Ben Griam Beg – a speculative archaeology

Source

Coblaith furiously lashed the flank of the mud splattered beast as it stumbled up the slope. They had already lost two of their bulls. The first had plunged into a bog pool, thrashing and roaring as it sank deeper, until its silence was claimed by the underworld, the other fell off a narrow path threading though the rocks, crashing on slabs below, a twisted mix of leg and horn. Its remains were quickly butchered before pushing to the summit.

Deep Pools

Another lash, lead ropes nose bleed pulling, the bulls heaved to the top where this early in the season there were still patches of snow and wind bite with the last presence of the Cailleach. 

Cailleachs Breath

Early yet, dangerous, but the summit needed to be enclosed before she fully returned with the first new snow. The mountain top was where the deities stored powerful stones, treasures and trinkets, through which their energies could be drawn.

Trinkets and Treasures

Coblaith quickly set the teams to work, iron chisels ringing on stone, thump of mallets on wedges as they split the rock. The bulls were spirited, oxen would have been easier, but the gods understood their power.

Sacred Top

The persistent wind tugged at her braids, Coblaith sighed, looking north to the Orcades, it had taken years to persuade the group to encircle the mountain top. To go deep into Dithreabh Chat, to the peaks where the deities played, had been unthinkable but she had persuaded, threatened and promised and now they were greedy for power.

Top

Seize the sacred top and all peoples of the Chat would fall beneath them. By Autumn she would know if her plan had worked.

* * *

Every Summer from birth the twins had traveled up from the mouth of the Strath to Dithreabh Chat. The journey started each year when the second light spark shower (lyrids) was seen high in the night sky.

Journey

With the cattle’s slow swaying pace, passing by spring lush hazel coppice’s and birch stands, they would take three nights to travel inland to the first grazings. In two moons time they would reach the pens on Ben Griam Beg, where the big gathering would begin.

The Pens

Eithne shouted ‘Look there, the red ones, they are running down too quickly’. Uvan stopped scampering along the banks of the river, pausing together they watched the group of hinds, heavy with fawn.

Red Ones

Even at the distance, they could see the fear in their eyes, nostrils flaring, as they fled from two grey wolves. The riverside burst into sound, barking and growling from the groups large hunting dogs, cattle’s bellowing and calves alarmed bleats. With flashes of light, spears lifted and swords unsheathed, horns sounded and the wolves turned.

Lying on their backs, looking up at the clear night sky, they would see who would be first to spot a light spark. Uvan liked to tease his sister, pointing to the side ‘Look, there, two sparks at once !’. Eithne turned her head to a still empty sky, then thumped his arm ‘Uvan !’.

* * *

Raven Clouds

Among the mist, above his head, the ravens skipped and swirled along the raw shattered stone wall top. Gabran looked up and spat at the birds, an unwanted presence who reminded him of where those building the great wall had come.

Raid

In grey predawn light, his raiding group had burst into the small settlement of round houses, wielding iron sword and fire, they quickly torched roofs, then seized people as they exited. Cattle and people were herded alike to the great pens to the north. The youngest children had been taken in by members of his group, raised as their own, they would soon forget.

Thin Soils

He felt little for them, clinging to the old ways, with their myths of the goddess and her black birds of time and death. Each night he chained the adults in the small hut on the mountain side and reveled in every unkindness.

Hut

Sooner they had his section of the great wall complete he could get off this sodden lump and return to his family on the coast.

The Great Wall

Before Winter, the builders would know their fate, of those that survived, one in three would be taken into the group, the others would be sacrificed.

Sacrifice

The dark birds played over head, Gabran spat.

* * *

Ancient Trees

I remember when mother would sit with us, when the miking was done, and the evening sun still warmed our skin. We would spin and chat at the side of the burn, a smoky fire keeping midges away. The low Summer sun, would dance through the leaves of the last stand of trees in the glen.

Last Trees

I would pester Maithgemm, all Summer, to tell of the beginning. Of the times before mothers mothers, when Coblaith took the mountain top from the deities. Every year, it would always be on a night after several long hot days when distant storms raged to the north and the sky flashed with light, she would remind us.

By The Burn

‘When Coblaith drove the great bulls through the upper glen to the sacred top the ancient trees hid them from above. Choosing the strongest bulls, Coblaith, wrapped their feet in cloth so the deities wouldn’t hear them coming.

Coblaith also knew that the deities spent much of their time on the top staring north at the green shifting skies above the Orcades, which mesmerized them, so she approached from the south.

Orcades

When the lights stopped, they would wander across the Chat and interfere in the world of people.

Interfere

The horned god loved to collect heads and horns leaving them in special places.

Day and night, without rest, they labored. At first the deities fought back, covering them in cloud and continuous rain, but as the days got longer and warmer they had to leave. When the deities returned, the wall was completed, and they couldn’t reach the sacred top.

Enclosed

All Winter the deities crashed furiously against the highs stone walls, flinging ice spears and sending there messengers of ill omen. But Coblaith had spilled the bulls blood across the wall tops and they could not enter. Every Winter the deities try to take back the sacred top and like Coblaith we must stay to hold it.

Now the deities are old and tired, like me, and perhaps we must be kinder to them.’

* * *

Distant Strath

Standing in the citadel Talorc wrapped the heavy cloak tighter around himself. He already felt the early Winter deep in his bones. As a young man he had relished staying on the top telling stories, nålbinding and drinking with the small group who had to remain. Their continued presence resisted the gods, holding the top for generations, since Coblaith’s founding.

Despite the continuous peat fire burning in the round house, ice crystals formed from his breath and the smell of rot and damp pervaded everything. And now he doubted he would wake this spring.

Stalker

Talorc’s thoughts drifted to his first year leading the group, a life time ago, when the gatherings were still large. When people traveling from across the Chat to maintain the fortifications, make exchanges and confirm marriages, and the top echoed with laughter and song.

The Gathering Place

Now the ground wetter and summers colder, the thin soils were sliding down, and the pools of water were getting darker and deeper.

Maintenance

For years there hadn’t been enough people to repair the great wall and many of the huts were now sagging or collapsed.

Collapse

He doubted whoever followed him would be able to hold Ben Griam Beg from the deities much longer.

