The day the stags roared

It was a day when the stags roared.

We walked along routes used in ages past. Along tarmacked roads, past machair and grey-blue sea. Then inland. Green grazed fields, golden moor and heather, sheep, geese and buzzard, onto earth and grass track.

We stopped to look at abandoned, ruined blackhouses, sitting squat either side of the track. Overgrown and roofless, the first we passed had been roofed within living (my) memory. It sparked remembrance of my father’s photographs of the last inhabitant of that cottage. An elderly lady, my father had known and visited. He had taken photos of the newspaper lined walls of that house, and a nesting bird sharing the shelter of the cottage. By the time I had known the house, it was empty. Though the last inhabitant was long gone, the dilapidated thatch of the roof remained in my earliest memory.  Now that thatch was gone too and the house stood stark, abandoned and old.

We stood for a while in remembrance of that place, discussing memories that were not our own. This was a place changed in a little more than a lifetime. Altered in a relatively short space of time. Yet few will remember it as an occupied, peopled place. Most who pass by will consider it ancient and people-less. But human hands are visible everywhere still, not just in those abandoned houses, or in re-remembered memories. But in vegetation and moor, in the shape of the landscape, the track that we followed. This place is full of people still.

And the stags began to roar, their sound embracing that human-made place.

We turned and followed the track through moorland scattered with stone ruins, following in the footsteps of those who had walked this path before us, those who had gone before. The track led us into a scrubby, coppiced woodland, where modified trees held physical memory of past human actions. And out onto golden-brown moor.

The air filled again with the sound of the stags. They roared their presence, their place, and their status. Primordial and earthy, their bellows echoed across the landscape. Echoing across and through heather-clad hillside, scrubby coppiced trees, tumbled stone ruins, modern houses, us. We watched as distant shapes moved, stood and roared. Following ancestral footsteps, obeying biological rhythm, bold from lack of predators. Yes, altered too through human influence.

We carried on walking, following the track until we reached modern croft houses with their surrounding green, sheep grazed, fields. Passing one house, we descended slightly to another green field in which a tall stone stood. The grey and brown of the stone echoed the muted colours of the autumn landscape, as the roar of the stags echoed around.

Breaking off from my companions, I approached this ancient standing stone to pay greeting to it. Tall and rooted, rooted as firmly as the nearby houses, it leaned slightly to one side.

I laid my hand on it in greeting.

I had no borrowed memories with which the assail it. Just one of my own, of the time I visited with my father more than 20 years ago. I was following in footsteps of my own. I had been working on my undergraduate dissertation. This stone was one of my subjects. I had considered it fascinating yet inert. Something to be explained.

Now I saw life, human action, and change. Not change in the sense that the nature of the stone itself had altered. It was much as I remembered. But change of seasons, of vitality and meaning and of myself. I saw vitality in the plant and animal life entwined on the surface of this human erected stone and in its active presence in this place. Part of this place for millennia, it is rooted in the past but alive, attentive and active in the present. It is here. Now. Part of people’s lives and landscapes. Today. As it was yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that.

I saw, too, echoes of past beliefs, of changing values and human expression. Echoes of past peoples. Not just those who put up this stone so long ago, those who understood its first purpose and meaning, but those too who have passed by, interacted with it, lived with it over generations. Those whose actions mean that it still stands.

To many this stone will seem old, abandoned and alone. It is anything but. It is a part of a peopled landscape.

Over the millennia, that stone will have witnessed the multitude of those who walked this track before us, those who have left their mark on this landscape and on the more-than-human lives. Those whose memories have been lost but whose actions, presence and very lives still haunt this place. Those, like the last occupant of the blackhouse, whose memories are second hand now, but whose lives still echo in place and landscape, shape and ruin.

I turned to walk away and return to the track. The roar of the stags was fainter, more distant. But still audible. Still declaring their present life. Their place within this landscape, alongside the silent stone. Human and animal intertwined in a living, alive landscape, full of memory, full of presence and full of future.

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The walk described here is the Pottie loop, a circular route on the Isle of Mull that takes in Fionnophort, Fidden, Pottie and Loch Poit na h-I. The blackhouse mentioned is recorded here, along with a wonderful image taken in 1975 and the Canmore record for the Poit na h-I standing stone can be viewed here. We walked the loop in mid-October when the roar of stags in rut can be heard across Mull.

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The stone

“You’ll probably be disappointed when you see it”, said Meg. I assured her that was not going to be the case; I was very much looking forward to our outing and the object of this walk.

We were a small group comprising myself and my brother, my sister-in-law and 11-year-old niece, and my sister-in-law’s parents. An intergenerational group. I was the only one of the group who had never been to our destination before, so I was being taken by five guides.

We walked from the house. It was late morning on a warm summers’ day when we stepped out onto the tarmacked pavement, carrying rucksacks or bags containing food and drink for a picnic. We walked north. After passing a neat row of houses we were out of the town, following the road up a gentle hill.

After a short distance, another road branched off to our left and there was a bench at the junction. We stopped briefly there. Turning to look at the view, we found we had gained a little height and  we were presented with a view of summer green fields, the roofs of the town of Millport, a church spire, the blue sea and the cloud-capped hills of Arran beyond. Calm and serene.

View over Millport

We turned to carry on, climbing gently up the hill. We kept to the narrow pavement until we reached a sharp bend in the road. There we crossed the road carefully and stepped into the wood. The light dimmed under the green canopy of the trees and a narrow path wound lazily into the wood. My guides led me on.

