Hot mess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The standing stone in 1982 (c) HES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources used above for images and the notes section:

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

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

A trick of the light

The standing stone stands outside the shop.

The shop is situated beside the standing stone.

But which came first – the shop or the stone?

Odin stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which came first? What is the stratigraphy here?

Odin Stone shop frontage
From defunct Odin Stone website

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

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

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

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

General view Odin stone 1

General view Odin stone 2

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

Through the Odin hole

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

The Orkney Experience

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

He is running for the sanctuary of the Odin Stone.

Optical Orcadian

Illusions artefacts

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

Norse imagery

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

Ghost sign

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

A trick of the light.

Illusionary trilithon

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


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

skara brae
From The Orkney Experience website

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

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


The standing stone stands outside the experience.

The experience is situated beside the standing stone.

There can be no doubt.

This stone came first.


Sources and acknowledgements:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heathen temple

churchyard low res

in a yard in the shadow of the church

amidst bent monuments and faded death markers

and dead flowers

protrudes from the earth the last fragment of a

heathen temple

that once stood in this location

now sanctified now a sanctuary

but once an altar upon which offerings were made

of an unholy nature pagan

with liquids unknown returning to the earth

dripping splashing running

to be absorbed into good christian graves

corrupting bones

countless years later many moons

have passed since dark and mysterious

rites were practiced here in a

heathen temple

that stood in this location

now a sanctuary now sanctified


but chalk dust was spilled here

by antiquarian Mann inquisitive man

sketched out on the north face of this stone stump

mapping out the occult

crossing the cracks transcending planes

imposing acute and right angles

making connections that ignore

the topography of the megalith

inscrutable washed off by rain never repeated

photographed greyscale black and white

the last flourishing of a

heathen temple

that stood in this location

of the dead

Photo 3



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

Photo 1

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

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


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

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

The truth of this may never be known.

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

The solace of deep Anthropocene time

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

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

The Ulster Ash Grove monument, deploying standing stones and megalithic boulders (Image source:

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

falkland war memorial cardiff low res

glenrothes war memorial newsclipping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postcard Haer Stane ebay
Source: Date unknown

Dog in pond Angelfire
Date and dog unknown. Note the green placque on one stone, pictured below. Source:

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

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

Postcard Tullibody gate

Lych Gate low res

Signs outside memorial low res

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

Megalithic table low res

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

Haer Stane view from north low res

Haer Stane low res

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

Megalith glue low res
Megalith glue.

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

Stains on the Stane.

Handprint 1 low res

Hand print 2 low res

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


To the memory of

the 27 men who gave their

lives for us in

The Great War 1914-1919

This memorial was raised by their

relatives and friends in

Tullibody Cambus District

Placque low res

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

War memorial 626 squadron
(c) Alloa Advertiser

These too had been smeared with mud.

Black placques low res

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

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

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

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

Screen grab from war memorial web page

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

Solace has been sought in deep Anthropocene time.


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

Mystery World

What a great welcome, fabulous atmosphere and amazing journey into past myths and legends.   ” Mrs W, aged 68

“Tales of joy and tales of fright await the avid listener. And when the excitement of the park becomes too much, visitors can enjoy relaxing refreshments at the Viking Foodship. The Mysterymall Gift Shop has many beautiful and unique souvenirs to take home as a reminder to this truly amazing experience.”

mystery low res

While in Ballachulish on New Year’s Day with friends, I took the opportunity to visit a series of standing stones arranged around and within a car park next to the A82 main road. These spectacular grey granite megaliths do not appear to be ancient – and indeed they are not – so what is their story? Why were they built and when?

The curious answer to this question revolves around the rise and fall of a short-lived tourist folly. This place was once Highland Mysteryworld, a bizarre and tacky tourist attraction that was built as part of the economic development of the area in the 1990s alongside a hotel and leisure complex. Despite considerable investment in this venture, it went bust in the following decade, and the building it once inhabited is now a water sports business.

Yet traces of the visitor centre and infrastructure survive, something that became increasingly evident as we wandered around the car park and paused to touch the austere megaliths. Like much urban prehistory, traces of this place jut awkwardly into the current landscape. These are little more than ghostly clues to a rather inexplicable tourist attraction that, if the lack of its presence on the internet is anything to go by, left almost no impression on those who visited.

My one visit with Jan in the late 1990s holds various memories, none of them particularly positive other than that is formed one part of an otherwise spectacular day out in the Glencoe area. No photos appear to exist in our pre-digital archive, but we do distinctly remember an aggressive character who called himself the ‘wee fecher’ (sic). This irritant consisted of a member of staff hiding behind a wall panel. As we walked past, this poor soul thrust out their elbow, upon which was attached a rubbery ugly mask, which gave only a weak impression of a living being, and shouted at us as we innocently tried to pass. A limp textile body hung below this thing to complete a frankly unimpressive effect.

the wee fecher photo
The ‘wee fecher’ (c) Stephanie Ward from Steph’s Animation Blog

There, I purchased the only material remnant I have of this visit – a key ring in the shape of a megalith with the Highland Mysteryworld logo on it. This fell apart some time ago but for some reason I have retained it, although it was not to celebrate the experience. Rather like my Tomb of the Eagles fridge magnet, or unsharpened Bede’s World pencil, or unused Vindolanda rubber, it forms part of a dubious collection of mediocre-heritage-attraction-tat that lurks in a back corner of a kitchen drawer, awaiting some future event when the whole lot is finally emptied into a bin bag.




What was Highland Mysteryworld?

“The theme park will transport guests back in time, with the rich smells, bustling noises and sights of Scotland in ancient times.”

front of buildingHighland Mysteryworld was a cheesy visitor centre experience celebrating the myths and folklore of Scotland’s Highlands, situated in a pinky-grey building in the grounds of the Isles of Glencoe Hotel. Inside were celebrated, through dioramas, models, animatronics and people dressed up in costume all sorts of ‘characters’ and stories from Highland mythology. These included the aforementioned ‘fecher’ as well as witches, hobgoblins, mermaids and the like. Visitors followed a twisting pathway that allowed lots to be crammed into a relatively small space. And there was a apparently an auditorium shaped like a stone circle (of which I have no memory), as well as a shop and café.

A puff piece in the Herald newspaper dated 26th April 1996 (which is so journalistically poor and credulous that it can only have been a barely amended press release) told the story of the Mysteryworld soon after it opened. It notes that the neighbouring hotel, and the Mysteryworld, were a two-phase development on the site of an old slate mine and thus enhanced the landscape – a dubious claim given the spectacular nature of this location.

The advert, sorry, serious tourism piece, continued: “Like all the best ideas, this one came from the private sector”. Hmmm. The blurb continues, with no sense of irony,

“Highland Mysteryworld is a bold initiative, costing upwards of £1m initially, and although popularly described as a theme park, is a gentler exercise designed to recreate the Highland environment of times long past. It is based around aspects of life from ancient Celtic and Viking folklore with its myriad myths and legends. Charming and romantic today, these were at the very heart of life in the old Scottish way of life when superstition was rife and the elements were accorded great power to influence day to day existence.”

roots of rannoch photo
Interior shot (c) Stephanie Ward from Steph’s Animation Blog

What could visitors expect to see? Well, there was a film show for a start.

“In the Astromyth Theatre, the audience will hear Calgacus the Pict explaining the secrets of the elements, sun, moon and stars. The theatre is built to resemble a stone circle and has some dramatic sound and visual effects. The presentation takes about 20 minutes, well within the boredom threshold of the younger members of the family.”

Sorry for the extended quoting. This stuff is hilarious.

How might one finish this spell-binding trip?

