Fortean Times 319 featuring John’s piece on Glasgow’s Sighthill Stone Circle

FT 319

Haunted murder houses, Glasgow stone circle, Scottish Paranormal Festival, flying wizard, cat-faced woman, bowmen of Mars and lots more!

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It’s always a pleasure to write for Fortean Times – the magazine that published my very first professional article back in the ye ancient mists of time. This month I’ve written about an urban stone circle in Glasgow, and it’s all thanks to Twitter. Back in February Scarfolk Council tweeted the following wonderful image:

In the short conversation that followed I became e-acquainted with the very lovely Zan Phee who gave me loads of info about the circle and put me in touch with her own equally wonderful mother, Almare Merille (who features in the article).

The story of the circle is a truly fascinating one and I’m amazed that more people (myself included) didn’t already know about it. Massive, massive thanks to Scarfolk and to Zan, both of whom I stupidly  neglected to thank in print. Sorry.


Update: Following news that Dr. Kenny Brophy aka The Urban Prehistorian is soon to publish a new blog on what’s happening with Sighthill stone circle in 2020 I thought now would be a good time to post my 2014 article in full.


SIGHTHILL PARK STONE CIRCLE

It is the eve of the festival of Alban Hefin and we are in the ancient Celtic land of Alba, the twilit evening air thick with fragrant incense. A troop of pagans gather within a megalithic circle, a quintet of cowled figures standing before them. Now, they say, is the time when the Sun God is at the apex of his powers – crowned by the Goddess as the King of Summer. After tonight his strength will gradually wane, day by day, until the festival of Alban Arthan when the Holly King shall take his crown. This is the Summer Solstice and the faithful are gathered here upon hallowed ground to mark the turning of the Wheel of the Year. The year in question is 2013 and the specific location within Alba (or Scotland as the vast majority of us know it) is Sighthill Park in urban Springburn, Northern Glasgow.

Built between 1964 and 1969, the Sighthill Housing Estate originally spanned two different sites: Pinkston to the south and Fountainwell to the north. While Fountainwell was built on former farmland, the Pinkston homes were erected on the dumping ground of Saint Rollox Chemical Works – once the largest such works in Europe. Sighthill consisted of ten twenty-storey tower blocks – five in Pinkston and five in Fountainwell – seven five-storey maisonette blocks, and five rows of tenements. Following decades of under-occupancy, letting was suspended in the Fountainwell side of Sighthill in 2005 and the housing subsequently demolished in 2008/9 [1]. The final two Sighthill tower –blocks are currently under demolition; the last few remaining south facing windows in their upper stories looking out over nearby Sighthill Park with its resident Stone Circle.

Sighthill Park was officially opened in 1982, at which point it was the largest park created in the Glasgow for a century [2]. Overlooked by the M8 Motorway, the park covers the slopes of Broom Hill whose modest summit rises a mere 68m (223 feet) [3]. Sighthill Stone Circle was already there upon the hill, of course; the park laid out around those weatherworn megaliths whose origin and purpose is now surely lost in the mists of antiquity. If only we could speak to those who placed the stones. If only we could ask them about their intentions and their methods. Well, as it turns out, it’s actually pretty easy to shoot them an email.

Duncan Lunan is a Scottish Science Writer, researcher, broadcaster, editor, critic, and tutor. He is also the author of over 900 articles and papers, and several books including The Stones and the Stars; Building Scotland’s Newest Megalith (Springer, 2012) [4]. As head of the Glasgow Parks Astronomy Project from 1978 Duncan was one of the key people responsible for the erection of Sighthill Stone Circle – reputedly the first astronomically aligned stone circle constructed in Britain in 3,000 years. He kindly explained to me how this unlikely project came about.

In the late 1970s, in response to the success of the Scottish National Party’s ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ campaign, the Labour government launched the Jobs Creation Scheme which was supposed to show oil revenues being put back into Scotland. All projects were to be non-profit; no permanent jobs were to be created, nothing must compete with any jobs that trade unionists might hold. The money could not be spent on one regular activity, or set of activities; there had to be Special Projects as well. Glasgow was offered four million pounds in the expectation that it wouldn’t be used. However, Glasgow has more parkland per head of population than any other city in Europe. The Parks Department was non-profit, and the workforce was mostly temporary, seasonal and non-unionised.”