Chill Rock


 

This is a response, a speculative archaeology, to walking in from Strath Naver to Ben Griam Beg in March 2018.  Wildcamping below its southern flank, perhaps one of the few people who have slept in this landscape for over a thousand years, I woke up the next day to find after rainfall during the night the whole outer surface of the tent had a frozen skin. Carefully I opened the zip but the slight movements caused ice to slide, leaving a ring of water crystals around my little domain. It felt like a small moment of magic in this vast landscape.

Why did this particular archaeological site fascinate me so much?

Why was I drawn to travel to it?

In part, as Ben Griam Beg is one of the most difficult to visit prehistoric sites in Scotland, and as its highest hill fort, it captured my imagination, as a prehistorian, I felt compelled to experience where people lived 2000 years ago.

In part, because the site has never been investigated properly and I wondered what insights could be gained on the ground as opposed to scrutinizing a plan of the site, supping frothy coffee, in a library.

In part, to see what the Flow Country was like at this point and how the site related to its wider landscapes of Strath of Kildonan and Strath Naver.

In part, because I was seeking solitude and a night wild camping in a remote location is a freedom and privilege I treasure.

All these were important but what I keep coming back to

thinking about

wondering is

[when I visit rural and upland landscapes

so rich

in

prehistoric

remains]

how does the survival and presence of such archaeological sites inform debates about the future of communities and the challenges the world currently faces.

I worry, yes worry, that we do not engage enough with the rich prehistoric resources

(largely unknown, misunderstood and unvisited)

to be found in rural and upland places and how it should challenge us to reflect on our relationships with such landscapes. It seems to me that there is a missing wider dialogue about the ramifications of such ancient remains, what do they potentially tell us ?

The only full account of survey of Ben Griam Beg by Roger Mercer (1991) makes interesting reading, not least with the account of ‘challenges’ faced by the survey team due to the weather on the mountain. But as a ‘statement of fact’ the author is careful to present the evidence of survey and, largely due to limitations in knowledge (i.e. there has been no excavation, no dates are known for the different elements – some could be early Iron Age others could be early Historic period), it is difficult to interpret the site meaningfully in terms of anything other than a speculative archaeology.  What is clear, however, is there are several phases of return and maintenance at the site, entangled memories of previous generations and former ages, which the account tries to evoke.

One of the few interpretations posited in the CANMORE record of Ben Griam Beg is:

‘The extreme remote and exposed situation of the complex probably indicates

a temporary refuge of man and beast under threat of attack,

rather than a permanent settlement.’

In the lack of evidence, and in the face of such statements, could a speculative archaeology challenge us to think differently.  There has been so much focus in Scotland in recent years, and understandably so, on our relationships with rural and upland landscapes through the filter of the ‘Clearances’ or ‘Rewilding’. I do not belittle the importance of events in the recent centuries which have led to huge levels of rural depopulation, and recognise that there are historical injustices manifest in the ways our landscapes are managed. I do not underplay the importance of the debate about how we perceive, access and manages landscapes, in relation to degrees of ‘wildness’ and the complex range of ecological entanglements historically manifest in landscapes. But I wonder, why doesn’t the ramifications of the presence of prehistoric / deep time dimension of such landscapes appear to get meaningfully addressed in such debates.

Perhaps then there is a need for those of us who study, interpret, visit and are passionate about prehistoric sites to be more vocal about why they matter more broadly? #PrehistoryMatters

Our relationships with the prehistoric, have largely been mediated by academic research, often esoteric and obscure subjects which (until recent ‘impact’ agendas) had little interest in broader resonance or meaning.  So perhaps speculative archaeology can close the gap and act as a method of formulating research questions. 

How do questions we ask and the stories we tell change when we approach sites such as Ben Griam Beg, rather than random survivors of other eras, but as seeds of the future?

Ghost


Thanks to Jo Clements and Timespan for inviting me to contribute to the Practicing Deep Time event.  Preparing for the event and discussion with participants was an important contribution to formulating some of the views expressed here.

Mercer, R J 1991 ‘The survey of a hilltop enclosure on Ben Griam Beg, Caithness and Sutherland District, Highland Region’ in Hanson, W S & Slater, EA (Eds) Scottish Archaeology, New Perceptions, 140-52. Aberdeen University Press.

 

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Past Inspired Sculpture 8

Prehistory and public art

frequently entangle.

Monumental forms

referencing deep

time of places,

expressions of

hoped for

futures,  accrete.

 

Menhirs of Peace

On a coastal headland,

aggregation of ancient sites

Trilathon Inspired

Evoking trialothonic brutalisms of Stonehenge dreams

Glacian Menhirs

Gathering granite, megalithic family forms

Modern Megaliths

Pierced, broken and reassembled

Time Depth

Providing glimpses of distant futures.

 


Menhirs for Peace is by Galician Sculptor Manolo Paz.

It can be found in A Coruña, Galicia and is located in the landscape around  The Tower of Hercules World Heritage Site.

It is situated on a headland, with ancient rock art on the outcropping bedrock, which has been washed by waves and sea spray for millennia.

Tower of Hercules

 

For other examples of Past Inspired Sculpture please see:

Past Inspired Sculpture 7

Past Inspired Sculpture 6

Past Inspired Sculpture 5

Past Inspired Sculpture 4

Past Inspired Sculpture 3

Past Inspired Sculpture 2

Past Inspired Sculpture 1

Witches Whispers

St Kilda Beach

Despite it remoteness, St Kilda, is globally connected.

St Kilda Village

Through shared histories, oceans and skies

St Kilda Airport Lounge

with flight                                maritime transports                          we congregate

nearly 1 million birds

Northern Gannet, Atlantic Puffin, Northern Fulmar, Manx Shearwater, Storm Petrel, Leach’s Petrel, Kitiwake, Guillemot, Razorbill, Great Skua

summer

at the archipelago

Hirta, Dun, Soay, Boreray.

