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

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Perspective

Perspective. Sometimes we all need a change of perspective.

Recently a friend and I climbed Dumgoyne, a volcanic plug marking the beginning of the Campsies, the hills to the north of Glasgow.  Standing alone and distinct, separated from the rest of the Campsies, it is a solitary hill to be the beginning of something.

DumgoyneIt was a lovely morning; warm, sun shining. It was good to be out in the open. Good to be climbing a hill again. Dumgoyne is small but very steep, so we gained height quickly, rapidly finding ourselves above trees, looking down upon ribbons of roads, square fields, scattered houses, modest settlements. Small birds rose and flew in clouds ahead of us. We climbed, placing our feet in the brown, worn earth, stopping from time to time to catch our breath and admire the view.

The summit came upon us suddenly. More used to climbing taller hills, we were taken by surprise when we reached the top. Level and worn by many feet, no summit cairn greeted us. Instead a standing stone, surrounded by a concrete plinth, stood squat and proud at the top. Unshapen, it must have been taken from elsewhere and lifted to this highest point. A 20th or 21st century reflection of the prehistoric stones I know to be standing in the fields below.

Standing stone on summit of DumgoyneHow intriguing that continuing desire to erect a stone, to place a marker like this. A modern echo, however unintentional, of a prehistoric past. Perhaps we are not so far removed from our prehistoric ancestors as we sometimes think. Though its position, on the summit of a hill, indicates a different purpose and meaning to the prehistoric stones in the valley below. The stone contained no explanation of the reason for its erection or who placed it here. A plaque, perhaps a viewfinder, had been removed from the top of the stone, but no other hints remained.

Whatever the impetus for this stone, that simple marker affected our engagement with the summit of the hill. For, when we reached the top, we made directly for the stone as a marker of the highest point.  We didn’t question whether or not it was actually placed on the high point; we just took it for granted, for stones and cairns usually are, aren’t they? Unless of course it is obvious to the eye that that they are not. So we approached, placed our hands upon the warm stone and gazed outward at the view below. We circled the stone and took photographs of one another standing by it. Always with hands placed upon it, anchoring ourselves by that marker, claiming it as proof we had conquered the hill. In effect, this simple standing stone mediated our engagement with the summit of the hill, influencing how we acted, moved and understood that place.

I wonder then how those prehistoric cousins, those standing stones in the valley below transformed and continue to transform their place? How their presence affects the way in which we interact with them and their place. How their presence has forever transformed their places. How perspectives change, however imperceptible, simply by their presence.

Standing by that stone, we gazed down on the view below. We could see for miles: to Loch Lomond and beyond in one direction, Glasgow in the other. City and countryside. My friend commented on how populated the landscape outside the city seemed when driving along the road below, with small villages, towns and dwellings strung out along that road. But how empty it appeared from above, with wide open spaces between the settlements and houses. For the dwellings cling to the lifeline of the road (or perhaps the road has attached itself to the houses) along which we would normally move and experience that landscape. Now, high above the buildings and trees, that viewpoint had shifted and we saw in a different light. How height alters perspective of the landscape within which we dwell.

View from summit of DumgoyneView from summit of DumgoyneI looked and agreed. How true. I thought too of the myriad of forces and events, decisions and choices that have led to the shape of the land we saw laid out before us. The power of routes and movement to shape the experience and reality of those below. The sheer force of the past within the present to influence our views and experiences of our world. For those routes, though influenced by geography, are rooted in the past. Some millennia old, others more recent. And the world we experience and the way in which we experience it has been shaped and influenced by a multitude of events and processes, choices and mistakes, planning and serendipity, in the past and in the present.

And sometimes a change of perspective, however small (not everyone need climb a hill), is all it takes to transform the way in which we see our worlds, to alter perspective. Perhaps a change in perspective can also help us to both change our worlds and change the way we see them.

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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.

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

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A village in hiding: The Binn part 1

It is a grey, overcast summer morning. And I am going on an Adventure. Everyone must have an adventure from time to time, I believe, and so I have made today my Adventure Day. I will venture out into the unknown (to me). I will bravely step forth and explore. I will have an Adventure.