“…at the end of the day, browse for interesting artifacts in the Mysterymall or enjoy some fine food in the Viking Foodship, where real warriors serve up the grub and pillage your empty plates.”

(Who writes this stuff? Can I shake their hand?)

“Highland Mysteryworld is hotly tipped to become one of Scotland’s top ten tourist attractions and is open daily, 10 am till late. The cost is £4.95 for each adult, £2.95 for children. You can get a family ticket for £12.”

Highland Mysteryworld went bust in the early-2000s and is now the home of Lochaber Watersports.

Mystery_World_Brochure purple

The leaflet for this attraction, which I managed to find the front page of online, perhaps gives us some hints as to why this genius idea failed. It proudly boasts: ‘See Legends Come Alive’. This is overlain on a picture of a small child shitting herself as a horrific Lovecraftian dribbling green monster looms over her shoulder. Below is an image from a new attraction for that year, ‘The tomb of the ancients’ which appears to consist of a sinister monk leering over body parts while parents clutch their kids save they become incorporated into the bone pile. That will teach them to have a minimum 20 minute attention span.

The name of the attraction is written in crazy runes which, along with the megaliths in the car park, hints at the bizarre melting pot this attraction undoubtedly was. It represented something of a conflation of thousands of years of stuff into one simple marketable package. This confusion reminds me of the technological mash-up in the movie Westworld, where robot cowboys re-enact the tropes of the Wild West. Perhaps Mysteryworld should have been the third part of a Michael Crichton trilogy (that also included Futureworld) where the salivating green monster, the little fecher and the death monk all gain sentient knowledge of their animatronic state and take matters into their own hands.

Maybe that’s why the place closed?


Mysteryworld today

Upon parking in the Isles of Glencoe Hotel car park and surveying the various standing stones within and around the car park it quickly becomes clear where a lot of the initial £1 million quid budget went – on erecting at least a dozen very large pink-grey granite standing stones. These are big as well, in the order of up to 2.5m high each; with below-ground components of up to 1m, presumably set in concrete – this represents a lot of granite. These are scattered around the edges of the car park, and between some rows of parking spaces, while two smaller stones still flank the entranceway to this leisure compound.

megalith and bus low res

Three large stones sit atop a grassy mound overlooking the car park, a megalithic triangle.

megalithic triangle low res

And then there is the building itself. Remarkably, the façade of the bland building in which the attraction was once housed still retains the large logo of the Mysteryworld.

mysterworld facade from afar low res

This is the same motif that is evident on my key-ring and recalls of course rock-art, being essentially a cup-and-ring variation with a little M (or W, or both) appended to the end of the spiral.

mysterworld facade low res

highland mysteryworld entrance photo
Now and then

The steel frame of the door still remains although now is has WATERSPORTS written on it. The entrance itself is entirely different as the photos above demonstrate. I pressed my face up against the brown glass doors that are in place now, peering into the sports HQ to see if any internal vestiges of the Mysteryworld still remain in situ. But all I was able to see was an untidy desk and a lot of empty boxes lying around.

In the forecourt of the entrance area other traces of the Mysteryworld were evident.

cobbling low resUnderfoot was a huge iteration of the logo created from carefully arranged grey and beige cobbles, a threshold of sorts, perhaps marking the moment when visitors were transported back in time, a patio-wormhole.

wee heads low res

Three little stone heads sat nearby, gurning and making faces: cheeky Highland mytho-heads. The impression they gave me was of three stone giants struggling in quicksand, buried up to their necks in this tourist blandscape. One of them appeared to have spat a cigarette from his mouth in surprise.

wee head low res

Our visit to Highland Mysteryworld was surprising as more of it survived than I would have thought possible, especially considering it was open for  less than a decade and it closed 13 or 14 years ago. Those staying at the hotel or using the car park or adventure playground today may well wonder what these enigmatic bits and pieces represent – something of a mystery to most of them I would imagine, ironically.


On the endurance of megaliths

Even on 1st January there was a steady drift of visitors and tourists wandering around Ballachulish and this megalithic-car-park. Many looked confused, walking between the cold hotel and the cold co-op, past closed public toilets and random landscaping megaliths on the other side of the A82.

toilets megalith low res

The pictured example above is one of several slate standing stones that lies within the tourist hub of this village, and at least these megaliths reflect the quarry that this retail zone exists within.

Ghostly traces of the Mysterworld abound, and these require some explanation for visitors, although in reality there is none. Signs have been amended rather than replaced, editing out the Mysteryworld as a concept. This was fleetingly a place of commerce, a place for coach parties to stop and a place for the consumption of a mythical mashed-up past, a place for investment and the attraction of visitors to actually spend money and not just look at the wonderful views or walk in the mountains.


This dead theme park.

Surviving only in stone.

Megaliths, a building, cobbles, carved heads.

Car park flankers.

One silvery metal sign the exception.

This ghost place, now an archaeological site that does not exist in any lists of archaeological sites.

These rootless, restless megaliths, now an archaeological site that does not exist in any lists of archaeological sites.


car park megalith low res

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan, Helen and Erika for wandering around a car park with me on a freezing cold public holiday! Almost all information about Highland Mysterworld came from the Herald article mentioned above (including link) and a few travel blogs and touristy webpages, all of which appeared to regurgitate the Mysteryworld’s own publicity material – these are the source of the unattributed quotes in the post (such as this blog) including those at the start. The two photos of the outside of the Mysterworld when it was open are from here and here. The photos of the interior are both sourced from a blog Steph’s animation blog.



Penis town

penis town 2 low res


Tumbleweed on the main street

And drunks abound

Another Sunday afternoon

In penis town


Two pubs and a co-op

Green, blue and brown

Open all hours

In penis town


A ghostly man hangs out of a window

Looking up and then down

He returns to drilling plaster

In penis town


Cock-topped tollbooth, slim shaft cross,

standing stone with bulbous crown

The past re-created

In penis town


Blue pain road splatter

Graffiti down town

Dog shit collectors

In penis town


Cyclists pause by the stone

They dismount with a frown

One of them goes shopping

In penis town


The stone drips efflorescence

A sickly white gown

Wrapped around its girth

In penis town


The mighty shaft leans

Like a megalithic clown

Crying tears of laughter

In penis town


Grey skies and grey stone

Grey tarmac on the ground

Blue plastic bag man staggers

In penis town


High Street, Main Street

Adjective and noun

Tracing words with your feet

In penis town


Passers-by glare at the stone

Pacing round and round

Nothing new to see here

In penis town


Tumbleweed on the main street

And drunks abound

Another Sunday afternoon

Always penis town


(c) Crown Copyright RCAHMS image number DP00203
(c) Crown Copyright RCAHMS image number DP00203


Facts and figure

1. The Stone of Mannan, or King Robert’s Stone, is a composite standing stone consisting of a single whinstone boulder connected to a tall megalith by an internal metal support and external mortaring.

2. It is located in Main Street, Clackmannan, the county town of Clackmannanshire. Clack Mannan means the Stone of Mannan

welcome sign low res

3. It has NMRS number NS99SW 6 and National Grid Reference NS 9111 9188.

4. There main component of this megalith, the upright standing stone, is apparently little more than a 19th century sourced plinth which support the really old bit, which is the smaller stone on top – the actual Stone of Mannan.

The Stone of Mannan being played with in Celtic times (detail from noticeboards that used to stand next to the Stone)
The Stone of Mannan being played with in Celtic times (detail from noticeboards that used to stand next to the Stone)

5. It has moved at least once, in 1833, from the preposterously named Lookabootye Brae (this is Scottish for ‘Look About You Steep Road’).