St Kilda Seabird

Remote Life

Collect Bird

Cleit Dry

Boreray Wave

Yet we wont linger on Hirta but head to the world of Boreray

Boreray Revealed

Through

wave

wind

Boreray Splash

and wonder

Boreray closer

we reach

Stac Lee

Stac Lee

look back

Hirta

with anticipation

St Kilda birds

before crossing

beneath

sea cliffs

thrumming

krok krok krok krok krok krok krok krok

krok krok krok krok krok krok krok krok

krok krok krok krok krok krok krok krok

soaring

Flight

sweeping

crucifix

Flags

filled

vision

Teaming Skies

wards

Residues

pulse of the world

Nesting

receeding

Brooding

further

Seascape

from

Depths

memories

Archipelago

navigate dangerous waters

Navigable

voices voiceless

witches whispers

Fortress

kroK kroK kroK kroK kroK kroK kroK kroK kroK kroK kroK kroKk roK kroK kroK kroK

Stac An Armin

‘a great noise like that made by a gannet,

but much louder when shutting its mouth’

Stac an Àrmainn

‘A storm rose, and that, together with the size of the bird

and the noise it made led them to think it was a witch.’

Stac an Àrmainn

‘they were beating it for an hour with two large stones before it was dead’

Torment

‘he was the most frightened of all the men, and advised the killing of it.’

Rupture

‘they killed the bird on the third day after it was caught’

Regret

Can we ever leave

the world

 

 

of birds and witches,

St Kilda Stac Lee Boreray

now unclear

which is which,

St Kilda and Stac Lee

Bird as person,

bird sustains life

person as bird.

 


The collection of eggs and hunting of birds provided a significant amount of sustenance to those living on Hirta.  Stone shelters, Cleits, were built and used to air dry the birds for consumption later.  Climbing cliffs and seasonal stays in bothies on the archipelagos other islands and stacks to hunt was part of the strategy for sustaining life.

Stac an Àrmainn is the highest sea stack (196 m) in the UK and is the location of at least two powerful tales.

One tells of the group of three men and eight boys from Hirta who were stranded here in 1728 for 9 months.  Upon returning they were to find that during their absence most of the community had died, all bar 4 adults and 26 children, from small pox.

The second tale, from about 1840, is of the death of what was probably the last Garefowl (Great Auk) in Scotland, when three men allegedly thought it to be a witch, only a few years before the species became extinct.

The quotes above are details of the St Kilda witch account, taken from a letter by Henry Evans, and can be found in:

Harvie-Brown, J A 1888 Vertebrate Fauna of the Outer Hebrides p 158-59.

How faithful the details of the story are can be debated but there was certainly a strong folklore which may have provided a context.  An interesting overview of witches can be found here:

 

and a broader context can be found here:

Campbell, J G 1902 Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands & Islands of Scotland : Tales and Traditions collected entirely from Oral Sources. Glasgow.

Seeing a Great Auk in Scotland in the first half of the 19th century would probably have been a rare occurrence, numbers already depleted, and with the last small colonies on Iceland some distance – so there may have been no familiarity with this species of bird among the men on Stac an Àrmainn.  Whether the killing of the last Great Auk in Scotland as a witch (presumably in a shape shifted form) is true or not, today we are faced with the certainty if we do not do things differently other species will become extinct and St Kilda and the wider world it represents will be poorer for such losses.

How will we explain to future generations, what will undoubtedly seem 170 years in the future as, unjustifiable behaviours which lead to such losses.  Seemingly enlightened, we may not fear witches, but through our behaviours we make our offerings to other gods of consumption and waste.  They may not be so overt but our brutalities can be small, long  and incremental.

Listen for the whispers….


I was privileged to journey to St Kilda earlier this year with the wonderful Kilda Cruises a great highly knowledgeable team.

For more details about St Kilda, please visit, the National Trust for Scotland website, the St Kilda website  and the UNESCO St Kilda World Heritage Site

If St Kilda is not possible for you, another option to consider is the journey to Ailsa Craig, some details can be found in another post

Imaginary Island – journey through the south west.

 

Sherds Shards Shorelines

East Coast

With Holocene sunsets

Shore

New materials wash

across

our shores

Beach Sediments

Continued sedimentation of humanity

Diverse Materials

Ancient intermingling

salt,

stone,

seaweed,

shell

Sherds

Cast wide –

a strange catch of sherds

Shards

Cast deep –

a strange haul of shards

Worn Faces

Fragmentary people

Fragments

With broken vessels

Sherd deposits

Cross the line,

tread with care

Tideline

Tide hides,

washes removes

different ways

Sherd and Shard

Tide Reveals,

recedes deposits

new realities

 

with

plastic in our hands

mould marine disrespects.

 


The Sherds and Shards were found in July 2017 on the shoreline of a small cove on the east side of Eilean Na Hearadh (Isle of Harris) in the Na h-Eileanan Siar (Western Isles).   Overlooking the cove is a house, that originates from the late 18th century, the waste from which was probably flung by its residents into the sea for over two hundred years.    The sherds and shards have remained upon the shoreline and have become transformed by tidal rhythms and storms, scoured and smoothed, sharp edges blunted and bright surfaces dulled, all now more rounded and pebble like.

What I found most striking was the high proportion of materials, which were clearly worked through the beach deposits.  Two hundred years of human refuse disposal from one dwelling had transformed the shoreline geo-morphological sediments of the cove.   The pieces of ceramic and glass forming the installation on the shoreline were only collected from the surface of the beach, below the surface are much greater numbers of sherds and shards.

Sherds of ceramic and shards of glass are relatively stable as materials, unlike the floating and volatile plastic containers, nurdles and microbeads, which are now permeating our water and littering our beaches, the chemicals from which are extending through the food chain with building levels of toxicity to all life forms.

We walk upon the sherds and shards of different shorelines now …

 

Through the Eyes of the Ballachulish Goddess

The Ballachulish Goddess was discovered in 1880 beneath about 10 feet of peat.

When she was lifted from lying face down,

her quartzite pebble eyes stared forward,

unwavering.

How remarkable it would have been, when she was first lifted to gaze upon her, or rather for her to see again, to gaze upon us, for the first time in over 2000 years.

ballachulishfigure-originalphoto

Whether deliberately so, her eyes seem different.  Her larger right eye appears to have a distinct pupil marked, as if staring directly at us, or forward into the distance. While her small deeper set left eye, evokes an inward contemplation, perhaps a second sight to other places and times. Her mouth appears poised, as if about to speak to us, perhaps of some wisdom from the past or I can almost hear the first notes of a song emanating.

Taken back to Edinburgh, she was uncared for, and as she dried out, her fabric twisted and split, presenting a countenance which differs greatly from her appearance of 2600 years previously.  Now a look of shock, or worry perhaps, a permanent rigor mortis – her eyes pleading to be freed from permanent public display.

ballachulish-figure2

Many have speculated, who she is and what she may have represented.  Others have noted that the location she was left was a special place, next to a narrow water crossing, the successful navigation of which allowed travel on land up the west coast of Scotland.

