Wasteland or sacred ground? Cultural treasure or forgotten folly? The story of the Sighthill Stone Circle poses awkward questions about Glasgow’s future
Solstice blessings,” says the Glaswegian witch in the scarlet cloak, inviting all those present into the stone circle, while high rise flats loom grey in the gloaming. “Blessed be.”
We are in Sighthill, a housing scheme in the north of the city. It is the evening of 21 June, and around 70 pagans have gathered to celebrate the summer solstice in an area of parkland between the glowering tower blocks and the growling motorway. The air smells of incense, lit to welcome the ancestral spirits, and citronella – to deter midges.
A number of people are wearing bright robes of velvet, though this being Glasgow they were carried here in plastic bags bearing the logo of the Indian takeaway chain Ashoka. A willowy couple, with love in their eyes and ivy in their hair, are lost in a kiss. “To a fool this looks like wasteland,” says a young man called Avi Lago. “But this is sacred ground to us.”
Wasteland or sacred ground? Cultural treasure or forgotten folly? These are the debates and dichotomies which swirl around the Sighthill Stone Circle – a fascinating place now under threat from redevelopment and suddenly at the heart of the public conversation about what sort of city Glasgow ought to be.
There are 17 stones in the circle. Sixteen form the perimeter; the final stone, the largest and weighing more than four tons, occupies the centre. The circle is about 30 feet across. It looks ancient, and as there has never been any signage explaining how it came to be, it is often taken as being so by those new to the area or too young to remember the day – March 20, 1979 – when the stones, whinstone quarried in Kilsyth, were lowered into position by navy helicopter, an operation codenamed Megalithic Lift.
Sighthill’s Stone Circle is, in fact, the result of the Callaghan government’s jobs creation programme; money was given to the local authority to create a large number of temporary posts, the idea being to get Glaswegians off the dole and doing interesting and useful work for the city.
A young astronomy and science-fiction writer named Duncan Lunan, a Troon man, was put in charge of the parks department’s Astronomy Project, in which role he hit upon a plan to create a contemporary and urban equivalent of Callanish or Stonehenge – standing stones properly aligned with the sun and moon and thus able to mark the passing seasons.
It would be the first such structure to be built in Britain for around 3,000 years. He was given a map, an official car and a giant brass compass and went off to find a site for a stone circle. Trudging through gales and rain, through the winter of discontent, he visited Priesthill, Ruchill, Maryhill, Castlemilk and the Cathkin Braes and many other places, before settling on the present site, impressed by the sweeping vista of the skyline.
Lunan, now in his 60s, has led the campaign to save the circle from demolition during a planned redevelopment of the area. He is in talks with Glasgow City Council about relocating the stones elsewhere and incorporating them into some new astronomical structure.
“They say in your life you should love somebody and build something,” Lunan muses. “Well, I have done both. That’s mine and it’s not a trivial thing. I feel I carved it out of the air. It was expected to last for thousands of years, maybe even longer. You would have thought that unless the glaciers came back nothing could harm it, but I wasn’t thinking in terms of deliberate destruction by the council for whom it was originally created.”
Even now, more than 30 years since its construction, with trees and bushes having grown up round about, the view from the stone circle is impressive. You can see all the way from the Campsie Fells to Eaglesham Moor.
Sighthill, however, is experiencing great change. The housing scheme, built in the 1960s, is being demolished. Since 2008, six of the ten multi-storeys have been brought down, one lies in rubble, and the others will follow before long.
The area has a half-empty, half-alive feel. It smells of summer flowers and concrete dust. Residents being decanted from one tower block to another trundle their belongings along the streets in trollies borrowed from Tesco and Lidl; they refer to themselves, with grim humour, as refugees.
Demolition is the first stage in a planned £220 million regeneration of Sighthill which will see, among other major developments, around 800 homes being built and a new footbridge across the motorway.
The council intends to create a “linear park” which will be slightly larger in size than is currently the case, but there are concerns that this total area will consist of a large number of relatively small parcels of greenery and that the park, as a whole, will lose its sense of wildness.
According to the council, the plans will have significant economic, environmental and social benefits, and will see the north of the city reconnect with the centre to the advantage of both areas.
The land around the stones needs to be made level in order to allow construction to be carried out, and this will require a minimum of four metres of soil being removed from the southern side of the park. It is proposed that student accommodation and private housing be built there. “In effect,” says Tom Turley, assistant director of the council’s development and regeneration services, the site of the stone circle “will be somebody’s front garden, I would suspect.”
An online petition opposing the demolition of the stone circle has attracted almost 5,000 signatures, a motion has been lodged at the Scottish Parliament, and a benefit concert, intended to raise awareness of the plight of the stones, has been arranged by Stuart Braithwaite, who is both leader of the rock band Mogwai and son of the late John Braithwaite, an astronomer, manufacturer of telescopes and co-creator of the Sighthill stones.
“The council need to realise that there’s more to Glasgow than the shops in Buchanan Street. This city really does have a soul, and it’s interesting, weird things like the standing stones that give it its soul,” says Braithwaite.
“When Thatcher got in in 1979 she said there was going to be no more money wasted on things like the Glasgow Parks Astronomy Project. So I think that, especially in the year of her passing, for a Labour council to do Thatcher’s work for her seems a bit sad.”
A public consultation is planned. It is unlikely that the stones will be dug up before next year, and it is unlikely that it will happen without a fight. “I love coming up here,” says Almare, a woman in her 50s from Clydebank who played a prominent role in the solstice ritual and chooses not to give her second name as there is “so much bigotry” towards pagans.