6. In 2005, The Times reported: ‘A plan to move an ancient phallic stone said to contain the spirit of a Celtic god has been abandoned by councillors after locals threatened to stage a sit-in around the monument. Councillors confirmed last night that they had shelved a proposal to shift the Stone of Mannan just five yards from its site in the Scottish town of Clackmannan after furious opposition from local women’.

7. On March 26th 2006 The Daily Record claimed: ‘A giant stone penis is to be repaired at a cost of more than £160,000. Work starts today on the crumbling 2500-year-old Mannan Stone, which stands on a plinth in the centre of Clackmannan’

8. Conservation and consolidation work was carried out by stone conservators NBSC in 2007, the work consisting of: ‘Removal of ferrous fixings and OPC mortar, structure consolidation of subjects. Removal of biological growth, salt efflorescence, impact damage residue. Replace ferrous dowel and treat oxide jacking, treatment of plaque fixings, and treatment of delamination’.

9. A plaque on the tollbooth wall beside the standing stone reads: ‘The stone of Clack, originally placed at the foot of Lookabootye Brae, was sacred to the pre-Christian deity Mannan and is a unique relic of pagan times. It was raised on the large shaft in 1833’.

placque low res

10. This is a monument that has suffered confusion and indignity. But after all these years, after all the maltreatment, it remains erect.

graffiti low res

Sources and acknowledgements: there is further information on the Stone from the local Community Council webpage. There is also a lot of detail about a proposed project by Andrew Gryf Paterson available from this website but I am not sure if this came to anything. But it is fun. And powerpoint slides on that website are the source of the sketch of the Stone of Mannan in Iron Age times, which itself came from noticeboards that used to stand next to the Penis Stone. The RCAHMS copyright image is a drawing by J Drummond from 1861, part of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland collection.






The writing on the wall

One of the key drivers behind this blog – and my urban prehistory project – is the sense that traces of activities and structures from the past persist within contemporary urban landscapes, to the extent that even when there are no visible remains left of whatever was there previously, there is nonetheless value to visiting those places, and in some instances, marking them in some way, drawing attention to them. And at times, tangible traces of the past jut into the present, sometimes in unexpected ways – if we are willing to look for them. This is one of the key traits of psychogeography too, the subversion of urban rigidity through the exploration of older spatial arrangements and purposes, in order to reveal an unexpected and invigorating way of engaging with modern urban homogeneity.

Psychogeographers rarely apply such approaches to prehistoric traces, and although that has been my focus to date, I understand the reasons for this. More recent structures and activities can much more easily reveal themselves in, for instance, street layouts, the kink of a wall, the location of a road junction, street names or the shape of a garden fence. Thus, recently, I stepped back from prehistory to look at a very different kind of structure that persists in recent memory in a very familiar urban landscape, the retail park. I wanted to explore to what extent the old football stadium of Hamilton Academical FC, Douglas Park, demolished in 1995, still has a material presence amidst a supermarket, fast food drive thru, assorted retails spaces and a big car park. My exploration of this urban space included, perhaps surprisingly, prehistoric allusions, and finished in another car park, that of the New Douglas Part stadium, within the structure of which is a brick with my name on it.

Douglas Park: 1888 to 1995. Note the grey building in the foreground.
Douglas Park: 1888 to 1995

My walk started with a drive, to the supermarket car park where Douglas Park once stood (and for a map of this location, and my walk route, see the end of this post). There were ghosts in the car park as I left my car and walked through it. On the ground were white lines for parking spaces and junctions where once there were white lines defining penalty boxes and a halfway line. There are now bollards and signage where there were once goal posts. Shoppers drift past me pushing trolleys where once wingers drifted past defenders. I started my walk somewhere near the northern penalty box and away terrace had been, now in the shadow of the entrance of an orange and white supermarket, looking towards the South Lanarkshire Council high rise which dominates the horizon line.

Through the car park I walked, across where the pitch had once been, focused not on the shops there now but what was once here.

the car park

Then a familiar view – a grey low building, behind some trees and a fence. A familiar building, one that used to loom over the home terrace at old Douglas Park, a building I saw hundreds of times as I looked over towards the ramshackle shed stand on the east side of the stadium. It was also in full view during the short walk to the home turnstiles from Douglas Park Lane (now warped and bent into a new form, servicing the retail car park) – and upon entering the ground.

familiar view low res

Photo from programme low res
The same grey building viewed from the pitch in this photo from an Accies v Rangers game on 13th August 1988. The match shown is an Accies v Blackpool pre-season friendly, and Accies’ number 9 is Colin Harris.

Past this, nothing brought back memories other than Hamilton West railway station to my right. Otherwise, it was fast food and fuel, pavements and pedestrians. I left the car park and onto Clydesdale Street, where I walked past various 19th century sandstone buildings, now mostly commercial establishments like nurseries and dentists, with façades that afforded no view onto the location of old Douglas Park.

Douglas Street low res

I turned left onto Douglas Street, the only street name that echoes the football ground that was once here. Across to the right is the huge Caird Street council car park that my dad and I used to park in before games.

To the left is that grey blocky building, like a pair of huge lego bricks arranged perpendicular to one another. This is currently a Community Health Clinic, and I walked into the empty car part (it being the weekend) to see if any traces of the old football ground survived. An old wall to my left looked promising but was not quite right in terms of being part of the infrastructure of the ground, while straight ahead was a modern looking and austere wooden fence, greening through neglect.

the wall and the fence low res

Round the corner, another wall, this one running down the side of the grey clinic and back to Douglas Street. This wall looked more promising, and I suspect it might well have been on the southern edge of the ground, quite possibly near one of the entrances for away supporters. The wall has writing on it, big yellow capital letters, although only the bottom half of the bold yellow phrase survives as the upper courses of red brick are gone, replaced by a wire fence. I am fairly sure the writing on the wall says:


the wall low res

the writing on the wall low res

the wall from douglas street low res

Is this related to the football ground? Probably given its location. And towards Douglas Street, I spotted a small rectangular piece of wood affixed to the wall just below head height. Seven courses of brick directly above it, symmetrically placed, was some kind of nail or screw, and between the two a stain. Is this the remnants of a plinth to which a sign was once fixed to guide supporters? Given its location on Douglas Street, across from the car park, this seems likely.

the plinth low rees

Sadly, nothing else was discerned on my walk, despite me accessing the garden of a dentist surgery, and later peeking behind an industrial unit. A few old brick walls were evident, parallel to the wall with the writing, although it is likely these define 19th century garden and property boundaries.

And so, 20 years after it was demolished, next to nothing remains of this football stadium, at least in situ. Pieces of this place were dispersed around central Scotland, and perhaps even further. The components of the stadium infrastructure ended up in different places after demolition – the turnstiles went to Brockville Park in Falkirk (itself demolished in 2003) and the stand was taken apart, and re-assembled at the ground of Auchinleck Talbot in Ayrshire (where for all I know it still stands today). Some of the floodlights used to be stored in a bus depot in Stonehouse if I remember correctly. How thoroughly the stadium was dissembled beyond these acts is unknown. Fixtures and fittings were no doubt kept as souvenirs by staff and fans, and it may well be that some turf from the ground was dug up and transplanted elsewhere after the last reserve game was played there in early 1995. Fans may have genuine Douglas Park bricks, or the penalty spot, in their garden. It is likely that bits and pieces are also stored in the New Douglas Park, or on display in the director’s boardroom, portable memories.

Aside from such relics, the material remains of this place are now gone.

How quickly it has been forgotten.

How rapidly this changed from a place of entertainment (!) and leisure to one of commerce and junk food.

