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…

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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

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

Borne of Stone

Borne of Stone, between Sky and Water, was what occurred at the site.

The site was one I had long heard tell of.  It had intrigued me,

with accounts of mysterious carved heads on a large stone block on Craigmaddie Muir.

Approaching the site revealed two things.

It is situated in a striking basin which focuses attention on the large rock form and

Basin

it is located at a point which allow views across the Clyde Valley to the south.  Yet

Overlooking

is only a few meters away from higher ground to the north which affords views to Ben Lomond and the Highlands beyond.

Wider

Yet, these views to the north are obscured, when you are at the site, by the basin of rock it sits within.  Scales of landscape nested at this location giving further potency to the boulders distinctive form.

World Hidden

Moving closer, a proliferation of graffiti becomes apparent. Little triumphs from mortality, names and dates, still clinging from the vagaries of geological time.

Horned Head

As you move around, it reveals the dolmen like arrangement of stones which form an irregular channel running broadly south west to north east.

Passage

As far as I can tell, there has been previously identified nine carved heads:

Head A

Head A

Head B

Head B

Head C

Head C

Head D detail

Head D

Heads E and F

Heads E and F

Heads G and H

Heads G and H

Head I

Head I

Each is distinct, with particular morphological characteristics, and each, with wear, chip  and lichen veils upon the rock surface, has signs of antiquity.  As has been noticed before, all the heads (apart from one on the upper face of the upper stone Head I) are executed on the easterly portions of the rocks.  The western ends of the stones are unembellished, headless.

This pattern suggests there was a deeper understanding about where on the rocks it was appropriate to carve these heads and as such they may have been composed or understood collectively in some way.  Together they give a sense of a pantheon of individuals, each perhaps with a unique name or association in the past.  For example, it was suggested by Alcock (1977) that Head A has a horn extending from its right side, and another may have existed on its left but is missing due to breakage. As such, he suggests that Head A could represent Cernunnos.

Closer scrutiny reveals three other possible carved heads.

One (Head K) is located on the upper eastern part of the south facing stone.   It watches over you as you climb up to the top stone to visit head I.  Using a series of distinct stone cut steps (which are well worn suggesting some age) you ascend.

Elevation

When you reach the top the highland views to the North are again revealed.

World Revealed

Watching this ascent, to the land of northern skies, is another visage (Head K), nestling amongst other incised lines.

Marks

It has a distinctive mouth, cheeks appear to bulge, eyes half shut, almost smiling or grimacing at those who ascend.  Other lines above could be representations of horns or hair : but perhaps could be other earlier forms of lettering.

Head K

Head K

Another head (J) is closer towards the ground and retains a focus on the eastern end of the rocks.  Head J is located as you enter the space between the rocks, lower towards the ground at the corner between two rock faces.  It is worn, but has a pronounced nose, possible mouth, eyes and brow ridges distinguishable.

Head J

Head J

The third possible head (Head L) is within the rock passage.  The rock has been prepared to create a rectangular plaque upon which is Head L.  Rather it is more of a torso, which may also have decoration running from the neck across the chest.  Similar in form to the figure on the top (Head I), side on with marked profile, and with a variety of symbols incised to its right.  It like the figure on top (Head I) faces to the south west,  perhaps evoking distant lands.

Head L

Head L

Discovery of these three possible additional heads support the trend in overall distribution being focused at one end, and perhaps emphasises the potential significance which movement through the stones may have had.  Travelling from the north-east (from a pantheon of deities) to the south-west could have been deeply symbolic and perhaps restricted to certain people or at certain times of the year.

Who knew of this site two thousand years ago, who was allowed access to it, who was allowed to carve on it, who was allowed to pass through stone, or ascend to the sky?

Whoever, two thousand years later, there is still a reality encapsulated in our bodies, some shared (albeit diverse) frames of reference…

Head D

The passage is narrow and awkward, pitching the body at odd angles..

Travel Through Stone

Distorted, you edge towards the light…

Light at the End

Arriving at the mouth, awaiting to be spewn out.  In disorientation…

Disorientation

…I realised, as I splashed out into the sunlight, that below the rock passage was standing water.  I had travelled through rock and over water.

Water Below

Borne of Stone, between Sky and Water, was what occurred at the site.

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Leslie Alcock wrote about the site in 1977, traditionally called Auld Wives’ Lifts.

