It is an old friend, the stone. A friend to whom I infrequently pay my respects.
This year, sand martins are flitting, wheeling and turning overhead as I make my short respectful pilgrimage. Admiring the acrobatics of the birds above, I climb the stile at the back of the beach and make my way across the machair. It is a warm day. The sand is white and bright in the sun, the sea behind me a deep, clear blue.
I skirt the familiar grass grown sand dune, riddled with rabbit holes and walk through buttercup strewn grass. Although the beach behind me quickly disappears from sight, obscured by that sand dune, the sea remains audible. A low background accompaniment to the peace of a summer afternoon.
Ahead is another fence and stile behind which sits a grey standing stone, rising above a sea of grass and rushes. The stone is topped, as always, with fronds of green lichen. The grey, green and brown of a small, stony hill forms a backdrop.
The usual boggy ground in the dip before the fence has dried up in this rainless summer, so I am able to make a straight path towards the stone, and climb the stile, a little wobbly now with age. And then I am there, placing my hands upon the stone, apologising for my long absence, looking for change. I see none in the stone itself. It is wider than it is thick, lichen covered and leans at an almost alarming angle, as it always has since I first visited many years ago. It is crooked with age, but stands firmly, determinedly even, standing where it has done for almost four millennia. Old, ancient, a remarkable survivor. The only change I see is in the dryness of the ground. For the stone usually stands with wet feet. Today it is dry.
Moving away from the stone, I begin to look for the fallen companion I know to be lying a short distance away. Despite visiting many times before, I do not find it first time. Its exact position always eludes me. Perhaps it is ashamed of its fallen state, that it was not able to stand as long as its companion. But I find it, half hidden in the tall grass, keeping company with its upright friend.
I stand for a while between these two stones, in their secluded location. Many must visit the beach below without ever knowing of these ancient survivors behind. The sand dune in front and enclosing hills prevent them from being seen from afar, though effort has been made through the placing of those stiles to make them accessible. Nevertheless, they stand peripheral and a little obscure, keeping company with the cows and the sheep who wander these fields.
Yet when placed here millennia ago they must have been important, valuable, central even to those who lived around and among them, to those who chose to place them here. They would have been known, valued, visited and used. The same stones, yet different. Even their location may have differed. That obscuring sand dune may not yet have formed, and so they could have been positioned in a location that was more open and less secluded, more closely tied to the nearby seashore. Whether or not that is the case, the farming landscape and surrounding vegetation would undoubtedly have been very different. The people, too, had different beliefs and understandings of life and the world and the stones they chose to put up here. Much has changed since these stones were placed here.
I wonder how they were understood as the millennia passed, as each generation came and went. What kept them here? What force or value meant that they were not taken down and used as a ready source of stone as so many others were. What keeps them here still? Who still visits and values them? How have their meanings changed over the millennia?
These apparently unchanging, unmoving monoliths of stone are reminders of past change, use and altering belief and of those who have come before us. They are human action in stone, past activity in the present. Reminders of values and beliefs we do not understand. Their continued survival is a testament to changing values and understandings, testament too to those who have lived their lives around and among them, to the many, many human lives intertwined with two slabs of stone. Two stone slabs made monumental so long ago. Two stone slabs who have seen and endured so much.
It is time for me to leave, so I climb back over the stile and begin to walk towards the beach. Part way there, I stop and turn. As I look back I think of those whose lives were intertwined with this stone and its companion, those whose physical exertion placed those monoliths upright and those whose lives were changed by that decision. Squinting into the sun, I feel I can almost see them, those farmers who lived in partnership with these standing stones. I can almost see this place full of people, the stones upright, alive, used and known. I blink and the image fades. But maybe something of those past people still remains there alongside their stones. Perhaps something of their essence has stayed with these monumental actions solidified in stone. Maybe these peripheral, old, worn stones are still central, still alive and still valuable. Perhaps they still speak of past times as well as the present, and perhaps we can still hear them if we take the time to listen ….
The stone and its fallen companion stand behind the beach at Ardalanish on the Isle of Mull. They are one of many prehistoric pairs and stone rows found in the west of Scotland. They date to the Bronze Age. There is a little bit more information about the Ardalanish pair on Canmore.