And yet, it could be argued – and indeed the local Council have stated – that the replacement of the crumbling not-fit-for-purpose old Douglas Park with a supermarket and retail facility (and the subsequent construction of a second supermarket immediately behind the first one as part of the development of Accies’ New Douglas Park in the early 2000s) have been a major element in the regeneration of this area of Hamilton – Whitehill. This is a council housing estate which over the years has had a poor reputation and serious problems with drugs, unemployment and gang culture. A strategy over the last decade of improvements in facilities, tidying things up and installing public art could be viewed as a simplistic pseudo-capitalist solution to the problems of this area, but the Council’s own statistics seem to suggest it is working (although to what extent I am unsure).

Public art outside one of the supermarkets
Public art outside one of the supermarkets

So from the ghostly car parks of old Douglas Park, I headed away from the double retail park (why are so many concrete places called ‘parks’?). Walking along Auchinraith Avenue I saw evidence of this regeneration – a new primary school and new secondary school, and then, a few hundred metres beyond this, at the junction with Margaret Road and Hunter Road, a new community centre. I had driven past this place a month or so previously and spotted standing stones at the road side, and so I wanted to go back and investigate. Sure enough, as I approached, ahead of me was a small grassy area (another park) at the rear of the Whitehill Neighbourhood Centre, adorned with various megaliths, the most obvious of which were four angled slate slabs supporting a gate and fence.

obsolete gates low res

This is quite a peculiar arrangement, as it is clear that the nice metal gate supported by two of the standing stones is completely obsolete as the fence is insufficiently long to fence anything in. Even if the gate were closed and locked, one would not have to walk far get around this obstacle. So far, so-slightly-pointless public art.

megalithic benches low res

Beyond this weird gate arrangement: a series of seriously megalithic benches, all concrete curves and cold edges, three shades of grey, arranged in several small circular arrangements, the geometrical pattern of which is only apparent from the air. I sat on one of the benches to send a tweet, but I was unable to find a comfortable way to perch upon them.

standing stones 1 low res

standing stones 2 low res

The bench did offer an excellent position from which to survey (as in look at, not carry out a full archaeological survey) a snaking row of standing stones, running down the slope from where I was sitting uneasily. There are twelve stones in all, with the smallest at the downhill end, graded towards the top of the monument. The only exception to this neat arrangement is a rather stubby knee-high stone at the higher end of the row. In plan, the stones are arranged in an S shape (the profile of a Bronze Age Beaker pot). The stones themselves were of a completely different character to the gate posts, made of what looked and felt like a reddish sandstone. (Note: sandstone is my default geological characterisation of any rock that isn’t obviously granite, marble or slate. That’s why when students ask me what stone a megalith is made from, I invariably answer immediately: “sandstone”.)

The stones are set into concrete, and stained with leopard-skin coloured lichen and in a few cases bird shit. Weeds grow painfully from the base of a few of the stones. One or two shows signs of having been written on. The tallest stone has a series of initials and letters written on it in blue paint, a columnar code, Hamilton hieroglyphs:




Scored out letter(s)




Illegible word

Rectangle at an angle

graffiti stone low res

Beside one of the gate post slabs is a lamp post, with these words written on it: hug me.

I didn’t.

hug  me

This stylised arrangement of concrete, slate, sandstone and iron gave me a rather cold feeling, my immediate response being that this was the kind of tokenistic standing stone space fillers that crop up all over the place these days. The cold concrete benches and the curving row of stones had a certain kinaesthetic property that suggested dynamism, but on a quiet and chilly Sunday afternoon, this was a silent place. Perhaps with the buzz of children playing amidst the stones (yes, children of the stones) this becomes a very different place.

Thought to self: standing stones need people. And people apparently need standing stones.

Turning over a new leaf
Turning over a new leaf

This new community facility and the new megaliths that accompany it are part of the aforementioned regeneration of Whitehill, and so it is fitting that an explicit piece of art here reflects this aspiration. On the other side of the concrete benches is a sculpture of two giant leaves. This is a piece called ‘Turning over a new leaf’, and was created by Rachan Design. It was designed with help from the ‘Whitehill youth group … to reflect regeneration within their community’ and is made of bronze and is 1.9m tall.

Making the leaves
Making the leaves

Turning my back on this rather jumbled series of metal and stone uprights, I looked back between the slate standing stones, back along Auchinraith Road to where I had come from earlier on. There in the distance was a clock tower, but not that of a church; rather of a Morrisons supermarket.

Time is money.

The new suburbia.

Towards the clock tower
Towards the clock tower

I couldn’t help reflect that the Council claims of improvements here might actually just be superficial and glossy, and perhaps not that inclusive. Rather than hang around in the new ‘high concept design space’ provided round the back of the community centre, a small group of local kids stood nearby at the true focal point of this part of Whitehill; a Day Today Express grocery store, Get Stuffed ice cream and takeaway, and Harper’s and Queens (hairdresser?). This block of shops seemed a million miles away from the shiny supermarkets which are actually less than a mile away.

The kids looked at me in a disinterested way. I’m used to it.

the shops and the stones low res

I do hope the standing stones have, or will, become a local focal point, a matter of pride, a conversation starter, that they serve some purpose. I hope they have not become obsolete just yet, or laughed at, or ignored.

Walking back towards the rear of the retail complex, I wandered round into yet another new car park, the largely empty one outside New Douglas Park. I reflected on the memories of the old stadium just a goal kick away from where I stood, and how improvements are certainly evident. The fortunes of the football club have improved since it moved location after some difficult years out of the town, and there is a sense that this is a community club, on the edge of Whitehill, contributing to the life of the town.

Running along the east side of the stadium, between a temporary stand (built solely, it seems, to house Celtic and Rangers fans) and the back of a supermarket, runs the recently created Hope Street. Here, we have more writing on the wall, but this is much more aspirational and forward looking than the defunct official notice I saw on the wall near where the old stadium had stood. This is part of the ongoing art project at NDP, the ‘Children’s Escape and Serenity Art Garden’. This fills a zone that skirts around the edges of the football pitch and includes a beach area and murals on the wall of the adjacent supermarket (this time acting as a giant canvas); it is run by the club’s Community Trust and the childrens’ charity Blameless and is a true community resource. One of the contributors to this garden is the Scottish artist Peter Howson – he opened it in 2012, and told The Herald at the time:

‘It’s an ongoing thing. It’s developing all the time. It’s a living energy and the people who all work here are incredible’.

Hope seems as good a place as any to end my walk.

Peter Howson at NDP - photo by Nick Ponty, initially published in The Herald
Peter Howson at NDP – photo by Nick Ponty, initially published in The Herald

Hope Street - and a floodlight
Hope Street – and a floodlight

And so my walk finished with an unsatisfactory coffee in, where else, a supermarket. In a sense I was disappointed, as I found little material evidence of old Douglas Park. Somehow, in two decades, it had been almost wiped out. And look online – there is almost nothing there either, a few poor quality photos only. Virtually and literally there is nothing left, only memories and photos in private scrap books and forgotten envelopes in drawers.

And yet I detected something – an essence perhaps – channelled through my own memories. Because I spent literally hundreds of hours standing in the place that is now a car park, on the terraces, leaning on a metal barrier, spending time with my dad. When I walked to the ground with the grey concrete council building in front of me, I was walking along my own version of ‘Hope Street’ even it is was really just good old Douglas Park Lane. Places really can persist through emotion, memory, attachment – and no amount of urban cleansing can change this. Perhaps this sense will only persist as long as there are Hamilton Accies supporters (of a certain age) who visit this place, always aware of what was there before, what has been lost.

I’m not misty eyed and daft. Nothing endures forever. Change happens. In urban spaces and places this is especially true, and things have moved on now.