There is a slightly uncertain tone to his writing, perhaps from finding himself sandwiched between Ure’s accounts of Druids and a nagging doubt as to whether these were relatively modern embellishments he was publishing about.  He concluded however ‘Whatever is thought of these arguments, one conclusion seems inescapable: that the faces on the Lifts deserve more of archaeologists than to be overlooked or dismissed out of hand.’

There is no doubt, to my mind, that this site has had significance in the later prehistoric and / or early historic period, potentially a location of cult and ceremony.  It certainly has some resonance with sites such as Dunadd where rituals of place and kingship may have been undertaken in the early historic period which incorporated other forms of carving.

Indeed, the close proximity of Auld Wives Lifts to earlier ceremonial monuments has long been recognised, with a Neolithic chambered long cairn only 500 metres to the east.   At that location, a similar inter-relationship with landscapes to the north and south is also experienced.  Also with the chambers in the cairn, people in the past would also have experienced travelling from light to dark and being returned to the light again.  We know from sites elsewhere that people in the later prehistoric and early historic periods revisted and reused Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial sites.  It is possible then that how Auld Wives Lifts was understood and was used two thousand years ago made reference to earlier sites and rites.

Alcock, L 1977 ‘The Auld Wives’ Lifts’, Antiquity 51, 117-23.

Ure, D 1783 The History of Rutherglen and East-Kilbride; Published With a View to Promote the Study of Antiquity and Natural History.

Further information can be found at RCAHMS Canmore.

If you are going to visit the site, please do not touch or modify the carvings, they may have been there for 2000 years.

Past Inspired Sculpture 5

– stand upon
this footprint made for everyone

The Stones of Scotland was created in 2000 to celebrate / commemorate the Scottish Parliament being re-established but also attempted to mark its spirit.

Stone CircleIt is a potent sculptural piece by artist George Wylie, which is redolent with Scotland’s past and full of hopes for its future.

Stone and steel rung around a solitary Scots pine: young and fragile in the urban realities of the modern era.

Thirty two stones were gathered into the circle, drawing on the geological diversity of the country.  Many show signs of quarrying, and working, seemingly in different states of finish, presencing the industry and craft which has contributed to the heritage and character of Scotland.

Old Red Sandstone

From East Ayrshire, a fossil pocked surface of old red sandstone, splits visible celebrating the quarrying, the mining, the sculptural versatility of a material.  Evoking tenements within which many generations of families have lived within.

Polished GraniteFrom Aberdeenshire, the polished granite, cool, smooth but hard won, reliable.

Hugh MacDiarmid

These fragments of Scotland’s regions, drawn together, like the words of verse, are bound by the lines from poet Hugh MacDiarmid: a celebration of our differences which we share.

Incantation

And also in the centre of the circle, is a stone with a foot print carved on it.  Evoking the sites and ceremonies of the early Historic period of Scotland.

The words before it  ‘…whose the tread that fits this mark?’

come from a poem ‘Incantation‘ by Tessa Ransford.

       *                                                    *                                                                 *

Ten years later from when the above photos were taken, I revisited the piece in the fading twilight of a winters day.

Most visibly marking the changes of the past ten years

was the solitary Scots pine

10 years laterTaller, fuller, I was pleased to see it had grown and matured since I last visited.

In another ten years, I will visit again.

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The foot print in stone can be paralleled most strikingly at Dunadd, in Kilmartin. The seat of the Dalriadic Scots, it is said the ceremony to crown their kings required the individual to place their bare foot on the rock: a real connection to land.  The depth of the footprint sculpture is a powerful device suggesting, with the slight wear on the rock this single act would have, to all those who took part a long time depth to the ceremony, and deep connection to the land.

For more examples of Past Inspired Sculptures:

Past Inspired Sculpture 1

Past Inspired Sculpture 2

Past Inspired Sculpture 3

Past Inspired Sculpture 4

Memory Sculpture

There Was No Need Of Celtic Cross

Or Sculptors Art for Me

To Wake Membrance of the Past

Or Turn My Thoughts To Thee…

DSC_0138McLaren MonumentMcLaren Bronze

Bronze Flow———————————————————————————————————————

The text above is from Priscilla McLaren for her husband Duncan McLaren upon the memorial overlooking Loch Awe.  The memorial sits at the mouth of Inverstrae, upon the footings of a longhouse, where he stayed for two years when a boy: ‘He was born poor, and never forgot or strove to conceal the fact’ (Mackie 1888 v1, 8).