We walked in single file. Straight limbed trees stretched above, and sunlight filtered through the canopy in patches around us. The air was cool, and a little damp. The path wound on. After a short distance it split in two. My brother was at the head of the line and, after a brief moment of uncertainty, chose the left branch of the path. We walked on.

We all knew we must be close now and senses were heightened as we scanned the wood ahead, trying to spot it in among the trees.

Then. There! There is was! Someone caught sight of it and pointed. We all paused and looked. It almost blended into the woodland around, so it took me a few moments to see it. Dwarfed by the tall trunks of the trees, yet stately and distinct. It stood, gently cocooned by the surrounding trees. The standing stone.

Cumbrae standing stone

The path led directly to it, so I approached and placed my hand upon the cool stone. It rose above my head, reaching to somewhere just over 2 metres in height. A tall pillar of stone, tapered slightly into the ground. One side had been smoothed and carved deeply with a plethora of neat initials. Evidence of past visitors to this stone. Victorian tourists who had chosen to add their mark to the prehistoric monolith. The other side was fissured and lichen covered, the sunlight picking out the different colours and textures of the growing lichen on the stone substrate.

There was a particular beauty to it as it stood alone. Distinct and isolated from the surrounding trees. Yet closely guarded and protected by that same woodland.

Cumbrae standing stone_carved initials

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We picnicked in the shadow of the stone. Laying down our bags we sat on the forest floor or on fallen tree trunks, ate and chattered together. In the company of a prehistoric standing stone. How many others had done likewise over the centuries and the millennia? Did some of those whose initials now grace the stone, those who took the time to break through the surface, to carve into the grey rock, sit and eat and socialise in its presence as we did that day? What about those who erected this stone and those who remembered its meaning so long ago. Did they come, gather and eat next to it? Did they enjoy time in its presence, pause, allow time to stand still, before moving on again, before continuing life? Like our intergenerational group. I hope they did.

For our group that day, this was a brief pause in the midst of a pandemic. For me, it was part of a short holiday in the company of a new social arrangement. Our party was formed of two household groups and I an extended member of one. Two households trying carefully to keep a standing stone’s length away from one another, spending time together yet still apart.

In its isolation, I think that stone understood something of our predicament. If it did, I hope it was grateful for our brief company. For, while in time, our two households will be able to come close again, the standing stone has stood and continues to stand alone and distinct, and will remain so. If it once had other stones for company, those are now long gone and its original meanings, the purpose behind its erection, is long forgotten.

New meanings were carved into its surface a century or more ago, more meanings have been and will be attached less tangibly. Through time and change, this stone has been removed from its past company and signification. And it will never return.

Though ostensibly unaltered in physical form, this standing stone has changed, morphed, moved on through time. It has been pushed down and re-erected. At some point its feet have been encased in concrete. At times it undoubtedly has been forgotten, and re-remembered. Generations of lichen have grown across its surface. Animals have walked across it and lived in its shadow, lived on it. Humans have laid hands upon it. Slivers of stone have weathered and flaked off from its surface, bits have been carved out through human hands.

It is not the same stone that was erected perhaps around three millennia ago. It has changed, developed, matured. Oh, at its core it is the same stone, the same material. But much has happened to it, much has grown and changed. Elements of it have been lost. The trees around it are babies by comparison. We are mere blinks in its lifetime. It is ancient and yet still young. It is forever and yet still fleeting. It has meaning, though never the same. It is changed as it grows older.

Picnic at standing stone_Cumbrae

Our picnic finished, we tidied up and turned away from the stone, preparing to make our way back along the path and out of the wood.

As we gathered ourselves and our things together, my mind turned to the pandemic that kept our two households apart, of all that has occurred over the last few months and the events that meant I was here, in this group, at this moment. Much like the standing stone, in many ways our little group seemed unchanged by the pandemic and the events of the last 6 months or so. Yet like that stone, we are altered. Like that stone, our society is shifting. And, in as yet undefinable ways for some, we are all changed, matured and altered by circumstances and the passage of a strange time. Undoubtedly much has been lost, and undoubtedly not all that change has been for the good. But we are all changed, nonetheless. And still we, and the stone, stand. And wait.

As we slowly began walking away, I glanced behind to see the stone still in its place, still alone. Surrounded by its protective brace of trees. Bravely facing the future and all that will bring to its isolation, to its meaning, to its place within those trees.

Yet I see beauty in that old stone. Beauty in its lichen-covered, carved surfaces. Beauty too in its endurance and in the way it still draws people to it, even after millennia in that place. Beauty in the way that it can bring people together, even while apart, beauty in the way it has merged into its surroundings, hunkered into the ground, naturalised in changed circumstances.

Maybe we can learn from that stone and, among the difficulties and concerns, find some beauty within this time of isolation. Maybe we can find ways to draw people together, even while physically apart, to protect and care for those who are affected by change, those who feel reduced and altered in some way. Maybe, like that stone, we can find ways to adapt and, in time, ways to rebuild with gentleness, respect and care. Maybe.


The standing stone we visited is on the island of Great Cumbrae, just outside the town of Millport. It stands in Craigengour wood and and has clearly drawn the attention of visitors in the past as one side is covered in initials, probably carved by Victorian or Edwardian visitors to the island. A little bit more information can be found here.

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City, paused

What to write in the middle of a pandemic?