DSC_0526

Some have noted, with the proximity to Beinn a’Bheithir, that the Ballachulish Goddess may in some way be related to the Cailleach Bheithir.  Described by some as the winter storm goddess, responsible for sudden changes in weather, which even in April with snow in the corries and successive bands of icy rain sweeping across Loch Leven still seems within the Cailleach’s purview.

DSC_0524

I cannot contribute much to the story, like many before I wonder who she may have represented – an individual, an archetype, a goddess, named or nameless – perhaps all these at different times.  However, I can reflect on the landscape she was found within and how earlier sites may reveal something of her nature.  Other archaeological sites including cairns and burial cists suggest this part of the landscape had been used for ceremony and ritual by people in the third and second millennia BC.  So the Ballachulish Goddess was located in a landscape which had a depth of story before she was created about 600 BC.

The location where she lay beneath peat for over two thousand years is on the brow of a raised beach.

IMG_20170404_114026IMG_20170404_113900

IMG_20170404_113851

A shore line, when following the last ice age, sea levels rose rapidly and water lapped many meters higher than today.   However, about 600 BC that raised beach line was already a distant memory and much of the ground below had been revealed by falling water levels.

IMG_20170404_113838

Where she stood, she looked over a small islet An Dunnan. When the water lapped at the raised beach line where the Ballachulish Goddess was placed An Dunnan would have been totally submerged. By the time the Ballachulish Goddess was actually placed at the raised beach An Dunnan had been emerging for several thousand years.

DSC_0501

Others before had marked these profound changes. On this islet, there is a small group of cup marks, a distinctive form of rock art dating from the the fourth millennium BC.

IMG_20170404_115046

DSC_0497IMG_20170404_115016

As the water retreated and the island became accessible, perhaps a thousand years later people modified the rock with cup marks.

IMG_20170404_115142

Most striking perhaps is that they are adjacent to significant outcrops of quartz, which even today seem to flow or drip into the sea below.   But in heavy tide or winter storm, they will be washed and partially submerged by the sea.

IMG_20170404_115033

Where the Ballachulish Goddess was located was not only liminal in terms of the distance across a short, but potentially hazardous, stretch of water.  The liminality was also temporal, a place of deeper time where sea and land played out a dance through millennia, as sea levels rose and fell, and then land sprang back up after the weight of an ice sheet lifted.

The Ballachulish Goddess stood poised above An Dunnan, with one of her eyes looking back to when people, perhaps two thousand or more years before had marked rocks revealed by watery transitions.

One quartzite eye staring back calmly at the quartz which marked this place of rock-water which had been birthed as the sea levels fell.

Yet as she stood on the raised beach, she also looked forward with another quartzite eye, to a time

when sea levels may rise again, and

the dance of water-rock continues.

——————————————————————————————————————————-
The images of the Ballachulish Goddess are from the National Museums of Scotland website where more information can be found.
Further information can be found at the Canmore
The original publication of the discovery can be found in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
While further thoughts on the ritual context of the Ballachulish Goddess can be found in an article by Jeff Sanders  ‘The sky almost never falls on your head – why ritual rarely fails’
in
Koutrafouri, V G ‎and Sanders, J (eds) 2013 Ritual Failure. Archaeological Perspectives. Sidestone Pres
And a brief introduction to some of the geology of the wider region.

Among The Dead Dunes Some Trees Glow Like The Sun…

 

Among Dead Dunes

Primordial Arboreal Gold

Washes Upon Baltic Geographies.

Millennial Boundaries Shift

With Faint Traces

Of Ancient Rites,

Through Weaving Light & Shadow

We Can Glow Like The Sun.


I was privileged to stay nearly three weeks in Lithuania spending much of the time exploring aspects of its heritage and landscapes.  The first week was spent at the wonderful Nida Art Colony, a creative center from which I explored the landscape of the Curonnian Spit.   Located on the Baltic coast, the spit is about 98 km long, the northern part of which is within Lithuania and the southern part in the Kaliningrad region of the Russian Federation.  I was drawn back to the Curonnian Spit, in part due to my interest in a Neolithic amber hoard, within which are a range of unusual figurative forms, that had been discovered in the 19th century at Juodkrantė.

However I very quickly became more interested in a series of tensions and entanglements that the forested nature of the landscape and the elemental nature of amber began to reveal.  The Curonnian Spit has a remarkable natural and cultural significance in part recognised with its inscription as a World Heritage Site in 2000 and its status as Kuršių Nerija National Park and as the Kurshskaya National Park of the Russian Federation.  So interesting tensions can be encountered between geo-morphological forms, climatic processes and the movements of other species which do not recognise political boundaries and the management of designated landscapes.

The landscape of the Curonnian Spit has been subject to major changes in character, sea level, deforestations, erosion and drifting of sands, and then reforestation and management. People have responded for millennia, and in part caused, some of these changes. For millennia they have encountered timeless gifts cast up from the sea. At times they reworked these gifts, and sent them back, perhaps in an attempt to make sense of or intervene in the world of change around them.

While there I worked on a piece through researching the history of the landscape and those who have dwelled within it for nearly 5000 years and by creating a series of small temporary installations in the landscape. This resulted in the development of a piece Among The Dead Dunes Some Trees Glow Like The Sun which was performed the following week in Vilnius.  The 12 minute performance explored the ongoing inter-relationships between people and landscape, and invited us to re-imagine the way we interact in the future.   Rather than try to reproduce that performance here I show some of the elements which I responded too.

There Is An Equilibrium Here… ?

Five days and fifty miles I traveled by foot.

Narrating the journey, as a linear movement would be possible, but my experiences were more complex, more entangled, with a range of eruptions and encounters in the changing landscapes which continue to resonate.

Some sense of the journey may be gained, however, through the images below, some of which were incorporated in a joint exhibition held in Caithness, Scotland, in 2016.  Each image, a compound of particular serendipitous conditions, mediated by subsequent selective sensibilities, represents moments of revelation.  Brief entanglements, enchanted, with the rich flows of time and the dynamic inter-relationships between people, other species and landscapes.

