- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
The inward gates of a bird are always
It does not know how to shut them.
That is the secret of its song,
But whether any man's are ajar is
I look at these stones and know little
But I know their gates are open too,
Always open, far longer open, than any
bird's can be . . .
Hugh MacDiarmid, 'On a Raised Beach'
Every day, I would drive to the hospital in Oban, taking just under an hour each way. That year there was an unexpected gift of a summer, with the big rains staying away from May until September. Enough fell in the mornings or at night to wet the land, from the season of rhododendrons glaring into the ruins of the big house through to the September rowans, gathered in heavy red swags outside the small house to which its owner would never return. In the afternoons, it was fine, sometimes very hot, and the grass in the fields was cut early and easily for silage.
On the way, I passed a great many stones, some of them raised up as monuments or gathered together into funeral cairns which had once stood taller than houses. I had known these stones all my life, and for most of that life I had assumed that they were unchanging. As a small child, in fact, the difference between natural stone formations — 'living rock' - and old masonry had not been at all obvious to me. Masses of stone like the foundation blocks of the Dean Bridge in Edinburgh might equally well, as far as I was concerned, have been put there by men or abandoned there by glaciers or extruded from the magma by a volcano. They seemed to me no more or less intentional than the equally black and angular basalt crags rising out of Princes Street Gardens to support the Castle. I liked the style and the feel of these dramatic stones; that was the point, and explanations about what was artefact and what was 'nature' seemed beside that point. In the dark, Cyclopean cities of sandstone and granite left by the Victorians, a good many Scottish children grew up with the same impression.
In his poem 'On a Raised Beach' MacDiarmid wrote:
. . . We are so easily baffled by
And do not realise that these stones are
one with the stars.
It makes no difference to them whether
they are high or low,
Mountain peak or ocean floor, palace, or
There are plenty of ruined buildings in the
world but no ruined stones.
It is not the stone which can be ruined, but the stone artefact created by human sculpting or building or even by the transforming power of human imagination alone. Five thousand years ago, slabs of Dalriadic schist weighing many tons were prised off the face of a cliff, slithered downhill to the level ground, levered and lugged upright in foundation pits and then commanded to change their substance — to become ritual spires of condensed fear and memory. The slabs which cracked apart on their journey or as they were raised upright merely turned into two slabs. But a standing stone which falls becomes a ruin.
One standing stone which broke in recorded times is close to the Oban road. A long gorge runs from Loch Awe down towards Kilmartin, dug by a vanished glacial river, and where the gorge widens out, near the farm called Creagenterivebeg or Creagantairbh Beag, at a place called Tigh-a-Char, the wreck of the thing sits up against the wall of the road to Ford.
This was the tallest stone in the district. The stump still protrudes six feet out of the earth, and the broken slab lying beside it shows that the stone originally stood some fifteen feet high. The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland states that 'it was blown down in 1879'. The local historian Alan Begg agrees, but is cautious about which of that year's storms did the damage. He writes with awe of the 'huge Druid-like stone which broke and fell . . . My grandfather who worked in Ederline and Craigenterive Mor used to say the great stone fell "the night of the Tay Bridge Disaster". Thinking back it seems to me now, according to the old of the time, that "all sorts of things that took place happened on the night of the Tay Bridge Disaster".'
Further along the main road to Oban, there is the stone at Kintraw. Today you would never know it had ever fallen down, and yet everyone in the district remembers that it collapsed in the winter of 1978 for reasons not clear: a bull stropping his itchy flank, or a Dutch camper backing his Dormobile without looking in the rear mirror, or perhaps Keats's unimaginable touch of time.
