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THE MEGALITHIC BUILDERS

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The Database of Ornament

                                          I

WE crossed the loch, left our boat, and went up
the glen. Passing the castle with its medley
of new and old, we stopped at the little
cemetery. A pair of tall standing stones, a
linden avenue, then another pair of mono-
liths gave worthy entrance to the grove of
rest, with its grassy mounds, its massive tombstones of a long
dynasty of chiefs, and the many-stoned, almost cairn-built, tomb
of their hereditary pipers. Castle and glen are empty now, and
the pipes are silent; but here at least, after love and life, after
labour and war, and the music of all these, the silence is of
unsaddening peace.

We chose the right bank of the river (the road is on the left),
and trudged on through pretty scenery of the familiar sort;
hill in cloud and sunshine, river in ripple and race, birch and
bracken, heather and pine, with every here and there a granite
boulder among a group of stunted junipers. But a couple of
hours up the stream a scene opened out, of which neither my
painter friend nor myself had seen the like before. The trees
grew less thickly, the heathery hill-side receded, and there lay
before us broad park-like grassy levels with vast masses of
evergreen, here in rounded masses, there rising into graceful
spires. The first impression was almost that of park and

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shrubbery laid out by a skilful landscape gardener of old for
some unbuilt mansion, but as we came nearer, it was clearly a
natural glade of gigantic junipers. Tall and massive, ancient
and rugged, gnarled and broken, their green spirelets rose over
deep caverns of shadow, filled with writhing arms breaking
through vast lichenous growths, some of hoary dishevelled age,
others in broad wrinkled overlappings of strange greens and
lurid blues, a gorgeous ragged foulness like a witch’s draperies.
Outside these shadowed hollows the scene had the melancholy
beauty of a cypressed cemetery in the East. And who might
not one of those boulders cover? As we went on the sky was
grey, and a sobbing linn settled into black pools of sorrow; we
had passed the place of sighing, but here seemed the wells of
the river of tears.

Soon we came to a rotting bridge, and crossed to a ruined mill,
with tumbled stone heaps that not so long ago were cottages
and byres; for though dramatic evictions are out of fashion, it
remains more than ever the interest of any practical-minded
laird (chief no longer) quietly to depopulate his glen, and as
the old folks die out, throw their crofts into the forest. For
the fewer the people the more winged and four-footed people,
and the more rent his shooting-lodger will be willing to
pay.

Yet in this desolation we found a single child, a quiet wee lassie,
I suppose the gamekeeper’s, playing alone. It was useless
speaking to her, for the education code practically works so
that the children nowadays lose their Gaelic without really
learning English. She did not even lift her head to look at us,
but went steadily on with her playthings—a gathering of rough
stones. We stepped nearer to see what she was doing with
them. A shudder of astonishment ran through us—the child
had traced out a ruined sheepfold, and was building beside it
a funeral cairn.

We could scarcely believe our eyes or our interpretation, but
the thing was unmistakable, indisputable; and so leaving
hamlet and its monument builder, we went on to the narrowing

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of the glen. There the explanation broke upon us; at the
opening of a new labyrinth of junipers was standing or rather
slipping down, a moss-grown cairn, another and another, a group,
a score, a hundred; each a recorded sorrow of the glen. The
bairn with her stones was not inventing her ghastly game, but
only reproducing her near and familiar impressions: yet, child
historian, child artist, she had combined for us the story of a
passing race, a megalithic people, the utter winter of their dis-
appearance seemingly nigh at hand.