The Flow Country, a patch work of Lochs and Lochans, stitched by burns and rivers, often offered views to the distinctive peaks to the south of Morvern, Maidens Pap and Smean.  These peaks guided my journey, topographic beacons, which drew me onward and inwards.

birdland

Bird-land encounters were prevalent, when I couldn’t see birds their song was ever present, even at night my sleep was disturbed by their ghostly clicks and calls.  Only once did bird-land go silent, during my last morning heavy rain confined me to the tent, but it was the energetic call of song birds which told me it was time to depart.

Before my journey commenced, I encountered the realities of the avian beach, where angels wings littered the foreshore : stripped of flesh, divorced pairs of wings, perhaps the work of skuas.  Five peewits mobbed a buzzard ; a heron leaving the Strath, frantically avoids being pulled down by gulls, its elongated body bending unnaturally in utter terror desperately dodging the beaks of kindred.

beach-dream

Stooping for water at Allt nam Beist (Burn of the Beast) there is a huge splash nearby.  I quickly turn to see an Osprey breaking from the water, a fish hanging from its feet, it ascends and turns to the south : I did not exist.

The loch is fringed with deposits of sand, beneath which is sealed peat, erosion reveals the stumps of ancient trees.  No arboreal fantasy but revelations of possibilities.  Moments later, fragments of flint, reveal themselves from where these deposits are being gradually worn by the gently lapping waters.  The forms of the worked flints suggest they were left by hunter-gatherers who also rested at this location, perhaps 7000 years ago.  We probably drank from the same burn, in which small fishes still leap to catch flies, and rested at the shores of the same loch : I almost heard the whisper of their voices.

Abandoned farmsteads in the uplands were prevalent, part of a  widely known story of the depopulation (the deliberate removal of people and change of landscapes) of Caithness and Sutherland, and much of Scotland.  Sheep played their unwitting role in this story, introduced by landowners, with landscapes and communities being re-organised in part to accommodate them on the land in the 19th century.  It seemed appropriate to sleep where the sheep had been penned, so for one night my tent nestled within a small sheep fold.

cotton-grass

The low red sandstone walls gave some shelter to the wind which whipped along the Lochside.  Then I wondered, it was a very small pen, perhaps too small for sheep.  Earlier inhabitations are also found in the uplands, hut circles perhaps four thousand years old, within which I think I slept.   I wanted to mark my brief dwelling at this spot, cotton grass, evocative of fleece, nestled in the cracks of the walls.

aumbry

Many of the longhouses (and shielings) have stone boxes built into the walls.  Aumbries perhaps for cool storage of foodstuffs, or safe display of treasured items.  Years later the soil reveals, the signs of former fertility, a flush of nitrogen, often ring such settlements, a sharp reminder of our loss : stinging nettles (Urtica dioica).

Those rich deposits can also be found in buildings which have been abandoned as sheep shelters – hard won ground, hard won places, lives and loves no more… !

hearth

Deer-land, dear-land, our-land.  For much of my journey I traveled through deer-land.  At first it was their multiple footprints, along shared tracks, least resistance across ground that you would sink deep in peat and water, still used by estates.  Then I encountered the herd, aggregations of stags and larger groups of does.  They watched, with flick of ear and rise of nose, my every move.  Brief silhouette on skyline, flash of white tail, gone.  A few watched longer, the last small groups of does and hinds, tenderness grazed patiently if I kept a respectful distance.  I continued to follow the deer paths, a different form of route along edge of river and burn, their path cutting more directly across loop and meander, a quicker more confident travel which I learned to trust.   One night I was woken by the grumph and roar of stags, so close it seemed they were next to the tent.

iron

Shelter can be found in these lands, a range of corrugated iron bothies, huts and boat houses.  Often a focus for hunting or fishing they are open to all who respects the spaces provided.  In some cases, a chronology of rubbish suggests it has been 20 years since properly used.  Brown rusted skeletal beds, and broken seats greened with age, a reminder of comfort and company long afforded by such places to those who make the journey.

bothy

A tradition of visitation was marked upon the wall of the few I visited, written in pencil, etched in pen and scratched with pen knives, a stratigraphy of dates and names going back to at least the 1930’s.

marks

R Hendry 11th May 1931 Killed Fox Last Night – there is a reality to this landscape, foraged, browsed, managed and changed with time.

My preconceptions of the Flow Country as empty lands was being challenged by the encounters, with the liquid landscape, I could only readily traverse where others had created track and bridge.  Many of the burns were wide and deep enough that a bridge was needed to cross, and if not maintained routes will shut and landscapes become less accessible.  In one case, I balanced precariously, with a full pack, on old railway sleepers which were the only remains of the long gone timber bridge.  Upon which I couldn’t turn back and if I continued was likely to take an early bath.  They bounced and swayed as I slowly edged over, not believing I actually made it to the other side.

bridge

Lichen colonises wood-land above peat quenched waters. They lead us to places of contemplation.  The aggregation of the fishers bothy, the curation and discard of meaningful journeys.

assemblages

Around the huts, slowly sinking into the peat, clinker hulks rotting on the shores of distant lochs.  Small rowing boats, in the main, but evocative of the sea and a wider tradition of boat building.  Rose headed copper rivets, copper nails, plank and cauking, paddles and playful catch.

clinker

For a moment, upland water, settles on the hull of the boat.  I drift, carried on the thermals, dip and rise like the cycle of the swifts, and soar in the gyre.

copper-nails

Woodland disappears beneath peat and the hooves of herbivores. I flow, return to the source.

clinker-beach

We are riveted to the changes of the foreshore, inescapably we are bound to the cycle.

sand

Imagine if we should be able to see worlds in grains of sand…

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In July 2016 I walked solo from Thurso on the north coast of Caitness south, through farmlands and into the watery interior of the Flow Country. Camping for four nights I arrived five days later in Dunbeath. The walk was my approach to developing content for a joint exhibition, with Ian Giles and Andy Heald, at North Lands.  It resulted in a series of photographic prints, texts and sculptures by me which responded to the encounters.

installations

Thanks to Dunbeath Preservation Trust for kindly providing accommodation at the Old School House in the days before and after the journey.  Many thanks to North Lands for their support and to Andy and Ian for the collaboration and companionship to produce the exhibition There Is An Equilibrium Here…

Patarei – darkness and light

Patarei  1

From outside,

summer sun graffiti regeneration,

walls white washed realities,

gives sense of warmth and light.