But memories abide.

I cannot visit this car park, this supermarket, this place, without it still being that place.

Old Douglas Park.

My route. Note the approx. location of old Douglas Park denoted by a faint black rectangle
My route. Note the approx. location of old Douglas Park denoted by a faint black rectangle

Sources and acknowledgements: the colour photo of ODP from the south was printed in an article in The Scotsman in 2012, while the black and white football action shot came from an Accies programme (more information in the caption). Information on Whitehill and recent improvements can be found in various places e.g. this good practice case-study from the Scottish Government website about urban green space development. A little more on the Turning over a new leaf artwork can be found at the Rachan website (link in post) (and this was the source of the photo showing the sculpture being made).

The 14th arrondissemont menhir

Do some urban places attract prehistory? Can urban prehistory be utilised by contemporary society to help us remember the past? And is a standing stone a fitting civic gift to a great European city? All of these questions came to mind during a recent visit I made with Jan to a granite menhir located next to a basketball court and a block of flats in the 14th arrondissement on the south side of Paris.

menhir general view low res

The menhir was erected outside a block of flats at 133 Rue Vercingetorix, south of Montparnasse, 30 years ago. It was a gift from Brittany, the region of France most strongly associated with Neolithic standing stones, from tall and beautiful menhir, to the thousands of megaliths that characterise the multiple stone rows at Carnac. This is not a prehistoric menhir, plucked from the Morbihan and transported to Paris, but rather a modern quarried equivalent of a megalith, a shiny new megalith (more or less), a gift from one area of France to another. At the base of the stone is a plaque which carries the (now almost impossible to read) inscription:

‘Ce menhir offert à la ville de Paris à l’initiative de la Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie du Morbihan et réalisé par sept granitiers bretons. Il a été inauguré en 1983 par le président du Sénat de l’époque, Alain Poher.’

inscription low res

Which roughly translates to:

‘This menhir was presented to the city of Paris by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Morbihan. The work of seven Breton granite workers, it was unveiled by Monsieur Alain Poher, President of the Senate in 1983.’

There are several variants of the inscription text to be found online, with some suggesting the monolith was erected on the 13th or 18th September 1983.

What is a menhir? This is a Breton word for standing stone, and thousands of these have been recorded in Brittany, sometimes in single or multiple rows, but in other cases as majestic and free-standing monoliths. Most of them date to the early Neolithic period, older than 4000BC, although later in the Neolithic some were toppled, broken up and re-used as the roofs of passage graves and megalithic tombs. Not all met this fate, however, and some of the tallest standing stones in the world still stand in western France. The largest menhir of all, however – Grand Menhir Brisé – lies broken into three huge pieces, apparently toppled by a medieval earthquake (or less likely, a lightning strike). This megalith represents a true marvel of European prehistory, 20m in length and weighing perhaps 300 or more tonnes, dragged 10km across the landscape from its quarry site and erected in a project of crazy ambition. Most menhir are not on this scale, but still represent some of the finest examples of public monumentality from the Neolithic.

A Brittany menhir near Carnac. Children for scale.

I have visited menhir before in France, mostly in Brittany, such as the example pictured above, although I have never travelled to see one via underground train before. We got the Metro line 13 to the Plaisance stop, and walked in the dreary drizzle for about 5 minutes, quickly finding the megalith. It is situated in a small grassy area, just outside the front door of 133 Rue Vercingetorix, adjacent to a basketball pitch surrounded by a green fence. Made of pink-grey granite and some 2m high, the stone has a crisp and clean appearance (more like a kitchen work-surface than megalith) although there is a skin of green lichen towards the tapered top of the monolith.

back of menhir low res

A raised area at the base of the west side of the standing stone hints at the quarrying process by which this stone was sourced, giving the monolith an approximation of the classic hog-back shape common to many prehistoric menhir such as those that form the Carnac rows. Rather like Stonehenge, this mégalithe sits within a tarmac triangle (of pathways rather than roads).

wide view of menhir low res

Verticality surrounds the standing stone – lamp-posts, bins, fences, trees and tower blocks, including the Tour Montparnasse disappearing into the clouds to the north. Local people wandered past carrying carrier bags, looking disinterested in the menhir with which they must be so familiar. Cars sped past on the wet road offering a drab soundscape. But is the road actually the reason why the stone was erected here? This is a place with recurring prehistoric associations.

asterix extract

The address itself recalls the Iron Age: Rue Vercingetorix. This street is named after a famous Gaulish tribal leader who fought against the Romans in the 1st century BC, eventually being executed in Rome in 46BC according to Roman historians such as Plutarch. His daring exploits caused the Romans to construct a ‘doughnut-shaped’ fortification (which sounds like an improvement on their usual boring rectangles) during the Battle of Alesia in 52BC. Appropriated as a symbol of French nationalism, the chief has appeared in Asterix books and more recently in a French movie (Vercingetorix, but called Druids in English), played by a comical looking Christopher Lambert.

lambert in druids

Round the corner from the menhir, on the Rue D’Alesia (named after the aforementioned battle I assume) is a remarkable and huge mural of Palaeolithic cave-painting-type images on the gable end of a building, which overlooks a small park called Square Alesia-Ridder. The mural consists of very large kinetic images of animals like elephants / mammoths, deer, horses and birds. Hunting and running humans are interspersed across the mural, and other less obvious symbols are apparent: shapes made of hands and arms, criss-crossing lines, a weird teddy bear type figure, all drenched in terracotta and ochre reds and oranges. The work is signed ‘Bryan Becheri 1992’ just beside the image of a kebab outside an adjacent ‘Grec’ carryout establishment. I have been unable to find out anything more about the artist or this dramatic painting, but it offers unmistakable illusions to an even more ancient and distant past than the menhir.

cave painting low res

This is a special place, then, but before leaving this corner of Paris that represents in different ways other French places and times, I want to consider an intriguing French explanation for menhir. This explanation was postulated by the French physician and biologist, Jean Trousier, in a short article published in volume 12 of the British Journal of Medical Psychology in 1932.

trousier 1932 titleTrousier believed that standing stones were primal symbols, representative of the ‘phallus of the chief, and thence, taking the part for the whole, of the chief himself’, demonstrating that the first farmers were conversant with synecdoche. The theory developed further, however, to cover other types of megaliths, such as dolmen (passage grave tombs) and trilithons. And so the trilithons at Stonehenge were a ‘rough and simple image of the female organs’; this imagery was perfected with the deep, hollow dolmen, indicating ‘precisely the female vagina’. This argument is quite typical for its time (an idea we now rightly view as very simplistic and crude), with heavy overtones of unconscious sexual symbolism, where the erection of a standing stone could become entangled in ideas of blood sacrifice and father-figures. The article finished with a flourish, bringing us back to Paris, because Trousier argued that one could see the menhir/penis/male: dolmen/vagina/female symbolism in the modern triumphal architecture of the city with its ultimate expression the Arc de Triomphe, ‘this colossal dolmen’.

Paris_Arc_de_Triomphe postcard

This intriguing article does not do justice to the complexity of megaliths either in prehistory or urban contexts. But there is an interesting thread in what he said. The argument that runs through Trousier’s paper is that erecting standing stones, and other related (but opposed) structures is an inherently human things to do. When a statement of power must be made, when victory must be celebrated, when an extravagant gift is given or sacrifice made, then men in power fall back on primitive, primeval symbols to mark the event. At 133 Rue Vercingetorix many of these ideas came together with the erection of a standing stone gifted from businessmen, made by artisans, to a great city, on the side of a street named after a warrior chief.

