For almost a year now I’ve travelled by bus, car, underground and on foot, cataloguing the oddest corners of Glasgow. I’ve climbed barbed wire fences, walked along the edges of motorways, staggered up hills with my camera kit and sheltered from the rain in more cemeteries than I care to remember. I’ve walked around housing schemes, visited parks and shopping malls, peed on sacred ground, in fields and in woods. I’ve set up my camera in places where murders and suicides have been committed, stood in disused buildings and at least one castle, followed the course of rivers and railway lines and watched twenty-storey buildings collapse before my eyes. I’ve looked at boulders, statues and signposts with the same curiosity, incomprehension and wonder.
It occurs to me I’m making a strange kind of road movie and I haven’t quite run out of road yet. I’ve eight more trips to make before I reach my target – the magic number of 33. But road movies demand a sidekick, so today I take my husband along. Just as well he’s an expert map-reader since I refuse to buy into sat-nav for this project, preferring the same method Harry Bell used when he set out on his journeys in the 1980s in order to test his theory of Glasgow’s Secret Geometry. He talks of the hidden, now invisible tracks across the city. After this trip I think I know where he’s coming from.
Today the weather’s capricious, the early September sunshine replaced by a wet grey blanket of sky as we emerge from the Clyde Tunnel heading towards my next site – the approximate location of the Cochno Stone near Faifley, a housing scheme north of Clydebank and west of Drumchapel. On the Clydebank Story website I learn how Faifley was originally named Fimbalach, said to mean The White Pass – intriguing as placenames go, you might think, but as I’m about to discover, the whereabouts of the Cochno Stone is a mystery.
As the website states –
If so, this demands further investigation.
However the problem with the past is it can too easily be rendered invisible, its artefacts – or lack of – determined by which end of the social spectrum you inhabit. Whenever I read biographies of the great and good, I always note the reverence accorded to their childhood homes, schools, universities and other significant landmarks – places still standing, usually in the form of a rural Home Counties pile, an Oxbridge college, a London office, or some blue-plaqued terrace.
It saddens me that virtually every building I ever lived, studied or worked in has either been razed or converted beyond recogition. It’s sad, not because I nurse some wrong headed working class nostalgia for the slums of Kinning Park, Tradeston and Plantation, or jerry-built flats in desolate schemes, or the lack of architectural aspiration of the schools and churches I once attended. I don’t.
What depresses me is the societal status quo typified by this nation’s attitude to its past, manifest in its buildings. I despair of the immovable certitude by which the establishment values certain structures, those that applaud the ancient, those preserving the bricks and mortar of the privileged and, more recently, buildings listed not for reasons of aesthetic merit, but purely for their celebrity provenance – the suburban home of a Beatle, say. And in doing so the arbiters, no – monopolisers – of the past claim a democratisation of culture that these days promotes the lie of inclusion, like somehow we’re all being catered for, when, I suspect, the majority of us don’t care too deeply.
Of course I’d be lying myself if I didn’t admit that the loss of my old haunts makes me feel – profoundly – that a part of me has been erased, that I have no history, that no part of my world is worth preserving. Judging by the stats for this site and similar websites I’ve read, it strikes me how many people, particularly ex-pats, crave some contact with their past no matter how dark and deprived their past was.
Negotiating the back roads, we arrive at a car park surrounded by scrubby woodland. It never fails to amaze me how quickly the city merges into the rural. It strikes me I’m in a kind of Badlands, in spite of the recent wild landscaping. Irrational maybe, but on this dreich afternoon as we walk, we believe we’re about to find the Cochno Stone. Guided by the map, we walk along a narrow, unmarked road with detached houses on one side. The only vehicle passing us is a 4×4. We pause at an encouraging sign, Ringstone Kennels, before arriving at a junction. There’s a muddy farm track to the left and single-track tarmac road to the right. Heading right, fifty yards or so later we spot a track with a phallic post marked Auchnacraig.
We’re close, my other half tells me, he in charge of the map. We follow the track running round the back of the houses we passed earlier. There’s signs of recent landscaping here, freshly spread aggregate and plastic drainage pipes. The track is fringed on both sides with tall bracken. Veering off, we spot a clearing only to find it littered with a bizarre assortment of objects: a jimmy wig, a cheap duvet, an empty bottle of liver-corroding cider. Some party, I say. Defeated in our quest, we return to the path and walk the last few yards back to the main road we came in on. We’re tantalisingly close to the site of Cochno Stone, but I’ve already given up. I know by the evidence – the new landscaping and dense growth – there’s nothing to be found here.