A range of imaginative ideas for Special Projects were put forward including a vague notion of something to do with astronomy. Ken Naylor – the man in charge of Parks Special Projects– knew nothing about astronomy, but had the idea of asking local school children to submit their ideas to a competition. The winning entry was a plan to build a celestially aligned facsimile of a Stonehenge-like monument in one of Glasgow’s parks.

When I took on the job,” continued Duncan. “I had to point out that a copy of an ancient site in modern Glasgow wouldn’t work. The Earth’s axis has shifted by half a degree since the Neolithic, precession of the equinoxes has altered star alignments still more, the azimuths of horizon events are specific for the latitude of each site, and the markers still have to be oriented to where those events occur on the actual horizon at each site. To build a working, astronomically aligned monument, I would have to find a site and then design a monument for it according to the ancient principles. Once I had convinced the Parks Department and the Manpower Services Commission of that, I proposed that we drop the modern materials and build the monument in stone.”

So, how did today’s Sighthill Park come to be the location of the Stone Circle?

I was introduced to Ronnie Gray, the Principal Landscape Architect for the city, and after I explained to him what was needed, he got out a big Ordnance Survey map and marked out eighteen possible sites. The first one I went to was the Broomhill in what is now Sighthill Park. As soon as I climbed up to the hilltop I realised that it was ideal, with a virtually perfect natural horizon all round, hardly broken even by buildings. It just couldn’t be bettered.

It was one of three hills: Broomhill, Summerhill and Sighthill. Later I discovered that midsummer solstice fairs had been held on the Summerhill until stopped by the church in the 17th century, and from the Summerhill, the midsummer Sun rises over the Sighthill. It’s known that the Cathedral was built on an ancient site, and from there, the old road of Dobbie’s Loan runs to the base of the Summerhill right along the line of midsummer sunset. It then turned west, and prolonged, it meets the Clyde at a site called Knappers, where a huge Neolithic structure was excavated in the 1930s [5]. The best location for the circle turned out to be at the highest point in the park, overlooking the city centre, which the architects had been saving for a view point.”

In the spring of 1979 the children of Sighthill found themselves with an unexpected day off school – “helicopter day” as it came to be remembered – as crowds gathered to watch the bizarre spectacle of a Royal Navy Sea King placing the last seven of the eighteen whinstone stones, from Beltmoss quarry in Kilsyth, at their new home in North Glasgow [6]. Designed as a functioning scientific instrument, Lunan dedicated the circle to four experts in archaeoastronomy Prof. Alexander Thom, Dr. Archie Thom, Dr. Euan Mackie, and Prof. Archie Roy; all of whom were closely connected with Glasgow.

All four had come under severe criticism and even abuse from archaeologists, who insisted that there was no society in Neolithic Britain capable of such sophisticated measurement and construction. Euan MacKie was the exception, an archaeologist who believed Neolithic society could have been analogous to the Maya culture on which he was an expert, and he had undertaken digs which verified some of Thom’s deductions about the uses of ancient sites. For this all four of them were regularly being described in the scientific press and the media with such terms as ‘madmen’, ‘lunatics’, ‘profoundly ignorant of the archaeological facts’, and ‘no better than Erich von Daniken’. Professor Glyn Daniel, the Editor of Antiquity, was particularly outspoken. But even then there was evidence that they were right, and there is now so much evidence for an advanced, pan-European Neolithic culture that apologies to the Thoms, Roys and MacKies seem overdue. From what I can gather, however, it’s still more than any archaeologist’s job is worth to say they were right.

The blow I planned to strike was to build a structure in which every feature was matched in some ancient site, and then prove that it functioned as an observatory, so we could say to the critics, ‘Now, where is the difference?’ We succeeded completely in that, and it is fair to say that, so far, nobody has taken a blind bit of notice!

The circle marks sunrise and sunset at the solstices, and moonrise and set at the major and minor standstills, every 18.6 years. I also included a star alignment to Rigel [the brightest star in the constellation Orion and the seventh brightest star in the night sky] – partly for a link to Callanish [7] but also to provide future archaeoastronomers with a date for its construction – thinking it would be there for five-thousand years at least!”

