Awakening Sleeping Giants – Corriegills Forms

Travel to the Isle of Arran, from the River Clyde, south past the Isle of Bute to gain a different perspective on the Firth of Clyde. It highlights, how past people may have understood the seascapes of the lochs and rivers of this part of Scotland, through longer journeys. For those able to travel across moody waters, dangerous: yet when returning with rare materials and stories of different places, empowering.

For the past few years I have been encouraging collaboration on the research of the Neolithic of the Isle of Arran but set in a wider context of how its megalithic sites can be related to Ireland and Orkney. As well as it’s remarkable archaeological heritage, Isle of Arran is also renowned for its geoheritage – from Hutton’s Unconformity to Dinosaur Footprints there is much to see.

What brings the stories of Arran’s archaeology and geology most sharply together is the role of pitchstone. The only significant source of volcanic glass like material in Scotland, it was used by people from at least the fifth millennium BC for the production of sharp edged tools. During the fourth millennium BC, people exchanged pitchstone across much of what was to become described as Northern Britain. Best known among the huge range of locations of Pitchstone on Arrran is Corriegills. According to the Book of Arran, Corriegills may relate to Norse words, Korfa (Raven) and Gil (Gulley). Situated to the south of Brodick Bay (derived from Norse Broad-Bay) and Lamlash Bay (the location of at least two Viking Age burials), Corriegills runs below a range of crags and raised beaches. For 30 years I thought I knew what to expect when I visited this location – the site of ‘Neolithic Quarries’: a neo-industrio-complex of value extraction, a node of desire and dispersal. I expected quarry faces and spoil heaps – and yes, if you seek the, they may be present.

Yet once again I was surprised.

Dark shattered glass hiding in the shoreline grasses,

an arched dark spine glistens:

suddenly imagined panther-like form, hunting Goat Mountain.

Travel further towards the headland, Clauchlands, looming above is the hillfort of Dun Fionn. As you approach the headland, the slopes covered in sea storm distorted birch and hazel, the old red sandstone shoreline has been sculpted.

Along precarious coast, there are marks of meaning which resonate through the millennia.

Between the green algae coastal pools, pock marked face, dimpled, cup-mark forms – along the sea eroded stone ridges. To the casual archaeologist, a remarkable assemblage of rock art. There was no mistaking these simple metaphoric forms.

As the shore narrows, the eye is drawn to an upright stone – monolith, it russet form resting upon two large black pitchstone boulders. Then turn, find different perspectives – distant mountain, Goatfell, calls the eye. Yet look again,

see how the foreground changes everything, when Corriegills form reveals,

Awaken, Sleeping Giant.

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I will leave others to judge, such as the experts with Arran Geopark, whether this stone has been worked to create a head like form or whether it is a natural rock splitting phenomenon encountered by my Pareidoliac tendencies. More important perhaps is when this form was first created and / or recognised: I doubt this is the first time it has been woken.

In one scenario, the head may be a fanciful relatively recent addition to the shore line. In another, it may have been created, with suggestion of helmeted form, to watch the seascapes of the Firth of Clyde, perhaps bearing witness to Norse longships. Or is it possible that when people traveled to this shore to gather pitchstone that this face was already present?

One thing is sure, with Climate Change, this giant will witness major changes over the next few generations – I wonder what it will do now it has been woken?

For some more interesting stone heads in the Clyde Region have a look at this earlier blog post: Borne of Stone

For more information on Pitchstone sources from Arran, there is a good Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports article by Torben Ballin and John Faithfull.

Burning the Circle

Burning Before the Mountain

The power of the place became apparent long before the burning began.

When the final timber was erected, we knew there was something potent at this location.

Antler Dig

Perhaps it was the result of our physical labour, of breaking earth with antler pick, heaving timbers into place.  Or maybe it was the growing mood of anticipation amongst those who built this place about what was going to come next: a nervous excitement, an uncertainty of what exactly would happen as night fell, and what the following morning would witness.

Spoil Or perhaps it was the way the mountain top back-dropped the site.  Or maybe it was knowing that you had created something tangible, solid, yet nothing more than a series of fleeting frames.

Wooden Circle

And then there was the creation of a central focus, a figure head, a guardian.  Around which deposits were placed, pottery made by the roundhouse located lower down the hillside.

Carving Head

And, as the sunset, we were ready to commence.

Sunset

It was time, the right time, to burn the circle.

As the light faded, as day was stolen by night, we seized back the light, as the timbers began to blaze.

Ceremony 2

It was transformed, another world, another place, of night and fire.

Burning the Circle

For nearly four hours, we fed more fuel, creating an insatiable heat.

The guardian in the centre of the circle looked on.

Glowing sternly, in quiet contemplation of the events.

Guardian of Fire

In the centre, did it sit between one world and another, night and day, past and present, the sacred and the profane.  What strange things did the guardian see ?

Other Worlds

Hours passed so quickly, months of planning, collection of masses of wood, moving soil and timber, the other world we temporarily created burnt less brightly, faded…

…our past.

Worlds Below

Yet we were left the next morning with the proud timbers, survivors around the guardian.

Survivors

Only two companions had fallen in the night, others had burnt nearly through but stood on, what seemed to be precarious bases, slender charcoal sticks.

Fallen Stump

Then we left the other world.

Trowel our instrument of divining the past. A past so recent, its smell permeated our hair and clothes, our eyes still blazed with a reflection of the night before.

Excavation

So, faithful trowel revealed that, despite masses of fuel (nearly five hours of burning in the night), once the wind had blown ash away and when ground was eroded away, beneath the topsoil there would be no significant trace of the burning to the archaeologist of the future.  In time, only the post-holes, would reveal we were ever there at all.

Fragments

Yet as we departed, we knew we left something more behind, a tangible place overlooked by the mountain.

Place of Fire

They say the guardian still watches from the hillside,

most times it stands a lonely vigil.

But I am sure it has visitors, who mark special times,

who seek a place of quiet contemplation,

a place permeated by a vivid, visceral, vibrant, burning past.

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Burning the Circle was a festival of the Bronze Age delivered in July 2013 in partnership with Northlight Heritage, the National Trust for Scotland, the University of Glasgow and the Isle of Arran Brewery to raise awareness of and celebrate the prehistoric remains on the Isle of Arran. 
There is evidence for timber circles having been built on Isle of Arran, on Machrie Moor, over 4000 years ago.  There are some excavated examples of prehistoric ceremonial monuments in Scotland and beyond where the soil has scorched deep into the ground when they were destroyed by fire.  As part of the event, the timber circle was built for experimental firing to begin to explore what archaeological traces the burning of timber structures may leave behind and to better understand what circumstances are most visible to the archaeologist.
Many thanks to Marvin Elliott for undertaking the fantastic carving with bronze tools. The event was greatly helped by the expertise, in other forms of pyro-technology, of Graham Taylor and Neil Burridge: amazing insights from both.  For another perspective on the events, please visit the Urban Prehistorian.  Big thanks to Corinna, Kenny, Richard, Joss, Steven, Katy, Katie, Kate, Ingrid and Derek they made it all possible.  Looking forward to next years event….!