ONCE at Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Orkney, I saw a ring of wave-beaten stones, each one large enough to sit on, enclosing a pile of charred driftwood. Years later, on the beach at Maidens, not so far from where I grew up in Ayrshire, I caught the last shock of flame in a smaller stone hearth. People like building fires between the foreshore and the dunes, where the sand is dry but the wind still blows until your ears are numb and the tears and mucus are whipped from your eyes and nose. I am drawn to these embers and ashes, knowing that soon a high tide or gust of sand will whip them away. I have never built a fire outside, or sat by one that burned on a windy beach, the whistle of salt in my hair.
At home in Glasgow, I’m used to laying a cast iron stove with scrunches of newspaper, constructing tepees of kindling, balancing lumps of smokeless anthracite brought in hundredweight bags by the coalman. Touching the match here, then here, then here, wedging the door ajar to draw the draught and coax the flicker and glow. Inside my body I feel a small surge, but primal, rising to answer the flame.
The village of Skara Brae, which overlooks Bay of Skaill, was built around six and a half thousand years ago. I went there first as an archaeology undergrad, drawn to the possibility of telling stories around our pre-literate past, and have returned time and again in the twenty years since. At the centre of each of the houses, surrounded by stone box beds and a shelved stone dresser, there is a hearth. It takes an instant to recognize where people slept, where they placed their belongings, where they knelt to touch flame to kindling. The Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown imagined their ‘small fires and pots’. Even on the wildest day, when the site is about to be closed to visitors for safety, it is possible to conjure a low roof, a smoky coziness.
A similar hearth lies in the middle of the Stones of Stenness, the oldest of all the ancient henges in Scotland. When it was excavated it was found to contain cremated bone, charcoal and broken pottery. Stenness guards a spit of land that slices between the lochs of Stenness and Harray. Here, at Ness of Brodgar, archaeologists have found unique proof of painted decoration inside a Neolithic structure. As part of my studies I worked on a dig high on a hillside near Finstown. Our excavations overlooked a tiny island with a causeway leading to it. The site supervisor told us that the farmer who lived there alone had gone mad, and shot the few cows that grazed by his home. I would look up from my trowel and brush to see curls of smoke rising from the farmer’s chimney, glimpse a mud-encrusted car that seemed never to move, even when the tide was low enough to render the causeway passable. Above our dig was a chambered tomb, Cuween Hill. A torch was left just inside the entrance, and one day four of us, all girls, crawled the three long metres of the low passageway to reach the place where the bodies of eight people or more were left to slip off their dead flesh. We had read our textbooks, and knew that after decomposition others came to move the bones and rearrange them, alongside the skulls of twenty-four dogs. Death rituals always fascinated me, these Neolithic griefs that allowed people to return to their dead and, perhaps, their dead to return to them.
When I was seventeen, I moved from the Ayrshire town of Kilmarnock to Glasgow to study. It was the nearest city, but it felt as if I’d come a long way. There were days when it seemed more foreign than places I’ve travelled across the world to now. I lived for a year in a room in a house that had only an open fire for heating. I didn’t have much skill in lighting it, and when it did burn, the soot coated my tie-dye dresses and second-hand textbooks while the warmth did not extend beyond the small rectangle of the rag rug in front of the fireplace. I remember being glad when someone visited, eager to singe marshmallows on the flames, and the muffled loneliness once they’d gone. It took me a while to learn how to make a home, and when I did it was for one person alone. Sometimes I’d lie in bed in that square, cold room and watch the reflections of the flames dance up to the dark ceiling.
When archaeologists find hearths, it’s taken as an indication that domestic activity took place at a site. Keeping warm, cooking, storytelling perhaps. But Gordon Barclay, an eminent and much-respected scholar of the Scottish Neolithic, wrote that our ‘search for settlement is hampered by the limits of our understanding of the guises in which it will appear’. Barclay was frustrated at times by the way in which the ‘luminous centres’ of prehistory, Orkney and Wessex (where Stonehenge lies) attracted archaeologists at the expense of the under-explored areas of mainland Scotland. We know less of how our Neolithic ancestors lived in these less glamorous places. For Kenneth Brophy, who was, I believe, once in the same classes as me, one of the problems has been the failure of archaeologists to begin at the beginning; by trying to define what exactly we mean by ‘domestic’ and ‘house’. These questions, of how we live and where, spool from the Neolithic to today.
When I was a child, a lot of adults remembered growing up with coal fires. The bunker out the back, the struggle to heat water in the back boiler, most of the heat escaping up the chimney. My Ayrshire family were coal miners. In the early part of the twentieth century, and beyond, the boys left school on their fifteenth birthday and went to the pit with their dad the next day. By the time I was born, most houses had a hissing gas fire that lit with a sudden whoosh of flame, or one with electric coils and fake coals, set on a fireplace made of tiles and coloured breezeblocks. Chairs and couch were angled towards the television. The fire wasn’t used if there was central heating, but its bulbs would glow orange through the plastic nonetheless.
