It is a warm autumn day. The sun is shining and I am warm in my thick winter coat. I stand on the damp sand of a Dumfriesshire beach. Close by my 9-year-old niece is crouched, stick in hand, drawing shapes in the grey sand. Somewhere to my left, a group of Oystercatchers rise in fright. They circle and eventually settle at the far end of the beach.
Deep in concentration, my niece continues to make her shapes in the sand, drawing the wooden stick through grainy sand, slowly creating form and gesture.
The tide is rising.
On our way back from the beach, we take a detour into a green grass-sown field. There are records of cup-and-ring marked rocks near the upper corner of this field and we want to find them. My niece is ahead of me, sand pictures forgotten for now. She runs to the first outcrop. Nothing there. I catch up, look and agree.
There are four of us so we fan out, looking. It is my brother who finds it. An earth-fast rock at the edge of the field. It is sitting within the messier field margins, safer from the plough. The stone is grey, punctuated with green moss and white lichen. Tendrils of green grass caress its edges and human-made marks are carved into its surface.
We see the cup-mark with its concentric rings first. Looking more closely and feeling the surface of the stone reveals many more cup-marks and some further rings. As the light changes, more detail reveals itself. Prehistoric inscriptions made into the stone. Form and gesture in rock.
I place my hand on the stone, tracing the indents, feeling the imprint in the stone.
On the beach the tide is rising. It laps at the edge of the sand inscribed pictures. The Oystercatchers have alighted on the shapes so recently drawn in the sand, occupying a once human-filled space.
I am amazed, as always, at this remnant of past activity, of human action made solid in stone. Some four thousand years ago or so someone (or some people) sat here and inscribed shapes into the hard rock. They invested time and effort into creating these forms, into altering the surface of this stone, into changing it forever. Although apparently inert, these marks reveal intent and active effort. They are echoes of past action, of former meaning and value.
Now, though, this stone and its carvings lie weathered and dulled, half-forgotten at the edge of a field. One remnant of a wider landscape of human and environment entwined, much of which has gone, decayed or been swept away, leaving this earth-fast rock and its inscribed marks seeming a little out of place.
I gently trace the ring-marks with my finger and place my hand on the depressions carved into the rock. I feel a need to reassure this stone that it is not completely cast aside or forgotten, but is still valued and known. By some at least.
For, although a remnant of a past era, this carved rock is still a part of this current landscape. It is a living element of a landscape mixing past, present, human, non-human and environment. Although created in prehistory, the stone and its inscribed markings have not remained there. Nothing does. It has endured, waiting and watching as countless generations passed by. Encountered by some, unknown by others. Actively present, awaiting discovery and re-discovery. These carvings are a real, living element of this rich, full landscape, of this present, modern place.
The tide is beginning to encroach on the sand picture. A couple of larger waves roll up the beach and sweep away the seaward section. Some remains, just enough to make out some of what was once there. Just enough, if anyone chose to look, to begin to piece together elements of what once was there.
I stand up slowly, take a step back from the rock and look around. I know that there are records for further cup-and-ring marks in this field and an even wider scattering in this area. I wonder how they related to our rock, if they were created at the same time and who formed them. They tell us that the carved rock now lying by my feet was once part a wider context, part of wider whole. How much has gone that we will never know once existed? How much of the past remains hidden, buried beneath the plough soil waiting to be known. How much will disappear without anyone knowing of its loss? Who will care for and cherish what remains?
We stand a little longer, paying our respects.
Before we finally take our leave, we cast around for the other prehistoric carved stones recorded nearby. We do not find them. So we leave this rock to its lonely vigil, leaving it for others to encounter, hoping that we have provided some comfort. We make our way out of the field. Dusk is falling.
On the beach the tide has engulfed the sand inscriptions. Even the Oystercatchers have fled. The tide is turning. As dusk falls, a couple stroll along the beach. They pass the former location of my niece’s sand art, making their own marks.
The cup-and-ring marked rock that we found was near Monrieth in the southwest of Scotland – there is a little more information on Canmore here (https://canmore.org.uk/site/62813/knock). Cup-and-ring marks such as these are generally thought to date to the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age. Many are found in southwest Scotland.