Display of cup and ring-marked stones in the basement of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The lower stone is from the actually-existing village of Lamancha, 12 miles East of Little Sparta; behind it, partly obscured by the Lamancha stone, is the cist cover from Wester Yardhouses, 2 miles west of Little Sparta. Little Sparta cannot be seen.
A Cup-and-Ring Stone in a Cage
Puts all Canmore in a Rage
Cup and ring-marked boulder at Glencorse Parish Church, near Penicuik.
The stone is said to have been found on a hill near the 17th century Glencorse Old Kirk, and moved to the new church when it was built in the 1880s. Another cup-marked stone was reported at the Old Kirk, but has been lost, and the Old Kirk itself is now difficult to access, having become part of the backdrop to an upmarket wedding venue at Glencorse House. Yet another cup-marked stone was built into the wall of an iron age earth house or souterrain, dug into the ramparts of Castle Law hill fort, now on the edge of a military training area a mile or so north-west of Glencorse.
The Glencorse stone sits between two parking spots, inside a low iron fence, presumably protecting it from the cars, or the cars from it, though the symbolism of a pre-Christian monument caged by the wall of a church doesn’t need pointing. Nobody really knows what the cup-and-ring marked stones mean — the current best guess seems to be that they mark places where gold or copper was mined in Neolithic or Chalcolithic times. Like the stones carved with single words or names at Little Sparta, their meaning is a composite of the properties of the carved stone and its context in the landscape — a context which this uprooted stone no longer has. Even for a latter-day stone-botherer, much of the impact of rock-art depends on its environment. The carvings are often indistinct, and best viewed in low, slanting sunlight, which is a scarce visitor to the north-east facing wall of Glencorse Parish Church.
It seems to me that there’s a basic human discomfort with artefacts which clearly had a meaning for the people who made them, but whose meaning is now a void to be filled with our own conjectures. Ronald W.B. Morris, the great expert on British rock art, has compiled a list of over a hundred theories as to the meaning of cup-and-ring marks, from star-maps and sun symbols to designs for tattoos and representations of sacred cow-pats. In the absence of certainty, a kind of pressure builds to push away or defuse the challenge of the stones. Some are caged or put in museums. Some, like this stone on Tormain Hill, near Ratho, have been improved:
The cup-marks are certainly ancient, but the stone is right on the lip of an old quarry, its edges trimmed flat, and the rough carved cross on top may be a relatively recent example of Christianizing join-the-dots, turning a disquieting idol into a monument to be left alone.
Even famous stones can disappear quite suddenly. The Cleuch Stone on Cathcart Castle Golf Course got its picture in the Glasgow Herald in 1930:
The article is by Ludovic MacLellan Mann, a celebrity amateur archaeologist of the time, and interprets the stone as a record of the solar eclipse of 2983 BC, which it probably isn’t. As if in embarrassment, the stone disappeared. According to Canmore, the club secretary was able (in 2007) to point to a grass-grown outcrop as a place where the carvings may once have been. The archived site reports on Canmore often read like reports of a kind of very slow weather, with stones appearing and disappearing, lost and found, mislocated and relocated at intervals of decades or centuries.
One of the more alien-looking of Scottish cup-marked stones is at Dalgarven Mill in Ayrshire, and is now represented above-ground by a reproduction:
The stone was reported in 1895 as forming part of a pavement, but by the 1950s had disappeared from view:
NS 2965 4581. A workman at the mill, who pointed out it[s] position stated that the stone was built into the culvert of the lade some years ago, and is covered by the road which runs over it.
Visited by OS (JLD) 31 August 1956
Enquiry at Dalgarven Mill confirms that the stone is still placed as stated. Its approximate position in the culvert, some 20m long, is not known.
Visited by OS (JRL) 28 October 1982
I can imagine the two stones, original and reproduction, meeting again at the general resurrection of stones, when we have bombed or drowned ourselves back to a time where stone is what we mostly have to work with. The reproduction stone, protected only by the cover of turf which will soon overtake it, will be barely legible; the much older original, a portrait-in-the-culvert, may look as suspiciously fresh as it did in 1895, maybe trimmed just a bit to fit the culvert. We’ll smash them both to red gravel and make a path.
