The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian




Cairnpapple. One of those places I knew I really should go to, but... well, other sites always seemed to get the nod instead. Mainly, I think in retrospect, because of that bloody concrete dome. It's not the only site to possess one, of course, but a dimly lit passage grave can, more often than not, carry it off with no discernable loss in vibe. In fact a discrete, modern roof can add to the experience, recreating something of how it may have felt to enter the original monument. Herein lies the problem, however: Cairnpapple is not a passage grave, yet visitors are invited to assume it is such. Having said that, it's all too easy to be wise after the event, and Piggott's post war excavation has nevertheless revealed to us a fascinating monument, indeed. Thank you sir, you did what you thought was right for the benefit of generations to follow, adding immeasurably to our knowledge of henges and whatnot. Hey, that's what your generation fought the Nazi tyranny for, was it not?

The hilltop location is spectacular, with a far reaching vista encompassing green hills, industrial areas, The Firth of Forth and the distant high peaks of Tayside etc. Sure, the telecom antennae's out of place, but I can live with that. The custodian's pretty special, too; the tourist spiel is, for once, delivered with conviction and... dare I say it.... a clear love of her charge. I pay her the attention it deserves and learn a thing or two in the process. Such as what a complex monument Cairnpapple really is, linear phases of activity emphasising that man really considered this to be a seriously important spot. These phases have been left 'exposed' to be viewed concurrently, sort of like looking at one of those cutaway drawings of an aircraft.... that's not how it actually looked, but isn't it good to see how it works? In summary - according to the latest thinking - Cairnpapple began life as a two entrance henge, the ditch still well defined to the north and east, with a circle of 24 massive posts placed somewhat off-centre. Within, an alignment of much larger diameter holes may well have held some sort of timber equivalent of a long cairn's facade related to the major burial upon this hilltop, known as North Grave. To view this tomb, punters must climb steps to the summit of the grassed dome and descend by ladder inside.

The significant infiltration of light from a large skylight helps to dispel the passage grave misconception, since the rock cut grave was in fact only covered by a small cairn. The surrounding kerb stones remind me of teeth set within a lower jaw, the whole dominated by a large, leaning monolith immediately reminding me of a similar arrangement at Dunruchan. Close by sits a large cist with impressive capstone. I sit and ponder within the peculiar, clammy atmosphere of the dome. Apparently the cist, plus another, now lost, were later additions covered by a larger cairn taking in the North Grave, too. The modern dome follows the approx line of this cairn and preserves the retaining kerb. The silence is broken by the custodian.... 'Oh, you're still here... people normally don't stay this long...'. No doubt they don't.

Outside it begins to rain, but this is of no consequence... since I am now truly enthralled. Ah, the final phase, a massive diameter, low cairn covering a good proportion of the interior of the henge and possessing a fine kerb of large stones. Why do that. I mean cover all the preceding burials and insert your own? To instigate new traditions without actually destroying the old? Hmm. We could learn a lot from these people, me thinks. Finally, last but not least, four apparently christian graves inserted into the eastern bank of the henge. Old habits die hard, eh?

I leave Cairnpapple Hill somewhat dazed, but mighty glad I finally came. True, it is not a great 'hang' in my opinion - the dome sees to that - but it certainly exercises the grey matter.
22nd June 2010ce
Edited 22nd June 2010ce

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