Like vandals, we are about to destroy a 2,500-year-old mystery


By Kenneth Roy

The Celts went down three nil to the visitors on Tuesday night. That’s Scottish history. The following morning their Irish supporters trudged dejectedly on to an aircraft outside this window. That’s Scottish history too. We can remember these events. Just.

Looking a bit further back, there’s Bannockburn. I paid homage once at the 1314 Inn and was challenged by the owner to a duel because of the disobliging things I wrote in the Glasgow Herald about his establishment. They still like a fight in Bannockburn.

Between 1314 and the tragedy in Paradise, not a lot perhaps. The odd encounter with Ross County. The Scottish Enlightenment… what was that, Jimmie? Fires burning in the far north. Emigrant boats groaning with defeated human cargo. A sexy woman who got her head chopped off. Liz Lochhead writing about it. Endless discussion about the need for a Scottish national anthem. A lot of coal-mining. Branch factories. The bloody English. The bloody everything. The news with Jackie Bird. Hey, it’s snowing again.

Have I left anything out? It wasn’t even necessarily in that order.

Now, which is to say these days, we are terribly good at building roads and then mending them. We are obsessed by roads. There is a ‘national agency’, Transport Scotland, absolutely mad about roads. Recently – last week; so that’s history too – it awarded a contract worth millions to R J McLeod (Contractors) Ltd to construct a few miles of bypass at a place called Dunragit of which few have heard.

But I have heard of it. I have even adjudicated it. Some years ago I went down to Stranraer – it would have been quicker to sail – and one of the teams in the drama festival seemed to consist of people from Dunragit; I believe the whole population was on the stage. All seven of them. They were a well-adjusted lot – pity about the play – but I now realise they were seething with anger about the rumble of heavy lorries disturbing their peace.

I know the feeling. Heavens, I once lived in a castle in the high street of Maybole. That was history too. Someone vanished through the solid wall of Maybole Castle, and there was an aristocratic girl who lived there who ran off with the king of the gypsies. But that was before the lorries arrived, ‘the high-sided vehicles’ as I believe they’re called, rattling down the high street, scaring off all the lovely ghosts. Don’t talk to me about bypasses.

More than a decade ago, the angry folks of Dunragit gathered in a telephone box – bit of a squeeze, though no sweat – and demanded a bypass of their own. They have this pesky bridge, the Challoch, which is a constant source of annoyance because the drivers of the high-sided vehicles, eejits that they are, can’t read their Satnavs properly and keep bumping into the bridge, closing the A75, disrupting what is left of the rail service to Stranny, and creating a useful piece of theatre in Dunragit, where nothing else of interest happens between drama festivals.

But then there was a sense of humour bypass. Not the real bypass. That’s coming. But in 2002, when the Scottish Executive (more history) considered the plan for a Dunragit bypass, and decided that it could not be done, on the eminently reasonable grounds that it would have broken the law, there was consternation in Dunragit and among the motoring classes of Dumfries and Galloway in general.

It turned out, most inconveniently, that the bypass would have destroyed a site of archaeological significance, a palisaded enclosure described by some as the Scottish Stonehenge.

The Scottish Executive, on the advice of an organisation called Historic Scotland which claims to be as mad about heritage as Transport Scotland is about roads, instructed the engineers to go away. There was a certain respect then – even a decade ago – for the distant past, the bit that happened before league reconstruction. The enclosure was built so long ago – 2,500 years ago, they reckon – that it fails to qualify as history in the sense that the Celtic game is already history. We do not know what went on in this palisaded enclosure. We know roughly what went on in Paradise on Tuesday night, the palisaded enclosure of our own time, a strange ritual involving posts, as Dunragit’s did.

One of the posts had been pulled out. The crater revealed a number of ‘elaborate deposits’ (as the archaeologists described them), including the cremated remains of a woman, shreds of grooved ware, wonderful pottery. But the purpose of the enclosure remains a mystery. There is some suggestion of a platform on which a few of the inhabitants were elevated in order to observe the surrounding landscape. These days we’d call that the press box. The theory is that the henge at Dunragit was a ceremonial meeting place, ‘a forum for social negotiation and competition’, long before the birth of Christianity caused all that bother in Glasgow football stadiums.

But we don’t know. There is an absolute goldmine down there in Dunragit, and the limited excavations which have taken place in the last decade have barely touched the surface. We understand almost nothing. We know almost nothing. We know only enough to blow most of it up.

Soon, VisitScotland will have to pull down its webpage advertising Dunragit as ‘one of the most important Stone Age sites in Scotland’. But Dunragit will have its bypass and, it seems, everybody’s happy. The local MP, Alex Fergusson – who chaired meetings of the Scottish Parliament in the olden days; something of a prehistoric monument himself – has welcomed it. Keith Brown, the Secretary of State for Snow Ploughs, is ecstatic about it. The Old Luce Community Council, no less, has conferred its unqualified blessing.

I asked both the guilty parties for statements. Transport Scotland informed me that work will begin in the spring and that ‘any cultural and environmental impacts’ will be ‘mitigated’. Historic Scotland said much the same, even down to the use of the word mitigated. It’s a weasel word. It could mean anything or nothing. But I noted that Historic Scotland chose to ignore two of my three simple questions: how it rates the archaeological value of the site at Dunragit; and why, since it opposed the bypass as recently as 2002, it now has no objections.

Meanwhile, Celtic’s adventure in Europe is over, barring what its manager calls ‘a miracle’. One day they will pull up one of the posts in Paradise and discover in the crater a deflated football and the charred remains of a goalkeeper. It’s all that will be left of us – apart from a message in a bottle, the last recorded press statement of Historic Scotland.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review