded and angular stones was identified hard up against the vertical face of the rock outcrop (102). This consisted of a series of large stones up to 0.3m across; they were set in a roughly level layer consisting of one course of stones. This extended 0.8m out from the main outcrop and extended across the width of the trench. This was set within a matrix of dark silt loam (101) which was similar but darker than topsoil 100/113.
The bedrock was 0.7m beneath the surface at the rock face end of the trench, and 0.08m below the surface at the eastern end of the trench. This is the same sedimentary rock as both rock outcrops with rock art here. There were signs of glacial plucking on this bedrock surface.
Small finds from within this trench were not in secure contexts and included modern rubbish and roofing material, presumably from the house.
A trench measuring 1.5m by 3.2m was opened on the southern side of Auchnacraig 1 running from a ‘crack’ in the rock; an extension was added to the southern end of this trench, on the west side, measuring 1m x 1.8m.
The stratigraphy in the trench was fairly simple, with a mid-brown clay-slit soil (117), at least 0.7m deep, underlying a fairly shallow dark brown to black loam topsoil (104).
Overlying layer 117 was a drystone kerb or wall was running east-west adjacent to the southern edge of the outcrop (107/108). A gap in this wall about 0.8m across coincided with extensions of the kerb northwards on both sides of this gap for c1m and abutting / overlying the rock outcrop’s southern sloped extent.
Rubble deposit 109 was found in the ‘entrance area’ within and protruding through topsoil 104, consisting of scattered stones up to 0.4m in length although most were much smaller.
A cup marked stone was found amidst the wall, on the western corner of the entrance area. This has not previously been recorded.
Small finds from this trench did not come from a secure context. In topsoil layer 104, a marble was found, and a metal ‘box’ was in the same layer in the ‘entrance’ area.
A trench measuring at its maximum 4m east-west by 5.4m north-south was opened on the north-east and eastern side of Auchnacraig 3.
Distinctive markings were noted on the rock outcrop including striations running along the rock (glacial markings). A natural vesicle was also noted on a lower section of the outcrop, and while this is natural, it looks like a cup mark. Scrapes on the rock’s upper surface are probably plough marks suggesting that before this was a garden, this area was a field.
This trench had simple stratigraphy. The natural was an orange-brown-pink boulder clay (303) which in places we dug into to establish this was the natural. Above this was an orange-brown ‘garden’ soil (similar to 105/112 in Trench A1b); this layer, 302, was between 0.2 and 0.3m deep and spread across extent of the trench beyond the outcrop. Above this was a topsoil layer, 300, which was a dark brown loam with small stone inclusions. This layer was no more than 0.2m thick and was essentially the same as topsoil layers 104 and 100/113 in the other trenches. No features were found cut into the natural.
Small finds from within this trench were not in secure contexts and were modern debris and roofing material, presumably from the house. There was evidence for fires having been set in the topsoil, modern surface activity.
These modest trenches at first glance did not reveal much of prehistoric relevance to the carving of these rock art panels. However, the interplay between natural features and the carved symbols are an important element in the story of this location in prehistory. The natural vesicle found at Auchnacraig 3 looks like a cupmark and may have been regarded as such in the Neolithic period, although unlike a similar feature found at Copt Howe, Lake District, this had not been augmented by a carved ring (Bradley et al. 2019).
Source: Bradley et at 2019
The glacial striations and signs of plucking found during the excavation may also have played a role in the significance of these outcrops, not least due to the entanglement of symbols with cracks, veins and so on evident on the surface of Auchnacraig 1. Unlike other rock art sites such as Torbhlaren, Argyll and Bute (Jones et al. 2011), no material was found in any cracks on either outcrop although several large stones are still to be analysed.
The collection of rocks found in Trench A1a was at first glance interpreted as the result of a modern gardening activity. However, it is worth bearing in mind that a similar rocky setting at Copt Howe has been interpreted as a ‘rubble platform’ contemporary with the carving of the stone. This was, as at Auchnacraig, set up hard against a vertical face with carvings on it. Bradley et al (2019) have suggested this architectural trait is shared with Irish passage graves. That the rubble layer at Auchnacraig appears to have sat upon a layer we interpreted as a garden soil suggests this is not a likely interpretation of what we found, but it is worth bearing in mind and we cannot rule out the possibility that these stones were indeed set there in prehistory and our interpretation of the sequence might be revisited. A less well-defined version of this was found at Rock 1, Ben Lawers, Perth and Kinross, during excavations and interpreted as a ‘cobbled surface’ (Bradley et al 2012, 38).
Twentieth century use of the rock art as elaborate garden features is apparent, especially in the constructed wall or kerb on the south side of Auchnacraig 1. This kerb or wall continues for some 2m to the west, before merging or joining a broader coarser wall or bank which runs to the south. Morris’s photos of this stone (such as the one included above from 1968) show a similar drystone wall beyond the rock, suggesting these were two sides of a pathway skirting south of the rock art. This arrangement, and a possible rockery on the west side of the rock outcrop, will be explored in a future season of work.
The inclusion, probably deliberately, of a cup marked stone at the entrance area of the kerb or wall suggests the house owners were keen to celebrate the rock art in their garden and none of this is a coincidence. The discovery of a marble in this area suggests that the rock art outcrop here was not just a garden feature, but a place where children played; the latter was also the case at the Cochno Stone (Brophy 2018). It seems that this richly decorated stone was a matter of some pride for the house owners, and aspects of the garden here were arranged around it.
Permission to carry out the work was given by West Dunbartonshire Council; thanks to Donald Petrie for arranging this.
Equipment was provided by the University of Glasgow. Thanks to Aris Palyvos for organising and transporting tools. We’re also grateful to the staff at Cochno Farm for allowing us to store equipment there.
Thanks to Tessa Poller, and Aris, for coming out to do the geophysical survey and survey the trench locations.
The site supervisor was Alison Douglas, and Alison also did all filming for Digging for Britain.
We appreciated the large number of helpers who came along and worked on site, in particular Tom Davis who put in a legendary performance. Other team members (in alphabetical order) were: Clare Archibald, Tristan Boyle, Pamela Diffin, Hayley Drysdale, Todd Ferguson, Lesley Fraser, Remy Grossman, Carolyn Hutchison, Christopher Ladds, Ellen Laird, Clare Love, Jools Maxwell, Rory McPherson, Gordon Morrison, Hannah Mould-Healy, Irene Pandolfi, Katherine Price, Linsey Reid, Nikki Reid, Hannah Ridley, Sandra Roxburgh, Jean and Tom Tumilty, Charlotte Walker, Jennifer Wallace, Simone Wason, Lauren Welsh, Ross Wood and Danielle Young.