Bookmark in Ian Hamilton Finlay’s copy of The Granite Pail by Lorine Niedecker.
“The dull necessity of weeding arises, because every healthy plant is a racist and an imperialist; every daisy (even) wishes to establish for itself an Empire on which the sun never sets.”
(Ian Hamilton Finlay, Detached Sentences on Gardening)
It may be that of all the plants at Little Sparta, only the algal cells inside the all-pervasive lichen have no designs on this inland empire. Their fusion with fungal cells into a single organism seems entirely unbigoted, a mutually-beneficial collaboration between two distinct kingdoms of eukaryote life. But the mutualism isn’t clear-cut — it may be that the algae get nothing out of the association, and by some measures they suffer by it, algal cells dying to feed the fungal net which traps them, individual cells pierced by structures which in other fungi are the tools of unarguable parasitism. Unlike the fungal symbiont of a lichen, the algal or cyanobacterial symbiont can live independently, by photosynthesis, and often grows faster on its own than when incorporated into a lichen.
“Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture” – Trevor Goward.
And lichen too are imperialists. As ground cover, their secretions are thought to inhibit not only fungal growth but the germination of the seeds of higher plants, encouraging a monoculture of lichen, which nevertheless helps build the soil. They have a taste for polyester resin, so the little boat moored by Lochan Eck is not safe, and the garden’s fibreglass tortoises may one day be reduced to a mesh of inedible silica. They love rock art and sculpture equally. I thought of them as purely destructive, until I saw in Finlay’s library a copy of the minor classic Panzer Warfare: Rules For Mass-Armor Battles of WW II with Small-Scale Miniature Figures by Brian Blume (TSR Rules, 1975; price $4.00). The frontispiece:
shows a group of toy tanks, in the shade of two clumps of fruticose lichen, making shift for trees or netting. Lichen as camouflage: a well-aged garden is less susceptible to air-strikes.
As a child in the 1970s, I was very fond of Observer’s Books, the series of pocket hardbacks published by Frederick Warne & Co. I think the first one I got was the 1975 edition of the Observer’s Book of Unmanned Spaceflight, though a few, including the Observer’s Book of Cacti, have a unicorn bookplate pasted in with my name on, printed in sharp pencil on the Book of Spaceflight, tentatively joined-up and in blue pen on the Book of Cacti. I had thirty or so, almost all about nature or biology or geology — I would never have asked for the Observer’s Book of Modern Art, or of Folk Song or Jazz, though I still wonder what those books could have been like. The only one I ever received unexpectedly was the Observer’s Book of Lichens, brought home by my mother from a jumble sale, priced 30p, at a time when the new books cost £1.50 or so. I don’t think either of us knew what lichen were, but she knew I liked the books, and I remember the weird excitement of its evening arrival. I remember too the slight strangeness of the object, the design a bit different, the dust-jacket not quite uniform with the others on the shelf. I read it, of course, but there weren’t really any lichen to see in Glasgow in the 1970s, when petrol was still leaded. It felt like an exercise in the acquiring of a purely abstract knowledge, the vocabulary of thallus, isidium, soralium, lecanorine not readily transferable, though I’ve used thallus once or twice. I gave the book away many years later, when some friends took up hill-walking and became interested in the lichen they saw. I always kind of regretted this, especially as lichen started appearing closer to home (I even have lichen on my windowsill in Ancroft Street now). When I arrived at Little Sparta, I knew I needed a guide to lichen — of all the volunteer laureates of the garden, the rosebay willowherb and the fringe cups, only the lichen are entirely anonymous to me. I bought a copy of The Observer’s Book of Lichens on abebooks. It’s an earlier edition, from the 1960s, not as good as the 1977 one I had (which is described, in The Observer’s Book of Observer’s Books, as “The best beginner’s guide to lichens available, and one of the best nature titles in the series”). I still don’t know one lichen from another.
In the British Museum there is a rectangular conglomerate slab, known as the Shabako Stone, which is partly covered in Egyptian Hieroglyphics. The damaged inscription claims to be the transcription of a text from an ancient and worm-eaten papyrus onto a more permanent substrate. The text pertains to the god Ptah, whose words created the world and the gods. The stone was later repurposed as a millstone.
