Unmoored stones

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.

This is a post about Ian Hamilton Finlay if I say so.