My short fieldtrip to the southern side of Paris revealed an unexpected series of prehistoric connections in close proximity to one another, each echoing a different but significant aspect of the prehistory of France from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic to the Iron Age. Paris is a city steeped in its own history of course, yet her prehistory remains for the most part hidden. Yet even then, even with all of the urbanisation, conflict and improvement, hints of a more distant past can still be found, even if these are iconic symbols of France rather than direct survivors of what once stood in place we now call Paris.

Sources: I first found out about the Paris menhir in the book Secret Paris by Jacques Garance and Maud Ratton (Jonglez 2010); this book was the source of the translated inscription at the base of the standing stone. For an up-to-date and authoritative guide to the megaliths of Brittany, see Chris Scarre’s 2011 book Landscapes of Neolithic Brittany (OUP). The Arc de Triomphe postcard is available widely online. I was accompanied on my trip by Jan.

Dagon Day

‘I perceived beyond a doubt that the strange object was a well-shaped monolith whose massive bulk had known the workmanship and perhaps the worship of living and thinking creatures’.

The recent launch of the issue 3 of the Love Archaeology magazine prompted me to take a fieldtrip to Darvel in East Ayrshire. The magazine contains an article on HP Lovecraft and archaeology, and this made me think of one of the strangest urban megaliths in Scotland, the Dagon Stone. My main motivations were to explore the complicated modern biography of this standing stone, as well as think about its strange name, and so I developed a simple field project. In one morning, I would visit Darvel and the various sites associated with this much travelled megalith, then read HP Lovecraft’s short story called Dagon, and finish the project off with a viewing of the film version of Dagon. For me, this was an exciting programme – of all of the urban megaliths I have encountered, this one seems to have suffered the most indignities: constantly moved, appendage added, drawn on with chalk, and allocated a silly name. This is urban prehistory worth exploring.

Dagon Stone low resBefore we look at the standing stone itself, it is worth asking who, or what, was Dagon? Typically regarded as a Near Eastern god with prehistoric origins, Dagon is sometimes depicted as a half-man, half-fish creature. The 20th century image of Dagon was, to an extent, defined by Lovecraft, with fishy men and fishy gods featuring heavily in his writings, notably the short story Dagon (of more below) and the longer story, The Shadow over Innsmouth (from 1931). Lovecraft utilised ‘the ancient Philistine legend of Dagon the Fish-god’ although this entity is also mentioned in various forms in the Old Testament in connection with more mundane things like agriculture and paganism.

Dagon in Mesopotamia

Bearing this in mind, I have always found it surprising that there are two references to Dagon in the National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS). One relates to a steam trawler called Dagon, which sank off the Aberdeenshire coast en route to the Faroe Islands on 8th September 1934 in heavy fog (NMRS number NK14SW 8001) with no lives lost. (In some records it is thought that this ship was actually called Dragon, a point of confusion I will return to later.) And the other is the bizarre standing stone of unknown provenance which today stands in the centre of the Ayrshire town of Darvel (NS53NE 12), known locally as the Dagon Stone.

This is quite a remarkable monolith, and indeed its appearance is so strange that I have passed it many times in the past by car and assumed it was some kind of statue or sculpture. The main body of the megalith is quite normal (for a megalith): it is a thin block of ‘olivine’, some 1.6m in height above the ground surface, narrowing towards the top. It has a rather blocky appearance. In its current location it has been set into a circular arrangement of setts or cobbles and a lot of concrete. But what sets this stone apart from others is the addition of a ‘large stone ball’ to the top of the megalith; the two are connected by a corroded iron rod which is embedded quite deeply into the top of the standing stone. It is possible that a succession of stone balls have been stuck on top of the stone as hints of other rods are visible. Apparently the addition of this stone ‘head’ was undertaken by a local blacksmith in 1821. I could not find any sign of the date stamp that Woodburn noted (in A history of Darvel) was present on the iron rod in 1967.

dagon stone

The maverick Scottish archaeologist Ludovic MacLellan Mann felt the stone had a series of cup-marks on them (prehistoric rock carvings). The above photo shows the Dagon Stone in one of its previous locations, taken for the Glasgow Herald newspaper by George Applebey in 1922. This shows chalk lines and circles added to the stone, presumably by Mann himself, who had a bit of a reputation as a chalksman. Yet these ‘markings’ have been rejected as natural for quite some time now, and I saw nothing convincing in terms of rock-art when I closely examined the stone. The identification of rock-art would have gone some way to explain the mysterious provenance of this standing stone. Was it initially erected in prehistory in this area and at some point had a stone head added to it? Or is the megalith simply a modern – fanciful – creation?

darvel sketch map

One of the most remarkable things about the Dagon Stone is that it has moved about a lot. Indeed, based on OS mapping records and a few local snippets of information, Woodburn noted the Dagon Stone has stood in at least four locations in the town since the 19th century. I visited each of these places while I was in Darvel and got a sense of the geography of the Dagon Stone in the town; this is mapped out above. The motivation for each stone upheaval is unknown, but the stone endured, and has been a fixture within Darvel for at least 200 years, albeit crossing the main road several times and appearing in two different parks. The Dagon Stone appears to have initially been recorded on the main street that runs east-west through the town, at the junction with Ranoldcoup Road (location 1) where it is shown on 19th century maps. I am not sure how likely it is that this was the original position for this stone if it was prehistoric in origin, but a connection with a main route way would not be unusual.

Dagon Stone location 1 road junction low res
Location 1

The main road was widened in 1894, and so the stone was moved to the ‘grounds of Brown’s Institute’. The Brown Institute was a one of a number of such Working Men’s Institutes established by Miss Martha Brown of Lanfine in Ayrshire villages in the 1870s; a sad looking building at 7 Mair’s Road (pictured below) is one building that survives from this Institute, while a still occupied adjacent building acted as a Reading Room. These were built in 1872/1873, and the standing stone must have been located somewhere in adjoining Morton Park at the back of these buildings (location 2) although the exact location is unknown.

Dagon Stone location 2 back of Browns Institute
Morton Park, location 2. The cluster of buildings beyond the park is the Brown’s Institute.

7 Mairs Road Browns Institute Darvel low res

Decades later the stone was on the move again. In 1938 it was taken to a small park at the junction between the main street and Burn Road (location 3) beside the building that is now the Darvel Telephone Museum. There is no indication now of where the Dagon Stone stood on this thin stretch of grass, although I assume it was near the main street and in full view of passers-by. (The Morton Park location was the only time we know of that the Dagon Stone was removed from the side of the main road.) The Burn Road ‘park’ is now dominated by a much more modern memorial, a ‘cairn’ dedicated to the Special Air Force Regiment (SAS) who were stationed in Darvel in 1944; this was erected in 2001.

Dagon Stone location 3 Burn Road low res
Location 3

And then finally, the stone was moved to its current prominent position in Hastings Square in 1961 or 1962, where it has remained for half a century, set into concrete. The stone sits amidst a series of other memorials, including an obelisk-like War Memorial, and at the opposite end of the square stands a pillar with a bust on top in honour of Sir Alexander Fleming, the penicillin guy as I like to call him, who was born in the town.  This offers a peculiar mirror image of the Dagon Stone. Both consist of an upright with a head stuck on top, and with a circular feature at the base (a flower-bed in the case of the Fleming statue). The main War Memorial sites equidistant between them. The creation of this little symmetrical monumental garden is, I would imagine, one of the reasons why the Dagon Stone was moved to here from across the other side of the road.