The poet Ron Silliman is fond of the maxim “Hard copy is truth,” which he sometimes attributes to archaeologists and sometimes to librarians, though the precise formulation seems to be his own. “If you can’t dig it up in 5,000 years,” Silliman asks, “did it ever exist? Ian Hamilton Finlay, with his stone-carved minimal texts, may outlast us all.”
The stone texts at Little Sparta stand at an interesting angle to the age-old argument between the permanence of poetry and the permanence of sculpture. Sculpture has the edge in that its plastic aspects can survive a culture whose language or written records have died beyond recovery. Poetry has the advantage of numbers, the song in the thousand mouths of a living tradition, the book dispersed in an edition so large that not every copy can be burnt, and then the reprints. The stones at Little Sparta stand in something closer to a scribal tradition than a sculptural one. Nobody expects them to last forever: their presence in the garden is the outcome of a continuing process of conservation, evaluation, repair and, when necessary, remaking, drawing on the skills and memories of Finlay’s surviving collaborators and the documents and photographs which record the garden in its many phases. Like my grandfather’s guillotine, which has had three new blades and two new frames, the garden is always itself, more or less, in the summer season when we get to see it, as if time had read it for a ruin and excused it from further decay. Immense effort and good judgement goes into making it so: the monthly reports of the gardeners are a fascinating education.
But statues also die, and in Little Sparta, their life, which is their meaning, is a variably fragile thing. Their languages will survive, even if no-one speaks English or French, German or Latin in the next-millennium-but-one. We can (I can’t) still read the almost telegraphic Latin of the milestones and inscriptions which have been found along the length of the Antonine Wall, though seldom left there. Much of the language in the garden is self-reflective, or reflects in some way on its material context, and such language time-travels with ease. The SEA / PINK mosaic, the SEA in blue letters, the PINK in pink, emerges from a future muddy dig with a jolt of recognition, and if the name of the flower survives, a further small shock. The Panzer Leader tortoises, if fibreglass should prove indestructable, will still get a laugh, though I can imagine a world in its second innocence, where Panzer is no longer a name, just a word meaning “armour” or “shell”. The skull and crossbones with “ACHTUNG! / MINEN” might be taken literally — it marks the spot where electricity cables enter the garden, and the unfamiliar structure below might cause the dig to be halted and the front garden destroyed by a controlled explosion.
Much will be lost, or turn abstract and mysterious. The French Revolution and the Third Reich will still be known, and their names and insignia noted, but they might come to seem almost simultaneous events, the last moves in an endgame whose upshot was ruin for the garden and everything outside it. What will survive will be the sense of this as a place where connections are made, between cultures and languages, across time, a concentration of finds, a “small holding”; evidence of a community of craftspeople working to a common purpose. Maybe a religious site.
In the garden there is a group of eleven massive limestone blocks, set on a hillside, each block bearing one carved word of a sentence and its author’s two names, both of them also words:
THE PRESENT ORDER
IS THE DISORDER
OF THE FUTURE
This is good stone, it will be robbed and re-used, but the stones are too heavy to travel far. The stones will be understood to belong together, and to have to do with order, or disorder, but their grouping will remain conjectural, an index-list of one-word poems of the kind Ian Hamilton Finlay didn’t write, lacking either title or epigraphic context:
We know what each of these words means; we do not know what they said.