I walked to my local park today. The sun was shining. It was warm and the sky was blue, though there was a slight chill in the wind. The cherry trees were in blossom, the ground beneath scattered with white petals like confetti. I could hear birds singing in newly budding trees.

And the city was quiet.

I stopped to listen. And to marvel, at the sound of a city paused. A surprising stillness, broken only briefly by occasional traffic, distant sirens and singing birds. This was something that wasn’t supposed to happen, something that wasn’t supposed to be possible. The seemingly impossible has become real.

Around me individuals, couples, family groups, dog walkers made their way around the park. All intent on their daily exercise, all observing a social distance. Well-spaced perambulations around park perimeters, guided by invisible rules and fear. All fulfilling the order of daily exercise, intent on staying apart. How interesting that our daily lives can be disrupted so, that daily walks take on the nature of procession and ritual. A once-a-day observance, an ordered following, moving along paths laid out so long ago, occupying space that was never meant for us.

For so many of our city parks were once private playgrounds. Now spaces of freedom and ordered release for many in the midst of a lockdown. In normal times, they are localities of sociality, play and green space for all. Or nearly all at least. It is unlikely that their former owners would have imagined such a change; the seemingly impossible has become a reality. For change comes in the least expected ways. Society alters and shifts, and things barely imagined before become solid. It has always been so. It will be again. Change. And illness. Have always been a part of us, of human society. Of life. We in the present are no different from those of the past, though we often think we are. Perhaps we would learn more if we turned attention to what has come before and applied lessons to the present. Perhaps.

But for now I am grateful for the green space of urban parks among the concrete and tarmac of the city. Grateful for that past turning of private to public, for the past forces that ordered our city so. Small green oases within walking distance of most. In our shrunken world they provide release and space. A gift from the past, for us in the present. A reason to be thankful. Impossible spaces in an impossible world.

I am grateful too for our ability to add procession, ritual and observance to a daily, usually unconsidered occupation.

So I joined that dispersed promenade. Admitted to the processional observance, I walked, following the grey tarmacked path around the city park, pacing my way amongst the arrangement of people, observing the ritual and the rules, listening to the quiet of an afternoon in the city.

As I walked I noted the small kindnesses that exist amongst the ritual. A smile, a nod as one stranger stepped out of the way of the other, retreating the requisite distance, providing safety for both. Small exchanges with neighbours as each stood apart, enquiring how the other is coping, tiny offers of help, small social connections, however necessarily distant. Kindness and community surfacing, even in the most difficult of times. Another way in which we do not differ from those who came before us.

I noted too the newly budding trees, the freshly heard cacophony of bird song and the riotously blossoming trees, all speaking of new life and of hope. Even in the midst of a pandemic.

White cherry blossom

Cherry blossom close up

Bluetit

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Winter sun

Winter sun

It is the end of the year. The sun is low in the sky, glimpsed through the bare branches of the trees as I move through the wood. On this short day, the sun has not risen far above the horizon and it will soon sink once again. The year is turning.

I walk with family through the woodland of a city park, through a curated wilderness within the noise and order of the city. We walk along neat paths. The trees stand within a carpet of brown leaves, broken here and there by small green shrubs. A dirt path winds a grey corridor though the wood. We follow through long shadows cast in the low sunlight.

There is beauty in this place.

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This place of once exclusive enjoyment, welcomes all today. A city park once private garden now allows all to enter. This created place is a tamed wild wilderness in the concrete and tarmac of the city. It is a wildlife oasis.

But in this place where once wolves would have walked, we have to look closely for that wildlife. We have to pay attention. Where massed birds must have alighted, deer herds roamed, beavers swum alongside human settlement, long before these trees were planted, we have to look. Few of us think of what has been lost, what those who lived here so long ago experienced and took for granted. What was once here and is now no longer.

This place is one with a past, a present and a future. It is somewhere that has altered more than we can begin to imagine over centuries and millennia. Once a monument to exclusiveness it now allows all to enter. But long before 19th century sugar barons created this tame wilderness, it was a place of true wildness where human beings lived, hunted, farmed alongside a richness of wildlife and nature that we can only imagine.

How many feet have walked this land before us?

This, then, is a landscape that invites us to enquire, to consider, to listen and to learn. Though few question. Few ask. Few of us learn the lessons the land can tell us. Few hear the whispers of this place, the whispers of the past.

Dusk is falling so we turn for home. Soon the sun will set. Darkness will fall before the sun rises on the new year. In this time of reflection, of resolution and newness, will we listen?

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The rocky shore

A rocky shore, under

Blue skies of a summer’s day.

Bird song and seal sneezes,

A sweet scent in the air.

Rocky shore and boat, Mull

It is a warm summer’s day and I am standing on a familiar rocky shore. The air is quiet, filled only with the sound of birdsong, the soft buzz of insects and the murmur of the sea. Two Oyster Catchers rise in fright – at me, or something else – and pipe their alarm call. They soon settle and all is calm. I can hear the gentle swish and pop of the water on the rocks below. Then. A sound like a cough or sneeze almost human-like and, I think, nearby. I look around and see no-one. But, out beyond a small rocky island, I spot a dark head bobbing in the water. Another appears nearby. One of the dark heads sneezes and disappears. Seals.

I can understand why seals have attracted stories of selkies, creatures that can change from seal to human by shedding their skin. They are watchful and curious and mysterious. Dark eyes full of intelligence. Their sounds and form are almost, but not quite, human. I have only heard seals singing once, but it was ethereal, otherworldly. No wonder that rich stories have grown out of their presence.

