Sounding The Stones
THE Sounding the Stones storywalk in Kilmartin Glen in May was quite an event. The Glen, a well-kept Argyll secret, has one of the greatest concentrations of prehistoric cairns, standing stones and rock art in mainland Britain, set in a landscape that far surpasses that of Stonehenge for both beauty and mystery.
I’D wanted to create an event of storytelling and music in the Glen since my first visit more than fifteen years ago. In 2011, with the support of the wonderful people at Kilmartin House Museum and financial backing from Museums Galleries Scotland, we were ready to go.
I chose the story of The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body for the theme of the walk. It’s an international folk tale that was included in Campbell of Islay’s great Victorian collection Popular Tales of the West Highlands. Journeys are integral to the plot, so it was an ideal template for our perambulation.
As I started to walk the story out through the landscape, the correspondences between narrative and place became unnerving: two stones at Nether Largie matched the wings of a starving raven; a threshold and a cupboard were physically duplicated at Nether Largie South cairn; the standing stones at Temple Wood corresponded in number to the petrified princes and princesses (plus an old widow and her son).
As I said earlier, this was quite an event. An unexpected funeral in Hull, and a car that would let everyone drive it except me, left only two days to prepare on site, rather than the week I had originally planned. After a beautifully warm, sunny April, we seemed to have skipped over summer and landed in November, with cold winds and almost incessant rain.
On the Friday before the event I was walking the route through rattling hail. As the day itself approached, two questions preoccupied me: could I reasonably expect the musicians to play in these conditions, and would any audience turn up? I’m probably not hard enough – Werner Herzog would never let the first question bother him – but I did decide that, whatever the conditions, the walk and the accompanying declamation of the story would happen, even if I was the only one present.
Saturday 14th May was a workshop day, making bullroarers, learning how to play scallop shells (something I was taught years ago by Spanish singer Equidad Bares), practising basic rhythms with drummer Ruth Brennan, and trying out some of my collection of “stone age” instruments. The sun was breaking through, and we were able to spend time outside testing the bullroarers; still hope for a fair weather performance. But the following morning the Glen was veiled by a fine drizzle which persisted throughout the afternoon rehearsal with the musicians, and, as the time for the 5.30pm performance approached, proper rain was falling.
Then, miraculously, an audience began to congregate in Lady Glassary car park, booted, anoraked and behatted to keep out the damp. Suddenly a crowd had gathered. Way off, by the Nether Largie standing stones, Laurence blew the ox horn to summon us, and we were led across the burn by the Benderloch Tribal Spirit drummers, who had swathed their instruments in plastic bin liners to protect the skins.
And so we were off. From stone, to woodland, to kist, to cairn we were led through avenues of bullroarers by the sound of the drums, shells, horn, shepherd’s pipe and gemshorn, stopping at each place for another episode of the story. By the time we reached Temple Wood, and I had crushed the egg that contained the poor old Giant’s heart, I began to feel that the rain was a palpable, positive part of the scenario, and that what might have been a pleasant stroll had felt like a real journey.
Among the audience was a party from the Northern Earth Mysteries Group. One of their members, Geoff Holder, heroically took some splendid photographs of the event (see photos, and link below for more). Geoff, by the way, is a prolific author whose work includes the magnificently titled 101 Things To Do With a Stone Circle. You can check out his books on Amazon.
Sounding the Stones was the ninth walk of this kind that I’ve devised and led since September 2010, in locations as diverse as the island of Iona, the village of Cromarty in Easter Ross, and Golspie beach. Seven of the walks were part of the Walking the Stories project, which was supported by a Creative Scotland bursary, and all aimed to bring together story and place, and to link in with music, archaeology, natural history, local history, geology and so on. I’ve learned a lot during these few months, and if you’re thinking of organising something similar yourself I’d be happy give any advice that might help.
© Bob Pegg, 2011