McLaren MonumentPriscilla McLaren was founder of the Scottish division of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage.  Duncan McLaren was a liberal reformer who was elected Lord Provost of Edinburgh and then served as MP for Edinburgh.   Further details of Priscilla McLaren (1815 – 1906) and Duncan McLaren (1800-1886) can be found via archives hub.  The engraving of the McLaren monument is from the 1888 ‘The Life and Work of Duncan McLaren’ by John Beveridge Mackie, which can be found at Archive Org.

The McLaren monument is an exquisite piece of sculpture but is clearly deteriorating with conservation management issues.  It was produced by Mitchell Wilson architects of Edinburgh and made by W Beveridge, Sculptor, Edinburgh, probably at a workshop on Dalry Road just before 1900.

Sawney Bean – coffin carrier

Sawney Bean - coffin carrierSawney Bean, the legendary Scottish cannibal, who is said to have lived in a cave on the Ayrshire coast with his family in the late 15th century: preying on over 1000 passing travelers.  Artist Adam McEwen’s ‘Sawney Bean’ exhibition at The Modern Institute playfully explores the mythology, materiality and geography of ‘Sawney Bean’ as mediated through personal biography.  Most striking perhaps is the poignant representation in graphite of a wooden coffin carrier found in a family barn on the Ayrshire coast.

Ballantrae - Coffin  Carrier

Whithorn and the Machars Heritage

Pilgrim CoinFor centuries people have been coming to the cave, a place of contemplation and prayer on the Machars.  Many have inscribed crosses, names and initials on the walls of the cave.  Some set coins in cracks in the rock which tarnish and slowly corrode.

Offering Crosses and StonesOthers place stones with dedications on them, around the cave, and a few lean crosses against its walls.

To reach this special place traditionally you would travel along the pilgrimage trail through the Machars via Whithorn. This long association started with St Ninian’s mission in AD 397, then resulting in pilgrimage to a shrine at Whithorn from the 7th century onwards.

Pilgrims JourneyFor there protection many of these important Medieval stones were gathered together at the museum in Whithorn.  For over 30 years The Whithorn Trust have been researching the archaeology and heritage of the Machars and revealed some amazing things. Most recently they have undertaken an exciting project investigating the archaeology of the Machars.

It was however announced earlier this year that The Whithorn Trust and Whithorn Story Visitor Centre may be closed due a lack of funding, a situation which leaves the future of this significant heritage centre and many important artefacts it curates uncertain. Importantly for the visitor experience The Whithorn Story Visitor Centre forms part of a hub with the Historic Scotland Whithorn Priory and Museum.   The stones in the museum were redisplayed in 2004 in partnership between Historic Scotland and the Whithorn Trust, with Heritage Lottery Funding.

An important relationship between people and the heritage of the Machars is in danger of being severed.

Please help by adding your support to the petition to save The Whithorn Trust.

or add your support through the facebook

Save The Whithorn Trust

In the current economic and political climate, we need to value and support our museums and heritage centers.  Like other forms of art and culture, which make our society far richer and more vibrant, they can be soft targets at such times.  As places of communal memory, we are poorer without them and our relationships to the landscapes we inhabit will be even more difficult to maintain, grow and enhance.

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The Whithorn Priory and Museum micro site has further complementary information about Whithorn and the Machars.

Time Travel, through the Bronze Door

Bronze DoorThis patched and worn door left my mouth hanging open,

Temple of Romulus

when I was told that it was original to the building, the Temple of Romulus, in the Roman Forum, Rome.

If so, it is testimony to over 1600 years,

of shutting and opening,

of people passing through time…

Imaginary Island – journey through the south west

Ailsa CraigThe final part of my journey through the art, heritage and landscapes of south west Scotland took me to a place which I had yearned to go for half a lifetime.  I have gazed countless times on the striking form of this rock, from the Ayrshire coast, from the Rhins of Galloway, from the Isle of Arran, from Kintyre…

Twilight Island…and still it captures my imagination.  From certain angles, in certain light conditions, I swear I have seen the top of a vast head, with distinct brow ridges revealed, breaking through the water, some giant figure striding across the ocean floor.  At other times, standing on the shore, cloud and mist prevents you seeing the island.   Wondering (a rock so seemingly vast, making it difficult to comprehend how it can disappear completely) : perhaps it slips beneath the sea !