Today this shore is the domain of those seals and the birds, and I an intruder. I am the one out of place. Not the seal selkie, which watches me. But I do not have to look hard to see that this has not always been the case, and that this ‘natural’ shoreline is far from natural, if one takes that as meaning untouched by humans. For there are remnants of human interventions all along this shore, speaking of activity, industry and action. Boulders have been cleared to make safe harbour for boats, slipways and small piers have been constructed and there is a building right on the shore. A building, I have been told, that was once a shop. Perhaps one hundred years ago it served the occupants of boats rowed across from the other side of the sea loch.Building and cleared slipway, MullLoch Scridan, Mull

This must have been a busy place once, and not just one hundred years ago. This is a place that has been occupied and used for many hundreds of years. Along the shoreline both to my right and to my left are the remains of prehistoric promontory forts. Settlements created right on the cusp of the sea, headlands transformed into the defended homes of humans. There have been people living alongside the sea and the seals here for millennia. People using, altering, transforming, living with this shoreline. People who will have weaved stories with the land, the sea and the animals that lived alongside them. People who may have talked of selkies. People not unlike us.

I close my eyes and try to imagine this shoreline as it may have been in the past, as a busy, bustling place full of people and noise and wooden boats. Fish being landed perhaps, slipways and boat noosts being created. The air full of birds, the seals watching still. And in prehistory, watchful occupants in their promontory forts, the sea a highway and method of transport. Those now deserted headlands full of life. Smoke rising from houses within enclosing stone walls, animals perhaps shepherded within, others grazing without. People in attendance.

This place must have looked, sounded and smelled very different from today. How fascinating that we can trace the ghostly remnants of some of those who made this place their home so long ago, that we can see and touch the remains of past human action. That the past, sometimes, seems so close. That the ghosts of the past still touch these shores.

But now these human remnants are crumbling. The shoreline is shedding its skin – that veneer of past human presence – like a selkie. But it is unable to get rid of it completely. For those who lived along and with this place have altered it forever. We are altering it still. We are, and were in the past, part of this world as much as the watchful seal. The actions of those in the past have changed the world. Our actions continue to alter it still.

Though in time the buildings, slipways, piers and promontory forts may finally crumble and go, the past actions of those who lived with this place have changed it and made it into what it is today. Those past peoples worked with the lie of the land, the nature of the shore, human and nature entwined, altering it in subtle and not so subtle ways. And these actions have affected the creatures that make their life along this shore, humans and animals alike. For our changes do not just alter the non-humans we live alongside, they alter us too. Whether or not we recognise the alterations wrought by those in the past, those changes affect the way in which we see, understand and experience a place. They change the way in which we can approach and interact with places. They influence how we perceive and live with the very places that we continue to alter. They change our very understanding of our world and the way in which we interact with it. They change us.

We have in the past and will continue in the future to remake ourselves through our actions and interactions with both human and nature.

I am changed by this place.

And still the seal selkie watches.

As I turn to leave that peaceful place a dark head appears in the water. It watches as I pick my way over the rocks and onto the path, as I slowly walk up the slight incline, out onto the narrow road and out of sight of the shore. It continues to watch after I am gone, attending to those ghosts of the past as well as the present. Guardian of that place. Perhaps the stories are true. Perhaps selkies do live among us. Perhaps they watch over those precious, beautiful places as they always have done, knowing more about them than we do, wiser and more part of our world than we realise.

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Entangled

There are House Martins nesting under the eaves of the tenements near my flat. I see them each morning and evening as I walk to and from work, swooping and flying above my head. I hear them too as they constantly call to one another, noisy in flight. A sound that helps to define my summer. It is a musical noise alongside the rumble of the traffic nearby and the bustle of the city.House Martin

Seeing, and hearing, these birds gives me great joy. Whenever I walk past that row of tenements, I crane my neck as I try to follow the fast flight of the birds above. I look too for the cupped nests that I know to be tucked up near the roofs of the tall tenements. Sometimes I am rewarded with the sight of a parent bird flying in to feed their youngsters. Sometimes I catch sight of small heads poking out of a nest, chirping for their parents.

But how many other people notice this life living alongside them, or register the summer’s chatter in the air above? Certainly, I see no-one else stopping and looking up as I do, so I suspect I am in the minority. Yet House Martins have likely nested here for generations of birds, and generations of humans.

These are nest sites that the birds return to year on year, so how long have house martins nested at these tenements? At well over one hundred years old, the tenements are ancient in bird years. It is possible, and perhaps very likely, that birds have been constructing their nests under the eaves of these buildings for almost as long as the buildings have been standing. So this is an ancient settlement, a place where generations upon generations of birds have raised their young. An historical, an archaeological, site in its own right. It is somewhere that the constructions of humans and birds meet and mould, and have been doing so for generations. It is a place of intersection.

For as those House Martin nests, attached to the tenements as they are, have become a part of the human-made buildings, those buildings have become a part of the House Martins. In a sense human-made and animal-made constructions have become almost indistinguishable. They are entangled. We are entangled. How amazing.House Martin nest

These are birds that have learnt to live with us, and to raise their families alongside us. By the 19th century House Martins had begun attaching their nests to buildings. By 1900 they had all but abandoned traditional nest sites on cliffs and elsewhere. Their lives had become dependent on ours. Even their name ‘House Martins’ speaks of this relationship. It is a bond that is long and intimate, a relationship that has come to define these little birds when they enter our air space. That naming, too, tells of an acknowledgement and celebration of the interrelationship between humans and birds.