But first I must reach the train station and find my train. So I leave my flat and stride along familiar streets, past known landmarks – the corner shop where I usually buy my milk, the coffee shop, the church on the corner, the hardware shop – and descend the steps into the train station. I buy my ticket and then scan the departure boards for my train. Platform 16. I have ten minutes and the train is already waiting, doors open, ready the receive passengers. Passing through the ticket barriers, I make my way to the platform and board the train, careful to select a window seat that will afford uninterrupted views.

The train is quiet. By the time it pulls away from the station, a few more passengers have entered, but this is not a busy train. I settle back and gaze out the window as we travel through Edinburgh, passing city landmarks and out past the airport with its queues of aircraft neatly lined up to take off. The train stops briefly at South Queensferry station and then begins to cross the Forth Rail Bridge. Crossing the Forth Bridge always gives me a thrill and this 19th century engineering feat remains magnificent. Its red painted supports speed past the window and I strain to look at the view. I note a large cruise ship lying anchored a short distance from the bridge, passengers in a small boat evidently in the process of being ferried to shore, the piers and slipways beneath the bridge at South and North Queensferry, still in use, the small islands with their wartime defences, white sea birds dotting the ruins, and the shoreline of Fife beyond. I glance to my left and there, beyond the current road bridge is the new bridge, the Queensferry Crossing, almost complete and gleaming in the morning light. A trio of bridges spanning the same expanse and sharing the same purpose – to transport people and traffic across the Firth of Forth, to link the Lothians and Fife. Companions built in three different centuries, 19th, 20th and 21st, they are a visual reminder of the importance of this crossing. The piers and slipways below the bridges are perhaps less impressive, but tell too of the time depth of a crossing here, and the long necessity of this link across the Forth. Below, the water of the Firth of Forth is grey and deep.

Forth Bridge sketchThe train reaches the other side and we are in the Kingdom of Fife. As the train travels through the countryside, I keep an eye on the passing stations – Inverkeithing, Dalgety Bay, Aberdour (with a glimpse of the castle beside the station). My stop is next. Burntisland. The train slows to a stop and I alight, exit the station and follow signs to the town centre. From there I am heading up The Binn, the hill that dominates this seaside town. I have never been to Burntisland before so this is a new experience for me. A step into the unknown. An Adventure. But it is not completely unknown to me. I have done my research. I know my route and I know the things, the archaeology, that I want to see along the way. It is these, along with the fabulous view that I know is available from the top of this hill, which are the real draws to this place. The real reason for my visit. So I begin on my quest.

Following the maps on my phone, I make my way through the town towards the foot of the hill. Past the summer ‘shows’**, not yet fully into the days running, and through residential streets to the edge of the town. There, opposite the golf course with its carpark full of cars, is the beginning of my path. Carefully crossing the road, I step into another world. Trees bend their branches over me, creating a kind of natural arch and filtering a cool, greenish, light. I feel enclosed, but safe and cocooned within the trees, beckoned forward. The path begins to climb and I follow it deeper into the wood. As I walk I become aware of stonework here and there on my left and realise the path follows the remains of wall. Well overgrown, it is difficult to distinguish, but it is there nonetheless. I wonder if this is a hint of the remains I seek.

The Binn path

The trees open out and in a clearer patch, concrete steps lead me upwards. The climb is steep, but short and soon the ground levels out. I find myself at a junction of paths. Which way to go? Pulling out my phone I consult the map. Left will take me along the top of the hill, but first I want to look at the remains of the Binnend Village. A now abandoned settlement constructed in the late 1800s, here on the hillside, to provide accommodation for those working in the shale oil industry and their families. It is worth a visit, or so I am told.

As I try to make sense of the map, my thoughts are interrupted by a distinct shout of ‘fore’ drifting up from the golf course below. It makes me smile to think of the leisure pursuits below, in an area once teeming with industry. For the golf course sits next to the site of 19th century shale oil works, intimately connected with the remains that I seek.