Small finds were cleaned and catalogued by Dominic Pollock and Dominic also inked up and helped tidy the site drawings, some of which appear in this blog post.
We really appreciate the work done at these sites in March 2019 by the SCRAP team, led by Tertia Barnett and Maya Hoole. The 3D models of both rock art panels has been invaluable to this project.
Much appreciation to those who brought cakes: Jeremy Huggett, Dene Wright, Rebecca Younger and other friends who popped in with eagle eyes such as Gavin MacGregor.
Finally, thanks to each of the 100+ local people who visited the excavations including school children, and a massive thanks to the Clydebank High School Archaeology Club who came along and helped with the backfilling!
Bradley, R, Watson, A & Anderson-Whymark, H 2012 Excavation at four prehistoric rock-carvings on the Ben Lawers Estate, 2007-2010, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 142, 27-61.
Bradley, R, Watson, A & Style, P 2019 After the axes? The rock art at Copt Howe, North-west England, and the Neolithic sequence at Great Langdale. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society to be published December 2019.
In two previous blog posts, I have explored the art of the Cochno Stone, riffing off the art bit of rock-art.
As a reminder, this monument is one of the most densely decorated prehistoric abstract rock-art sites in Britain. It is located on the fringe of Faifley, Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire, and has a fascinating modern historiography to match the profusion of prehistoric carvings. The Cochno Stone was buried in 1965 by the heritage authorities to protect it from damage caused by visitors to the site and you can find out more here.
In previous blog posts, I have considered different aspects of the ‘art’ of the Cochno Stone. In Part 1, I looked at marks made on the surface of the Stone itself, 5,000 years of creative interaction between people and stone. Part 2 focused on depictions of the cup-and-ring marked symbols found on the surface of the Cochno Stone, from antiquarian drawings to travelogue sketches to digital and archaeological records of the monument.
In this third part of the exploration of the art of the Cochno Stone, I want to look at the brief history of public art inspired by the Cochno Stone and the rich cup-and-ring mark heritage of the area to the north of Clydebank.
Here, I don’t mean the undoubted piece of site-specific performance art that was the painting and presentation of the Cochno Stone by Ludovic Mann in the second half of 1937…. some public art is of the moment.
Rather I want to look at how the cup-and-ring marks have been and still are evident within Faifley itself. Such artistic responses are a testament to the powerful simplicity of cup-and-ring marks, and the story of the Cochno Stone, to inspire and continue to inspire artists. The projects I want to talk about here combine this with the spirit of Faifley the place, and have been the outcome of interesting collaborations. And public art has so much more potential in Faifley and Clydebank to celebrate the cups and the rings – so I will also present here – for the first time ever – one architect’s inspired vision for making this happen and thoughts about the future potential of rock-art inspired public art.
At a workshop about the future of the Cochno Stone that I ran in November 2017, I met staff from Knowes Housing Association and was told a curious tale about a rock-art mural that had once hung on the gable end of one of their buildings. After making some inquiries, I was eventually led to the artist responsible for this, Tom McKendrick. Tom is a local guy who has been responsible for some amazing artworks, often inspired by the rich heritage of Clydebank.
Much of this has been about the shipbuilding industry and the blitz, but Tom was also the brains behind the Faifley mural, which to my delight was created with children from the two primary schools closest to the Cochno Stone. Not only is this process documented nicely on his website, but Tom was kind enough to spend a morning with me in 2018 chatting about the mural and also future plans for rock-art art.
I went by train to see Tom and was constantly reminded en route of the social, cultural and sometimes political role and value of public art of this kind, both official and informal.
The Faifley mural was the result of a project called ‘Faifley: Past Present and Future’. The work that went into creating this mural took place in 2009, but by the time I started to visit Faifley regularly (2015) it was already gone.
The vision for the artwork was to ‘increase sense of place, responsibility, ownership and foster community spirit within children and people living within the area of Faifley’. In other words this was not art for arts sake, and I believe was commissioned by the Housing Association, as well as being hung on one of their buildings. This was for the well-being of their residents.
The mural was the result of a series of workshops with primary seven kids, with drawings produced that reflected aspects of the history, recent and deeper, of Faifley. The aspiration of dream homes and urban renewal were also themes that were tackled, reflecting the utopian ideals that underpinned places like Faifley in the 1950s and 1960s. Natural characteristics of this place were also drawn – the wind, the black birds that circle the Knowes. Together these images came together in a spectacular mural.
The cup-and-ring marks of Cochno and other stones in the area featured heavily. Tom’s reflections on the process focused on the mysterious and significant nature of the symbols, something he regarded as being synonymous with Faifley. In his online documentation, Tom noted the Pictish origins of these carvings, not really accurate, but reflecting the deep time and enigmatic nature of these symbols to the local people.
The children created their own stones, and their own symbols, and it strikes me that so many of these themes of what Faifley is, what it represents, are entangled with these cups and rings and spirals, almost as if they are encoded into the DNA of the place.
The mural itself looks as if it were spectacular and powerful indicator of the sense of place felt by local children. At the root of it – the foundations – are the cup-and-ring marks, both constant backdrop but also intruding into the modern.
Tom notes that the symbols emerge from the smoke billowing from the industry and houses of Clydebank down the hill, suggesting that the past and present are dependent on one another. Flying children exploit the thermals of the spiraling wind. Faifley is depicted as a place of timeless intangibility, with solid – ancient – foundations.
I asked Tom about his choice of the rock-art symbols as a starting point in the mural and he told me that,
If I am working on something I like to go as far back as possible…this is my starting point. The IRON exhibition dealt with this. Hence the subtitle ‘second great iron age’ starting point, a element forged in the furnace of the sun….and falling stars…gift of the heavens…long winded statement to say for the Faifley project that was as far back as I could go.
The removal of the mural – apparently during renovation works on this block of flats – and its subsequent destruction should be a source of sorrow, and indeed is for Tom, having spoken to him about this. Yet the mural and the visions of the local children remind us that nothing is truly forever, but nothing is entirely forgotten.
Adorning the two road entrances to Faifley are sculptures by the artist Andy Scott, perhaps better known for his works such as The Kelpies in Falkirk and the Heavy Horse by the M8 in Glasgow. The Faifley sculptures are a wire frame composition, each depicting an adult with a child, and are known as the Faifley Family sculptures. They were constructed, again with design work undertaken with local schoolchildren and commissioned by the housing association, in the late 2000s. And crucially, unlike the mural, this public art is still there to be enjoyed by the local community and visitors.