The distinction between domesticity and ritual may not have been as clear cut in the Neolithic as it seems to be today. The quotidian might have been numinous and the numinous, quotidian. The Scottish Archaeological Research Framework noted that ‘expecting to find wholly domestic activity may be inappropriate for Neolithic contexts’. Daily life could have been chock full of ritual. A cooking pot might not have been just a cooking pot.
Hearths and cists look similar. It’s hard to look at one without seeing the other, and perhaps that’s the point. At Temple Wood in Kilmartin Glen, the twin stone circles have central burial cists. The nineteenth century landowner planted trees around the circles to heighten the romantic sense of druidic worship, and today the woods lend an eeriness to the place. The positioning of the stones, plotted over five thousand years ago, is the earliest evidence we have in Scotland of an awareness of the movements of the sun. One stone is marked with a double spiral, another with a double oval. The first people to be called Scots were early migrants from Ireland. Nearby at Dunadd, thousands of years later, they crowned their kings. Scotland debated – and voted against – independence in 2014. We’re still sifting through history for the narratives we need.
Behind our bed in Glasgow, the wind howls in the bricked-up chimney. Below us, the original hearthstone is embedded in the floor. We live in the attic of a converted late Georgian townhouse. There might have been a dozen fireplaces in the building when it was built; only two of the chimneys are safe to use now. The smell of smoke on the cold air as I walk home on a dark winter evening means my partner is in, and the house is warm. When I was a small child we visited Glasgow from time to time. The city was soot-blackened, the red and blond of its tenements obscured, the pinnacled towers and sculpted figures of the art gallery and museum at Kelvingrove alluring but monstrous. The Clean Air Act was passed in 1956, a legacy of the Great Smog of London which lasted five days and is now estimated to have killed 12,000 people. The friendly warmth of Kelvingrove’s Locharbriggs sandstone was revealed in the late 1980s. In 2016, Glasgow breached World Health Organisation air pollution safety levels. These days the culprit is traffic rather than smoke.
Many of the later prehistoric buildings in Scotland can be made visible when their blanket of turf and soil is lifted away. When they could, our ancestors built with stone. One of the roundhouses at Aldclune near Blair Atholl had four hearths. People lived in extended families. When the Romans reached Northern Europe they surmised that men may have had more than one wife; today we wonder if women had more than one partner too. It is possible that society was matrilineal.
As a family, we didn’t travel north. The furthest we went together in Scotland was to Perthshire, where one Easter we rented a cottage that had been one of the gate lodges to a castle near Weem. Now, photographed in sunshine, with French doors and a picturesque bench outside, the lodge has all that is needed to secure four stars from VisitScotland. Back then it was more rudimentary, and we didn’t have the knack to charm many warm baths from the back boiler. I was studying for school exams and the chill of the bedroom numbed my feet and hands. But I could roam through the woods with my dog Nell, and look across the fields to the castle. There was an open metal tank of water under the trees. It seemed vast, and frightening. At night Nell and I would sit so close to the coal fire that we’d risk scorching ourselves.
Like the early cathedral builders, some Neolithic people must not have expected to see their constructions complete. When we walk through their landscapes today, past their watch stones and cairns, the living are there alongside the dead. These places were built for the future, so that it would always hold the past. Rebecca K. Younger, who did her PhD on Neolithic henges, the earthworks that often contain stone or timber circles, proposes that we think of them not as passive monuments but as ‘places of commemoration’.
A few days before she died, my grandmother complained of feeling ill. She seemed to rally, but when I returned to Glasgow I wrote to her anyway. We corresponded often when I was at university; it was easier for me than calls on a shared telephone, which could turn long and difficult. I recall feeling a pressing sense of things clamoring to be said, but the most important were simple enough to put into words. I loved her; she was important in my life. When she died a few days later and I returned to her house, I heard the postman’s steps in the entry and saw my letter flap through the letterbox. We kept her in the house until the funeral, and that day I sat at her dressing table and brushed my hair with her ivory-backed brush, applied a dab of her No17 Toffee Apple lipstick. We asked the undertaker to place the letter in her coffin, to be cremated with her.