Of these ancient builders and their work much has been written,
though no one book fully figures, still less interprets. Turning
to books, one is soon bewildered among Picts’ houses and brochs,
vitrified forts and duns, for here in the North we have in
strange confusion most of the ancient types of Europe, and
some of our own—and we must wait for the general progress
of archaeology before we can unriddle this crowded medley of
architectural fossils. But as we dig below the Græco-Roman
culture, below the recorded dynasties of Egypt, to discover
below these the primitive megalithic builders, we cannot but
ask. What are our standing-stones but unhewn obelisks, what
our cairns but unshapen pyramids? Are they survivals or
degenerations from that archaic world? At any rate it is clear
that we have to do with one of the oldest phases of civilisa-
tion. But (as with China) what we call the oldest people is of
course really the youngest; so to say it is the most dead,
is to recognise it also the most undying. So may we not
find these vanishing cairn-builders reappearing elsewhere
throughout the land? May we not find our child-builder
grown up to express these traditions, to give play to this
instinct (perhaps all the more surely if unconsciously), within
this modern civilisation which absorbs us all? In this way, for
an everyday instance, may we not explain that aversion to brick,
that love of grey stone, that profuse massiveness of wall-build-
ing in cottage and mansion alike, which strikes even the most
unobservant tourist from England or America? Of course it is
not by Cyclopean stones that we can always know the mega-

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lithic builder; neither the largest stones nor the means of
moving them are always within his reach; the question here, as
for our child, as in life generally, is of aim, of tendency, of ideal;
does one do what in him lies? Let us go on with our journey,
and we shall see.

                                          II

As we return by the canal steamer to Inverness, the villas and
shops, the hotels and railway stations promise no more than
any other modern town to archaeologist or interpreter. There
seem no ancient buildings of interest, few modern ones of
merit, yet on a second survey we had seen no small modern
town in Scotland, hardly indeed in Britain or elsewhere, of
more ambitiously monumental character. A modern castle
crowns the hill; a modern cathedral stands by the river, and
the towers and spires of new churches rise every here and
there. Besides the weak romanticisms and conventionalities
of all these, the business quarters are crowded with costly
Philistinisms which would be the pride of many a larger
town. In the centre of the town we have a showy Town
House and fountain, the latter built over the prehistoric
palladium of the borough, that fountain stone, ‘Clach-na-
cuddain’ which is not only the familiar fetish and watchword of
Invernessians at home and abroad, but gives the unnoticed key-
note of the town’s architecture too. From minor megalith to
minor Victorian architecture indeed is not an unmixed art-
progress; but this ‘Capital of the Highlands’ has still to be-
come a capital: despite latent Highland elements, its realised
ideals as yet are little more than those of the Scottish market
burgh and the English garrison town.

Yet as the old language comes back to the dying, and as it is
with our fathers we would sleep when dead, so the undeveloped
and vulgarised megalithic city of the living is overlooked by
the truer and nobler megalithic city of the dead—the Hill of
Tomnahurich, crowded with cross and obelisk from base to

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wooded crown. Here the ancient and latent art spirit is more
developed, more emancipated, and so gives us one of the most
characteristic, and in general effect one of the most beautiful
cemeteries of Western Europe.

At this hill-foot again we found childhood at play; this time a
group of merry boys, who, out of the rich variety of Northern
games, which we were learning to decipher as survivals of past
culture-phases, had fitly gone back to the megalithic game of
Summer, as curling is obviously of Winter—’Putting the Stone.’
As the girl in her silence, as the mourners in their sighing, so
now the boys in their laughter. We are wont to say that only
animals have instinct, and that man acts only by reason. Is
there not sometimes a word to say for the opposite?

We are wont to receive and express our emotions for the most
part audibly through music or words or tones, but the emotion of
architecture is latent in us still; eye and hand can surely feel
as well as tongue and ear. Emotion plays not with strings nor
pipes only, but with things more massive and enduring also; to
her Amphion-lute the very rocks range into order as sand-grains
ripple to the violin-bow, and to her listening ear the Memnon
statues sing. We speak of the rude stone ages as if they were
ages of rude men, but how much is this because our tools, the
machines, have mastered us, have dulled us to match their own
finish? For elemental man, elemental feeling, elemental ex-
pression also; so youth, rejoicing in its strength, will ever toss
the rugged stone, sorrow ever upheave her rude memorial.
To feel the full depth of this ever primeval art, some modern
instance must come home to us; and here by Inverness, is the
spot of all Scotland. On Culloden Moor, there lies a gloom
deeper than that of the Jacobite chronicles, a silence sadder
than the songs; to these poor proud stones of the clans, land-
marks of death and defeat, our heartstrings thrill as on no
other stricken field.
 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                .

