Sighthill, Glasgow: a Megalithic Monument Going Back and Forth in Time

Earlier this summer, the Sighthill Megalith, close to Glasgow city centre underwent some serious restoration work, being moved, re-sited, and ‘re-sighted’, so as to be aligned with the sun on Summer Solstice.


The original monument was built in 1979 as part of a Glasgow Parks Department job creation scheme, but on the election of Margaret Thatcher’s government, the funding was pulled before the stones could be placed accurately, according to astronomical alignments. Indeed, the whole 1970s build-phase had some serious astronomical issues anyway, being placed in the ‘wrong location’ because the original site chosen was deemed unsuitable since it turned out that a large slab-block of flats would have obscured the view of the sun on the Solstice!

Sighthill with flats

The Glasgow Herald (page 8, 19th June 2017) described the realignment work that was taking place during the 2017 Solstice week as “recreating Britain’s first authentically – and accurately – aligned stone circle to have been erected in more than 3000 years”. The Herald highlighted the way that the Sighthill stones mirrored certain key Neolithic sites in Scotland such as those at Callanish in Lewis and at Stennes in Orkney. In many ways, this effort reflects a distinctly ‘national’ project, with a specific ambition to make links to famous ‘Scottish’ Neolithic sites, and is described by the project’s champion, Alasdair Gray, as work that “continues a Prehistoric Scottish tradition”. Thus, the building work acts to requisition the efforts of people from the Neolithic period (who would certainly have had no conception of a “Scotland”) into being a baseline of cultural and technological development for a distinctly ‘Scottish’ nation. In this respect, these actions mirror the Scottish National Museum’s attempt to place the Pictish carved monument at ‘Hilton of Cadboll’ within a distinctly ‘Scottish’ linear narrative of cultural development (see the work of Sian Jones, and also Harvey 2015). However, while the Hilton of Cadboll stone is a ‘genuine’ Pictish carved stone, placed at the ‘start’ of a story of national artistic progress, the Sighthill Megalith is a product of a 1970s urban job creation scheme, in search of ancient antecedents. Mind you, as Sian Jones notes, whatever the material origins of the Hilton stone, its meaning today should also acknowledge the adherence of the present day population to the stone as having contemporary meaning for the people in the village. So what should we make of the Sighthill Megalith?


By providing a seemingly direct link to a suitable deep past, it seems to supply an air of legitimacy to the nation of Scotland; of originary solidity to a sense of linear inevitability in Scottish progress. On the other hand, the story also tells of a more recent past; one of post-war urban redevelopment schemes in Glasgow, the emasculation of local government and the attitudes of Thatcherism to local artistic practice, and perhaps a desire to do things better.

Rebuilding in the name of ‘conservation’ is a common practice that tends to overturn neat ideas about there being a palimpsest of archaeological layers. Wilkinson and Harvey (2017) found that the regular rebuilding of Tarr Steps in Exmoor after each flood was at the heart of what made Tarr Steps an ‘ancient monument’ (see also this blog: The Sighthill Megalith, however, differs from Tarr Steps (or the Hilton stone), since there is never a pretence of built material continuity – no-one would claim that the Sighthill stones are ‘Neolithic’ in a material sense.

Sighthill building work

The images of the Sighthill stones being re-positioned and re-alligned are reminiscent of the re-building of famous Neolithic sites such as Avebury and Newgrange. Indeed, at Newgrange, there was a similar effort to re-align the stones according to the Solstice – the Winter Solstice in the case of Newgrange. These efforts seem intent on producing what might be described (following Umberto Eco) as a ‘simulacrum’, where the copy is better and more real than the original. But I’m not sure that this is very fair either. For one thing, again, there is no pretence of the site being literally ‘from the deep past’, and for another thing, while sites such as Avebury and Newgrange were rebuilt in a stridently national cause, a deeper look at the Sighthill Megalith reveals a distinctly locally orientated and more humble initiative.

Thus, the Sighthill Megalith seems to be a much more open and future-orientated example of heritage-making in process. The re-siting and re-sighting efforts do not seem to be activities of ‘completion’, nor (despite some of the rhetoric in the Scottish press) do they seem to be overtly ‘national’. Rather, they appear to be commemorative of earlier skills (call them ‘Scottish’ or not!), and provide a canvass for future memory practice. Glasgow City Council officials talk brightly of how the “Sighthill megalith will be a key feature of the new Sighthill, [with] its new life emblematic of the rebirth of the area”; (I guess they need to say such things to underline the value of ongoing urban redevelopment work). But as an imaginative piece of heritage work that allows an open-ended sense of enchantment to bubble to the surface, I have a lot of time for the re-sighted Megalith site of Sighthill!