The statues depict two pairs of people – a father and son, and a mother and daughter. I didn’t notice, however, until Tricia of Faifley Community Council pointed this out to me, that the arches that loop over each of the pairs of figures are decorated with cup-and-ring mark symbols. There are variants of motifs from the Cochno Stone and other rock-art panels here, but also even more abstract shapes and symbols.
The artist, Andy, very kindly took some time to explain the process behind the symbols and the role local children had in the process, and he also sent me some fantastic behind the scenes photos, which he has generously allowed me to share here.
The working process was that Andy and artist Margo Winning worked with local school kids to explore symbols and their sense of place. One of the starting points was, of course, the cup-and-ring marks symbols.
The children worked with Margo to develop their own artwork. This drew on pictograms that they invented, some of which ended up on the arch of the final artwork. He told me:
The kids invented their own alphabet of pictograms based on the cup & ring markings. As far as I recall they were quite diligent about this and invented words using their own symbols. I then transcribed those markings onto the steel sculptures, thereby bringing the ancient markings up to date.
These symbols therefore represent a mash-up of ancient local symbols and versions of those created by the children. The kids were also invited to see the final sculptures being made in the studio.
The sculptures therefore combine a sense of place with family, tied together with symbols and overall form based on the curved and concentric prehistoric rock-art. The final artworks in a sense therefore indicate that once passed, you are entering a special place that has special resources – its people and its prehistory.
This has been reinforced by the focal points that these artworks at the threshold of Faifley have become, for instance being used for commemorative events and services, with the above photos of such an event supplied by Andy.
I have not checked closely to see if ribbons have been attached to the sculptures, but I will check next time I’m in Faifley. Have the Faifley Family sculptures become a focus for deposition and ritual, as rock-art sites would have been thousands of years ago?
More recently, the two entrances to Faifley have been adorned with additional public art, this time drawings by local school children under the theme of ‘Fresh Faced Faifley’. This alliterative positive slogan offers a wonderful welcome to the area: ‘Friendship and Faifley are a total couple!’
The combination of an adjacent Family sculpture and Fresh Faced Faifley sign offer a positive public art threshold for those entering Faifley and suggest that there is great potential in shaping the image of a place by celebrating what is best about that place, the aspirations and qualities of the people who live there. I wonder to what extent cup-and-ring marks had similar aspirational qualities?
How might the instantly recognisable cup-and-ring marks – and other Cochno Stone symbols such as the four-toed footprints – become a more prominent feature of the Faifley urban landscape?
I guess with a lot of time and money anything is possible, but a vision is needed. An architect, Alex Taylor of Entasis Architects, contacted me during the Cochno Stone excavations to share with me some ideas that he and his colleagues had for public art on roundabouts in Drumchapel, which is near Clydebank. This was part of a plan that in the end didn’t work out, but this amazing vision shows one way forward, and Alex is happy for me to share this with you, made public for the first time ever. All images are reproduced here courtesy of, and copyright to, Entasis Architects.
Alex told me:
My first port of call in these cases is to look at a local influence to inspire a unique and local approach and after a bit of research came up with the Cochno stone carvings. I imagined some 3D representations of the carvings, which perhaps give some credence to some of the astrological interpretations.
These visualisations, if they had been constructed in roundabouts in Drumchapel, would have been spectacular realisations of prehistoric symbols, and it is exactly this kind of approach that I think is needed at Faifley, where as we have seen there are clear entrance points – and also roundabouts.
These dead circular spaces are popular locations to pop public art, and if such sculptures were to be erected in and around Faifley, they would denote an entry point to a place with prehistoric credentials.
These instances of public art – of the past, present, and an imagined future – all indicate to me that it is through working with artists that the Cochno Stone can and will continue to be a real presence within the local community. The rock-art symbols offer potent signifiers for deep time, social value, cultural heritage and a unique peri-urban story. Despite it’s abstraction, this is anything but abstract.
The art of the rock-art has the potential to be amazing. Perhaps the most ambitious and crazy plan that I know of is the creation and an exact 1:1 scale of the Cochno Stone. If we can raise the money and create enough enthusiasm, this could happen thanks to the Factum Foundation.
Ferdinand Saumarez Smith, who led the photogrammetry recording of the Cochno Stone when we excavated there in 2016 has shared with me some insights into how this enormous chunk of public art might be made. The replica (or facsimile as he prefers to call it) would not be printed as such, but rather precision cut from a large block of material that has the look and feel of stone. This is an art in itself, both an exact copy of the art of another, but also made using a very different method and new material form. Is this the future of Faifley’s prehistory?
There are spaces and walls in Faifley that need public art and murals. These are spaces that could become cup-and-ring marked. Working with artists, as has been shown already in this post, is both inspiring, and allows the celebration of deep time, present concerns and future aspirations.
Part 4 of this series on the Art of the Cochno Stone will review artistic representations that tell the story of Cochno Stone and Faifley’s rock-art from comic books to sketches to visualisations, and I’m delighted to say that most of these have resulted from collaborations I have been involved in since my work with the Cochno Stone began. And Part 5 – yes there will be a Part 5 – will explore digital engagements and art related to the rock-art. As for Part 6 – that’s for the future.
Sources and acknowledgements: This blog post benefited hugely from the kindness of Tom McKendrick, Andy Scott and Alex Taylor, all of whom shared images and ideas with me, and took the time to explain their inspiration. Their generosity has made this blog post possible.
In particular, Tom allowed me to use images from his Faifley: Past, Present and Future documentation. Andy gave me permission to use multiple images regarding the creation and use of the Faifley Family sculptures. Alex allowed me to use his images about the cup-and-ring mark architectural visualisations and photomontages. All of these images are copyright to these individuals and reproduced with permission.
Imagery and information about the fascimile / replica of the Cochno Stone was provided by Ferdinand Saumarez Smith and Factum Foundation / Factum Arte.
Source for the black and white rock-art photo near the start of the blog post: Morris, R W B 1981 The prehistoric rock-art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway), Oxford: BAR British Series 86.
In my first post looking at art and the Cochno Stone, I considered the 5,000 year-old tradition of using this domed sandstone surface as a canvas for various creative acts in the form of shallow scratches, deeply incised hollows and painted lines. These surface alterations are ambiguous in meaning, each with their own aesthetic qualities and values, either reducing or adding to the monument, all of them inspiring passionate opinions.