Now up Strathspey and over Ben Mhicdhui with its huge
moraines, Cyclopean quarries waiting for giants; then down

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Deeside, with its castles and modern cairn-capped hills, at length
to Aberdeen, that most characteristic of our provincial capitals.
Here as usual, progress and prosperity are plain and prosaic
enough; yet one hears with wonder that the improving Town
Council and University Court have decided to open their quiet
College quad to the noise of the town, and give it a full view of
the drapers’ shops opposite, by knocking down their two main
surviving historic treasures; one the Greyfriars Kirk, which
might be so easily preserved and repaired as a local and con-
crete epitome of the history of university, city, and Northern
Christendom alike; and the other the Byron house, the boyish
home of the most notable European force of modern poetry
and satire. Strange that this first of Celtic Bards should still
have to suffer this crowning outrage of Saxon Reviewers! And
where is the society for the protection of worthy buildings?
Wandering onwards, the proud name of ‘Granite City’ is
undeniably justified; and we see that the doomed relics are
insufficiently megalithic. In the perspectives of Union Street
is there not a suggestion of Thebes and of Carnac? Kirk
and Market, Bank and Insurance Company, Town-house and
Salvation Army, each shows its unconscious megalithic instinct
under the varieties of Victorian fashion. Here is the true
inwardness of the churchyard colonnade, or of that colossal
statue upon the huge piled cairn (which some may think the
best of it). Here of course also lies the origin of that staple
industry, the tombstone trade. Unarchitectural and unsculp-
turesque as these machine-made monuments are, all turning
and polish, their business-artists defend them as good enough
for export, for selling to and piling upon the Philistines. Yet
the prediction is safe that before long some sculptor must
humanise this notable local industry into art by teaching the
right use of its noble material. As for marble the sculptor goes
back to Greece, so for granite he must go back to Egypt; and
thus, in clear demonstration of the Immortality, the Resurrec-
tion of the Social Soul, we shall have after thirty centuries the
definite renascence of classic megalithic tradition.


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Returning to Marischal College, we find that, despite the
destructive orgie of the authorities, a true architect has
already appeared. The tamely conventional modern perpen-
dicular college has been reorganised as far as might be by
a master hand. Porch and staircase, vestibule and ante-
chamber, lead through long perspectives, as of a cathedral
without transepts, say rather as of an Egyptian temple, into
the noble Aula, walled with rose-coloured granite blocks and
pointed with gold. And upon the former unaspiring tower he
has piled another hundred feet of four-square precipice, from
which there leaps and crystallises a spiry fretted crown of
glittering pinnacles.

Here is one of these rare points of the modern world, where we
may see the beginnings of a fresh phase of architecture. For
here, and perhaps for the first time, a neo-megalithic builder
has struck a new note of emotion and risen from sternness or
solemnity into hope and cheer. Yet the spiritual continuity is
none the less complete: looking down now into the quadrangle
we see below us the initial keynotes of tradition; a modern
obelisk of red granite, an ancient ice-worn boulder.
 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                .

Turning southward much might detain us, from the fanciful
Frasereum of Arbroath to the sculptured stones of Meigle.
As kindred outcrops of racial instinct, the quaint old Howff of
Dundee, the ruins of St. Andrews, all lose their isolation, and
gain fresh interest; nor here is it of small or unhappy augury,
of merely local or individual sentiment, but a sign of the times,
that the living Scotsman who most fully stands by the temporal
and spiritual traditions of his ancient order, his university and
church, should have begun not only deeply to investigate, but
nobly to rebuild.

Nearer home the reader may easily follow up the clue. Thus
Glasgow suffers from its smoke and rain, and from proximity
to Edinburgh, yet is really one of the most well-built of British
cities; while its cathedral with its uniquely vast crypt, its
Necropolis bristling upon one hill, its university towering upon

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another, are all in keeping; new and imaginative developments
of architecture as well as of painting are also beginning. Of
Edinburgh, people are wont to say that it is the glorious site
that compels it to be the most monumental among modern cities,
but the megalithic influence, vulgarised though it too often is,
has silently been at work. In castle and churches, in old and
new town, in the register-house or the university, in schools
and hospitals, in museums and libraries, galleries or obser-
vatories, despite their medley of styles, the same impulse thrills.
Thus it is not merely the geographical resemblance of site to
site, it is neither the affectations nor the genuine associations
of culture, which have placed those would-be Athenian build-
ings where they stand, but kindred architectural sympathies
also; note in Glasgow as well as Edinburgh the preference for
Doric, most massive and simple of the orders.