Brief sun glimpses,

trapped in small world exercise yards,

never escape glare of guards.

So try hiding in the warren of corridors

and mouldering rooms.

So try finding the darkness pierced by light.

Patarei Window Light

Fallen signs of medication and disease.

Treatment of deteriorating conditions.

Patarei ward

Traces of nameless and named remained.

Curios,

cabinets,

tidied and arranged

Rooms rummaged,

staged and reworked,

towards artful forgetting

of impositions from above.

Were their ever moments of humour and love?

We linger on,

traces of presences.

Patarei Sight and Sound

We shudder at,

spaces of absence.

Patarei Shadow and Light

We are poised,

semi-ruinous,

Patarei darkness

threatened by the realities of

forgetting

and

decay. 

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Patarei was one of the most disorienting and disturbing heritage sites I had visited.  Patarei operated as a prison till 2002 and is described ‘as the most notorious prison in Estonia.’  It was recently shortlist nominated as one of the most threatened heritage sites in Europe and as such I thought this post may be of interest in the context of the Europa Nostra nomination by The Estonian Heritage Society.  The images were taken in August 2011, and I am not sure what state it is currently in, but yet to this day, when I think of the visit to Patarei, it still makes me shudder.  It was not always clear what had been left by prisoners, and to what extent it represented their experiences, or where later interventions of art or looting had modified the rooms and corridors.

I remember being struck by learning that Patarei (in 2011) catered for stag and hen parties (providing drink, food and drink) : with the unwitting bride or groom having to spend some time in a cell during the evening.  A form of entertainment which I was uncomfortable with : yet it was an attempt to ‘generate revenue’, to find a reuse for a heritage site.  Like many heritage sites it faces the challenges of finding new uses but in the current economic climate probably will not find sufficient core funding to keep running without some other revenues.  Finding reuse is perhaps even more challenging with a site which could be described as relating to ‘dark-heritage’.  Difficult and painful places, which we must remember, and through which have to reconcile tensions from the past.

There is a deeper story to Patarei, having been built as a military fortress at the instruction of Russian Czar Nicholas I from 1829 to 1840.  The fortress was then converted into a prison, between 1920 and 2005, and became a powerful symbol of national resistance in Estonia to both the communist and Nazi regimes.

Information on Patarei which strikingly sums up the aspirations for historical transformation and regeneration as:

‘This unique example of finest military engineering and architecture of early 19th century has finally, in the 21st century, changed from a longtime symbol of repressions and evil to a favourite hangout for the residents of the nation’s capital and visitors alike, a multifunctional place to spend one’s leisure time and have fun.’

A real challenge in these times perhaps, but I hope the site is not lost through further decay and neglect. Patarei is a remarkable part of the heritage of Estonia, and importantly it contributes to, and resonates in many ways with, the broader history of Europe which we all share.

More about the Patarei Sea Fortress Europa Nostra shortlisting

Fire and Moon

BuildNBurn 13

Fire and Moon are a powerful combination.  There is no doubting the importance both had in the past, both moon and fire were clearly incorporated into rituals and ceremonies for thousands of years.  What may be less apparent is the power of groups of people building together, a communal effort to create not only structures but more importantly lasting memories of striking events.

BuildNBurn1A week of preparations, involved felling trees, and hand breaking trenches through bedrock to hold the timbers.

BuildNBurn 2Posts were decorated using pigments found from local sources.

BuildNBurn 4Special objects were made in preparation of the events which were to follow.

BuildNBurn 3Everything was set for the arrival of extraordinary figures.

BuildNBurn 5Preparations completed, we were ready…

BuildNBurn 6for transformations through fire…

BuildNBurn 8for remembering ancient stories of the landscape beyond…

BuildNBurn 7for remembering the people who had explored before us…

BuildNBurn 10for measuring things in a new light…

BuildNBurn 9 for transformation, to find a different beauty in wood.

BuildNBurn 11An illumination cloaked in possible pasts.

BuildNBurn 12An intensity of insight, focused at night.

BuildNBurn 14Fire beckoned darkness and called another light.

BuildNBurn 15A monument captured a lunar moment…

BuildNBurn 16 … of rhythms hunted through the ages.

BuildNBurn 17  Memories,

of figures and festivities, fire and moon blended,

blazes.

BuildNBurn 19Could never be revealed in mornings traces ?

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The BuildNBurn approach has been developed with Kenny Brophy and Corinna Goeckeritz.  For some partial insights into other BuildNBurn events, please look at:

Burning the Circle 2013

and

Burning the Circle 2014

Please contact me, if you have any ideas for other BuildNBurn events, we are happy to collaborate.

The BuildNBurn presented above was produced as part of the Joseph Anderson 150 Festival organised in collaboration by the University of Glasgow, Cardiff University, Northlight Heritage, the Yarrows Heritage Trust, Venture North and Northshore Pottery. The Joseph Anderson 150 Festival was supported with funding from the E.ON Camster Community Fund, supported by Foundation Scotland and by Eneco and Venture North. 

The BuildNBurn performance ‘Joseph Anderson Presents The Mysteries of Prehistories’ could not have happened without the support, hardwork and creative efforts of: Tom (Performance and Build); Andrew Baines (Performance); Cara Berger (Technical Advice); Nan Bethune (Storytelling); Alex Carnes (Performance and Build); James Dilley (Performance); Helen Green (Performance and Build); Steve (the sound man) Mills (Audio);  and Brianna Robertson (Song and Technical Advice).  Thanks also to Ian Giles for providing two carved oak plaques for carbonisation.  Many thanks to Islay MacLeod and Catherine MacLeod for providing copious quantities of wood and putting their faith in the BuildNBurn team.  A special thanks to Amelia Pannett who made Joseph Anderson 150 Festival happen and dealt with too many challenges during the week : but we got there in the end !

Druid Landscapes

‘They are the faults of archaeology rather than art’

LunulaEarlier this year I was privileged to see The Druids: Bringing in the Mistletoe by George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel (1890) in the excellent Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.  Only seeing the original painting does it proper justice and I urge you to visit the Kelvingrove to see its full wonder.

The DruidsThe painting was supported by interpretative signage, one of which explained:

Hornel Landscape Needless to say this required further investigation.

In his biography of Hornel, Smith notes in relation to the composition of The Druids,

The half-sphere of the moon on the background is reflected in the curve of the hill and the shapes of the priestly insignia, all echoing the cup-and-ring markings‘.