But in contrast to the monoliths of Ballymeanoch or Creagantairbh, this fall was unacceptable. Kintraw, or the terrace bearing the stone and the cairn beside it, is one of the most spectacular and celebrated outlooks in the West Highlands. The A816, after crossing a high plateau of 'frowning crags' and 'horrid desolation', suddenly plunges down a defile and bursts out onto a vast view: the head of Loch Craignish three hundred feet below, the sea stretching away towards the mountains of Jura and the horizon which is the rim of Ireland, the yacht masts in the anchorage at Ardfern glimmering across the water.
Artfully positioned in the middle of this view, on a grassy platform beside the road, are the stone and the cairn. The image of a tomb with its mourning pillar-stone, silhouetted against the prospect of nature like a romantic contemplative in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, is irresistible. In fact, there are two cairns here, and archaeological investigation has not clearly associated the stone with either of them. But nobody is bothered about that. The place is a resource; it has Outstanding Natural Beauty; it is Heritage, which requires heritage management. So this stone, unlike the others, was put back.
First there was an archaeological rummage around the socket, which turned up nothing much. A photograph taken in 1979 shows the stone lying prone on the grass beside the square excavation pit. It resembles a pulled tooth, its lower shaft an unpleasant greenish-white where it had been grasped in the earth's gum. Then the stone was reinserted, this time with its base in a concrete plinth. In the process, the workers set it at a different angle, no longer aligned to its original axis, which enraged all those who fancied that it had been carefully positioned to mark astral and seasonal events.
The repair squad also took the opportunity to correct a slight tilt which had apparently developed over the millennia. The big bird which used to perch on the Kintraw Stone to digest its kills ('the Buzzard Stone') has resumed its place. All expectations have been generously satisfied. As the Swedish archaeologist said when his Crown Prince reopened the famous Bronze Age cairn at Kivik in south Sweden, restored with a new entrance passage and specially wrought bronze doors: 'it looks older than ever before.'
But the first stones which came into view on my way to Oban were the huge uprights at Ballymeanoch. There are the remains of a henge monument here, and a later circular cairn, and six standing stones arranged along what may have been the two flanks of a broad ceremonial avenue. It brings to mind the 'cursus' monuments of the same age which are found all over Britain, the two parallel banks which can run for many miles uphill and downhill across the landscape. Unearthly beings, invisible or impersonated by robed shamans, may have been invited to pass along these avenues, between earth banks or files of standing stones, and perhaps the living people lining the route hid their eyes as they passed.
In my lifetime, one of the stones fell. It was an outlier, not in the main alignments, famous because there was a hole through it. Deep cup-marks have been ground into the faces of almost all the stones; it could have been Neolithic patriarchs or Victorian cattle-boys who persisted with the grinding until one pit penetrated to the other side. It became a peephole. Engaged couples met one another's eyes through it; papers scrawled with wishes were threaded from one side to the other. Then, at some moment in the last century, it fell or rather broke off halfway down. Nobody knew what to do with it. The stump was eventually uprooted, and archaeologists found cremated bone in the foundation pit. The top section, with the hole, lay around in the grass and got in the way of farming. A few years ago, it was dumped into a field-drain some yards away. Today it lies on the edge of the drain among other dislocated pieces of schist.
The new hospital where my mother was, the Lorn and Islands, is built on the southern fringe of Oban. Beyond its roof you can see the big Hebridean ferries entering and leaving the bay. The ambulances arriving from Lochgilphead, Tarbert or Campbeltown come over the southern hill and then swing off the main road directly into the hospital reception bay.
One day they brought an old friend of ours, Marion Campbell of Kilberry. She lay in the same ward under an oxygen mask, eyes closed, silver hair scattered on the pillow. Marion was an historian, novelist and poet; she was a patriot antiquary, a sailor in war and a farmer in peace; she was the mother of scientific archaeology and of community museums in Mid-Argyll. Only two days before, I had telephoned her, and found her cursing and joking at the onset of what she said was a nasty cold. I told her how much I was enjoying her biography of Alexander III, published at last after many years. This cheered her. 'Purr, purr!' she responded.
Copyright © 2003 Neal Ascherson