I think I must go straight ahead to find the remains of the village, so I continue walking. Some bits of stonework begin peeking out of the heavy vegetation and then I see some more substantial ruins and realise that I have found it. I have found the village. But the remains are surrounded by masses of knee-high nettles and I can see no way in. A little further on, by dint of pushing through thick grass (thankfully largely nettle free), I find a vantage point to look over the remains. I look and take photographs, but can see no way to reach the ruins themselves, nor is it possible to ascertain the compete layout of the remains I can see. Certainly not without risking serious nettle stings! This, I think, is one abandoned village that does not welcome visitors easily. Or so I think.

Binnend Village - wallThe remains of Binnend VillageBinnend VillageRetracing my steps a little, I return to the junction of paths and take the track that will lead me to the summit of the hill. A short way along, I realise I can see more stonework to the right. I think at first it is a bit of a field wall, but looking closer it seems more substantial than that. It is under trees and there is little vegetation underfoot, so I make my way towards it and realise it is the remains of a building. Look! There’s a fireplace. It is a house then. This must be more of the Binnend Village. Looking round I realise it is one part of a row of houses running roughly north-south. I can see another, longer row, oriented east-west. Bricks, slates and tumbled stonework scatter the ground. Trees grow out of former walls. I follow the longer row until the undergrowth gets too dense. More of those nettles! And realise I have come right round behind the ruins I had noted before. The nettles are still too dense to reach them, but it appears that not all of the village is as unwelcoming as I first thought.

Somehow I had not appreciated that this former village would have been so large and had been fooled into thinking that the nettle surrounded ruins were all that remained. But I was wrong. Census records tell us that the village had a population of more than 500 in the late 1800s, living within 95 small, mostly two roomed houses. The village also had a Mission Hall, school, football pitch and shops. The essentials for life!  All within sight, sound and smell of the nearby oil works at the bottom of the hill, close to where the golf course is now. The shale oil business, though, was short lived with the works closing in 1894 and, with it, the population of the village declined. The village was finally formally closed in 1931, though two couples continued to live there until the 1950s.

It is evident that considerable quantities of stone have been removed from the houses, for little is left of many of them. The more substantial remains are those swathed in nettles. Cloaked in trees, largely overgrown and with many of the houses reduced to footings and tumbled stone, it is difficult to imagine this place bustling with life not so long ago. For it must have been full of people and buildings and the daily chores of life. Its sights and sounds so different from today. Who lived within the walls I see laid out before me? How many lives were crammed into this space? What of their hopes, dreams and desires? I do not know, but the ground, this space, almost seems to resonate with lives lived, gone and scattered.

 

 

 

Now, though, it is almost as if the village is in hiding within the vegetation. Half removed and with the people long gone, is it ashamed of its ruined and abandoned state? Ashamed at being found half-dressed, decrepit, old? But there is beauty still in these ruins, in the tumbled stone and foundations, in the surprise remains and moss-grown brick. Even in the trees colonising the stonework. The vegetation hugs the remains, perhaps providing comfort for what has gone, what has been lost. Lonely and a little forlorn, there is dignity still in the tumbled ruins. It will not last forever, nothing will. But it is a reminder that even old, forgotten things can be beautiful. Wrapped within burgeoning vegetation, protected by returning nature, this place surely hides many secrets and welcomes only some within its tumbled walls.

So I turn my back to this place of past lives and continue to walk up the hill, towards the ultimate goal of my walk. For this has been but an aside to the main aim of my Adventure …..


**Scots for travelling funfair

My information about Binnend Village came from http://www.burntisland.net/binnend-village.htm and http://www.abandonedcommunities.co.uk/binnend1.html

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Living with the past

‘… history made solid in the landscape.’ Malachy Tallack 60 Degrees North

We are living with the past. Each and every one of us. Our houses, our streets, our countryside have been created, shaped and formed in and by the past. And that past, that ‘history made solid’, affects our encounters, our very experience of the present. But while Malachy Tallack was referring to remote landscapes and features like forts, brochs, field walls and croft houses, the solidification of the past encompasses more than that. It is visible in our city streets, in the orientation of roads and paths, in the locations and forms of our dwelling places, villages and towns, in the plan and outline of our fields and the form of our moorland. As well as the crumbling field walls, castles and forts, standing stones and abandoned houses. Past activities have shaped the active, living landscape too. And that past, that history made solid, that archaeology, mediates the way in which we experience the present.

