The long cairn

The long cairn is in a wide clearing within the forest, surrounded first by rank vegetation and then by the tall fir trees of the plantation. Wrapped, cocooned and protected. A grey mass of stones within a sea of green. A prehistoric remnant.

Stiddrigs long cairn, from the northeastBy the time I reached the cairn I was tired and grumpy. The path had proven difficult to follow in places and the ground was muddy. Not far from the cairn I had stepped into a hole, mud and water spilling over the top of my boot. I was not best pleased. But I was there now. I pushed through rushes and tall grass and stood on the margins of the cairn.  I had reached my destination. My mood lifted. I delved into my bag, extracted a bar of chocolate and ate it standing on the edge of the cairn, gazing at that grey pile of stones.

I was at the east side of a large cairn, longer than it was wide. It was formed of a mass of boulders, some grey and covered in lichen, others moss covered and green. Some of the cairn material on the top of this monument had been reworked into smaller cairns, giving the impression of small peaks set along a long spine. From a distance it looked almost like whales breaching the green sea of tall grass. Or a land-locked Nessie. Stretches of walling, formerly acting as sheep shelters, extended like fingers from the core of the monument. Structures now without purpose within this plantation of trees.

Refreshed by my snack, I circled the cairn, taking in its size and form, noting how the cairn increased in height to the south and the slightly curved façade creating a shallow forecourt at the south end. I noted too that, despite some reordering of stone, the core of the cairn seemed intact. Its heart, it seems, remains in one piece.

Stiddrigs long cairn, view from the southMy circuit completed, I stood within the forecourt of the cairn. Reaching out, I touched the stone of the cairn, passing my hand over the soft moss and harder stone below, feeling the roughness of the stone beneath my fingers. As I did so, I thought of those who had built this monument. Of those whose hands had touched this stone before me. Those who had dragged, carried and moved rocks, and placed stone carefully on stone millennia ago (for this is a Neolithic monument, built and used sometime between 4000BC and 2500BC). Those who had participated in and witnessed events associated with this cairn’s creation and use. Those who had stood where I stand now.

What ceremonies and activities had this place witnessed as the burial monument was put together, as it was used and as it participated in the lives of those living around it? At one time this quiet and deserted place must have been full of people and noise, must have been known, special and valued, perhaps sacred.

Did those who built the long cairn know it would endure for so long? Did they anticipate that moss would cover the grey, pristine stones and that, as vegetation slowly reclaimed this mound, its meaning would be also be covered over, forgotten, lost?

Stiddrig long cairnCertainly, those Neolithic builders could not have imagined the later pastoral re-working to create sheep shelters. And I wonder if those re-organising shepherds recognised this cairn as a place of antiquity, a place of significance. Or was it just seen as a ready mound of building stone, a good sheltering structure for their sheep. But of all the possible appropriations this surely was an appropriate re-use for a first farmers’ monument. A fitting part for this monument to play in later farming lives. A part indeed that this cairn must have played for a long period of time, despite the loss of its original purpose and meaning. For the path I had followed to this cairn is a drove road, probably of long antiquity (now a public right of way). It skirts the cairn, touching it in a brief kiss. A hint perhaps of long maintained footpaths and routes through these hillsides, of a long connection with farming communities.

But that connection is broken now. Surrounded by commercial forestry the cairn is cut off from the farming landscape of its ancestry. It is very possible that trees of a different nature surrounded this monument when it was first built, for woodland was a common feature during the Neolithic period in these parts. Perhaps it was built in a forest clearing similar to the one in which it stands today. But its connection then with people and farming communities and their lives would have been more tangible, more immediate.

Now, the cairn appears a little forlorn and lost among its trees and overlong vegetation, within that sea of grass. But perhaps it is not completely adrift.

Though the path I followed, that former drove road, was difficult to follow in places, it was a path still walked by many. For the path was marked and open, and I noted evidence of many feet following this route. So perhaps this long cairn is not as lost and forgotten as it first appears. It remains a marker on a followed route, a landmark upon a path. Depicted on maps, protected within its forestry plantation and passed by many as they walk this route, it is at least partially known. Its apparent remoteness today probably a factor in its continued preservation, a reason that the heart of this modified and edited cairn remains intact.

I stood a while longer in the quiet of that clearing within the forestry plantation, keeping company with the cairn. Before long, though, it was time to go; heavy skies suggested that retreat was necessary were I not to be caught in a downpour. So, turning my back on the cairn, I retraced my steps.  As I followed that path, easier now that I was treading a known route, the cairn was quickly hidden from my sight. The enveloping grass and trees swallowed it up, surrounding and cocooning it once more, wrapping it within their wide embrace.

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The long cairn described here is Stiddrig long cairn in Dumfries and Galloway. There is more information about it on Canmore here. Long cairns are Neolithic burial monuments, built and used between around 4000 and 2500BC. Although found across Scotland, long cairns are uncommon in eastern Dumfries and Galloway where Stiddrigs is to be found, and so this is an unusual monument for this part of Scotland.

I chose to approach Stiddrig from the northeast, the trickier direction from which to get to it. By all accounts, the path to the south is easier to follow. However, this cairn does not stand alone and I also wanted to see the broad scattering of cairns of probable Bronze Age date that I knew were to be found to the northeast of the cairn, so chose the route from the northeast. Also I knew that, from this path, I would have good views across the area, and I wasn’t disappointed!

View northeast, towards Beattock

This entry was posted in Current landscape, Past landscape and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The long cairn

  1. Andy Burnham says:

    Very interesting and evocative visit – did you find the other cairns to the NE ? There are dozens shown on Canmore – some say “These cairns have been destroyed by forestry operations.” That’s 2km NW though

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