Making Our Mark

By Bernie Bell

I’m going to witter about Susan Calman again – in a good way!

We watched the next episode of her series – ‘Secret Scotland’, in which she explored her home town of Glasgow.  Susan accompanied a Mason – probably a Master Mason – I can’t remember! –  as he carried out repairs in Glasgow Cathedral.  I should have got his name – I didn’t!  But you can find out, by watching the episode for yourself – here

The Mason-Man took Susan right in among the ‘bones’ of the Cathedral – the stone structure which forms the space, and holds it together.

He showed her Mason’s marks, some of which are very old indeed.  Back in the day, most ‘ordinary’ folk couldn’t read and write, and, though these Masons could work wonders in stone, many of them couldn’t sign their name, so they finished off their work, with a simple mark.

Though not what is usually thought of as graffiti, these days, these marks reminded me of the on-going project to record marks left in St. Magnus Cathedral, here on Orkney, some of which are Mason’s marks, and some of which are just folk, doing something they shouldn’t have done, leaving their mark in the/on the cathedral.  These misdemeanours are now of great interest to some historians/archaeologists.

Susan made her own mark – she actually carved a stylized, angular SC on a block of stone which will be used in the repairs to the cathedral.

Imagine that – a Glaswegian lass, can look up at Glasgow Cathedral, and know that, in there, carved in stone, are her initials.

This can give some sense and understanding of why folk do that – write or  carve their name. Not only saying ‘I AM’, but also ‘I WAS HERE’.

And then there’s the graffiti on the stones of the Ring of Brodgar .   Brodgar and St. Magnus Cathedral – two sites of reverence, sometimes treated irreverently.  Some people built them, or raised them, with reverence, and even marked their name, with reverence, when they finished their work.  Some, were, and are still, irreverent

That’s people, that’s humans.  We like to make our mark, and we do so, sometimes in ways which are laudable, and sometimes in ways which are not.

Then, time passes, and something which really shouldn’t have happened, is viewed differently. Which bring me to my next bit of musing……..

Coincidentally, I  had just finished reading ‘The Stone Book Quartet’ by Alan Garner, in which Mr Garner writes of

how a stone house is taken apart, on the whim of a wealthy woman, and then we see how what remains of the house, is viewed through the years.

He writes of the work of a Master Mason, stone carver, and stone breaker, and mentions Mason’s marks, and where those marks can be found. Sometimes turning up in inaccessible places, to surprise those who come after them.

And that, reminded me of the carvings at some very ancient sites, such as Newgrange, which are there, but which can’t be seen.

This might have been because of re-use of stones, for whatever reason, or…………Zen – it’s not so much being able to see them that matters, as knowing that they’re there. Or – both of those reasons.

The first time I went to Newgrange, going on for 40 years ago, I noticed that a carved top stone in one of the side chambers, disappeared over an upright stone, taking its carvings with it. I asked the lass who was showing us round, did this signify anything? – she had no idea.  It was different then, you bought a ticket and a lad or lass took you up to the cairn and pretty much left you to get on with it and make of it what you will.  I liked that approach!

I decided that the stone placement, was Zen.

Some stones were carved, before the stones were placed in inaccessible places – like Susan’s was.

And, are some of the carvings being found at the Ness of Brodgar  graffiti? We’ll probably never know, unless Nick Card meets Stig ( of the Dump that is – book by Clive King ). But, it’s a thought – carvings, loaded with meaning which is now lost to us, or – just a pilgrim, waiting for the next round of rituals, bored, carves………….




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4 replies »

  1. I just remembered – a different kind of graffiti……… email I received from Andrew Appleby ( ‘The Harray Potter’), on 20.8.2019……….

    “Stop Press!
    Amazing find of Schoolgirls’ graffiti behind antique panelling in the Old Harray School’s children’s toilets!

    Today, Tuesday 20th August, renowned potter and Archaeo-experimenter, Andrew Appleby, and his assistants will take rubbings and clay squeezings of this amazing 19th century Harray handwriting.”

    I replied………

    “Eh? What? Eh?Eh?Eh?
    Pics, please”

    And, back from Andrew…..

    “Sigrid and I are converting the girls’ loos into a utility room and greenhouse. That’s when they appeared.”

    And, me again….

    “Am I right in thinking, that Fursbreck ( spell check offers ‘firebrick’) used to be the Harray School? And that the out-houses I’ve seen, across the garden, are the old toilet block? It’s great when these bits of domestic history turn up – when people just covered things over, to be found again.
    I did wonder how you knew it was girls graffiti – girls toilet, explains it.”

    Andrew has photos of this graffiti, if any Orkney News readers are interested.
    I have them, too, but don’t know how to put photos into the ’comments’!

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