Dagon Stone wider setting low res
Location 4

And this is where, in a sense, my journey should probably have ended. I had spent some time wandering about Darvel in the rain, exploring the previous locations for the Dagon Stone, and then spent more time looking up close and touching the stone itself, which had little dribbles of rain running down its side. I even bought Hugh Maxwell’s book Old Darvel in a local bookshop, demonstrating that urban prehistory can contribute to the local economy. But I had set myself a task some time before Dagon Day, and so I decided to keep to schedule in order to seek inspiration from the creative arts. I drove to a car park with a fine view of nearby Loudon Hill, and proceeded to read aloud HP Lovecraft’s short story Dagon. Nothing much happened.

dagon book cover

Dagon was one of the first HP Lovecraft story to be published, in a magazine called The Vagrant, No. 11 (November 1919), 23–29. It does read like one of his weaker efforts, with a feeble storyline involving a sailor / narrator who had escaped ‘the ocean forces of the Hun’ and set off by boat alone into an unexplored area of the Pacific. The narrator runs his ship aground on a strange unmapped landform that he assumes has risen up from the ocean floor and notices all sorts of weird shit, including unusual geometrically arranged rocks (standard HPL landscape features), strange dead things and the mysterious standing stone described in the quote that opened this blog. Before fleeing, the sailor saw some kind of ‘loathsome’ creature with big hands, and then somehow he found his way back to dry land.

The narrative framing device for the story is that he is committing this tale to pen and paper before he kills himself. He has become a shambolic morphine addict haunted by the visions of the indescribable creature he saw in the ocean with its hands all over the standing stone. The story ends with the narrator still furiously writing that ‘some immense slipper body’ was at his door; thankfully the story does not end with him writing aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrghhhhhhhhhh but it comes pretty close. Did reading this story help with my understanding of the Dagon stone? In fact, aside from the title, Dagon is only mentioned once, prompted by the narrator’s attempts to research what he had seen on the rocky eminence. But what is interesting is that this story is a thinly veiled anti-war tale, set unusually for HPL in the ‘real world’: the sailor noted that if the underwater creatures were to rise to the surface they would only find ‘the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind’. The Dagon Stone sits in the centre of Darvel where I counted at least three memorials to those who fought and died in 20th century wars.

Dagon DVD cover

I headed back home and settled down to watch the film version of Dagon on DVD, which I had recently been loaned. Directed by Stuart Gordon, and released in 2001, this was an attempt by Gordon to re-capture the glorious excesses and Lovecraftian creepiness of his brilliant 1985 film Re-animator. Sadly, he was not successful. Strangest of all, this part-Spanish movie is actually really a film version of HPL’s masterpiece, The Shadow over Innsmouth; the only element that is retained from ‘Dagon the story’ is the arrival by boat, and even then it is four people in a yacht. (In Shadow Over… the protagonist arrives in Innsmouth by public bus, perhaps a first in horror fiction.) I won’t trouble you with the plot, which involves a lot of running about from the fish-man equivalent of zombies, all of whom are caught up in the cult of Dagon, which has provided the Spanish village of Imboca (nicely rendered in the film) huge amounts of fish and gold from the sea. This cult has dis-benefits however, in the form of some unpleasant fish mutations, cross-breeding and a regrettable need for human sacrifices to appease Dagon itself.


There is very little horror either, other than an unpleasant scene in a ‘butchers’ which I assume was a homage to the 1960 horror classic Eyes without a face, complete with very unpleasant sound effects. There are lots of rituals in the film (as well as a crazy scene involving a flimsy hotel door, a bolt-type lock and a penknife with a screwdriver), and quite a lot of Cthulhu chanting by people with tentacles (some of whom are thoughtfully pushed about in wheelchairs) but I couldn’t see any standing stones. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the ‘Making of’ extra on the DVD.

Dagon Stone head low res

Half man, half fish. An idol to be worshipped. I will now avoid the temptation to drift onto musings about the weird limestone fish-man-gods found within houses of the Danubian Mesolithic village of Lepinski Vir in Serbia. But what does interest me is how such a strange name came to be associated with a standing stone in Ayrshire. Can it really be that the stone is named after the fishman of Babylon? Certainly, the monolith has been implicated in rituals or ceremonies carried out locally; Ordnance Survey fieldworkers recorded in the 1960s that ‘there is a strong folklore tradition that before its [the Dagon Stone] 19th century history newly-wed couples had to walk around the stone for good luck’. This fertility rite (for this is surely what it was) offers some connection to ancient Dagon I suppose. And the addition of the stone head to the stone gives it a somewhat pseudo-anthropomorphic appearance. Scrutinizing photos in Old Darvel shows, in certain pictures, a recurring hazy black and white figure in the middle distance that looks like it might be the Dagon Stone – although I don’t think the Stone actually does appear in any of the photos I have seen. The stone has, like Dagon, something of the human about it.

Dagon Stone in Morton Park maybe

Yet perhaps we can find a more mundane explanation, which takes us back to the aforementioned shipwrecked Aberdeenshire Dagon (a Lovecraftian event if ever there was one!) which, in some records, was actually called Dragon. Could it be that the Dagon stone was actually the Dragon Stone? This sounds plausible, and during my visit to Darvel this connection became overwhelming, when I glanced over the road, where just 50m from the Dagon Stone was situated a Chinese carryout that suggested that the simple truth – Dagon was simply a mistaken spelling – had been hidden in plain view for anyone who cared to see…..

Dragon Chinese carryout low res

The Dagon Stone is a true enigma, its origins, meaning, place and even name a source of confusion, now fading even from folk memory. Limited attempts by archaeologists to make sense of this stone have come to naught, and it has, like so many urban megaliths, been made ‘modern’ through concrete and decontextualisation. At the same time, though, the comical addition of the stone head has transformed this stone into something very different from the other urban megaliths I have visited. The naming of this stone – whether Dagon or Dragon – has added a colourful chapter to the biography of a standing stone that people may have been ‘worshipping’ or processing around  for thousands of years, perhaps as recently as the 19th century. The ancient evil personified in Lovecraft’s fish-man-god Dagon has never rubbed off onto this stone, despite the name, but it reminds us that in the prehistoric past, megaliths would have had names, and personalities, and perhaps when no-one was looking, they moved, and then became petrified once again in another place. Dagon Day did not really help me make sense of this standing stone, but it has given me a better appreciation of how people interact with megaliths, even in the modern world.

Sources: The quote that opens this blog comes from HP Lovecraft’s story Dagon.  Some information about the Dagon Stone came from MacLeod’s 1950 Book of Old Darvel (which in itself sounds Lovecraftian)  while details on the movement of the stone are drawn from John Woodburn’s A history of Darvel (1967), with additional information from the NMRS. I also made extensive use of Maxwell’s Old Darvel photo book and this was the source of the old Morton Park picture. The Dagon image at the start of the blog is available widely online; the black and white Dagon photo is from the Herald, 1922. For more on Mann and the Cochno Stone, see Ritchie, JNG 2002 Lucovic McLellan Mann (1869-1955): ‘the eminent archaeologist’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 132, 43-64 (google and you shall find). There is a massive amount of information on HP Lovecraft online; I usually dip into the Lovecraft Archive for factual information. You can watch all of Dagon the movie on youtube and read all of the short story Dagon in various places online. The Dagon book cover reproduced above is widely available online, and is from a classic series of Panther HPL book covers, the illustrated example from 1973. Images of the DVD cover and stills from Dagon the movie are surprisingly commonly available online. And finally, thanks to Bam for loaning me the Dagon DVD – but please, please take it back.