In this second post, I would like to consider the art of the Cochno Stone from another perspective, through the medium of sketches and drawings, specifically those drawn from life (ie before the stone was buried in 1965) over a period between the 1880s and 1930s. No doubt there will be some who will argue that some of these drawings are not really works of art and creativity. For instance, can we regard ‘measured’ depictions of something, technical drawings as part of an archaeological study, as being creative or simply reductive? And what is the archaeological value of studying archive material or newspaper clippings with old drawings when we know with the benefit of hindsight that the drawings are either inaccurate, or incomplete, or both? More fundamentally – and this gets to the roots of much debate on the nature of archaeological narratives – to what extent are these objective renderings of the Cochno Stone? Is such a thing even possible? There are layers of art entangled with art here, the art of art, about art, for art.
Regardless of the motivation, medium, and intended audience, I would argue that there is a deeply artistic strand running through the history of attempts to capture the spirit of Cochno and I hope that this story of four decades worth of drawing and sketching the Cochno Stone will persuade you of this. Before getting to the real stuff, however, I want to reflect a little more on the art of depicting rock-art, and this also has resonance for part 3 of this sequence of posts, which will focus on art inspired by the Cochno Stone, so please take notes! 😉
The art of rock-art
Prehistoric rock-art lends itself well to contemporary variations in unusual locations, with the simple form and shallow depth endlessly replicatable. Wherever it occurs, if offers a juxtaposition, a curious time slip. Palaeolithic rock-art – cave paintings to you and me – work especially well in this respect, with otherwordly effects as standard.
More abstract Neolithic and Bronze Age rock-art works is equally portable. This lovely image is in Umea, Sweden, photographed by Lorna Richardson (and reproduced here with permission). This was part of a campaign by the local authorities to promote cycling and draws on the local rock-art repertoire which is a little less abstract than the Scottish equivalents.
Many artists have been inspired by the simplicity and concentricity of cup-and-ring marks. Gavin MacGregor wrote about one such artist, Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933), a landscape painter who lived most of his life in and around Kirkcudbright in southwest Scotland, and one of the famous ‘Glasgow boys’. Gavin notes that Hornel consorted with antiquarians and was himself a keen amateur archaeologist, and as it happens, Kirkcudbright happens to be a real hotspot for rock-art (as well as being the location of some shooting for The Wicker Man movie).
MacGregor, and the biographer of Hornel, Bill Smith, both draw attention to the echoes of cup-and-ring marks in the depiction of the moon in painting such as The Brownie of Blednoch (1889) and The Druids: bringing in the mistletoe (1890, with George Henry). Gavin notes the former (see above) is dominated by a ‘Gallovoidian shepherd beast, beard of circles and cup-marked eyes … manifestation of the living rock….’. Hornel went as far as to search for new cup-and-ring marked stones and some of his discoveries were recorded in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
It is in the work of the polymath-antiquarian-artist-archaeologist that we find the first recorded artwork associated with the Cochno Stone, with the earliest engagements mediated by various characters of this ilk as well as clergymen. The earliest drawings we have of rock-art in the pages of antiquarians books of the nineteenth century emerged form such a melting pot of influences and interests, blurring the lines between art and objective record, in fascinating ways. Hornel was himself involved in the process of the creation of a series of black and white engravings of Kirkcudbrightshire rock-art, which MacGregor notes were collaborations between a small team and were based on photographs taken of casts made from rock-art panels.
This is a period when the first drawings as a matter of record were being produced for cup-and-ring marks, and there was no rulebook, no style guide, no best practice conventions to follow. Artists used licence and produced evocative and memorable images, which often used unusual perspectives and were, for a time, concerned with context and not metrical accuracy.
It was also around this time that a young Ludovic Mann became obsessed with cup-and-rings marks near the rural family holiday home, according to Katinka Dalglish, an obsession that would reach its feverish conclusion on the surface of the Cochno Stone to which we now turn. Before going any further in this post, I must also offer the debt of gratitude I owe to Jim Mearns for doing much of the archive research which underpins the history of early drawings of Cochno.
Sketches and symbols
Several drawings or sketches of the Cochno Stone were undertaken before 1900, each with a very different style, scope and ambition. (A cast was also taken although the nature and fate of this remains unknown.) These wonderfully capture the emergent understanding of Cochno, presenting only symbols that were initially visible, sometimes selectively so. The gradual reveal of the removal of grass from the stone was played out in these artistic renderings and associated accounts.
A partial drawing, defined within a box, was published with the first detailed account of the Cochno Stone, by Rev James Harvey, in 1889. This may well be the earliest drawing we have of any part of the Cochno stone, certainly the first to be published, and it focuses on the only area of the stone cleared when Harvey encountered it. This is a rather plain drawing, with cupmarks represented as dots and dashes, and lacking depth. Harvey himself did the drawings in 1887, but also took rubbings, which he was then able to use to correct his field sketches. The end product has a sense of immediacy, a work in progress, megalithic notations in a sketchbook. Looking at this sketch now for me is slightly disorientating as east is to the top, but is a welcome break from the tyranny of the north. However, this is also a drawing of some authority, having been published in that august organ the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS).
The wonderful little sketch below was drawn by another minister, the Rev Robert Munro at the latest in 1890. It shows edited highlights of what must have been visible at that time. Two slightly different versions of this drawing were reproduced, the earliest, remarkably, in The Illustrated London News on 6th September 1890. A slightly amended version was then included in John Bruce’s History of Old Kilpatrick (1893). (A further version of this was reproduced in Harry Bell’s 1980s book Glasgow’s Secret Geometry but wrongly attributed to William Donnelly.)
When compared with what we know of Cochno now from our excavation of 2016, some of this drawing is quite fanciful, but it is also an image that has real depth. (The version published by Bruce even has the feel of a rubbing, a nice observation made by Grahame Gardner.) However, unlike Harvey’s drawing, there is no scale here, thus giving the drawing a sense of being more of an artistic and interpretive depiction rather than a document of precise record. This is perhaps the case, as elements of this depiction of the stone are spatially impossible, with symbols simply in the wrong place relative to one another and so this is an image of cup-and-ring mark density, not accuracy. The use of a sharply defined diagonal line allows symbols from another part of the stone – in this case the south-western extent, several metres from the other symbols to be shown in the same drawing, making this a sort of ‘Cochno Stone greatest hits’ compilation.
This emphasis on selected bits of the Cochno Stone was countered by the clearing of vegetation, and drawing of the whole monument, by William Donnelly in the mid-1890s, working with John Bruce. Illustrator Donnelly’s drawing of the whole of the stone was published in PSAS in 1896, but a slightly earlier and different version was printed in an edition of Bruce’s History of Old Kilpatrick and includes the artist’s signature and the date – 1895. The slightly earlier drawing, the upper of the two versions depicted below, is notable for its inclusion of a north arrow and some landscape detail that are inexplicably absent from the more widely circulated ‘authoritative’ PSAS version.