There’s another place we could go, suggests my sidekick. Sure, I say, but I’m not enthusiastic. A short, bumpy drive later we arrive at a place marked on the map as Law which turns out to be not even a village but a bunch of falling-down structures, mainly outbuildings, with the usual accompaniment of rusting oil drums, spare-part machinery and old tractor tyres. The ideal location for a cheap horror film, you’d think, where attractive young females are tortured in the pornographic guise of entertainment. Come on, cajoles the husband, marching ahead of me up a muddy track. He’s not even dressed for this kind of excursion. We’re close to some kind of electrical generation junction, a sub-station of sorts. Overhead pylons crackle and buzz in the disconcerting way of a cheap horror movie.
Just when I thought it was safe, after a futile tramp through mud, we encounter the perfect antagonist, a middle-aged, blue boiler-suited man in thick-lensed glasses. He carries a paint tray with a roller, an act of optimism against impossible odds given the state of the place. Now I’m slightly worried that I’m the one starring in a horror movie. Fumbling for excuses I tell the man about my ‘history’ project and my search for the Cochno Stone. What he tells me makes the trip worthwhile. Turns out the stone was examined to the nth degree by the Archaeological Department of Glasgow University and, after measuring and scrutinising it, they took their photographs – marking the cup and ring marks with chalk to get a better view. Then, the man told me, the academics parting shot was to bury the stone under a metre of soil. Why? I enquire.
The man’s none too sure but hazards a guess. To stop it being vandalised. By people in Faifley? I suggest. He’s not saying, which means he’s saying. He tells me how the folk from the University also uncovered prehistoric settlements on his land, the site of a house, including markings where ancient supporting timbers once stood. ‘They’ (the academics) can tell this, he says, adding, and they found other stones, but I doubt you’d find them now. After thanking the man for his information, as we drive off my already low mood shifts to an unfocused rage. Suddenly I feel like organising an excavation of my own, me and the so-called neds of Faifley.
While I digest this knowledge, my husband suggests we move on to the next site of the day within easy reach – the elusive Duncolm. We take a detour to Cochno Farm, owned by Glasgow University as a training college for veterinarian medicine, only to be deterred by signs warning us off the land. Now I’m beginning to think vile thoughts about Glasgow University. Not content with occupying countless buildings across the city, the university deems itself an authority when deciding what we, the people, get to see of our past. As much as I’m sure they adhere to laws and protocols when dealing with ancient sites, it seems the public has no say in the matter because we’re never told of their existence. That is, unless there’s funding to be found. Otherwise it’s a free pass for supermarkets and out-of-town retail congloms to bulldoze their way through ancient sites, as in the case of Braehead IKEA. That a site must be ‘protected’ and ‘preserved’, either by relocating artefacts or, in this case, burying them to the exclusion of the masses is, I think, a particularly pointed act of vandalism, having already witnessed the recent archaeological goings-on in Pollok Estate.
A short drive back towards Hardgate brings us to a pitted single-track road. On one side is a water tower reminiscent of the German landscape photographers, the Bechers. A little further on we spot a sign for Cochnohill, an area of Forestry Commission land. Passing a family out riding we reach the point where road runs out. It’s still a long way to Duncolm but by this stage even my husband’s lost the will to go on. The hill will have to wait until another day.
Driving back, we pause at the site of a Roman hillfort, close to an enclave of smart semi-detached houses, all clipped hedges and gates. How we cling to our own little pieces of property, I think. The street sign says Antonine Road, a clue to an earlier occupation. The north west of the city and its borders are full of old Roman remains, more so it seems than the south. How come, I think, did the Romans prefer Bearsden to Newton Mearns? Later, while reading up about the Cochno Stone I chance on a rare photograph of the mythic rock and an account of its discovery, a dry old text showing carefully-wrought but no less mysterious illustrations of the markings, looking for all the world like a map of the universe itself. It’s awe-inspiring. Why, I wonder, was it called the Druid Stone? When was it made? Who made it and why did they make it? But mostly I think, why can’t I see it for myself?