Looking at the Druid Landscape, Smith underplays the extent to which the lunar has been evoked through the cool silvery quality of the light and exaggerated topography of the hills upon which the Druids process.  Rather it as if they wander from and across the very surface of the moon itself, in turn implying the Druids emerged directly from the cup-and-ring markings themselves and those who produced them.

A similar blurring between the realities of topographic forms and the layers of mythological liminality which we inhabit can also be seen in an earlier work by Hornel, The Brownie of Blednoch (1889).  In the background we can again see a full moon resonating cup-and-ring marks.

The Brownie of Blednoch (c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationGallovoidian shepherd beast, beard of circles and cup-marked eyes.  A manifestation of the living rock, tor like outcrop, it dominates a landscape (which would typically be portrayed as a pastoral idyll), above which swoop dark clouds suggesting eldar forms and witch-like figures.

Smith emphasises the importance to these works of the discovery of cup-and-ring markings near Kirkcudbright in 1886 and says,

Hornel searched for other markings in the rocks in the region

during which searches, the idea for The Druids came to him.  Smith continues to explain that on a visit by Hornel to some carvings with an old man, they returned to the old man’s house, where according to an account by A S Hartrick (1939),

….he took from a shelf a small china bowl in which was a small bluish stone like bead*.  Holding this in his hand, in a few minutes he seemed to go off in a sort of trance, and then began to describe,…,a vision of a procession of priests with sacred instruments and cattle which were somehow connected with the cup-and-ring markings.  I cannot remember the details of it; all I can say is the vision appeared genuine, and that he was not drunk. After a time he became normal again, but would not talk anymore on the subject.‘  *I like to imagine this could be a Bronze Age fiance bead most often having been found associated with burials.

The particular cup-and-ring markings which Smith says first inspired Hornel were published in an article by F R Coles (1888).  He explains ‘Some of the most remarkable of these Petroglyphs were those found by Mr E A Hornel and myself on the 23rd February, 1887‘ (ibid 44) and were portrayed as a photo-lithograph:

High BanksIn the same paper Coles reveals ‘While preparing this I hear to-day (14th September, 1887) of the discovery of yet more and more peculiar petroglyphs on the same piece of rock at High Banks by Mr Hornel and Mr Thompson.’ (ibid 46)

Other papers on the discovery at High Banks reveal a few further details about the nature of the discoveries.  In a paper by Hamilton (1887) it is recorded that

‘Mr Rigg, who has been tenant of this farm for many years, states that a great many of such carvings were destroyed about fifty years ago, when the surrounding stone dykes were built from the quarry here;’ (ibid 157)

So it is likely without archaeological intervention the High Bank rock art may have been destroyed completely by now.  Hamilton explains:

The Lady Isabella Hope, of St Mary’s Isle, who is proprietor of this farm, has kindly consented to allow this part of the field to be stripped of turf,…

Hamilton portrays the same panel of rock art as in Coles but explain his paper was

…illustrated by sketches made for me by an artist friend, Mr E Hornel, of Kirkcudbright‘ (ibid 152)

So not only did Hornel first identify the carvings but he also recorded them.

High Banks PSAS 1887 In a later paper, Hamilton elaborated on the earlier memories of Mr Rigg:

 ‘and there must have been many more, for to the east of it a quarry has been worked about fifty years ago, to procure stones wherewith to build adjacent dikes, and the tenant, then a boy, but now a hale old man, distinctly remembers carvings like those now described being visible on the surface of the rock quarried.’ (Hamilton 1889, 130)

He also reveals the extent of the exavations:

Last autumn we carried out our intentions, and laid bare a large portion of glaciated rock. Towards the centre of the northern side of this knoll, from which we removed a foot and a half of soil and turf, we exposed a great many more of theses sculptings‘ (ibid 125)

The 1889 Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland paper has a series of black and white engravings of the newly discovered rock art

High Banks Engravingand about which George Hamilton notes:

These engravings are made from photographs taken from casts of the portions of sculptured rock-surfaces, obtained with much trouble by Messrs M’Kie, Hornell, and Thomson, members of the Local Natural History and Antiquarian Society. These casts are to be seen in the Local Museum at Kirkcudbright, and in the National Museum of Antiquities, Edinburgh.’

So in the late 19th century, rock art about 5000 years old, was being uncovered, casts of which were made, of which photographs were taken, of which an engraving was produced, which is now represented digitally !

With such a tantalising set of resonances from the past, a road trip was then in order to investigate further.  On the way to The Stewarty Museum in Kirkudbright there was good omen that cup and ring marks still resonates with significance to this day

Contemporary Cup and RingsAnd upon asking about the plaster casts at The Stewarty Museum, I was quickly pointed to:

Paddle Interpretation‘made by early copper prospectors to invoke the help of the sun-god in their search’

And thus I quickly looked outside to see a nest of carved stones sheltering together through the ages: piled up in front of the casts, quern stones and fonts, Medieval cross and prehistoric rock art reworked as architectural elements of later buildings.  A glass and steel framed disparate assemblage of esoteric forms revealing : a compelling urge to collect and display over the ages?

Cluster of Stone WorkYet, the most elaborate cast slab has been set aside, finding no shelter,

familiar but forlorn.

Cast 1Behind the cast slabs an inscription with further details :

witness to M’Kie then curator of the museum.

Hidden LettersSo where did these casts derive ?

Landscape 1Upon hillside with pastoral views

High Banks ViewOverlooking sea and routeway.

SeaviewsSituated in a changing world, alive with movements.

Landscape 2With depths of skies and shifts of perspective.

High Banks ViewsHigh Banks 2High Banks 3High Banks Rock ArtCasts derived from rock,

and its seductive pretense of permanence.

High Banks 4Stone reworked and represented, filling the void of times lost.

High Banks InterpretationFive thousand year old forms, copied and transformed.

Cup MarkingsIn the library of Broughton House, the residence of Hornel in Kirkcudbright, there are letters which reveal another dimension to this trajectory.  Twenty seven letters written to Hornel by artist and archaeologist (or is it archaeologist and artist) F R Coles – replies missing – provide a one sided insight to a friendship hungry for discovery and portrayal, a glimpse of hobbied obsessions and tentative grasps at Druid spectres.

