Cnoc na Grèine in the Western Isles
Fieldwork has identified a myriad of visual links between stone rows and their landscape. These are mentioned individually within the gazetteer entries, but until now they have not been brought together. It is clear that the rows were built to interact with the landscape in which they were built. Too often, a significant place at the limit of visibility appears or disappears towards or even at the end or start of the row. Many rows are built across one or more limits of visibility and this often feels deliberate. Whilst the passage of time and the lack of documentation means that we cannot be certain what the significance is, we can be now be confident that many of the rows were built to incorporate special places into their being. Walking along the longer rows, in particular, a series of visual “treats” and reveals are on offer and it seems as if the row builders are telling us what was significant to them. The rows were built within a landscape without many of the features we take for granted. Instead natural landmarks and distant horizons unencumbered with towers and turbines would have represented their world and the rows almost certainly fed into and from this. Travel and trade are known to have been important at this time, but the route infra-structure was in its infancy and the shortage of fixed points would have made navigation difficult and a special skill. Long distance travel would certainly have presented considerable difficulties and an elite who developed the skills would have inevitably been influential within society. Navigation is something that today we take for granted most of the time. The GPS and SatNav means that we do not need to give it much thought. Even in the days before satellites, maps which could be carried meant that travel was relatively easy and basic map reading skills were all that were needed to get from A to B. Prehistoric people did not, as far as we know, have maps and in the late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age the road infrastructure would have been tortuous, designed as it was primarily for local movement. Travel over any sort of distance would have been difficult and navigation skills of paramount importance. Every spot on the planet is unique. Today that uniqueness is expressed by numbers whether Ordnance Survey national grid numbers or Latitude and Longitude. In the past the only way to describe where you were was by reference to other known spots together perhaps with an approximate measure of distance. As we walk through any landscape the relative positions of the different places we can see change constantly and subconsciously we are able to establish where we are at any particular time by looking around. When the fog descends and the landscape disappears we are suddenly lost. If we are walking along a well-defined path or track it is not a problem, but if caught on the open moor without a GPS one is soon lost and will remain so until a known fixed point is reached or visibility improves. This illustrates just how important good visibility is and how we all use the landscape to navigate. Prehistoric long-distance travellers without the established network of roads that we take for granted would have relied wholly on their knowledge of the relative position of landscape features to successfully navigate across the countryside. It is therefore apposite that the stone rows appear to embody the essence of the skills needed to be a successful long distance traveller at this time. Many are built to incorporate the type of visual link that would have been so necessary and therefore could represent the ritualisation of travel. There is evidence to suggest that the stones that denote the rows could have been added to an existing “ritualised” route in the same way that standing stones and other features were progressively added to the thoroughfares being developed at the time. The sinuous form (which is reminscient of modern paths leading from one spot to another) of some stone rows suggests that the stones were added to an existing path. If one accepts that the stones were at least sometimes added after the route had been selected and indeed used, this gives us a different perspective on them. Think of a football pitch and how some have developed from a flat field used to kick around a ball into grand stadiums which have developed into their current form through stages. Over time people change, develop and adapt what is important to them and it is likely that this was the case with the stone rows. Many probably started as significant places in the landscape where special things happened and over time these special places were marked and in turn became more special because they had been marked. Sometimes of course it would have worked the other way round and the stones would have been erected first and the significance of the place would have developed with use. Whichever way it happened the place was selected for a reason and the definable links with landscape is the most likely given the cumulative evidence of the rows being linked often in precise ways with significant places. We can be reasonably confident that the rows were built to acknowledge and relate to the landscape and it would therefore seem reasonable to assume that the landscape played a significant role in their use. The idea of ritualised travel is the most compelling explanation – certainly for the longer rows and given that long-distance travel was probably the preserve of an elite it would not be difficult to see how this could have happened. In the same way that death was ritualised, life and the journey through it would also logically have been a focus for ritual activity. Over time the rituals practised at the stone rows were incorporated or perhaps subsumed into death rituals. Cairns were built at the ends of some rows and in some places further cairns were added and the primary focus changed from activities associated with life to those connected with death. The original purpose of the rows may have been forgotten about as they were initially incorporated into funerary areas before being abandoned, sometimes ignored, sometimes desecrated and sometimes mutilated. The link with landscape is one of the few things that rows both short and long share. The nature of the link inevitably varies but the positioning of the rows has ensured that they have a definable relationship with their landscape. This provides an insight into the people with whom we have shared this landscape.
Identifying visual links in ideal visibility is not that difficult. However, the visibility is rarely ideal and sometimes recent changes in land-use can make it impossible to assess the landscape properly. All archaeological recording is subjective to some degree and the recording of landscape views more so. The obvious, such as the appearance of the sea or a tor at a particular spot along a row is relatively straight-forward to identify and then capture with the camera. The manner in which even the blatantly obvious is revealed is less so and there is nothing to beat experiencing the event for yourself. Capturing the full character of the manner in which any particular row relates to its landscape will inevitably take several visits and this is particularly the case with the longer rows where large numbers of visual links can exist. It was not until I had the fortune to be able to spend two weeks at Bancbryn that the precise visual link with Exmoor was identified. This is my way of saying that what follows must necessary be seen as only a start and inevitably much more remains to be found. When I started on this journey my visits were very much focussed on what could be seen at the site. It was not until the very precise visual links at Bancbryn were identified that I took my eyes off the ground, looked around and was astonished by what there was to see. I subsequently found out that I was far from the first to do this and in Cornwall in particular Pete Herring, Chris Tilley and Cheryl Straffon had already started looking at the rows holistically, whilst Helen Woodley had been doing similar things with chambered tombs and various contributors to the Megalithic Portal had made isolated observations.
Types of Evidence
The process of looking for visual landscape links involves walking up and down the row a few times looking for any significant places and the appearance or disappearance of these landmarks. The most subjective part of the process is deciding what may be a significant place or landmark. At many rows the answer is fairly obvious, but at others it is much more difficult to determine what may have been of significance to the row builders. At some sites current land use means that an on-site assessment is not possible and instead digital viewshed analysis is the only option. This technique works in all weathers, but is not currently as accurate as “real-life” observations. It does however help when back home to sort out what it was that caught your eye. In general terms the following type of evidence have been identified and recorded. To see this evidence please click on the links below:
A summary of the different forms of landscape visual link evidence is provided below. It is hoped that you will find the cumulative impact convincing and whilst it is accepted that individual elements may be open to challenge it is the sheer quantity of circumstantial evidence that provides in my opinion the clincher. Should this all prove to be a huge coincidence then so be it. I have enjoyed getting out into the most wonderful parts of Great Britain, seeing amazing places, people and developing a personal understanding of the landscape and how it evolves as you move through it.
To see the evidence please click on the separate links (where available) below:
- Views along the row to a landmark
- Reveals along the row to a landmark formed by the row being built across the limit of visibility
- Restricted views of landmarks or significant places
- Reveals formed by the row being built across the limit of visibility to a landmark or significant place
- Sea views
- Sea view reveals formed by the row being built across the limit of visibilty to the sea
- Promontory view
- Restricted views of landscape beyond the immediate confines of the row
- Views in at least one direction restricted by adjacent rising ground
- Tor/prominent hill view
- Prominent cairn/s or stones
These pages will be updated as fresh discoveries are made, but in the meantime the graph below illustrates the varied numbers of stone rows with the different types of visual link. Currently the most numerous is sea views, but because these are the easiest to identify it is likely that future work will add considerably to some of the other categories and final picture may be very different.