Donnelly himself was an interesting character, and his illustrations showed an equally bold approach to cup-and-ring mark symbols found elsewhere.
His depiction of symbols of these hoax items found during his excavations (with John Bruce, him again) have echoes of what he saw and drew at Cochno just a few years previously, and suggest a hankering towards the weird and esoteric which he was also able to satisfy at Cochno with his recording of a cross in a circle and two four-toe footprints, neither typical prehistoric motifs. On the cusp of archaeological professionalism, but with visibility and access to archaeological sites still somewhat limited, at the turn of the century such drawings had to be taken on trust.
Yet the rise in interest and participation in rambling and hikes in the early decades of the twentieth century allowed less authoritative accounts of archaeological monuments to be composed and disseminated. The only two sketches of the Cochno Stone that I know of from between 1900 and 1965 were both drawn by non-professional archaeologists.
The earliest of these was published, firstly in the Glasgow Evening Times newspaper in 1909, and then in the book Some Sylvan Scenes near Glasgow by T C F Brotchie in 1910.
This lovely sketch captures a very small fragment of the Cochno Stone focused on a ‘dumb-bell’ motif, sketched at the end of a good ‘Saturday afternoon ramble’. This is a truly artistic rendering, taken from an oblique angle rather than depicting the plan view, with no scale, no north arrow, no conventions – but a sufficiency of dynamism. The rings around the cup have a real sense of mobility, almost as if the symbols were spinning in front of Brotchie’s eyes. There is also a synechdotal quality to this sketch, a gutter running off the right-hand side of the drawing hinting at more to be discovered (and drawn) beyond the frame.
Such dynamism is also evident in another Cochno Stone drawing, one which I have reproduced before, notably in the excavation summary report. Ludovic Mann’s audacious attempt to explain the cosmological meaning of each ring of a cup-and-ring mark complex is as mind-blowing now as it must have been when published in the late 1930s as part of a consideration of the Knappers site he had been excavating in nearby Clydebank.
This ‘dialectogram’ (for the wonderful work of Mitch Miller is one of the best parallels I can think of here) is an amalgam of all the other Cochno drawings to that date. There is convention. There is artistic licence. There is narrative. There is a focus on the giant cup-and-ring mark motifs on the upper reaches of the Cochno Stone that also featured prominently in the drawings of Munro, Harvey and Donnelly. There is passion. And there is wonder.
And there are more questions than answers. Always more questions than answers.
All of these Cochno Stones drawings, produced over a period of forty years, offer a series of dynamic and creative attempts to document and make sense of the cup-and-ring marks, using the conventions and styles of their time and channeled through the personal motivations and passions of the artist-recorder. In their own ways, each of these drawing is a version of the Cochno Stone that captures some of the character of the rock and its symbols and taken together they form a compelling biography of this place, another chapter of a story that began to be written (before there was writing) 5,000 years ago.
What I especially find alluring about this collection of drawings is that they were drawn from life – by actually standing at the site and looking at the stone. This is where Morris’s much reproduced drawing of the stone falls short – it was cobbled together from the plans by Harvey and Donnelly, and some photographs from the 1930s. While it was (until our photogrammetric and laser survey of 2016) the most comprehensive drawing of the Cochno Stone produced, it creaks at the edges with the slightest bit of scrutiny especially when compared with earlier, more dynamic, drawings. It is clinical, transactional, flat.
Morris, a solicitor, was a lateral thinker. To really start to make sense of rock-art, concentric thinking is required.
One of the most common questions that I get asked about the Cochno Stone regards the meaning of the symbols, and regardless of how accurately we record and draw the cupmarks and the cups-and-rings and the gutters, that meaning cannot be revealed to us. Therefore, despite the formal and technical shortcomings of some of the earlier drawings of the Cochno Stone, these are no more or less likely to help make sense of the symbols than any image we could generate now that was mediated through digital technology. In this case at least, the pencil is no more or less mighty than the pixel.
The joy of the art of the Cochno Stone – and indeed any abstract rock-art – is not about accuracy, or precision, but about mediation, dialogue, spending time with the stone, tracing the contours of the prehistoric depressions with our fingers. There is much merit in standing back and letting a laser scanner do its thing, or viewing the stone through the lens of the camera. But drawings and sketches involve a powerful intimacy that mirrors the acts that created the rock-art in the first place.
Forget the scales. We don’t need north arrows. Making sense of rock-art is about thinking concentrically, not metrically.
In the final part of my series of posts looking at the art of the Cochno Stone, I will consider art and creative acts that have been inspired by the Cochno Stone, but that exist spatially somewhere else. In some cases they have only had a brief existence or do not exist at all. A mural, a comic book, Chalkno stones and inspired architectural design all attest to the power of Cochno to provoke a response and empower.
Sources and acknowledgements: as noted in the post, the story of the antiquarian and early drawings of the Cochno Stone could not have been told without the research and diligence of Jim Mearns. Thanks also to Katinka Dalglish, Gavin MacGregor and Alex Hale for the input that their research has had on this post and I have linked to their work where possible. For more on Donnelly and Dumbuck, you can download for free Alex and Rob Sands’ book Controversy on the Clyde: archaeologists, fakes and forgers from here. The biography of Hornel alluded to is Bill Smith’s 2010 book Hornel: the life and work of Edward Atkinson Hornel. I’m also very grateful to Lorna Richardson for both allowing me to use her Umea photograph, but giving me some background context for the image.
The High Banks rock-art drawing came from Hamilton’s paper in PSAS 23 (1888-9) ‘Notice of additional groups of carvings of cups and circles on rock surfaces at High Banks, Kircudbrightshire’. The Stronach rock-art sketch comes from Somerville’s PSAS article, ‘Notice of cup- and ring-marked rocks on the Stronach Ridge, near Brodick, Arran’ (volume 35, 1900-1901). All PSAS articles can be downloaded free.
Ronald Morris’s drawing of the Cochno Stone comes from his 1981 BAR volume The prehistoric rock art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway).
Other image permissions have been included in the captions, or the text accompanying the images
Is art an appropriate word to describe the abstract symbols that were carved onto rock outcrops in the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Britain? I was asked this question a few times recently during a series of talks I did about the Cochno Stone and it is a question that causes us to pause and reflect on the way that contemporary discourse shapes our perceptions of the ancient past. Our vocabulary is simply insufficient to characterize activities that happened in prehistory, and inevitably we end up writing narratives about the past that are pale reflections of, or weird variants on, our own present. You do not need to be a student of archaeological theory to understand that this is both problematic and inevitable.