Dunfermline’s invisible dead

I went on a fieldtrip on Saturday with Sam to Fife. Ostensibly the journey was to visit the location of a Bronze Age cemetery that had been found by chance during house construction work in the 1970s in Dunfermline, but this expanded to a visit to a second location, a standing stone situated just a few hundred metres to the west. These two locations – the standing stone and the cemetery – were treated very differently during the post-war urban expansion of Dunfermline. One was excavated thoroughly, and then forgotten. The other was monkeyed about with, left on display and had a pathway named in its honour. Yet it was the invisible prehistory that had more impact on me on my visit to Pitcorthie.

standing stone walk sign low res

In the 1950s the site of the standing stone and cemetery was still ‘all fields’ as they say with farms Easter and Wester Pitcorthie eventually giving their name to the suburb that would emerge here. The standing stone appears on some old OS mapping, such as the six inch 1st edition Fifeshire sheet 35 (published in 1856) marked simply as ‘stone’. The cemetery was unknown until its accidental discovery during Scottish Special Housing Association (SSHA) works in 1972. A lot of the post-war housing in southern Dunfermline was constructed by the SSHA. This was a government-founded agency that was established in 1937 and was involved in the construction and maintenance of ‘social housing’. One of the most notable projects the organisation was involved in was Glasgow Eastern Areas Renewal (GEAR) in the 1970s. This pseudo-quango was wound up in 1989 at the time my father worked for them, and they became Scottish Homes.

standing stone and grafitti low res

Urban development inevitably impacted on the prehistoric archaeology of this area (sadly no longer called Fifeshire). The terrace of land to the north of the Forth has a sequence of Bronze Age monuments scattered along it, including a series of isolated standing stones and the famous Lundin Links stone setting (NMRS number NO40SW 1) with its weird monoliths. The latter monument sits within a golf course, one of several prehistoric monuments that have become obstacles (and targets?) for golfers in Scotland. And located on what was once outside Dunfermline was a single, lumpy standing stone, known as Easter Pitcorthie (NT18NW 4). When visited by RCAHMS in 1925, the stone still sat in a field and was described as being just under 2m tall and made of sandstone; stones clustered around the base, although their relationship to the standing stone was unknown. The stone still looked rather like this in 1959, but at some time in the 1960s, as urbanisation spread to this location, the stone was transformed by the construction of an irregular square of cobbles, or setts, around its base. The ‘landscaping’ of this stone was, I assume, not accompanied by an invasive excavation as no record of such an act exists. The stone became the centrepiece of a small square sloping piece of grassland, with houses on all sides, and assorted trees in the vicinity. The pathway that ran past the megalith was called Standing Stone Walk. It appears that this was to be ‘a feature of interest to the local population’ (Close-Brooks et al 1972).

sam and standing stone low res

The stone today is surrounded by concrete, literally and metaphorically. It sits forlornly adjacent to some back gardens, covered in slimy green moss and even the red graffiti daubed on its western side has faded to unintelligibility. Broken glass and weeds had replaced the stones that once sat at the base of the stone, while the paved setting looks like it is now a few bricks short of a patio. A child ran past and told us he was able to climb on top of the stone, but we did not ask him to demonstrate. Urban prehistory can take on many forms, but most commonly it is banal, and even the most powerful and obvious juxtapostions (or indeed contrived juxtapositions) cannot revive the pastness of these places.

standing stone and friends low res

Just 350m to the west, house-building continued, and an altogether more troubling and problematic (and expensive) prehistoric site was located in 31st March 1972. A machine driven by Mr M Miller dislodged the capstone of a cist; the driver jumped down and started to clear out the contents of the cist with a shovel, stopping only when he found a human skull. By the 1st of April, five burials had been found and fully excavated, while a sixth was located and investigated ten days after that. Little time was lost on the build, with the cemetery location just beyond the back gardens of several houses on what was to become Mathieson Place. (This site is commonly known as Aberdour Road, NMRS number NT18NW 13).

plan of the cremation cemetery

Three cist burials were found in all, plus two cremations and one cremated burial associated with a Food Vessel pot sat within a stone setting. The survival of materials within these burials was varied, but suggests some interesting and unusual burials. A young female lay crouched in one cist, the leg bones of three different young pig bones laid around her knees (burial 1), while the crouched burial of an adolescent was accompanied by a lump of iron ore, possibly a component of a fire-making kit (burial 3). One cremation (burial 5) consisted of the remains of two people, buried together, with a single bone pin, which may once have held together a bag that contained the bone and ash. In one cist (burial 2), all that survived of the body was chemical traces, indicated by sampling for phosphorus.

the remains of the person in cist 2

All of this was recovered despite the ‘large-scale destruction by earth-moving machinery’ recorded by the excavator: in finding these sites, cist slabs were smashed, and some pottery was broken by the bulldozer.

location of grave 6 low res
The location of burial 6 which we marked with a wooden fence post fragment

The location of this cemetery today is easily accessible via a pathway at the eastern end of Mathieson Place. Sitting on a ridge, overlooking a park and surrounded by houses, the cemetery is now a piece of grassland and is not marked in any way. A few hollows in the grass hint at locations where burials were located. Debris from activities being undertaken in the park were noted: a glass Irn Bru bottle lying in the vicinity of burial 5, beer cans and bottles in an scrubby area just to the SE.  Yet there is no sense that this was once an ancient burial ground, a sacred place in the Bronze Age where at least seven people were laid to rest. The remains have now been removed, but plans by SSHA to mark the spot by returning the cist slabs obviously came to nothing. The location of cremation burial 6 lies just 5m from someone’s back garden, yet who actually knows about any of this?

burial site viewed from the SE low res

It is profoundly sad, I think, that the burial of this small group of people is not marked in any way; it is a shame that the SSHA aspiration in the early 1970s came to nothing. It was easy to leave the standing stone where it stood nearby and incorporate it into the fabric of modern Dunfermline using building materials that were to hand, whereas when skulls start to pop out of the ground, something has to be done to facilitate development. This is the fate of many accidentally found prehistoric cemeteries, unmarked and forgotten except in exceptional circumstances. An appendix in the Aberdour Road report briefly records a third prehistoric engagement during the urbanisation of Dunfermline, in the nearby village of Crossford. Workmen on the construction of a new road uncovered on 13th November 1973 what they thought was a drain, but was in fact a Bronze Age short cist burial (NT08NE 36). A Mr A Hall recovered a Food Vessel pot from the drain-grave but within a week this burial had been buried once again, this time under the foundations of the new road. The location of this burial is on the junction of Morar Road and Affric Way if you care to visit.

standing stoneD walk croppped and low res
Standing StoneD Walk: the sign subverted

Do we need to show our respect to the ancient dead? Have we done this by carefully removing the dead and their grave goods in controlled excavations rather than simply bulldozing them away? Are our excavation reports, our records and our dots on maps suitable epitaphs? Have we memorialised these people archaeologically? Do these places cease to be meaningful once the physical remnants of mortuary rites have been removed? I am not sure what the answers to any of these questions are, but I am uneasy about us concluding excavation projects and forgetting these places. In Dunfermline, I encountered two forgotten prehistoric monuments: one hidden from view, the other hidden for everyone to see. But who cares?

Sources: Many thanks to Sam who accompanied me on the fieldtrip to Dunfermline and took some of the photos used here, and to Donald for inviting us to the town in the first place. Most of the information on the history of the Easter Pitcorthie standing stone was derived from the National Monuments Record of Scotland. The excavation report for the Aderdour Road cemetery, and the Crossford Food Vessel burial, is: Close-Brooks, J, Norgate, M & Ritchie, JNG 1972 A Bronze Age cemetery at Aderdour Road, Dunfermline, Fife. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 104, 121-36. This journal, PSAS, can be accessed free online via the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland website. The plan of the cemetery was derived from various illustrations in this report, as was the phosphorus data.