I climb the stairs out of the train station, make my way along the bridge high above the train tracks, out onto the Main Street and turn east. Passing familiar landmarks – the bank, the little jeweller’s shop, the church spire encased in its metal and glass surrounds, the petrol station – I continue walking. I am looking for a patch of green space that I used to pass by so often. It is further along than I remember. I continue walking, noting tended gardens and details on houses as cars rush heedlessly past, unaware of my mission today. But soon, I spot it. It is the trees that are most obvious to begin with, towering above both the enclosing hedge and surrounding housing, their trunks straight and silver, branches entangled and bare. As I walk closer I get a glimpse of the object of my pilgrimage – the mound on which these trees stand – but as I approach it disappears again, behind the thick evergreen hedge, slightly too tall to see over. This is a shy antiquity. Half hidden by a green hedge, guarded by grey and brown housing, I am at first afforded only brief glimpses and surprise views. It would be very easy to miss this enigmatic piece of the past.
I have to walk along the length of this hedge before I reach the entrance into the green space and the mound comes into sight again. I turn into the protected space, step off the path and approach the mound, taking in its squat shape, the flattened top and secondary mound on the summit. As I make my way up the short, steep sides of the mound squirrels chatter in the trees above, crows caw and flap. I fear I am an unwelcome visitor. Although the non-human residents of the mound may resent my intrusion, when it comes to the human population that fear is misplaced. A couple of local gentlemen, out walking their dogs, are only too keen to tell me that the mound is an ‘ancient burial place’, to reminisce about its appearance when they were young and tell me about those whose names are carved into the trees rooted into this monument. It is clear that this is a valued place, an important landmark in the lives of many, known and cared for.
The conversation at an end, I return to the summit of the mound once again and place my hands on the warm bark of the trees, noting the plethora of marks carved into them, many of which have spread and enlarged with the growth of the trees. Although I see no dates, I was told that some were carved in the 1940s. Others are more recent. Past lives scratched into living trees, firmly rooted into the ancient past.
For this mound is likely ancient. Iron Age at least, perhaps older, and reworked and reused over the millennia that followed. Its written history begins in 1773 when the mound, smaller in diameter, much higher and surrounded by a ditch, stood within the parklands of Gallowflat House. During the widening of the ditch to make a fishpond for the House, a ‘passage 6 feet broad and laid with unhewn stone’ was discovered leading up to the summit, along with artefacts dating to the early centuries AD. So this mound is likely Iron Age at least in date. Its form and records of many similar mounds in the area, long since removed, could suggest that its origin is even earlier. Perhaps it did begin life as a prehistoric burial mound as believed by the gentlemen I met. It is certainly not an unreasonable surmise, though later disturbance makes it very difficult to determine its true origin. The appearance of the mound has led to suggestions that it may have functioned as a medieval motte or an early medieval meeting place or ‘doomster hill’. Later still it became a garden feature within the grounds of Gallowflat House. A brick structure, probably an icehouse, was inserted into the mound and a path built around it. That house and garden have long since been removed, but the mound endures, an enigmatic remnant of the ancient past nestled within an urban environment.
But what is it? A Neolithic burial mound? Medieval motte? Garden feature? One of these or all three at once? Or something more? Certainly it is an enduring monument, but that endurance means that it has been reworked, reused and re-imagined countless times over the millennia, and cannot be easily sorted into one category or another. Belief of what it is, of its ancient credentials, may also help account for its survival and enduring value. For the local residents’ belief, or at least those whom I met, of this as an ancient burial place is as real as its known use as an 18th century garden feature. That re-imagination and pride in an ancient survival is as important as the mound itself. For monuments such as these are as much antiquities of the mind as their archaeological interpretation. They hold meaning and value through their use and perception by the local residents as much, if not more so, than what we as archaeologists ascribe to them. They are important, not just because of their inherent archaeological characteristics, but because of the values and practices of those who live around and use this place, and through the meanings ascribed to them. They are not dusty, dead places, but living, breathing, monuments, alive into the present day. Monuments such as the Gallowflat mound are truly fascinating places.
Our desire to define, to classify, particularly as archaeologists, means that the Gallowflat mound will perhaps always be enigmatic – it is not quite one thing nor another. It is mysterious and strange, but at the same time known and valued. It is clearly held in high regard by the locals, or at least by the older generation. Will future generations value it so highly? Only time will tell. But I certainly hope so.
The Gallowflat Mound is a small mound standing in recreation area on the north side of east Main Street in Rutherglen. It is not well known, but as I found out, clearly valued by the local community. Despite growing up nearby and going to school only a few streets away, I had never been to the mound before though I have long known of its existence. So, it was definitely time to remedy that gap in my experience! Some information about the mound is available on Canmore https://canmore.org.uk/site/45075/rutherglen-gallowflat and I also used Susan Hothersall’s book Archaeology around Glasgow (published by Glasgow Archaeological Society) when writing this post.