Art is a word that polarizes in general, and especially so in the context of prehistory (for an interesting discussion on this issue, read this). Some archaeologists see the word art in this context as useful in helping us to understand some of the complexities of pictorial and abstract carvings on rock from prehistory. Others accept that while inadequate and loaded, we are stuck with the rock-art label: it is a widely understood term that is simply a classificatory label. No classification can ever be really neutral, however, and so while rock-art cannot now be easily abandoned as a descriptor, we should use it cautiously and critically. For me, art is something that provokes creativity, stimulates critical thinking, offers a fresh perspective on the world around us, and is deeply political. For others, art is about creativity and aesthetics. Can we say the same for rock-art? Can we apply the same criteria for reading art gallery art in our readings of prehistoric rock-art? Perhaps.
We could view Neolithic rock-art such as is found across Britain as prehistoric equivalents of medieval oil paintings of kings and contemporary landscape art installations. All have the aspiration and possibility to mean many things to many people that is only partially in the control of the artist. None of these means of expression is neutral or without political, social and emotional depth, even although their context, medium, audience and reception vary hugely. On the other hand, the repetitive and ubiquitous nature of cup-and-ring marks could be viewed as restrictions on creativity, symbols of conformity and social identity carved into rocks in an almost obsessive fashion that speak more of propaganda than free-will. But looking even closer, it is in the detail that we might should we care to look find the hand of the individual, subversive riffing on the cup-and-ring mark formula, rock(art) n roll. Perhaps we might take another approach, viewing cupmarks as a prehistoric abstract movement, all weird shapes, juxtapositions and coded meaning that is meaningless. Yet we could also read rock-art as an interactive and tactile form. The landscape was no art gallery and there were no fences, glass or guards (as there are now at places like Achnabreck in Argyll (fences not guards)). The haptic qualities of rock-art speak more of sculpture than painting: sculpture that one could touch however, rather than stand back and admire as one would do with an oil painting or something hung on wall. Or……
I could go on. What I am trying to say here is that there are many ways to make sense of cup-and-ring mark rock-art, and by thinking about it as ‘art’ we open up routes to interpret such symbols in ways that make sense to us.
One thing that art is good at is inspiring more art, and in this spirit, over two posts, I want to consider artistic responses to the Cochno Stone rock-art site. In this post, I will look at art that has been applied to the surface of the stone itself, and then in the second I’ll consider art inspired by the rock-art (I’ll add a link here once this has been posted) in the form of public art, sketches, measured drawing and comics. Together I hope these posts will offer an artistic and visual history of this amazing monument but of course there is no chance I’ll settle the old ‘is rock-art art argument’…..
Part 1: Art on the surface of the stone
Let’s leave aside the prehistoric carvings on the surface of the Cochno Stone.
Whether these are art or not depends on you and ink has been spilled on these elsewhere.
These symbols were carved into the rock probably between 3000BC and 2000BC for purposes unknown, but using a huge amount of skill and expertise. These creative acts, probably spread over a period of many decades of centuries, marked this place out as somewhere special, and ever since then people have been unable to resist the temptation to add their own elements to this huge communal rock canvas, with startling different motivations and outcomes.
The images below show prehistoric symbols and twentieth century (AD) additions, almost blending seamlessly together, a palimpsest in sandstone.
The earliest artistic responses that we have to the cup-and-ring marks on the Cochno Stone were recorded by the antiquarians who first drew the complete extent of the rocky outcrop, John Donald and William Donnelly. In the 1890s they recorded two unusual symbols:
‘two new features which had not hitherto been observed, viz, a cross within an oval border, and a sculpturing resembling two pairs of footprints, which …. show only four toes each’.
Are these genuine if unusual prehistoric symbol, or were these weird feet (or hands) added at some point in the millennia since the cup-and-ring marks were carved? We may never know. The cross is not a Christian cross, and so we cannot assume this belongs to the historic period. Perhaps these are prehistoric. Such subversions of the typical rock-art forms may have been especially powerful in prehistory, perhaps as impactful and shocking as other radical new art styles and pieces that have punctuated history, the Bronze Age equivalent of Tracy Emin’s unmade bed.
Antiquarians appear to have responded to the Cochno Stone symbols in a more boring way, adding their name as was their wont. During the 2016 excavations we recorded two examples of historic graffiti that appeared to be written in bookplate text: W KERR and W CARMICHAEL, which probably date to the nineteenth century and would have been regarded as unworthy of recording by their peers.
This reminds me of extensive ‘graffiti’ left on the orthostats and lintels of Unstan Neolithic chambered tomb on Orkney, also in the nineteenth century. A different set of standards were being applied here – double standards – where it was OK to scrawl your name into an ancient megalith as long as you were well-off and educated, like Orcadian James Cursiter. (You can explore the interior of this tomb for yourself with this brilliant sketchfab model by Hugo Anderson-Whymark – all of the graffiti has been scanned for posterity.)
This photo, which I took in 2015, is complex, containing the antiquarian graffiti of the aforementioned Cursiter from 1891 but also ‘FH’ from 2000. Which, if either, have the value of creativity? Is this historic graffiti or vandalism? Is it art? (And don’t get me started on the Viking graffiti in Maes Howe…). As Hugo notes in his model, however we view this, it is now illegal to deface this monument as it is a scheduled ancient monument, so FH better keep their head down.
Similar conundrums are posed by the next major intervention on the surface of the Cochno Stone. Into the twentieth century, the symbols on the Cochno Stone inspired more intensive artistic engagements, not least the work of Ludovic McLellan Mann, whose painting of the Cochno Stone in 1937 was one of the truly transformative events in the history of this monument. Aside from offering a colour-coded translation and abstract analysis of the meaning and properties of the design, Mann’s efforts could and should be viewed as a creative act.
This oil paint job was creative in other ways, with for instance two circles added to the surface of the stone, such as the red and white symbol in the image above, another layer of depth and obscure meaning as if Cochno needed any more depth and obscurity. One of Mann’s long straight yellow lines crosses the circle, almost as if he was revising his theories as he went along. Making sense of Mann’s brushstrokes is as much an act of interpretation as is needed for any artwork where we know little of the intentions of the artist.
Having used oil paints, as recent analysis by Louisa Campbell of the HES-funded Paints and Pigments In the Past project (PPIP) has demonstrated, it seems likely that Mann’s palette was the paint shelf of a 1930s ironmongery.
Even the drawing of the Stone, based on Mann spending a lot of time (perhaps more than is healthy), has an artistic quality that transcends mere recording because it is hardly an objective rendering. This image, the only drawing that Mann published related to the Cochno Stone, in 1939, is a fictional account of the meaning of the symbols, creative writing, one page from a wonderful graphic novel that he didn’t ever get round to finishing.
