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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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…

—————————————————————————————————————————–

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…