Sinking BeneathWhen I could not see it, I would often find myself lost in reverie (perhaps in an unproductive meeting !), wondering what people in the ancient past had thought about this place.  Was it taboo for them to land on what may have been considered a sacred peak ?  Or did they travel across the waters once a year to light a huge beacon on the top ?  Did they cross seasonally, when time and tide allowed, to gather birds and eggs ?

Distant IslandYears ago, my imagination fired, I began to investigate the possibility of excavating on the island: what secrets would surely be revealed !  I read fascinated about the recovery of burials from Macanall’s cave (when being cleared of guano in the 19th century), the presence of a mysterious keep on the hillside, and the disturbance of an earlier ecclesiastical site during the building of the lighthouse and associated foghorns.

And then of course there are the stones from here which are much coveted across parts of the world (from the 19th century the vast majority of the worlds curling stones were made from rock quarried on the island and still made by Kays of Scotland).  As these stones traveled, so did people in the 19th and 20th centuries, a diaspora some of whom would have traveled from Scottish ports and left with this milestone growing smaller in the distance…

Sea Crossing

So finally I left my imagination on the shore, sailed the twelve kilometers across the sea, climbed the 338 m to the top, and gained a completely different perspective of Ailsa Craig.

Different PerspectiveThe reality of the island, a bizarre blend of cultural dereliction and the teaming joyous energy of the birds, but always the deep pulse of the sea.

Bones and BagsThe top was burrowed and nested, a cycle of life and death, the thin soil mixed with large quantities of feather, bone (fish and bird) and plastics…!

Curling Stone and Seals

Towards the waters edge, on one side is the pile of rock for making curling stones, on the other seals lounge on the gravel spit.

Keep Sailing

The keep has clung perilously, for four hundred years, close to the cliffside…

Keep InsideThe stairs have partially collapsed, but careful navigation, reveals a ruinous upper floor…

Abandoned Belows

At the shore side, in the shattered remains of workshops, abandoned bellows…

Island Pathway

The carefully edged path, runs past the quarries, and leads to one of the foghorns…

FoghornIts door smashed and broken, paint faded, peeling…

DoorlessCloser to the lighthouse is the abandoned gasworks which powered the foghorns.

Abandoned Gasworks

The clean lines and white facade of the lighthouse, automated and unoccupied, however hides a deeper decay…

FacadeLines run through a ruinscape…

Lines in the RuinscapeBeyondOpen doors and smashed windows, collapsed plaster, abandoned rooms…

RevealedIn amongst the gloom, spears of light reveal glimpses of abandoned lives.

American RevolutionVoices of the past now drowned by the clamor of gulls…

Sea CliffsAnd so we depart, past the huge sea cliff, the noisy chat of gannets and guillemots, still resonating in my ears…

Receeding into the imagination

…I stare back,

imagination and reality now entangled…

…reverie will return me to here…

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There is so much more which I saw on the short time I spent on Ailsa Craig: I wish I could take you all there and show you. 
The journey to Ailsa Craig was on the wonderful M.F.V. Glorious which sails from Girvan harbour.  I cant recommend enough the adventure of visiting Ailsa Craig and crossing (if the weather is kind) on M.F.V. Glorious, it is a great experience.  Ailsa Craig is also a sensitive location (Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Protection Area) for breeding seabirds (36,000 breeding pairs of gannets, remarkable to watch), so please follow any guidance.   Depending on which way the wind blows it is not always possible to land…but the journey and views of the sea cliff and birds are still amazing.

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Stone Remembers – journey through the south west

For some reason I thought this site would be easy to find. I remember being amazed when I first heard about it, and that it was only (re)discovered in 1986.  Since then I have read about it several times, and day dreamed about seeing it many more.  Why ?

Cup and Ring Marks - Ballochmyle - northern panelBecause it comprises a significant concentration of prehistoric rock art (which I always love seeing !) and in contrast to many others I have seen (which are usually on more horizontal or sloping outcrops of rock) I knew it was an almost unique example of prehistoric rock art on a vertical cliff face.  It is special and I could not wait to finally meet this site…

but in my haste (and arrogance not checking my map properly first !) I found myself plunged into a world comprising river gorges and quarries: a startling blend of natural habitat and cultural legacy.

River On the rock faces, are modern embellishments,

Blue HandPoignant, earlier commemorations, with at least two inscriptions, to soldiers from the Gordon Highlanders,

Commemorative ScriptAnd hints at possible earlier activity* leaving marks on the rock…

Polissoir (? possible)*the grooved lines are reminiscent of a Polissoir (a rock used for polishing stone axe heads c 5500 years ago) but of course there may be other explanations !

