Canmore 221813 Little Sparta

Canmore 221813 Little Sparta

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?

Obviously, yes.

But about Little Sparta…