“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.