A street with a view: the Caiy Stane

It is a sunny September afternoon and I am on a bus travelling through Edinburgh, on my way to view an archaeological monument in the south of the city. Not for the first time, I question the wisdom of my decision to spend a Saturday afternoon journeying to see what is, effectively, a large slab of stone. However, wise or not, this is what I have chosen to do, and the journey through city streets increases my anticipation. The bus rattles through the city centre, past parks and shops, tenement buildings and Victorian villas. As it travels further south, I begin looking out for street signs, watching for those that signal my destination is near. The street name that I am waiting for comes into view; this is where I should get off the bus. I descend the stairs from the top deck and disembark, cross the road and start to ascend a slight hill. This is unfamiliar territory for me but I know what I am looking for. I have seen photographs and studied the map. I should have no difficulty finding it. I walk on, reach the top of the hill, passing a street called Caiystane View (I must be close, I think to myself) and the road begins to descend again. I continue walking and then realise I have come too far. I have missed my goal. Stopping, I consult the map on my phone and realise that the clue was the street name at the top of the hill – I should have turned down Caiystane View. Somehow, I expected the monument to be obvious, to declare its presence to me, but it turns out that, from the direction of my initial approach, it was hidden, unobvious. I turn around and retrace my steps. This time I cannot miss it.

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A short distance down that side street called Caiystane View is the Caiy Stane – a massive block of red standstone, neatly presented within a curving stone wall, surrounded by green vegetation, and with a label declaring this is the Caiy Stane and property of the National Trust of Scotland. This is a monument that is known, owned and cared for. It is a specimen, presented and displayed.  I am awed by the massive size of the stone, and intrigued by its neat, domestic setting. And I am not the only one taking an interest in this stone today; as I approach a car slows down as it passes, the occupants taking a look at the stone.

The car gone, I cross the road, approach the monument, and place a hand upon the warm, moss-covered stone, connecting with this massive remnant of the past. Walking round it, I find the prehistoric cup-marks that I know are to be found on the rear of the stone, I also see both old and more modern graffiti, and note the weathered, pock-marked surface, telling of this stone’s age. For this stone has stood here for perhaps 5000 years. It is a remarkable survival in a modern domestic landscape, and a little incongruous in this suburban street.

I think of all the change that has taken place since this magnificent stone was erected. The landscape today would be unrecognisable now to those who placed this stone here. On the summit of a hill, where now there are rows of houses and suburban vegetation, once there would have extensive views in all directions. Now neatly presented, paved and surrounded by a built stone wall, its immediate surroundings would have been very different. No tarmac roads, no cars, no large stone and brick houses, instead trees and bushes, perhaps small fields of crops and some wooden buildings, grazing domestic animals and wild boar, deer and wolf.  Does the Caiy Stane miss that aspect, I wonder, or has it become used to its restricted, domesticated location. I wonder too if there once had been others here, other stones I mean, keeping the Caiy Stane company. Certainly, there is plenty of evidence uncovered in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries in the forms of prehistoric, probably Bronze Age, cairns, cists and burials, to indicate activity in the area around the stone. But this may post-date the initial placing of this stone here and one wonders what else originally accompanied the Caiy Stane.  Was it once part of a larger complex of sites, or has it always stood alone? Who placed it here and for what reason? Although we can make informed interpretations, such questions ultimately cannot be fully answered. But whatever its original context and purpose it was once an important and valued place. It was, and still is, a magnificent feat, a major effort and a statement. Its erection a transformative moment. And its influence is felt still, with surrounding streets named after it – Caiystane Terrace, Gardens, Avenue, Drive, Crescent and Place, as well as Caiystane View within which it stands. This stone has made a mark. Surely those who placed it here all those thousands of years ago, could not imagine that it has stood for so long, that it has had such an influence on this place, that it still invokes awe and wonder.

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For wonderful it still is. Although now apparently domestic and tamed, one feels that there is a wildness within it still, that it is just waiting to break loose. It is the remains of a different, unknowable prehistoric past, adopted into, absorbed and changed by all the activity and events around it, while still influencing and marking the place within which it stands. It is a statement of past, unknowable, intent which, while standing apparently inert has shifted in meaning and value.  It is of the past, in the present, not quite fitting, yet exactly where it should be. It has stood sentinel, watching over this hillside and all of its inhabitants for thousands of years. Standing steady for millennia, it is older than I can fully grasp, and within its fissured and pock-marked surface, it retains something of an unknowable, mysterious, enigmatic quality about it. Somehow it does not quite fit, somehow it is a question and a mystery set within a suburban street.

 

 

The Caiy Stane is a massive standing stone , probably erected in the late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, which stands in south Edinburgh. Some information about it and images can been viewed on Canmore at https://canmore.org.uk/site/51756/caiy-stane

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