Sighthill _flowers-at-sighthill

Harvey D.C. (2015) ‘Heritage and scale: settings, boundaries and relations’, International Journal of heritage Studies, volume 21(6), pp. 577-593.

Wilkinson, T. and Harvey, D.C. (2017) ‘Managing the future of the past: images of Exmoor landscape heritage’, Landscape Research, DOI: 10.1080/01426397.2017.1315380.

(Pictures all from Google Images).





The future heritage of the past: the Canterbury Town Plan

As part of the Past-Place project, I visited Canterbury last week, with an interest in post-war planning.

Like many cities that had been bombed during the Second World War (e.g. Exeter and Coventry), an all-encompassing post-war plan was put forward for Canterbury. Like many such schemes, Holden and Enderby’s (1945) Canterbury Town Planning Report proposed a more efficient road network – including a broad new main shopping street and inner ring road, and a fitting range of public buildings and transport hubs. In short, it contained an over-riding sense of reaching out to the ‘city of the future’; a modernist dream of metropolitan efficiency and mobility. While German bombers had inadvertently done a lot of ground work for this dream of the future, a lot of old buildings still needed to be cleared; many narrow streets needed to be widened and public spaces required systematic re-organisation, with the clean lines, efficiency and lightness of re-enforced concrete.

While these schemes are sometimes held up as a Philistine attempt to destroy the material heritage of the past, a reflection of the thoughts of post-war planners such as Charles Holden suggests a slightly different view. In 1957, Holden said that “I don’t seek for a style, either ancient or modern … I want an architecture which is through and through a good building; a building planned for specific purpose, constructed in the method and use of materials, old or new, most appropriate to the purpose the building has to serve”. His Plan for Canterbury did not go down very well with the locals, but many of Holden’s buildings around the country came to be strongly supported by preservation lobbyists and practitioners alike. For instance, many of his London Underground stations are now protected under heritage law, as is Charles Holden’s most famous building, the University of London’s Senate House. As his writings make clear, Holden did not seek to ‘destroy the past’. Rather, his attitude towards ‘heritage’ was more focussed on use and meaning than on tangible constructions. This is a heritage of function rather than one of built form. The considerable public debate and conflict over the post-war plan for Canterbury, therefore, was not simply about the ‘preservation’ and ‘destruction’ of heritage, but was rather focussed on what heritage was; how the past is presenced in the built landscape of the city; a heritage of function, and the function (or purpose) of heritage; and of the ‘future heritage’ that people in post-war Canterbury desired to pass on.

Within the public realm, the debate over the Canterbury plan raged on during the Summer of 1945 through a series of public meetings and within the letters pages and editorials of local newspapers (especially the Kentish Gazette). The local elections of November 1945 saw a clean sweep of victories for candidates of the ‘Canterbury Citizens Defence Association’ (CCDA), who had led the opposition to the sweeping plans of Charles Holden (et al).; the Canterbury Plan seemed to be dead – or was it? Despite some of the rhetoric of their proclamations, the CCDA were actually quite supportive of some of the ‘sweeping aside’ of old buildings and routeways. It was the amount of land under orders of compulsory purchase and, most of all, the apparent practices of central planners riding rough-shod over local rights of Freehold that seemed to raise the hackles of the CCDA. The CCDA put forward their own plan – there is still a ring road and a lot of development around the centre of Canterbury, but the re-development largely follows lines of pre-existing freehold patterns. The Plan that was finally settled upon was the Wilson Plan of 1949, which moved the ring road inside the old city walls and included a large roundabout in the very centre, just off the High Street (around Jewry Lane/White Horse Lane). The Wilson Plan was never fully implemented, leaving Canterbury as it is found today: a hybrid of partially implemented ‘comprehensive plans’, the changing visions of what Canterbury should look like, and the unplanned-for eventualities of finance, investment and happenstance.

The vestiges of this heritage of future heritage can be seen today in the buildings and streetscapes of the city. Along Northgate, for instance, the ‘ghost’ of a planned-for wide boulevard can still be seen next to St John’s Hospital, where a Veterinary practice and a William Hill Bookmakers were built during the 1950s(?) to sit along the side of a widened street that was never built (see photos below). Had this street been built, then the St John’s Hospital would have been demolished – indeed, the older buildings actually overlap very slightly with the footprint of 1950s re-build.

It is within these hybrid streetscapes that the heritage of heritage planning can be seen – the prospective heritage of the past.