Buzzards and rock art: The Binn part 2

See A village in hiding: The Binn part 1 for the beginning of this Adventure.

A buzzard soars slowly above me, calling. It wheels, turns and returns again and again, calling all the while. Another bird, lower down among the trees, answers in response. Then, faintly, I hear a third buzzard call somewhere in the distance, off to the right. And there, on the horizon, I see another two buzzards soaring above the trees. The two stand off to a distance and come no closer. The one continues to fly above me. I stand mesmerised for a while, watching the bird balancing in the air above me, at times almost close enough to touch. I see the quiver of the wings, the fan of the tail and the brown and white of the feathers.  It is awesome to watch this large bird of prey soar, free and light, the complete master of the air. The master too of this hillside. For I am in no doubt that it is watching me and that it is aware of all that is around. I have stepped into its territory, its place. The calls of the bird below seem to become louder, more urgent. The bird above continues to circle. The calls of the distant birds fade. I move on.

I climb. It is not steep, but there is enough of an incline to require some effort. To my left, through the trees, I catch glimpses of the town below. Sounds drift up to me; the faint roar of traffic, the music of the shows, the sound of voices, a golf ball being hit. Closer, I hear songbirds singing and faint rustles in the vegetation as small birds and rodents move among the undergrowth. I continue to place one foot in front of another, moving slowly, gently, upwards.

Then suddenly I am at the top. I am taken by surprise and stand still to take in the panoramic view before me. Below, the town of Burntisland is neatly laid out with ordered rows of houses, green squares of grass and the harbour projecting into the water. A train runs along the track following the shoreline and beyond, the Firth of Forth is wide and grey. An oil support rig stands incongruously offshore, presumably anchored here for repair or dismantling. Beyond, the mass of Edinburgh is visible with Arthur’s Seat appearing a small pimple in the centre of the city, the taller Pentland hills rising beyond. To my right the Firth narrows and that companionable trio of bridges stand distant across the water, the sun catching the white of the new bridge. Left, the Firth of Forth opens wider and the Fife coast curves behind me. The island of Inchkeith sits poised, as if floating, waiting perhaps for the incoming tide. In the distance the distinct lump of North Berwick Law rises above the East Lothian coast.

View from summit of The Binn, looking southView from The Binn, looking towards EdinburghView from summit of The Binn looking WView from summit of the Binn looking E

It is lunchtime so I sit down, take out my sandwiches and continue to contemplate the view. The sky is still overcast and there is a slight spit in the air. I hope it doesn’t rain. As I look with concern at the heavy clouds, I become aware that the buzzard is still present. It has moved ahead of me and is circling above the path I am about to take.

I do not stay long on the summit of The Binn for the wind is chilly. So I gather up my rucksack and continue to follow the path, now gently descending. The buzzard continues to watch me. I aware of it above me as I follow the path. It is always slightly ahead, always above the path I will take, leading me forward. Every so often it calls, reminding me of its presence. Sometimes another calls in response. But it is always there. Soaring gracefully. Always watching.

The path takes me along the top of the hillside. I follow, stepping over snails sitting carelessly on the path. When I reach a field full of cows and calves I take a detour, unwilling to chance an encounter with them. This takes me onto rougher ground, but there is a path of sorts here and I continue. The ground begins to descend steeper and I enter a wood. The light dims, two branches creak as they move in the wind and rub against one other.

I begin to wonder how to get back to the path, so I stop to get my bearings. Below me I can see the small pond that I know the path skirts. Then I realise there is an outcrop of rock a little ahead of me. Could this be what I am looking for?  I pick my way carefully down the slope and begin to examine the surface of the rock. It is! I have arrived right on top of the main destination of this walk.

Laid out before me is a long spit of rock, indented with small hollows, some of which are surrounded by rings. These are prehistoric cup-and-ring marks. Next to this is a smaller section of bedrock with a protective overhang of rock. On this is the most complex piece of rock art: a cup-mark surrounded by three rings, which are broken by a channel running from the cup to the edge of the rock. A short distance from this is a second cup, which appears to be surrounded by at least one ring. The Canmore record identifies this second cup-mark as a natural feature, a weathered out mineral. I am not so sure and interpret it as another human-made mark.

