Thursday, 24 March 2011

Walking on the Wild Side: Magical Machrie Moor

This is the second of a series of articles that I am writing for the Voice for Arran about Walking and Wildlife on Arran.


 I love getting to know the layers of a landscape. For me, walking on Arran is an ongoing study in the composition and history of a place. Footpaths and structures are knitted into the land like bones and blood vessels. The walk from roadside to Machrie Stone Circles, for example, passes through five thousand years of human endeavour, lovingly erected from the rock of ages in just a couple of miles of rutted farm track.

My favourite time to arrive at the moor is late in the day as the sun’s rays are at a low angle. I wait until the car park has begun to empty, and cross the stile opposite. The track to the Stones cuts across meadows and skirts the wooded river bank above the Machrie Water. The track shortly bends away from the river and I pass the mysterious “Moss Farm Road Cairn”. This cairn looks for all the world like a stone circle, but is believed to be a kerbed cairn, encircled by a rim of lumpy boulders marking its outer edge.

The track rises through rough pasture and sweet gorse, until I’m at the fringes of the moor. I briefly turn off the path, to pay a visit to a favourite place, a hut circle some twenty feet in diameter, hidden amongst the soft rushes and heather. This was once the dwelling place for a Bronze Age family. Similar structures have been excavated all over Britain. The inhabitants herded their animals and steadfastly tilled the land. Theirs was a time of great cultural flowering, when stone monuments sprung up all over the country. Populations were expanding, settling new places now abandoned even by modern farmers. Today, a raised ring of rushes marks all that is left of their home. In summer, spotted heath orchids grow proudly in the boggy centre of the hut where I imagine there was once a hearth.

Returning to the track, it isn’t long before I reach the first of the stone circles, a double ring of granite boulders. Sixty five million years ago, the rock swirled and heaved in the bosom of a huge volcano. The magma cooled, and the outer crust of lava was slowly eroded to reveal the granite core. Boulders were dragged down from the hills by ancient glaciers, which in turn faltered and melted more than ten thousand years ago, leaving rocks marooned in the landscape, ready for humans to trundle the last few metres into place. This circle is known as Fingal’s Cauldron Seat, and it is said that the celtic giant tethered his great dog Bran to one of the boulders while he boiled water for his supper. The derelict buildings of Moss Farm sit opposite. The crumbling walls are home to starlings and swallows in the summer.

I go through the gate and on to the moor itself. The setting sun is reflected by the orange glow of the sandstone pillars that stand erect like bare tree trunks. The circle builders chose a combination of granite boulders and quarried sandstone. Where sandstone was used, there is a sense that this was with a purpose, now hidden. Six circles have been discovered and of these, four include sandstone as well as granite. All have been excavated, with varying degrees of care. The most recent excavations by Alison Haggarty were published in 1991. It was Haggarty who made the last circle discovery, a sixth secret buried beneath the peat. Who knows if there are more?

Today the moor is a wet and inhospitable place for humans. Crisscrossed by ditches, dense birch and willow scrub, and pocked with hidden mires, the moor is home to fearsome adders and birds of prey. Lines of broken fences confirm sporadic sheep grazing, but the moor feels like a wild place.

It was not always like this. The land of the circle builders used to be rich and ripe. Below the peat and beneath the stones have been found the marks of ploughs etched into an old and fertile soil. Older still are the posts and pits that tell the true age of the site. Haggarty’s excavations revealed that the first circles on the moor were wrought of timber four and a half thousand years ago. Even earlier are fragments of pottery and rough pits left behind by early pastoralists, Neolithic people living five thousand years ago. The story of the moor is of a thousand years of population growth and intensification. Settlements sprang up, and with them sacred places for people to gather together, built first of wood, and then stone. The site reached its zenith some time in the beginning of the second millennium BC, when the people carefully buried the cremated remains of their kin inside the circles with precious implements and hand crafted earthenware.

Eventually, the climate began to sour and the moor became a less friendly place. The weather deteriorated and the peat grew and deepened. The people retreated to the margins of the land, farming the fertile strip between coast and hill. The moor was left alone and the black bog took hold, in places reaching a depth of three metres.

I sit with my back to sun-warmed sandstone and try to imagine how the moor would have felt all those years ago. I picture a settled scene, small hamlets surrounding an area of common land, quilted with a patchwork of crops and pasture. Wooden stakes mark out animal enclosures, and circles of stone stand neatly in the centre of a hive of activity. For a moment I can hear the homely songs of the farmers, but they are lost in the fluting calls of curlews carried on the wind. Machrie moor still brims with life, but it belongs to wilder inhabitants now.
Things to look out for on Machrie Moor:
  • Moorland birds including curlew, wheatear, meadow pipit, hen harrier, buzzard, short eared owl and kestrel
  • A hole in a boulder in the first circle where Fingal is said to have tethered his dog, Bran.
  • Two half-finished mill stones, fashioned in recent centuries from granite standing stones.
Take Care:
  • The moor is a working sheep farm. Keep dogs on a lead at all times.
  • Stick to the main path to avoid getting bogged down or disturbing wildlife.

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