Culture

Taming The Stones?

By Bernie Bell

As part of an email exchange about rock art, archaeo-astronomy, and Standing Stones, I was told about two Standing Stones in the village of St Madeos, about 10 miles south of Perth.

I was told that these stones had a primary school build around them, and presumed that my correspondent must mean that the school was built near to them. So, I Googled, and found them, here……….. https://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=2140

He was right, the school has been built around them.  Fair enough, it’s better than getting rid of them, as so often happened in the past.  However, how these stones were dealt with is, to me, bizarre.

They have been incorporated into a very tidy, municipal-style-rock-garden-thing.  A neat little wall encircling them, and what looks like alpine plants, around them. What first struck me, was that they look like they are being ‘tamed’.

The school needed to be built, it was good that the stones were left in place, but – why not in a more natural setting?  Possibly some kind of landscaped area, maybe let the children play around them – a much more ’human’ approach.  I was thinking of when these stones were raised  and reverenced.  My correspondent tells me that there are ‘cup’ marks on them http://www.keystothepast.info/article/9972/Glossary?HER=2653642 , and that the stones are aligned to the rising midwinter sun, and in the opposite direction, to where the northern moon sets every 19 years.

This will have been a power-full place, with much human life and energy focussed on it.

Now – it’s a school, which is a good thing – young human life – learning. But, it’s been tamed, it’s become a controlled place.

This reminded me of another site where an ancient Standing Stone has receive similar bizarre treatment, which features in Kenny Brophy’s ‘Urban Pre-historian’ blog  https://theurbanprehistorian.wordpress.com/2020/09/21/hot-mess/ .

This site is stranger still – a magnificent standing stone, surrounded by gravel, outside the fire exit of a featureless block which is part of an industrial complex.

Again, it’s better that it was left in place, than being moved or destroyed, but, the impression I get is that the developers didn’t quite know what to do with it, so they took what will probably have been a place of real meaning, power and human focus, and  – tidied it up – made it as anodyne as possible.

What Kenney Brophy writes about this place, says anything I could say. 

What do folk make of it now?  If they even notice it at all.

An example of a significant Standing Stone treated in, in my view, a similarly strange way, and one which I am more familiar with, because I’ve been there and met the stone, is the Stone of Destiny on the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Republic of Ireland

Tara is a place of wonders.   Traditionally, it was the inauguration place and seat of the High Kings of Ireland, and according to legend, all of the Kings of Ireland were crowned on the Stone of Destiny, up to Muirchertach mac Ercae c. AD 500.  Whatever its original, or on-going purpose, it is a striking-looking stone….

It’s shape – simple but strong. It has a real presence, an ‘air’ about it, standing there……….embedded in concrete. Someone, sometime, saw fit to place the stone in a bed of concrete, which is visible around its base, with neat bits of stone radiating out from it, which, admittedly are vaguely aesthetically pleasing, but …..I remember when I first saw it, thinking “Why?  Why on earth have they done that?”  If it was considered to be unstable, surely it could have been bedded in securely as it originally would have been, and it would have look truly fiiine, standing there, on the Hill.  As it is – there’s just something, basically…wrong about how it looks. 

I’ve given three examples, and there are probably many more.  My over-all impression is that the stones are being ‘tamed’, or, rather, that people are trying to tame them.

Back in the Neolithic, when Standing Stones were raised, it was for a purpose.  We’re not clear about what that purpose was, so far back in time, but it has been proven, time and time again, that many of them are part of a system to track or acknowledge astronomical events – the movement of stars and planets through the sky.

At the time when they were raised, it will have taken enormous group effort and resources to do so.  Whatever the reason, raising the Stones and acknowledging the places where they were raised, must have mattered a great deal to the people who did the raising.

Then, for millennia, they were disregarded, distrusted, knocked down, laid low, broken up. Folk became fearful of them. Instead of a reciprocal relationship, they were seen as being – other – to be feared, or at best, regarded with superstitious awe.

In more recent decades, they have been given a bit more consideration – no longer swept aside if ‘in the way’.

The Sighthill Stone Circle in Glasgow  https://theorkneynews.scot/2019/08/15/ancient-astronomy-and-the-sighthill-stone-circle/ , though not ancient, was so well thought of that it was carefully lifted and re-positioned, and was due to be re-opened to the public, but for Covid.  It had become such a focus for human activity and affection, that when Glasgow Council planned to sweep it away to make way for a new development – the people stopped them!  Three Cheers For Duncan Lunan!

Back to my point – in some cases, it looks to me as though we humans are so distrustful of something big, natural and power-full, that we – try to tame it, if we can. We place magnificent Standing Stones in little patches of gravel and tidy flower beds.

Is there no room in today’s world for places, objects and symbols of such root human strength and focus?

If that is the case, we are losing our way, and losing our senses.

I am indebted to archaeo-astronomer ( and silversmith!) Douglas Scott https://www.luath.co.uk/douglas-scott for telling me of the St. Madeos Stones, and thereby starting me on a train of thought.

Taming the Stones? I hope not, I hope we never do.  It’s all still there, even when placed in un-fitting materials and surroundings  – whatever it was and is that produces the response that we humans have to a fine Standing Stone…

Standing Stone near Kirkhouse, South Ronaldsay, Orkney. Credit Bell

Maybe it depends on what’s in us. 

If we, as individuals respond in friendship to the Stones – with a reciprocal give and take.  Or, If we respond with plain, simple awe.

Or, if we respond with ‘Me! Me! Me!’ and just want to take what we feel we can receive by being near to them.

Or, if we fear them and smash them.

Or – try to tame them – try to pin them down.

There’s a reason why there are so many tales of Standing Stones which lift up their ‘roots’ and walk.  Maybe that’s metaphorically speaking – maybe the spirit of the stone, can ‘walk’ – and will walk, whatever we try to do.

Some of them are said to dance, and some of them look like they are doing so, if you catch them in a certain light….

‘Brodgar Blue Skies’ by Jeanne Bouza-Rose – available from the Orkney Archaeology Society on-line shop…. https://shop.orkneyarchaeologysociety.org.uk/

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