The Binn cup-and-ring marksThe Binn cup-and-ring marks

Rock art like this is thought to have been created sometime in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (c.4000-2000BC). What purpose it served we do not know, though there are many theories. Created by grinding rock on rock, it must have been tedious, long work, done with intent and purpose. So at least 4000 years ago, someone or groups of people, made these marks in the rock. Here. In this place. On this hillside. Four thousand or more years ago, this hillside rang with the sound of rock grinding on rock. Were they all made at the same time, or over a long period of time? By one person or many? There is no way of knowing. But I suspect more than one person was involved, that this place was the focus of many.

There are signs that it continues as a place of gathering, with evidence of fires lit and trampled ground. I spot one drinks can in the grass, but there is remarkably little litter. These are tidy, if pyro-maniacal gatherings. I wonder if the rock art continues to make this a special place for those who gather here, or if it is incidental. If the evidence of present-day activity here gives hint to the type of place this may have been all those thousands of years ago. Not pristine and set aside, but used and worn. A place that was known and transformed by use.

Small and unobtrusive though they may be, these cup-and-ring marks have made their mark on this place. For thousands of years, they have transformed it for those who know where to look. Their meanings, though, are uncertain, mysterious. The marks at The Binn are simple compared to many we know of elsewhere and it is only one small site among the thousands of similar carvings known across the country. But they were clearly important to those who created them. I place my finger within the marks on the rock and try to imagine the effort involved in their creation, imagine those who stood here thousands of years ago, making their marks, transforming living rock. If the rock could talk, I wonder what stories it would tell.

As I gaze at the cup-and-ring marks, tracing the rings with my finger, I hear the call of the buzzard above the trees. It is present still. I wonder if it knows I am here, at this outcrop below the trees. I wonder if it knows of this rock art. Certainly it was ahead of me all the way across the hilltop, almost leading me across. Even now, enclosed as I am within the wood that surrounds the site, it continues to remind me of its presence. A natural guardian of this human-made art? I smile at this fanciful notion, but now the two are intermingled in my mind: the mystery of the prehistoric rock art and the presence of the buzzard. Somehow they have become linked together.

It is time to leave and I make my way down the hillside and back to the path. The outcrops with those prehistoric marks stand enclosed today within a wood. So when I reach the edge of the trees and my view opens out, I am taken aback slightly by the broad vista before me. The ground falls in grassy fields to the water of the Forth, dotted with islands. Blue hills rise beyond. Did the rock art once gaze upon this? Was this one reason for its position on the hillside? Without knowing the nature of the vegetation when the rock art was created, it is certainly possible. It would have been a lighter, freer location than the tree-enclosed one of today. So maybe it was once out in the open, looking down across that view, free to be gazed upon by human and animal alike.

View from below location of rock art, The Binn

I take my fill of the view and continue onto the path. As I move on, I hear again the call of the buzzard. High above me three birds soar, wheel and call to one another, free, light and watchful. Constant companions to the Binn’s prehistoric rock art. Constant watchers of those who venture across this hillside.


More information about the cup-and-ring marks on The Binn can be found on Canmore

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3 Responses to Buzzards and rock art: The Binn part 2

  1. chdot says:

    “The Canmore record identifies this second cup-mark as a natural feature, a weathered out mineral. I am not so sure and interpret it as another human-made mark.”
    Seems more likely.
    These signs of past activity are hard to find. Some people prefer that, but in many other places such things would be signposted.
    “So maybe it was once out in the open”
    An interesting observation, do you have colleagues who might have a more definitive view?

    • kirstymill says:

      Thanks for your comments. Without detailed palaeoenvironmental analysis it isn’t possible to say with any certainty whether the rock art at The Binn was created in an open or vegetated environment. However, many other examples (though by no means all) are found in similar locations to The Binn cup-and-ring marks – on hill slopes overlooking valleys, rivers etc. That’s certainly suggestive of an intention to overlook these landscapes, which are often routes of movement. Therefore it seems likely that much rock art was built in locations where it would be possible to see these views. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a completely open landscape with no trees. Only detailed research into the environment at the time would able to give us a better idea (to my knowledge that has never been done for The Binn).

      Quite a lot has been written about rock art over the years, so there’s many different opinions on the meanings and purpose of the art and its location. There’s also a new project, run by Historic Environment Scotland, just starting to look at Scotland’s rock art. So maybe they’ll have some more answers by the end!

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