The grand canvas of Mann’s work contrasts with the more private and modest acts of graffiti that occurred with increasing intensity in the years leading up to the Cochno Stone’s burial in 1965. These actions did not have the facade of academic research that Mann may have hidden behind, although even his actions were frowned upon by the owners of the stone and the ‘establishment’. The memo below was written at best a couple of months after Mann painted the stone; the stone would become a scheduled ancient monument by the end of the year.
The legal protection of the Cochno Stone did not stop people making their mark on the surface, and I suspect that no-one from the Office of Works bothered to tell local people or visitors of the change of status anyway. Thus what Mann started, only the burial of the stone could stop. And frankly, if Mann could paint the stone up a storm, why could others not make their own modest additions?
Research by University of Glasgow postgraduate student Alison Douglas has shown that over 100 modern marks were made on the surface of the stone, mostly dating to between 1940 and 1965, overwhelmingly in the form of names, dates and initials.
Individual expression seems to have taken different forms, including weak attempts to replicate the prehistoric symbols, as this image from the online Cochno Stone viewer suggests.
Other graffiti showed a desire to be inventive – spirals and swirls were added to names to give a touch of class, a set of initials were displayed inside a simple depiction of a house while some names were connected with arrows, suggesting relationships were being depicted here too, stone genealogies.
This art came at a cost. I recently spoke to someone who as a child carved his name onto the surface of the Cochno Stone with his penknife, which was broken in the process. Sacrifices have to be made to make one’s mark on the world. One wonders what personal cost Mann’s obsessions had for him. And ultimately, the creative encounters discussed above culminated in the shutting down of this site, the burial of the stone beneath tons of soil for contravention of the rules in 1965.
Maybe we should charitably view the covering of the Cochno Stone itself as a grand piece of performance art that almost no-one was fortunate enough to witness.
There is no doubt that art and creative interventions on the surface of archaeological sites can be contentious. I don’t want to make light of the potential problems in site management and interpretation that paint, carvings and worse can cause and there are some horrible examples of crude painted messages added to rock-art around the world should you wish to google.
However, in the case of the Cochno Stone, there is a rich history of additions to the surface of the stone that cannot simply be written off as mindless vandalism as some other examples clearly are. Indeed, if we view one of the roles of art to inspire creativity in others, then at this level the Cochno Stone succeeds as an open air installation that was and remains a constant source of inspiration. The examples in this blog post suggest that these interventions – both permanent and temporary – have been going on for some four or five thousand years.
I will explore alternative mediums in part 2 when I consider the history of art inspired by the Cochno Stone that is not on the surface of the monument but located elsewhere – on the sides of buildings, on the trees and pavements, in the pages of journals and newspapers, and in a wonderful little comic book.
Whether you think rock-art is art or not, art sure follows it around.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank Alison Douglas for her ongoing analysis and research into the historic graffiti on the Cochno Stone, and for the community of Faifley for their indulgence and support. Thanks also to Grahame Gardner for drawing (ha ha) my attention to the Francis Hitchings’ book Earth Magic.
The Bruce and Donnelly report can be found here (free online):
Bruce, J 1896 Notice of remarkable groups of archaic sculpturings in Dumbartonshire and Stirlingshire, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 30, 205-9.
The Mann sketch of Cochno comes from his booklet:
Mann, L M 1939 The Druid Temple Explained. London & Glasgow.
Some urban prehistory sites are strange. Some are sad. Some are both.
There is something melancholy about a prehistoric site that has been destroyed with nothing done to compensate. We are now used to the fairly cosy arrangement that we can accept the destruction of archaeological sites in exchange for them being professionally and fully excavated. This is a deal that archaeologists – and society without most being aware of it – have made with the free market economy. We won’t interfere too much with endless development, change and economic progress and the juggernaut won’t completely flatten what is left of the past without first slowing down a bit or taking little detours. The result is jobs in the heritage sector, lots of random data we would otherwise not have, and sometimes local communities benefit from these transactions too. This might be a Faustian pact, it might even be entirely sensible, but it does mean that in 2017 one of the most important and uncontrollable ways we have of finding prehistoric sites and sucking the information out of them is driven by social need for, and the political demands of, development.
But in the nineteenth century when society was still getting to grips with the implications of massive scale urban and industrial expansion, railway line and canal building, and the requirement for the extraction of the necessary aggregates to make these things happen, no such deal existed. Archaeological sites were swept aside simply because they were literally the wrong place at the wrong time. And so inconvenient standing stones were toppled, or ”blown with powder’ as in the case of a stone circle at St Colmac’s, Bute. To add insult to injury, whatever survived these extractions was then put to use as building materials, built into walls and barns, or broken up and utilized serendipitously and randomly e.g. in road and rail foundations. Stone cists and coffins were emptied of their contents, with much of the goodies inside ending up on the mantelpieces of the rich landowner, local vicar or an eccentric antiquarian, soon to be ‘lost’. Of course, this was all underpinned by money as well – but the power relationship was balanced differently than it is now. Archaeological sites could be swept away on a whim, facilitated by the signing of a cheque (one of those big fancy Victorian ones), and the data and information that resulted from any crude interventions that followed could be characterized as limited, selective and often rubbish.
Whoever said that no deal was better than a bad deal?
A dead megalithic monument in Clackmannanshire prompted these thoughts to be re-articulated once again. It is a sad and strange story that represent the ways that even substantial prehistoric monuments, when competing with the demands of nineteenth century economic requirements and the requirements of the landed gentry could come to a very sticky end, reduced to nothing more than an antiquity map symbol.
I have a Cunninghar plan
The site to which I refer was called Cunninghar in Tillicoultry. This is a monument that according to varied accounts was substantial, consisting of a circular or oval setting between 20m and 35m in diameter of standing stones three feet high at the foot of the Ochils. (A bank apparently surrounded this, suggesting to me this was a kerb cairn rather than a stone circle for what it is worth.) No record of the number of stones survives, nor any etchings or drawings of this monument. The enthusiastic recorder of prehistoric lost causes and megalithic wild goose chases, Fred Coles, tried to get to the bottom of the story of this stone circle right at the end of the nineteenth century, his sources of information patched together from conversations with an experienced local forester, an OS Name Book entry and some nifty mapwork.
His informant, the estate forester, gave a vivid description of the stone circle and the fate that it met (for the source of this quote, see the end of this post; Location A is shown on Cole’s map reproduced below):
The rather undignified evisceration and re-purposing of the monument by the local gentry for their own grand designs, and also perhaps with one eye on the quarrying and thus financial potential of this location to come, left the bank and one single standing stone on site, which became the focus of excavations in the 1890s when two cists, one containing a fine Food Vessel, were discovered on site as the ridge was gradually denuded for aggregate extraction. The account of these discoveries was documented fastidiously by R Robertson in a paper written slightly before Coles arrived on the scene, and in his observation that the site was situated on an ‘elevated ridge of sand intermixed with gravel’ lies the seeds its downfall at the hands of quarrying for those materials.
