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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.