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.

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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?

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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: https://geographiesofheritage.wordpress.com/2013/02/19/how-to-build-an-ancient-monument-tarr-steps/). 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!

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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).

 

 

 

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The Authenticity of Grotesque Carving and Gargoyles

The College of St George, next to St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, has held an exhibition this Autumn entitled ‘Imaginative Sculpture – Protecting the Sacred Space’. Working in partnership with the City and Guilds of London Art School, this exhibition celebrates an ‘imaginative carving programme’, which has produced a series of new grotesque sculptures and gargoyles for St George’s Chapel.

Gargoyles combo

These grotesque figures replace the heavily eroded Victorian grotesques, which themselves replaced medieval carvings, the design of which is not known. In other words, these contemporary original gargoyles are to replace High Victorian neo-Gothic originals, which replaced the medieval original ‘originals’ in the later-nineteenth century. Where does this leave the issue of ‘authenticity’? And on what principles should ‘preservation’ of an ‘original’ operate?

Conservators of Cathedrals have long had to grapple with this problem. In the nineteenth century, the debate worked through the oppositional ideologies of ‘restorationists’ on the one hand and the followers of the ‘anti-scrape’ movement on the other. Represented by ‘Ecclesiologist’ groups such as the Cambridge Camden Society, and star architects such as Augustus Pugin and George Gilbert Scott, restorationists followed (neo-)‘gothic’ principles in their activities of seemingly making medieval buildings look more ‘medieval’. Opposing these very ‘hands-on’ practices, the ‘anti-scrape’ brigade was led by figures such as John Ruskin and William Morris, and operated through the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings. For this group, medieval fabric was definitely not to be tampered with or artificially ‘improved’, and any repair should be clearly transparent. But what counts as ‘authentic’ within these debates? One could argue that the restorationists had an ‘authentic’ Victorian imagination of the medieval world, while those who followed a seemingly more ‘pure’ line of not tampering with any inherited object must necessarily have to accept the ‘authentic’ decay and oblivion of their treasured artefacts. And if an authentic medieval statue is damaged, perhaps with iconoclastic zeal, then what should be conserved?: Should such a badly eroded statue be left to its own devices (eventually to dissolve into nothing)?, be replaced with a ‘new’ – but similarly damaged – replica (thus ‘preserving’ a semblance of the iconoclast’s authentic ire)?, or be replaced by a replica that tries to copy the medieval original (assuming that the design is known)?

Exeter Cathedral-statue

The partnership between St George’s Chapel and the City and Guilds of London Art School has steered a course through these debates by seeking to produce new grotesque figures that ‘aim to reproduce the scale and detail of the original medieval conception whilst allowing students the opportunity to be inventive in designing new carvings’ (quote from the website: http://www.stgeorges-windsor.org). The students were inspired by several visits to the chapel, studying in close-up several 15th century wooden carvings which helped to ‘fire their imagination’, while members of the Chapel team and their ‘Fabric Advisory Group’ made several visits to the Art School, thus opening up a dialogue that stayed ‘fresh and exciting’.

Medieval ‘purists’ might well be critical of the outcomes of the project – which include an Earth Mother figure, the Hindu elephant god, Ganesha, and a mouse with a human ear growing from its back – but I think that the outcome can be said to have an ‘authentic feel’ that is very refreshing; a present centred celebration and rendition of ‘the past’, carried out in a fashion that respects both the physical context of the site as well as the intangible heritage context of craft skill and what I can only call a ‘knowing attitude’ to the world. Drawing from the work of people like Rodney Harrison and Jenny Kidd, these practices seem to reflect a situation an on-going dialogue between past and present, and appear to have the ‘feel’ of authenticity, and can thus act as a reflective prompt rather than just paying a timid homage to an essentialised and stable ‘relic from the past’.

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What we see in these commissioned grotesque statues is a spirit of authenticity; one that is true to the imaginative milieu of the world in which the building was originally conceived and built, and that honours the exceptional levels of skill and creativity of the craft practices involved. It reminds me of Sian Jones and Thomas Yarrow’s work with masons who were engaged in conserving Glasgow Cathedral (in the Journal of Material Culture, volume 18.3, 2013), in which they found ‘authenticity’ being produced through forms of expertise and skill that are aligned through daily practices of conservation work: “authenticity is neither a subjective, discursive construction, nor a latent property of historic monuments waiting to be preserved. Rather it is a property that emerges through specific interactions between people and things” (page 3).