However as at Inverness, as everywhere, it is tomb and monu-
ment that express their builder’s mind most clearly. A walk
through old Greyfriars, another through the modern Dean, the
briefest visit to St. Giles, will suffice for this; the Esplanade
with its monoliths, the Calton with its monuments are before
every eye. Most obvious of all in the main panorama of the
city after the contrast of the castled old town with the modern
boulevard of the new, is what dominates this boulevard—the
Scott Monument, a statued cenotaph, in which suggestions as
of cairn and pyramid meet and mingle in the spire. Here
sits the singer and tale-teller, our Northern Wizard (himself a
builder), master and inspirer of magicians, alike of Past and
Future, of those who as archaeologists or historians rescue and
treasure the tradition of the dead, and those who as artists in
word or deed, renew these traditions in ways fitting for the
living.

At present of course it is mostly plate-glass and railway-
stations that are building; well, even this is surely Cyclopean
enough, even to its blindness. Even behind the plate-glass
shop-windows, what best is there but old memories—old books,
old tartans, old jewels (see how even the silversmiths are only

                                          150
half Birmingham and half Celtic and Megalithic!). And what
are these tourist stations for, but to bring people weary of the
dulness of their present, eager to reach some fountains of the
past?

                                          III

Of future building too, let a word be boldly said.

In criticism it is the way of most to fasten upon defects, of some
wisely to enjoy what good they can, but of too few to watch the
march of things, to search the streams of tendency. But in
architecture this is peculiarly necessary, and as the bad tenden-
cies are before all eyes, and the good less obvious even when
not altogether latent, it is for the latter that we must mainly
seek. As a first instance recall how in Ruskin’s ‘Lectures on
Architecture and Painting’ he figured a then recent Edinburgh
tower as the meanest of mortal productions hitherto, side by
side with the great Campanile of Venice, for him as yet the
supreme one. Well, this bitter critique enraged the Edinburgh
Cockney at the time, but now the very fellow (not reproduction)
of the Campanile is well above ground already. On the Mound
that clumsy Doric Temple has more in it than the futile Art-
School of Kensington; side by side there is at work what is
probably the most living school of art and design in Britain,
where the architect of the Campanile himself is heading the
most strenuous youth of his city. With these, a new genera-
tion will soon begin.

For divining the future, as for recalling the past, there is the
same rare yet open secret—of Sympathy. But this spell, as
in the old stories, needs recasting three times, and each time in
the right way. The first sympathy is with the best actual
work which the men just nearing maturity and power are
beginning to do; the second is with what the able youths of
the next wave, the immature aspirants to governing and leading
of all kinds, are learning and discussing, are doing and dream-
ing. But the third and rarest, is with what is sought and

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dreamed and felt among: the people themselves. Hence the
ballads of one generation give the art poetry of the next;
hence, for instance, the dominant wave of Scottish Literature
of Locality has no reason for shame of its humble kail-yard
origin, its beginnings in the Forfarshire popular press; so
Scott learned as Stevenson began, with stories for boys.

No spell is ever completely found, the last least of all: but let
him who would really build for his generation, and not merely
for his client and his wages, go perseveringly on the quest.
He will find here and there a clue to the secret, one at least in
this old town of ours; one here, one there, now at home,
and now abroad; but so far as the main theme of this essay
is concerned, let any one who cares for it see what he can make
  out for himself not only of the history of Scotland, but of
     the life and thought of its People, from the speaking
        stones of Stirling, which he that runs may read.

                            PATRICK GEDDES.

MLA citation:

Geddes, Patrick. “The Megalithic Builders.” The Evergreen; A Northern Seasonal, vol. 4 Winter 1896-7, pp. 142-151. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, General Editor Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/egv4_geddes_megalithic/