There is no need to rehearse the details here of the discoveries that occurred in harmony with the rhythm of the extension of the gravel quarry, surprising extractions, suffice it to say that several Bronze Age pots, and a stone marked with rock-art, were discovered.
My favourite detail of these impromptu rescue excavations was the discovery by Robertson in the location within a cist that one would have expected a head to be located, ‘a quantity of a fibrous or hairy substance, of dark-red colour’. Analysis was undertaken of this mysterious material by a Professor Struthers who appears to have been something of an expert in these matters, having his own collection of ancient hairs which he sometimes exhibited to the public. He concluded, by comparison with his own reference collection, that this was not the hair of a man, ox or horse – but it might have been the ‘wool’ of a fox, dog or rabbit. (Audrey Henshall later suggested it was otter.) No further analysis of this was undertaken but I like to imagine this was the remnants of a crazy stoat hat. (It is worth noting also that the name of this site derives from something to do with rabbits suggesting this is the kind of location where a rabbit might have burrowed into a cist by accident and died in there. Just saying.)
Fred Coles reported on another cist found here a few years later, although had nothing to say on the matter of the ginger-haired deposit. He also noted that quarrying had not begun at the south end of this ridge by the time of the OS 1st edition mapping of the 1860s, but by then, the stone circle was already gone, for the reasons already noted above. The sand pit to the north suggests the landowner was well aware of the potential value of this location and the pesky stone circle that was on the way of his bank account being further bloated.
Later maps show the outline of the quarrying in more detail, and so show the activities that led to the discovery of Bronze Age burials here as well as completely removing the site where the stone circle / kerb cairn. In a sense the quarrying was more destructive than the standing stone removal, in the same way as extracting one’s teeth is not half as bad as losing your mouth.
This megalith was wiped off the map, and it was on maps that ironically was the only place where it continued to exist.
Gradually, this location became increasingly surrounded by housing estates and the trappings of the modern urban landscape. Using a really helpful map that Coles made of the archaeological discoveries at Cunninghar, and subsequent mapping, it is possible to roughly plot where these key discoveries were made in relation to the modern Tillicoultry – sandwiched between Dollar Road and Sandy Knowe with a fine view over a cemetery and war memorial.
It was no surprise to me when I visited on a quiet Saturday morning that there is no sense whatsoever that in this corner of Tillicoultry once stood a substantial multi-phase Bronze Age monument. The Cunninghar sand and gravel ridge that so attracted quarriers survives within the urban setting, in the form of a wide grass-covered bank that runs north-south between two housing estates. A path runs along this ridge and I mounted it, from my parking position on the appropriately named Sandy Knowe, via a set of steps. Once on the embankment I followed a rough path that lead to a broader and uneven overgrown area with a mast atop it. This metallic tower stood within a steel cage with warning signs adorning it.
This area betrays little to nothing of its former purpose, other than that it is possible to imagine this as a prominent viewing point with views down to the River Devon. The ridge came to a sudden end at a wall on the fringe the A91, while an escarpment topped with a feeble fence which meandered from east – west marked the limit of the sand and gravel quarry that was once here that finally removed the remnants of this monument, the conclusion of a slow-motion series of interventions.
As I wandered around in the faint hope of seeing something, anything, that might hint at megaliths, burials or an embankment, I noticed a large stone lying on the other side of the fence on the edge of what was once the quarry. This had previously been identified by the Northern Antiquarian as being a remnant from the stone circle, and although it seemed to me too small to have fulfilled this purpose, it did look out of place and may once have been a prehistoric something or other.
Down I went into the quarry, now an overgrown edgeland betwixt road, mound and back gardens, nothing but weeds and rubbish strewn about. Spatially, if not physically, there had been a stone circle here once, perhaps elevated 5m above my head. But all that remained were random sad objects: a twisted child’s car seat, a hoard of charity shop sacks and the splayed and stretched out tendons of a Venetian blind.
This made me melancholy. A stone circle had been lost – so be it. But it had been lost and not adequately compensated for. A Food Vessel, Urn and a clump of dead rabbit / otter had been added to the archaeological record, dots on a distribution map (except for the rabbit unless there is a distribution map of Bronze Age wigs), but we don’t even know how many megaliths once stood here. Tillicoultry House with its amazing standing stone lined drain was demolished around 1960, another victim of progress, while the current location of the rock-art-marked stone, visited and visible to Ronald Morris in 1966, is unknown. The Food Vessel is held in the collections of the National Museum of Scotland.
There is nothing to let people whose houses are literally metres from where a prehistoric centre of ritual, ceremony and burial once stood know about this, no noticeboards that might inform casual passers-by, a lack of an app or virtual reality ancient version of this place to download. This monument has gone, a victim of all sorts of Victorian hoo-ha. And not only was the monument destroyed, but the place where this monument once stood was destroyed, atomically removed. Once it was removed, the megalith was split up into pieces and then it was later destroyed again, a second death. The burials that were left behind were recovered to an extent, but are now hopelessly dispersed.
There was no deal here – this was a hard extraction, and once the stones had fallen from this cliff edge there was no going back.
I have often said in the past that urban prehistory is not about a sense of loss, or sadness, and this is still the case. But for Cunninghar there have only been bad outcomes, as bad as it gets, and it seems a hopeless case, all that remains being this sad story and footnote in the National Monuments Record of Scotland.
Melancholy is not the same thing as sadness, nor is regret. What I regret about some urban prehistoric sites is that their destruction was in vain, the price paid too high.
Sources and acknowledgements: This post benefited from many conversations with Helen Green about heritage, development and compensatory measures (or lack thereof).
Little has been published on Cunninghar, or the variants of spelling of that name that are out there (Cuninghar, Cunningar). Two articles were published in close succession in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland about this site, both referred to above. The first of these was Robertson’s 1895 effort, ‘Notice of the discovery of a stone cist and urns at the Cuninghar, Tillicoultry’, in volume 29; the second Cole’s 1899 ‘Notices of the discovery of a cist and urns at Juniper Green, and of a cist at the Cunninghar, Tillicoultry, and of some undescribed cup- marked stones’ (volume 33). Both can be read online for free via the Society webpage. The image of the Food Vessel came from the Robertson paper, the cist plan and rock-art ‘photo’ from Coles, and the latter also provided the quote near the start of the post.