In a letter of 2 May 1887 Coles writes to Hornel

Hornels Spade WorkI was up yesterday at High Banks rock and saw traces of your spadework

It is also clear then that prior to producing paintings incorporating cup-and-ring marks, not only had Hornel been exploring the Galloway hills searching for exposed rock outcrops bearing prehistoric rock art but when discovered had been illustrating them too.  In the case of High Banks, he had also been excavating to uncover more rock art panels : very much then artist as archaeologist.

In the same letter to Hornel, F R Coles sketches three cupmarks in the corner, a simple trace of his artistic background, and in the earlier letters refers to cup-and-ring is markings written in full.

Coles Letters

Not much later F R Coles would move to Edinburgh where he was Assistant Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland from 1897 to 1911.  Five years since the original discovery at High Banks, letters from F R Coles (now as archaeologist) continued to Hornel.

Hornels AddressThey reveal another dimension of the ways in which cup-and-ring markings were being portayed by F R Coles, rather than written in full he uses shorthand symbols for cup-and-ring markings.  No other abbreviation, or short hand is evident for long or frequently used phrases, only the archaeological subject is reduced : a form of categorical abstraction only too regularly used in the work of the archaeologist.

The mark of the archaeologist is, for many, the excavation trench : a theatrical arena which temporarily opens the veil between past and present.  Powerful indeed then that the presencing of the rock art at High Banks was through Hornel’s spade work, without which they would never have been revealed and transformed – cast, photographed, engraved, digitised – (re)presented through the ages.

Yet ironically, it is the artists striking imagery of the Druids or the Brownie inhabiting the moonscapes of Galloway, which more actively invites us to dwell in the same landscapes as the rock art may have emerged in – 5000 years ago when it was produced, even then a place thick with myths and legends.

Paradoxically, a richness of cultural expression, copied and transformed, can also  be reduced by an archaeologist to the simple potency of

.andO. & o


Many thanks to Denise Briggs (The Stewarty Museum), Sarah Jackson and Sheila Faichney (NTS, Broughton House) for helping with my investigations.

The phrase ‘They are the faults of archaeology rather than art‘ derives from a review in the Glasgow Herald (20th Feb, 1892) of the 1891 painting Summer which was particularly poorly received in some quarters of the press when first shown in public (Quoted in Smith 2010.)

In fairness, F R Coles was engaged in archaeological practice at a time when there was an overwhelming need to identify and record archaeology.  His work stands out at the time for his large number of illustrations of sites which he recorded effectively in no small part through his skills as an artist.

Hornel the artist (informed by the visceral experiences of landscape and archaeology) produced The Druids which, despite its power as a painting, may actually appeal to a limited audience.  In contrast, the simple abstraction to . & o by F R Coles, in part anticipated later scholars views that cup-and-ring marks were potentially very powerful as it is their very simplicity of form which allows multiple meanings and interpretations.

The image of The Brownie of Blednoch is from the BBC

More information about High Banks can be found at RCAHMS Canmore site.

Coles, F R 1888 ‘The recent Cup and Ring Mark Discoveries in Kirkcudbrightshire. (Abridged.)’ Trans Dum Gal Nat His Antiq Soc 5, 41 – 52.

Coles, F R 1895 ‘A record of the cup- and ring-markings in the stewarty of Kirkcudbright’ Proc Soc Antiq Scot 29, 67-91.

Hamilton, G 1887 ‘Notices of rock-sculpturings of cups and circles in Kirkcudbrightshire’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 21, 157-8.

Hamilton, G 1889 ‘Notice of additional groups of carvings of cups and circles on rock surfaces at High Banks, Kirkcudbrightshire’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 23, 125-30.

Hartrick, A S 1939 A Painter’s Pilgrimage Through Fifty Years. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P.

Smith, B 2010 Hornel. The Life and Works of Edward Atkinson Hornel. Atelier Books: Edinburgh.

Door of Secrets

Hiding in the shadows is a metal studded door.

Shadows

Door

It is located on the west face of Pittenweem Tolbooth Steeple, Fife.  A building which dates back to the late 16th century and according to Stell (1982) it is one of only 20 tolbooths in Scotland which date to before 1707.

I was drawn to the door due to its old and weathered character but was soon attracted by letters scratched on its surface.

At one point is the date 1829.

DatesFurther below is inscribed in the wood:

NamesJ BeGole

1854

I am not sure, why these dates have been singled out.  And, if I am reading it correctly, who was J BeGole.  Did they live in Pittenweem?  Or was this a clandestine act of a traveler, perhaps only in the harbour for a matter of hours?

Subsequently, some rapid research, produced a photo on RCAHMS of the Tolbooth, taken in 1882 (at 1 pm) by archaeologist Erskine Beveridge.

Erskine Beveridge RCAHMS ImageBeveridge had been born in Dunfermline in 1851, three years before J BeGole was scratched on the Tolbooth door.

I wonder…

was the name visible to him when he photographed the Tolbooth,

and separated by only 28 years, did it resonate with any meaning to him?

I assume Beveridge would have realised that the door led into the jail cells within the Tolbooth.

Key HoleIf so, he may also have been aware of the stories of those who were locked in the cells in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  The RCAHMS records make no reference to this, while the Places of Workship record largely focuses on architectural details.

It is only in broader sources that you find out in 1704

Beatrix Lang,

Thomas Brown

and

Janet Cornfoot

were accused of Witchcraft

and subject to torture : behind the Door of Secrets.

I have not had time, yet, to find details of primary sources relating to these stories and their veracity.  However, it is clear that there is a horrific account of what may have happened.  Additionally it appears that in 2012 there was vote in the community as whether to erect a memorial to those accused of witchcraft who had suffered.

As always, knowledge and meaning of the past, is partial and diverse: some know of archaeology, history and heritage, some wish to remember and some wish to forget.

It would be greatly appreciated, if anybody has any further information, or suggestions as to the associations or meanings of the dates and name on the door of secrets dating to the 19th century.

But, perhaps, then the door should now reveal its secrets

and have

B Lang 1704, T Brown 1704 and J Cornfoot 1705

(and all the other names of those who may have suffered inside)

inscribed on it ?

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Stell, G 1982 ‘The earliest tolbooths: a preliminary account‘, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 111, 445-453.

And other doors which have cause me to ponder:

Beautiful Door

Time Travel, Through The Bronze Door

Door Way to The Imagination