But, despite this acknowledgement, we rarely think about the way in which past processes and past lives have affected the other creatures with which we share the earth. For as we have modified and changed the landscape, animals and birds have adapted and changed too. We have shaped these more-than-human lives. And they have shaped us too. For we are interrelated, not separated.

House Martins are not the only animal to have adapted to our human landscape. It is not just those we recognise as domesticated, those more obviously shaped by humans, but those who have quietly come to live alongside us, who have found a space with us and the places we construct. We recognise them, but do not always value them. They are there, but we do not always see them.

This is a long-standing affiliation. One that must have been recognised by those who came before us. For we have learned to live in partnership with far more birds and animals than we tend to acknowledge or recognise. As a species, humans have been living alongside, and with these more-than-human beings for as long as we have been around. They are part of our history. They are part of us. Their place in our human landscape is important. Our place in theirs is just as valuable and, at times, crucial.

Their sounds and their presence will have filled those human landscapes of the past as much as, if not more, than they do today. For I feel, in the city at least, we have become less aware of those creatures that fill our physical landscapes with their presence and our soundscapes with their cries. So many of us miss the richness of life around us or fail to recognise the part that the more-than-human world plays in our lives. Our narratives of the past often (though not always) miss this too. I wonder sometimes about the soundscapes and animal-scapes of the past. Of how much a part of life these aspects were. And how much richer our understandings of the past, as well as the present, would be if we could grasp them.

I wonder, too, about how much the lives of those in the past were shaped and altered by the birds and animals around. How much their understandings of the world were moulded by the presence of such creatures, by the soundscapes and visual-scapes they would have accepted as normal, as a part of life. For these things form, not just the backdrop to life, but the foreground too, shaping us and forming our understanding of the world and our place in it. What part have these creatures played in making us, us? Both as a human species and as particular groups of people. How have they affected past and present culture and understandings? Can we trace that in the archaeological remains, in the things we leave behind?

And how much are our lives today shaped by such interrelations? Shaped by the presence of wildlife around us, even as many of us are unconscious of this life and the sights and sounds that accompany it?

Perhaps it is only in the absence that we become aware.

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The healing place

St Bernard's WellIt is somewhere people used to come for healing. I pass by while on my own restorative, health-giving pursuit.

A slight haze hangs in the air, giving the place a mysterious quality. I think it beautiful and appropriate. Later I learn there had been a warning of polluted air in the city. So perhaps the atmospheric mist was not as beautiful as it had seemed.

It is a day of records broken. A warm day in winter.

I am outside, seeking light and outdoors, attentive to my surroundings. I feel my mood lift as I walk. I am looking for beauty, wonder, and the mundane, trying to pay attention to the nature and wildlife around, looking for the depths of history in my city.

I walk past that former place of healing. A surprising structure perched above the river, it is a mineral well named for a medieval French saint, St Bernard. The well is encased in a replica Roman temple with a statue of Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health, placed atop. This circular classical structure and its statue reference an ancient past. A past that only the educated were expected to understand and healing that only the wealthy could partake. In an age of enlightenment, an unenlightened approach some might say.

But is it so different today?

My walk takes me along the green ribbon that is the Water of Leith to the lovely Dean Village, a former mill town. The sun is shining, the air is mild. A mist hangs over the river. This former place of industry, of toil and hard work is pretty, peaceful and exclusive. Transformed from its industrial past, the Water of Leith flows past mills turned housing, workers quarters now desirable homes. Passing under the impressive Dean Bridge, the river thunders over the weirs and down, down on its journey to the sea. No longer made to work its passage, it is free, noisy, alive.

Dean Village

Downstream from the village I spot a heron on the edge of the river. Unmoving, watching, waiting. Like a ghost, it is grey and patient. Like a ghost it is noticed only by some. The river flows around it, but still it waits.

The river has healed from the ravages of its industrial past. Once polluted by the many mills along its banks and sewage from the growing city, there are now tales of otters and kingfisher. I see none on my walk though I do spot an array of birds, among them great spotted woodpecker and grey wagtail. Alongside the remnants of mills and weirs, life continues in the footprints of the past. Still shaped and moulded by that past, a healing has taken place, a healing that has made this place anew.

I pass the well and its classical structure on my return, that monument to exclusivity. Hygeia stands as before. Inert, on her plinth. Watching over the waters only some could afford to sup. Waters now no longer in demand. So different from the waters that passed through Dean Village. Those industrial, hardworking, used and tamed waters. Once a necessary flow of toil, exclusive in a different way. Partaken only by those with no choice. Health-taking waters and a past now sanitised and half forgotten.

Waters of contrast.

Waters now transformed. Where remnants of industry have been made new, where past toils and hardships are half-forgotten and temples to exclusivity have become curiosities. These are waters where ghosts of the past walk alongside city residents and tourists alike. Where once banished wildlife now survives and flourishes and city dwellers come for sanctuary. Healed waters. Perhaps.

But as the hanging pall of air pollution declared that day, it is a place that continues to need healing from the ravages of the present.

I turn my back on that former healing place and follow the waters home.

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The Water of Leith is a river that winds its way through Edinburgh. It was once the industrial heart of Edinburgh with over 70 mills along its banks. This industry shaped and formed it as a place. With the mills gone, it is now a haven of wildlife with a well-used walkway following its length through the city.