A sort of makeshift cist burial, enclosing the skeleton of a man of shorter than average height, lying on his right side, knees raised to chin, the head pointing west. A conjectural reconstruction of the man’s features has been made and is now in the museum at Biggar (“Dunsyre Man”). The body is surrounded by a scattering of trilobite fossils, mostly North American and quite out of context — two of the fossils were found in positions suggesting that they had been swallowed by the man some hours before his death, which they may indeed have caused. Forming the west end of the partially-destroyed roof of the cist are two heavy, irregular limestone slabs, with carved inscriptions on the inner (flat) surfaces. At least one of the slabs has been trimmed to fit the cist. The two-part inscription, reading from the head end down, is
Maybe nothing survives. Maybe everything survives. Maybe everything survives and nobody is left to know it. If every cubic centimetre of icecap were to melt, and it will, Glasgow would be reduced to a sparse archipelago of golf courses, cemeteries and Bishopbriggs. Little Sparta, 280 metres above sea level, will never be drowned. A direct hit from a meteorite could defeat it, but probably won’t. It’s miles from any infrastructure, so an unlikely target for nuclear weapons, unless some aggressor in the Great Patriotic War of 15th August 2026 should realise how seriously it would annoy Scotland, just at that moment, to have its single greatest artwork destroyed. Maybe the tentacles of half-submerged Edinburgh, reaching south from the Gulf of Newbattle, will stretch as far as Dunsyre, assimilating Little Sparta and turning it into an Urban Park. Maybe familiarity will lead to vandalism, and someone will take the difficult decision to bury the garden, or its stones at least, for protection, as the Cochno Stone in Faifley, with its ancient cup-and-ring carvings, was buried in 1964 by archaeologists from Glasgow University, to protect it from Faifley.
It may be that nothing which survives into the very near future can ever really be lost. We are nowhere near being able to upload a human consciousness to a computer, but relatively simple things, like works of art, are not hard to digitize. Little Sparta has already been mapped quite carefully in GPS, the 3D laser scanner is now a standard part of the academic archaeologist’s toolkit, and advances in geophysics may one day allow for the digital excavation of long-destroyed sites. I imagine the space above a buried Little Sparta given over to an immersive virtual reconstruction of the garden, with virtual lichen growing on ray-traced stones, the season always summer, though often wet, with random fractal trees and clouds of cellular-automaton midges that buzz but can’t yet bite. The head gardener, George Gilliland, takes us on a tour — the recording was made in 2056, George is old now, brought out of retirement to share half a lifetime’s knowledge of the place. They made the poor man give his tour ten times over, recording every nuance and variation for aleatoric playback.
Little Sparta sits in an old landscape, where stone has always been valued, if not respected. Many of the prehistoric cairns and structures recorded there in the nineteenth century are no longer visible, robbed out for the material of sheep-folds and walls. The few old carved stones which survive did so by having been placed temporarily beyond reach of erosion and the attentions of the living. A carved panel was found at Wester Yardhouses, near Carnwath, a few miles west of Little Sparta, in a cairn which was destroyed around 1870:
The carvings are older than the cairn, their style more characteristic of Irish passage-grave art of the third millennium BC. At some point, the panel was trimmed and re-used as the lid of a burial cist, the carvings facing inwards, as usual, as if this art had been chosen for the connoisseurship of the dead. It’s now in the National Museum of Scotland. Another stone, carved with cups and rings, was found in 2010 by a worker repairing a drystane dyke on Easton Farm, three farms east of Little Sparta:
The stone had been trimmed to fit the wall, with no regard paid to the carving, but the carved side was protected from erosion by its position inside the wall — the back and one edge of the stone are heavily weathered. It’s now in Biggar Museum. It’s a wonderful museum, and there’s not much you can do with portable antiquities other than put them in a museum, or bury them, but history tells me this stone is doomed. The archaeological literature is littered with descriptions of carved rocks which are sketched, contextualised, taken into private or collective ownership and then disappear without trace. If a carved rock isn’t earthfast, it has a half-life in captivity of perhaps fifty years. If it is, and is exposed to the elements, it erodes, often within a few decades. “There are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined stones” (MacDiarmid). I want to cry out for the ruined carved stones of Scotland, but MacDiarmid would tell me, “Those count as buildings too, Dummkopf”. Should we bury them all? Should we each take a stone down with us for protection, so the temporary sanctity of our burial places might rub off on the stones, granting them a stay of execution and confusing the hell out of future archaeologists, virtual or visceral?
But about Little Sparta…
Delighted to say I’m one of the three artists chosen for the first batch of residencies at Little Sparta, the garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay. The others are Sarah Rose and Thomas A. Clark. I’ll be taking up the residency for three weeks in August and early September. Thanks to Alexia Holt and everyone else involved in the programme.