A friend in Orkney built a house next to the remains of a grain-drying kiln. It might date from medieval times; many do, according to local archaeologist Merryn Dineley. From my friend’s garden you can look across to Cava and Hoy beyond, and watch the ferries carrying workers back and forth to the oil terminal at Flotta. A story that I never tire of hearing is that of two women, Ida and Meg, who were the only inhabitants of the small island of Cava for twenty-seven and a half years. They arrived on a motorbike and sidecar from the South of England in 1959, along with their cat. Their cottage did not have electricity, or running water. They didn’t mind visitors, liked religious songs and gin (or so I’m told), cut peat to burn on their fire. Prehistoric Orcadians probably gathered seaweed, braced it to dry in the high winds, and burned it on their fires. I have done this and can confirm that it stinks. Ida and Meg weren’t a couple in the romantic sense even if, as Andrew Greig wrote, their life together ‘makes marriage seem faint-hearted’. Poets love islands even more than archaeologists do.
The Pevsner Architectural Guide describes the town I am from, Kilmarnock, as: ‘The county’s engine house, whose late C19–early C20 heyday took its name to every corner of the globe, on water hydrants, shoes, railway engines, carpets and whisky. Those days are behind it now . . . and the town seeks to reinvent itself for the C21, and to forget the damage the late C20 wrought on its economy, communal psyche and built environment.’ Reinvention is not an easy business, and I wonder if our communal psyches benefit from an anchor to what has gone before. I find myself poring over old photographs, rewriting my home-town’s past, sifting through the inherited narratives of family history in the service of fiction. In the absence of graves and chambered cairns, it’s my way of crawling in to touch the bones, and rearrange them.
Sometimes when I light the stove, I think of Nicholson Baker’s novel A Box of Matches, which is about writing, and routine, and mortality, and perhaps most of all, about the pleasure of lighting a fire. Prometheus didn’t steal it from the gods for nothing. Most Novembers, in the tiny park just around the corner from our house, teenagers build a bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night. A strange thing to celebrate, the foiled 1605 century plot to blow up parliament and perhaps the king for persecuting Catholics, and the execution of its perpetrators. Especially in the West of Scotland, where sectarianism teeters on. It is a few years now since I’ve been asked for ‘a penny for the Guy’, a mannequin representing Fawkes, made by children to sit atop the bonfire, but it seems that a plastic wheely bin is a satisfactory substitute.
Sir Walter Scott was so taken with the remains of the sixteenth-century Old House of Sumburgh on Shetland that he named it Jarlshof and used it in his novel The Pirate. It turned out that people had been living there for epochs before the laird built his house. The earliest settlement dates from the Neolithic, about 2400BCE. Two pits were found in the sandy floor of one oval house. One pit contained fragments of human skull, three stone clubs and a stone knife; the other, the four feet of a cow. Another house became a smith’s workshop in the Bronze Age, and by the Iron Age there was a farm, and then, still a couple of hundred years before the birth of Christ, a circular stone tower known as a broch and associated wheelhouses. The Picts lived at Jarlshof, and then the Vikings. One of the earliest extant longhouses in Scotland is here; people lived alongside their animals, as many subsequent generations of highlanders and islanders would. As you walk through these buildings, you can look up to the lighthouse and World War Two radar hut at Sumburgh Head, and hear planes land at the airport nearby. The road to Jarlshof crosses the runway. George Mackay Brown writes of ‘the old friendship of stone and man’. No material is as evocative. The grain of it under our fingers, the marks where it was worked in ancient times. We recognize houses. The paved hearths with their stone kerbs.
Madeleine Bunting’s investigations into the Gaelic heritage of the Hebrides cause her to ponder whether people belong to places rather than places to people. We all want a centre, a lodestone, a connection to the past that will write us into the narrative that leads to the future. As the only child of an only child, childless myself and an atheist to boot, sometimes my connections seem fragile. My family favours cremation. We don’t leave behind sites of commemoration hewn in stone.
Landscapes change, and that what looks wild to our urban eyes is less desolate than we might imagine. At Machrie Moor on Arran some of the stone circles were built in timber first, then upgraded to what Anna and Graham Ritchie call ‘the designer version’; tall sandstone slabs alternated with granite boulders. Many stones in this ritual landscape are missing, probably broken up to reuse in Moss Farm, a derelict stop along the moorland track where once my partner Louise and I saw a male hen harrier tumble and soar in his intricate sky dance. Three of the stones that remain are monumental, dizzying. One rises five and a half metres from the springy turf. The trees and the soil may have changed over the millennia, but the hills and the sea would orientate a time traveller immediately. People lived and farmed here, and the ground received their dead. The stones align with the midsummer sunrise, when it peeks through a notch in the hills at the top of the empty glen. Lichen forms a patina like a lurid map of a long-gone archipelago. Close your eyes and lay one palm on the tallest of the upright slabs, turn your ear to it even, when it has a trace of warmth from the spring sunshine, and you can imagine a vibration, a pulse.