Information about St Bernard’s Well can be found here: https://canmore.org.uk/site/52586/edinburgh-water-of-leith-st-bernards-well; https://www.edinburghguide.com/venue/stbernardswell; https://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/news/a-brief-history-of-st-bernard-s-well-1-4690418

This website has a bit of information about Dean Village: https://www.introducingedinburgh.com/dean-village

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Inscribed

It is a warm autumn day. The sun is shining and I am warm in my thick winter coat. I stand on the damp sand of a Dumfriesshire beach. Close by my 9-year-old niece is crouched, stick in hand, drawing shapes in the grey sand. Somewhere to my left, a group of Oystercatchers rise in fright. They circle and eventually settle at the far end of the beach.

Deep in concentration, my niece continues to make her shapes in the sand, drawing the wooden stick through grainy sand, slowly creating form and gesture.

The tide is rising.

Waves1

On our way back from the beach, we take a detour into a green grass-sown field. There are records of cup-and-ring marked rocks near the upper corner of this field and we want to find them. My niece is ahead of me, sand pictures forgotten for now. She runs to the first outcrop. Nothing there. I catch up, look and agree.

There are four of us so we fan out, looking. It is my brother who finds it. An earth-fast rock at the edge of the field. It is sitting within the messier field margins, safer from the plough. The stone is grey, punctuated with green moss and white lichen. Tendrils of green grass caress its edges and human-made marks are carved into its surface.

We see the cup-mark with its concentric rings first. Looking more closely and feeling the surface of the stone reveals many more cup-marks and some further rings. As the light changes, more detail reveals itself. Prehistoric inscriptions made into the stone. Form and gesture in rock.

I place my hand on the stone, tracing the indents, feeling the imprint in the stone.

Monreith cup and ring marked rock.JPG

On the beach the tide is rising. It laps at the edge of the sand inscribed pictures. The Oystercatchers have alighted on the shapes so recently drawn in the sand, occupying a once human-filled space.

Waves2

I am amazed, as always, at this remnant of past activity, of human action made solid in stone. Some four thousand years ago or so someone (or some people) sat here and inscribed shapes into the hard rock. They invested time and effort into creating these forms, into altering the surface of this stone, into changing it forever. Although apparently inert, these marks reveal intent and active effort. They are echoes of past action, of former meaning and value.

Now, though, this stone and its carvings lie weathered and dulled, half-forgotten at the edge of a field. One remnant of a wider landscape of human and environment entwined, much of which has gone, decayed or been swept away, leaving this earth-fast rock and its inscribed marks seeming a little out of place.

I gently trace the ring-marks with my finger and place my hand on the depressions carved into the rock. I feel a need to reassure this stone that it is not completely cast aside or forgotten, but is still valued and known. By some at least.

For, although a remnant of a past era, this carved rock is still a part of this current landscape. It is a living element of a landscape mixing past, present, human, non-human and environment. Although created in prehistory, the stone and its inscribed markings have not remained there. Nothing does. It has endured, waiting and watching as countless generations passed by. Encountered by some, unknown by others. Actively present, awaiting discovery and re-discovery. These carvings are a real, living element of this rich, full landscape, of this present, modern place.

Monreith cup and ring view across.JPG

The tide is beginning to encroach on the sand picture. A couple of larger waves roll up the beach and sweep away the seaward section. Some remains, just enough to make out some of what was once there. Just enough, if anyone chose to look, to begin to piece together elements of what once was there.

I stand up slowly, take a step back from the rock and look around. I know that there are records for further cup-and-ring marks in this field and an even wider scattering in this area. I wonder how they related to our rock, if they were created at the same time and who formed them. They tell us that the carved rock now lying by my feet was once part a wider context, part of wider whole. How much has gone that we will never know once existed? How much of the past remains hidden, buried beneath the plough soil waiting to be known. How much will disappear without anyone knowing of its loss? Who will care for and cherish what remains?

We stand a little longer, paying our respects.

Before we finally take our leave, we cast around for the other prehistoric carved stones recorded nearby. We do not find them. So we leave this rock to its lonely vigil, leaving it for others to encounter, hoping that we have provided some comfort. We make our way out of the field. Dusk is falling.

On the beach the tide has engulfed the sand inscriptions. Even the Oystercatchers have fled. The tide is turning. As dusk falls, a couple stroll along the beach. They pass the former location of my niece’s sand art, making their own marks.

Footprints

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The cup-and-ring marked rock that we found was near Monrieth in the southwest of Scotland – there is a little more information on Canmore here (https://canmore.org.uk/site/62813/knock). Cup-and-ring marks such as these are generally thought to date to the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age. Many are found in southwest Scotland.

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Listening to the stones

Ardalanish standing stone

It is an old friend, the stone. A friend to whom I infrequently pay my respects.

This year, sand martins are flitting, wheeling and turning overhead as I make my short respectful pilgrimage. Admiring the acrobatics of the birds above, I climb the stile at the back of the beach and make my way across the machair. It is a warm day. The sand is white and bright in the sun, the sea behind me a deep, clear blue.

I skirt the familiar grass grown sand dune, riddled with rabbit holes and walk through buttercup strewn grass. Although the beach behind me quickly disappears from sight, obscured by that sand dune, the sea remains audible. A low background accompaniment to the peace of a summer afternoon.