Back in May 1979 the circle was nearing completion with eighteen stones in place and just the final landscaping yet to be done. And then Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government came into power.

Six days after the election, I remember our shop steward coming in and saying that he had just heard Thatcher on the radio: ‘we shall be restoring full employment by the end of 1980 and there will be no more nonsense like the Glasgow Parks astronomy project’ ,” [8] recalls Duncan. “The shock was that we were [ordered] not to erect the last four stones, oversee landscaping the circle into the park, put up identifying plaques and produce the leaflet which had been commissioned by the Tourist Board. Everything was to stop, because the whole of Special Projects would be wound up, putting one hundred or more people summarily back on the dole, unless we guaranteed that there would be no more construction. And there never has been.”

Incomplete and unsignposted, the circle never became the tourist attraction and educational feature was designed to be. Indeed, it not long before Lunan heard that its origin had already passed into the realm of folklore; “it was believed to have been built by the Druids, and the local children were afraid of it.”

Over the next three decades, in between numerous other projects, Duncan tried time and again to secure the funding and support necessary to complete Sighthill Stone Circle. Then, in 2012, he was informed by the city’s Development and Regeneration Services that Sighthill Park and its resident circle were to be razed in order to create an Athletes Village for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games which Glasgow was bidding to host.

In the initial confrontation with Development & Regeneration Services,” Duncan explained “one question I couldn’t answer at first was ‘How many people go there?’ ‘How many people use it?’ It turns out that a great many people do go there, for many different purposes: some just for exercise or for peace and quiet, but many for spiritual purposes, including many different religions. Quite a number of families have scattered the ashes of their loved ones there; one that I did know about maintains a Christian memorial to their mother by the central stone. But it turns out that Druid and pagan groups have quietly been using the circle for rituals, and it’s from that community that the organised support for saving the circle has come.”

Almare Merille is a Glasgow native. She is also a practicing Pagan, and one of the aforementioned cowled figures who stood among the stones at last year’s Solstice ritual. “Within the Glasgow area there is a thriving and active Pagan community, serving all the various paths; from Vodun to Shinto,” she explains. “We are very lucky both in the history that surrounds us, but in the reservoir of personal knowledge and experience that is open to us. And of course this area is steeped in magik and mystery.”

We had planned for maybe thirty participants [for the Summer Solstice ritual]. We ended up with over seventy — at which point panic set in over the amount of cake and juice we would need. At one point in the ritual we planned to call the Awen [9] to raise the energy for what was to come. So, the five of us stood round the centre stone, pinky to pinky, and the participants surrounded us, touching us and their neighbours and forming one complete circuit. Anyone who took part – Pagan or not– felt the power of that call; quite a few where openly emotional. The circle has welcomed us completely.”

The public ritual was just one of a number of events designed to raise awareness of the stones and of their proposed fate at the hands of Glasgow City Council. A Save Sighthill Stone Circle benefit concert took place on the twenty-seventh of July 2013, organised by Stuart Braithwaite of post-rock legends Mogwai [10]. Despite these and many other efforts including an online petition signed by close to five-thousand people, and support for the campaign to save the Stone Circle from the likes of Astronomer Royal for Scotland Prof. John Brown, Sighthill Park is still earmarked for “re-positioning”. There will be no Athletes Village (the city having lost out to Buenos Ares in their Youth Olympic bid), but Glasgow City Council now have plans for new houses, shops, hotels, and so on in the area, which is a mere ten minutes walk from the city centre.

Public support for, and interest in, Sighthill Stone Circle has never been higher, however, and it seems that Glasgow City Council have had to make some concessions. A report issued by their Planning Applications Committee on the 8th of April 2014 states “If the Stone Circle is to be knocked down then every effort should be made for a suitable project with a similar monument using the materials should be constructed in close proximity taking into consideration the educational and religious elements of the original structure to preserve as a feature of interest […] A condition has been attached for the Stone Circle elements to be stored within the application site for safekeeping until a future site can be identified to replace it.”