As well as this variety of signs marking the red sandstone cliff faces, a more substantial legacy of past activity can readily be found.  Testimony to when, lines torn across our landscapes, great iron beasts spewing smoke needed to span the gorge of the River Ayr.  Still dominating one portion of the river gorge is the Ballochmyle Viaduct (when constructed the widest stone arch in the world) which was built between 1846 and 1848 to take the Glasgow to Carlisle (Nithsdale) railway line.

Ballochmyle ViaductIt is largely built of red sandstone quarried from nearby.  In amongst the woodlands, you can find the substantial vertical walled spaces from which these sandstone blocks were quarried.

QuarryThe more I looked amongst the sides of the gorge, the more I saw vertical faces in the rock which I thought were an ideal location for prehistoric rock art.

There must be rock art hereBut alas no. In defeat, I returned to the car and succumbed to modern technology, checking on my phone the CANMORE entry for the site: which confirmed my growing suspicion that it was only a stones throw from where I had parked the car !

So finally

Ballochmyle - southern panelLight and Dark at BallochmyleBallochmyle - northern panelTake it for read that the prehistoric rock art motiffs (approximately c 5500 – 4500 years old) are remarkable…!  Following my earlier exploration, more striking, however, was the landscape context of the rock art and the evidence for later embellishment.

In terms of evidence for later activity at the site, intriguingly it has been noted by JG Stevenson that there is another partially legible inscription ‘…ASAID’ over the prehistoric rock art.  Intriguing because it is suggested that the inscription is in a raised Lombardic-style of writing, which implies it is Medieval in date.  There are also carvings thought to be figures of deer which may also be Medieval.   Stevenson also noted that there is an inscription of 1751 on one rock panel. He wonders if clearly visited in the 18th century why the site was not known to antiquarians (and lost till 1986):  but the stone remembers two previous visits to the site.

My visit left no trace but my exploration of the wider landscape in which the rock art panels are situated meant I departed with a very different understanding than if had I simply gone straight to them.  Before I visited, I knew the rock art at Ballochmyle was in striking contrast to many other examples from Scotland (which are often on hill sides with more open views.)  I could readily see from maps that Ballochmyle was situated up a minor tributary off a significant river, but as it now easily reached from a main road most people will encounter the site in this way.  If, however, approached by a river side journey (as may well have occurred in the past) the choice of location makes more sense. The drama of approaching the gorge, of traveling into a place where the light, sound and humidity is different.  A place with different levels of seasonal water flow may have been dangerous and difficult to navigate.

Red sandstone river gorgeYou then had to know (or be shown) where to leave the river side to follow up a minor tributary to reach the location of the rock art. Only then might you be allowed to view it.  What you could immediately see would depend on what time of day as the southern panel is on a dogleg, and partially separated by projection of rock, from the northern section: resulting in times when one side could be in sunlight and the other in shadow.  Perhaps if the light condition across the rock faces was deemed appropriate that was what determined whether you could add to the memories already inscribed in cup and ring markings many times before.  Only then, the sound of carving, stone striking stone, may have ricochet and echoed down amongst the stone faces of the gorge.

In the 19th century, there was another sound as the quarries crept closer to the rock art panels. There is only a distance of a few meters from the quarry face and where the Ballochmyle rock art (it could so easily have been taken away) had remained for over four thousand years.  Those working the quarry would undoubtedly have seen and respected the traces of memories on these stones but they appear to have kept quiet about them.

River AyrStill the River Ayr continues its journey, the murmur of water leaping and splashing, carving slowly deeper with time as it meanders through the old red sandstone.  A place of memories, sometimes forgotten by people, but the stone remembers…

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The Glasgow Archaeological Society publication on Ballochmyle by Jack Stevenson ‘Cup-and-Ring Markings at Ballochmyle, Ayrshire’ can be found free on the EUP website. 

The location of some of the sandstone quarries can be seen on the First Edition Ordnance Survey Map (surveyed in 1856; published in 1860) from the National Library digital map collection.  There is also a ‘Summer House’ marked in the woodland amongst a network of paths. On the Second Edition Ordnance Survey Map(re-surveyed in 1908; published in 1909) the one closest to the rock art is annotated ‘Old Quarry’ suggesting it is no longer being used and the one closest to the viaduct has expanded, suggesting a deliberate avoidance of removing the rock art via quarrying in the later part of the 19th century.