Ahead is another fence and stile behind which sits a grey standing stone, rising above a sea of grass and rushes. The stone is topped, as always, with fronds of green lichen. The grey, green and brown of a small, stony hill forms a backdrop.

The usual boggy ground in the dip before the fence has dried up in this rainless summer, so I am able to make a straight path towards the stone, and climb the stile, a little wobbly now with age. And then I am there, placing my hands upon the stone, apologising for my long absence, looking for change. I see none in the stone itself. It is wider than it is thick, lichen covered and leans at an almost alarming angle, as it always has since I first visited many years ago. It is crooked with age, but stands firmly, determinedly even, standing where it has done for almost four millennia. Old, ancient, a remarkable survivor. The only change I see is in the dryness of the ground. For the stone usually stands with wet feet. Today it is dry.

Moving away from the stone, I begin to look for the fallen companion I know to be lying a short distance away. Despite visiting many times before, I do not find it first time. Its exact position always eludes me. Perhaps it is ashamed of its fallen state, that it was not able to stand as long as its companion. But I find it, half hidden in the tall grass, keeping company with its upright friend.

Fallen standing stone, Ardalanish, Isle of Mull

I stand for a while between these two stones, in their secluded location. Many must visit the beach below without ever knowing of these ancient survivors behind. The sand dune in front and enclosing hills prevent them from being seen from afar, though effort has been made through the placing of those stiles to make them accessible. Nevertheless, they stand peripheral and a little obscure, keeping company with the cows and the sheep who wander these fields.

Yet when placed here millennia ago they must have been important, valuable, central even to those who lived around and among them, to those who chose to place them here. They would have been known, valued, visited and used. The same stones, yet different. Even their location may have differed. That obscuring sand dune may not yet have formed, and so they could have been positioned in a location that was more open and less secluded, more closely tied to the nearby seashore. Whether or not that is the case, the farming landscape and surrounding vegetation would undoubtedly have been very different. The people, too, had different beliefs and understandings of life and the world and the stones they chose to put up here.  Much has changed since these stones were placed here.

I wonder how they were understood as the millennia passed, as each generation came and went. What kept them here? What force or value meant that they were not taken down and used as a ready source of stone as so many others were. What keeps them here still? Who still visits and values them? How have their meanings changed over the millennia?

Ardalanish standing stones, Isle of MullThese apparently unchanging, unmoving monoliths of stone are reminders of past change, use and altering belief and of those who have come before us. They are human action in stone, past activity in the present. Reminders of values and beliefs we do not understand. Their continued survival is a testament to changing values and understandings, testament too to those who have lived their lives around and among them, to the many, many human lives intertwined with two slabs of stone. Two stone slabs made monumental so long ago. Two stone slabs who have seen and endured so much.

It is time for me to leave, so I climb back over the stile and begin to walk towards the beach. Part way there, I stop and turn. As I look back I think of those whose lives were intertwined with this stone and its companion, those whose physical exertion placed those monoliths upright and those whose lives were changed by that decision. Squinting into the sun, I feel I can almost see them, those farmers who lived in partnership with these standing stones. I can almost see this place full of people, the stones upright, alive, used and known. I blink and the image fades. But maybe something of those past people still remains there alongside their stones. Perhaps something of their essence has stayed with these monumental actions solidified in stone. Maybe these peripheral, old, worn stones are still central, still alive and still valuable. Perhaps they still speak of past times as well as the present, and perhaps we can still hear them if we take the time to listen ….

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The stone and its fallen companion stand behind the beach at Ardalanish on the Isle of Mull. They are one of many prehistoric pairs and stone rows found in the west of Scotland. They date to the Bronze Age. There is a little bit more information about the Ardalanish pair on Canmore.

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In praise of cropmarks

Cropmarks have been making the news recently (see for example https://rcahmw.gov.uk/wales-wide-drought-reveals-further-lost-archaeological-monuments/, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-44812713 and https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/13/science/newgrange-henge-ireland-drone-nyt.html ). The recent spell of hot weather has revealed a wide range of archaeological sites as cropmarks and archaeologists are getting very excited about them. As archaeological cropmarks rarely make the headlines, this publicity and excitement is very welcome.

I am happy to admit that I am one of those thrilled by these discoveries and by the potential increase in archaeological knowledge that this dry summer may bring. Now the knowledge that archaeological sites can be recorded from the air as cropmarks is not new, nor is my interest in this phenomenon. I have been involved in some way in the sub-discipline of cropmark and aerial archaeology for the last 15 years or so. My PhD thesis focused on making sense of a group of cropmark sites and I continue to research and publish about cropmark archaeology. So I have somewhat of an investment in archaeological sites recorded as cropmarks, particularly in Scotland, and have been following the publicity surrounding the new cropmark discoveries with real interest.

However, while I and others talk blithely of ‘cropmark archaeology’, this term is perhaps a little misleading; the cropmark is not the archaeology. Instead cropmarks are the way in which buried archaeology is revealed and recorded.  Buried features such as pits and ditches affect crop growth and ripening. This produces colour and height differences in the crops, which in turn can be photographed from the air and the patterns recorded on those photographs interpreted as archaeological sites. These effects are produced when there is a difference between the moisture and nutrient content of buried features and the surrounding soil, an effect that is exacerbated by dry conditions such as those we have seen over recent weeks.