Duncan Lunan explains “[this is] the first time the documentation relating to it has included mention of retaining the stones. We’re in agreement with the architect on approximately where the circle will be recreated. There is still no date for the removal of the stones from their present site. They will probably be removed at an early stage once work begins, but a lot of issues with the redevelopment have to be settled before that happens.

Right now I’m starting to focus on the upcoming lunar minor standstill, the only event marked at the circle but not yet documented photographically documented. The standstill is in September/October 2015 [11], but to the accuracy of the circle a year to either side of it would suffice for observations. I’m starting to plan on the assumption that we might begin observations this autumn at the present site and capture some or all of them before the stones are moved. It won’t be possible to start specific observations at the new site until we know exactly where the circle will be, so at the moment everything is up in the air until the architects have more news for us.”

For now Sighthill Stone Circle remains in its original position; overlooked by the remaining tower-blocks now condemned to death by wrecking ball and bulldozer. I will be visiting Glasgow for the first time in a couple of months and plan to take a walk up to the stones. Perhaps I will even have the pleasure of enjoying a summer sunset among them. I hope so. It seems a magical place. There among the post-industrial urban landscape Duncan Lunan and the Glasgow Parks Astronomy Project re-created a marvel of ancient technology that experts of the day argued could never have existed. All of Clarke’s Three Laws appear entirely pertinent here, but the oft-quoted latter seems to me the most significant: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Notes

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sighthill,_Glasgow

[2] http://www.glasgow.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=5750

[3] http://www.scottish-places.info/features/featurefirst19856.html

[4] http://www.duncanlunan.com/bio.asp

[5] Knappers (as in flint-knappers) is a Neolithic and Bronze Age site uncovered 1933/4, including thirty-four burials, some of them cremation inhumation burials and some under cairns. The doorway of an enclosed, spiral stone structure at the centre points to midsummer solstice sunset. It was surrounded by a ring of postholes suggesting a lintelled structure, like a wooden counterpart of the Stonehenge III trilithons, and around that was a huge structure of postholes, surrounded in turn by outlying standing stones with astronomical alignments. The outer wooden structure may have been a wooden henge, but the posts were small, and the chief excavator interpreted them as marking out a labyrinth with concealed astronomical alignments. (Sources: Ludovic Mann, “The Druid Temple Explained”, William Rudge & Co., Glasgow & Edinburgh, 1939; http://www.templum.freeserve.co.uk/history/prehistory/bronzeage.htm)

[6] http://theurbanprehistorian.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/thatchers-petrified-children/

[7] The Callanish Stones, erected sometime between 2900 and 2600 BC and situated near the village of Callanish in the Western Isles of Scotland (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Callanish_Stones)

[8] http://www.theguardian.com/uk/scotland-blog/2013/jan/18/glasgow-sighthill-stones

[9] “(Poetic) inspiration” or “essence”, “the breath of the divine” in modern Druidry (souce: http://www.wightdruids.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=124&Itemid=139)

[10] The Glasgow Parks Astronomy Project ran from March 1978 to early 1980. Duncan Lunan was Project Manager and Stuart Braithwaite’s late father, the telescope maker John Braithwaite, was Technical Supervisor. Stuart’s grandfather, the late Bill Braithwaite, joined the Project as Model Maker in 1979, as part of an expanded team working on exhibitions and with schools.

[11] Because the Earth’s axis is inclined at 23°.5 (currently) to the plane of its orbit (the Ecliptic), the Moon’s orbit is inclined at 5° to the Ecliptic, and the Moon’s orbital plane swings round the sky in 18.61 years under the pulls of the Sun and the Earth’s equatorial bulge, the northerly and southerly maximum risings and settings of the Moon vary over an 18.61 year cycle (regression of the lunar nodes). The extreme northerly and southerly risings and settings, 14 days apart, are termed the major standstill, and the intermediate ones 9.3 years later are the minor standstill. Because the 18.61 year cycle is not commensurate with the solar year, standstills can occur at any time of the year and are not linked to the solstices as many people suppose. (Sources: E.C. Krupp, ed., “In Search of Ancient Astronomies”, Chatto & Windus, 1979; Duncan Lunan, “The Stones and the Stars”, Springer, 2012.)

With warm thanks to Almare Merille, and especially to Duncan Lunan for all his help.

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