For in daily life we walk along orientations laid out long ago, we live in locations often chosen in the distant past. City dwellers move along city streets, many of which were laid out in the 19th century, some even earlier. Some streets and orientations reflect prior landscape divisions or property boundaries; still others echo medieval plans and layouts. Others reflect routeways whose antiquity may stretch to hundreds, if not more, in age. Parks tell of large country houses and estates, avenues of trees of driveways and garden layouts long gone, waste ground of former industry and commerce. Outside the city, roads and pathways follow lines first followed tens of years, centuries or even millennia ago. Field and land boundaries laid out in the 18th or 19th centuries divide the landscape, other land divisions may be centuries old.

street

 

Some decisions, some shaping forces, extend into deep prehistory. Like the decision to farm rather than hunt, a choice that continues to resonate today, shaping so much more than our landscape. Or the choice to build a settlement by that river, or a defended site on that hilltop. The very location of our settlements may reflect choices made in deep prehistory. Many of the influences on the landscape, the solidified histories, are undocumented and unrecognised, or so ubiquitous as to be unremarked.

But as much as the past has shaped and continues to shape our surroundings, it shapes us too. In essence, the past mediates the way in which we experience the present.

For the past has given our surroundings its shape and form. That pattern and structure influencing and dictating the way I hold my body, how I encounter place. City streets and bounding buildings influence my bodily orientation, affecting the way I experience my present. To make progress through this landscape I must hold myself in a particular way, face in certain directions, walk along defined routes. Even in the more open spaces of parks and green spaces, urban furniture, pathways, planting and conventions affect my bodily encounter, albeit with a little more latitude. In less constrained space outside the city, my movements, orientations and encounters are still influenced by the choices of the past, through the orientation of roads and paths, field boundaries, walls and fences (most probably first laid out in the 19th century), plantations of trees (likely planted sometime in the 20th century), the location and form of villages and towns. Even open moorland is not untouched and, should I choose to make my way across it, my progress and orientation is affected by drainage, influenced by vegetation and tracks.

map

This geography of the everyday affects the way in which I encounter and understand the world. It places constraints upon me, dictating the way in which the world is revealed to me, affecting what I see and perceive and how I encounter it. At all times, my bodily orientation, my very encounter and experience of the world is affected and influenced by the form and shape of my surrounding geography. A geography formed and created through the multiple, complex and entangled actions of the past. And a past that helps to form and shape us, making us who we are. I live with the past; we all do.

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How much then, did the decision to build monuments or construct settlements affect the way in which past peoples encountered their world. How much did it change them forever? I think of the construction of monuments for the first time at the beginning of the Neolithic period, the period when we first recognise farming. Did that transformation of place and space also transform those who built and encountered these structures? I suspect this to be the case. The building of monuments, the clearance of trees, changed the way in which places could be encountered, changed the bodily encounters of people with place. How much did that affect these people and those who came after, how much did it alter the way they thought about their world and their place in it? And how much of that is still felt by us today? To what extent have those encounters in deep prehistory led to the landscape we live within and the people and society of today?

Bannockburn

Reconstruction drawing of a cursus monument, based on a timber cursus excavated at Bannockburn © Kirsty Millican.

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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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Footprints, traces and lines

The memory of landscape; remnants of the past, traces of former actions.

FootprintsTraces of past lives: a footprint here, a line there, impressed, inscribed, drawn into the landscape. Some last but a fleeting moment. Others endure through the centuries, millennia even. Which are chosen to last? Is it design or chance? Intended or mistaken? Footprints become a trace, a line, a path, become a routeway, a journey, a road. An action, an event, is woven into a landscape. A camp, a fire, a trace of habitation becomes a settlement, a home, a place. The fleeting can become permanent, while the enduring can be forgotten. Landscapes are made and remade, forgotten, re-created. They are interwoven, connected, knitted together with the lives of their inhabitants. Making, informing and remaking the lives of those within. Landscapes are woven into and out of us. Gloriously complex, always rooted in the past, in the fleeting actions of those before, they are both made by and make us. Landscapes: traces of past lives – a footprint here, a line here, lives woven into the landscape. Landscapes: part of us, woven into lives.

Line

 

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