How cropmarks form2

The formation of cropmarks. Image drawn by Kirsty Millican

As archaeologists we are interested in the buried sites and features that these cropmarks tell us of. So when we talk about cropmark sites, really we mean buried archaeological sites revealed to us as differential crop growth and ripening, that differential crop growth providing an insight into the riches surviving below the ground.

While cropmark archaeology is an easier shorthand for discussing sites revealed in this manner, making the distinction between recording method and the actual archaeology is, I feel, more than semantics. It is very easy to dismiss a cropmark as an ephemeral feature and inferior to sites visible above ground if one does not acknowledge the real archaeological features that create the cropmarks. Archaeological sites revealed as cropmarks are no less real than those surviving as upstanding features.

So cropmarks are the way in which the below ground features affect the way in which those crops grow. Isn’t it amazing that something someone did in a place perhaps several thousand years ago can affect the way in which modern crops grow? Just think about that for a minute – a four thousand year old pit or ditch has changed the nature of the soil so much that it has the potential to make crops grow differently today. That effect permits us a glimpse of what lies below the ground, a glimpse that we would otherwise be denied and a glimpse that without which we would know considerably less about the past. It really is a remarkable phenomenon!

In Scotland concerted aerial survey, by that I mean flying in a little plane with the main aim of photographing those crop colour and height differences, began in 1976, that other well-known dry summer. Yes, there had been some survey by Cambridge University before then, but real aerial survey really took off (pun intended) in 1976 when Gordon Maxwell of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) began a flying programme prospecting for cropmarks in Scotland. And the results were spectacular. So amazing in fact that they transformed the way in which we understand the archaeology of Scotland.

Aircraft sketch1

I’ve been lucky enough to participate in aerial survey. It is a relatively low-tech experience in a small aircraft. Before going up for the first time, I was told that it was a bit like being in an (old) mini with wings. That was a very accurate description! Image drawn by Kirsty Millican

Before 1976 it was assumed that the lowlands were simply not used much in the past; there was so little known archaeological evidence. With the advent of systematic aerial survey that was turned on its head and the lowlands were shown to be stuffed full of archaeological sites of all periods. Rather than being avoided in the past, the lowlands were heavily used throughout prehistory to the present day.

That early aerial survey recorded previously unknown site types, and cropmarks have allowed us to record sites that we would simply not know about otherwise. In particular some of those in which I take a particular interest, those built of timber. For example, without cropmark archaeology we would likely know of perhaps only the four Neolithic timber cursus monuments (early Neolithic ritual monuments) that have been excavated ahead of development. The remaining 25 or so sites that we know today would simply be unknown and the excavated examples weird anomalies we would find hard to explain. Many other site types are known only from cropmarks recorded by aerial survey or were first identified from the air. That transformative effect is not just confined to the early years of aerial survey; the recording of cropmarks still has the potential to transform the way in which we understand our past.

Cursus monuments

Plans of cursus monuments, all recorded as cropmarks on aerial photographs. Without aerial survey we wouldn’t know these sites even exist. Image drawn by Kirsty Millican

Bannockburn

Reconstruction drawing of a cursus monument, based on a timber cursus excavated at Bannockburn © Kirsty Millican.

 

So it is no wonder that archaeologists have got excited about the new discoveries and potential for more with this dry weather. While survey happens every year and sites continue to be recorded, this extended dry spell has provided a rare opportunity for cropmarks to form over sites which they have not formed over before. In years like this cropmarks will form in some areas with greater clarity, potentially giving us more detail and a richer glimpse into both known and unknown sites.

Cropmarks, and the buried archaeological sites they reveal, then, are the unsung heroes of the archaeological world. As archaeologists we are aware of the vital information they provide, but rarely do we sing their praises. In Scotland, and beyond, the vast archive of aerial photographs is testament both to the dedication and skill of aerial archaeologists over the years, and to the potential of the simple marks in crops to reveal key archaeological information.

Yet much within that archive remains untapped. Its potential is still to be fully revealed. In my small part I’m trying to release some of that potential through little pieces of research as I have the time. But there is so much more to be uncovered and study of sites recorded within that archive continues to produce new discoveries and interpretations. For example, the dating of a site excavated in Aberdeenshire led to the realisation that an unenclosed settlement recorded as cropmarks in Angus (https://canmore.org.uk/site/143379/chapelton) was not Iron Age in date as previously thought but likely dates to the later Neolithic (very rare in the archaeological record). A lowland Skara Brae, if you like. It was a remarkable realisation. This must be one of my most favourite sites recorded as cropmarks, one that is really remarkable and one that I played a part in interpreting.

Chapelton

The Neolithic settlement at Chapelton, Angus. Features mapped from the cropmarks recorded on aerial photographs. Each circle or part circle and four post arrangement represents a Neolithic round house. The fact that several appear to overlap indicates replacement over time. Image drawn by Kirsty Millican. Some the aerial images of this site can be seen on Canmore at https://canmore.org.uk/site/143379/chapelton.

How much more remains to be discovered both within the existing archives and through yearly aerial survey and recording? What more will be revealed as a result of this remarkable summer weather? How great are the riches that lie buried beneath our feet and how remarkable that the simple act of observing the growth in crops in modern fields has the potential to reveal so much.

So when this summer ends and the cropmark archaeology news stories stop, remember. Cropmark archaeology is alive and well. Long live the cropmark (and the buried archaeology it tells us about!).


If you are interested in finding out more about cropmark archaeology, in Scotland Canmore is the place to start. There is a wealth of aerial imagery available to view online and more being added all the time.

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