She visited the circle in tears when she first heard it was to be demolished. “Look about you. It’s so beautiful. I wish the council would open their eyes. I know they are not ancient stones, but to the pagan community, they mean a hell of a lot. This is our temple. We could make a temple anywhere, but this circle speaks to us. The energy up here is very cleansing. The place wants to be used. It’s lonely. I know that sounds absolutely insane, but it’s true. It should be left alone. Let it grow old. Let it become as old as Stonehenge. It would break my heart to see it moved.”
Sighthill is curious. It achieved an unwanted and grisly prominence in 2001, following the murder of a Turkish asylum seeker, Firsat Dag, from which its reputation has never quite recovered. Yet although it is regarded by many who have not been there as a concrete jungle through which predatory neds and junkies prowl, it gives a fair impression to visitors of being more a sort of hidden garden, a serene and secret place cut off by the motorway from the rest of the city.
The area has its problems with drugs and alcohol and anti-social behaviour, but there is, too, a lingering community spirit. “In Sighthill,” says one local man, “even the nutters are friendly.”
The park is unlandscaped and has a certain rough magic. Gold and purple flowers grow within and around the stone circle. Kids play jumpers-for-goalposts football. Birdsong trills above the bass notes of the M8. There are said to be hawks and owls in the park; unquestionably, there are deer. The long grass, at this time of year, leaves gobbits of cuckoo-spit on trouser bottoms and shoes.
Jelena Smirnova, a 55-year-old Latvian who lives in the flats at 5 Pinkston Drive, loves to look down from her kitchen window at the park and away west to Dumgoyne and Ben Lomond. She moved to Scotland eight years ago and works as a support worker with disabled people.
A Christian, she feels a little closer to heaven away up there on the tenth floor, and certainly finds the stones themselves a good place for prayer as she walks the perimeter. “I put my heart in this place,” she says. “The park has a special charm because it is wild. It is the only place in this area that people can go and enjoy nature.”
Sighthill was not always so bucolic. The scheme was built on what was at one time a mix of farming, industrial and railway land. The St Rollox Chemical Works were established in the area in 1797 and lasted until 1964, manufacturing bleaching powder for the textile industry and becoming the largest works of its kind in Europe.
A vast sulphurous pool of chemical effluent became known to local kids as the “Stinky Ocean”, a name which continues in use among the older folk of the estate today, and indeed many claim that the stench can still be detected if one is in a nostalgic frame of mind and the prevailing climactic conditions are just so; it is Sighthill’s equivalent of Proust’s madeleines.
Another well-remembered feature of the landscape is “Jack’s Mountain”, a high, steep bing, said to be heaped bone and slag, much favoured as a playground by local boys despite or perhaps even because of the rumour that the devil lived at the top.
Almost the only trace of the old Sighthill left now, though, is the Victorian cemetery. It is pleasantly melancholy to climb its green slopes on a bright day and observe spindle-legged spiders crawl across the marble tombstones of shipbuilders, while watchful crows perch on the granite memorials to radicals, reformers and landscape painters. You can look right across the Clyde valley. You cannot, however, see the standing stones, the trees of the park being now too tall.
Spend time at the circle and you meet all sorts. Walkers, dog-walkers, druids, drunks. You might take the time to read the graffiti on the stones. This varies from declarations of love – “Alec + Roseanne, Govan No1” – to declarations of grief: “RIP Kurt.”
The stones themselves, as a result of some botched landscaping work, are now about half the size they were originally; even the largest, the centre stone, is only the height of a small man.
At the foot of that stone is a shrine – two small hand-made crosses, one wood, one plastic, in memory of Lily Forbes, who died in the winter of 2009, aged 89, and whose ashes were scattered here.
The shrine is maintained by Lily’s family – her son Jack Forbes, who is 77, and her grandchildren, including Linda, 49. They live in nearby Townhead, but have been fond of Sighthill since playing there as children, and now value it as a quiet, green space where they can get away from it all for a while.
Jack is a retired postman, stocky, balding and bearded, a right gab. He doesn’t understand the astronomical function of the stone circle – “I’ve no’ got the brains” – but he knows how much the place, which he, like many of his generation, calls “the cuddies”, means to him. “I’m up there aw the time,” says Jack. “Three times a week probably. Sometimes you meet alcoholics. Sometimes you meet drug addicts. It’s my heaven. Why do they need to take that away? It’s a great feeling to go there when you’ve got problems and troubles. I just feel good there.”
He used to drink up at the stones sometimes, in the days when he was drinking, but grew to resent those inconsiderate alkies who littered the circle with empties.
Linda is worried about how the loss of the stones will affect her father. In 2009, following months of heavy boozing, his system started to pack up and he was admitted to the Royal Infirmary. “My dad was in hospital and they said he was dying,” she recalls. “Me and my brother went up there at three in the morning. We took hands round that stone and really prayed. Not really to God, just to anybody that was listening. And see the next night? He got another chance.”
Jack rallied; he recovered; when he visits the stones now he talks to his mother, who loved the park, and thinks of his children who prayed for him there. He calls it his Shangri-La. He, Linda and her siblings had made a pact to have their ashes scattered in the circle when the time came, but they will now have to rethink their plans. “If they try to move the stones I’m going to go for a bit of civil disobedience,” says Linda. “I’ll sit on those stones and I won’t move. If they get the police then that’s fine.”
Talk to locals and you get a range of opinion. Many don’t give the stones a moment’s thought. Unmoored from the story of its origins, its history largely forgotten, invisible even from paths close by, the circle has become obscure.
There is even some anger that a journalist would consider it worth asking questions about the stones at a time when the scheme itself is being demolished and so many people are being forced to move from flats where, in some cases, they have lived for almost half a century.
An elderly woman, minding her grandchild in the playpark at the foot of a block with gaping windows, is dismissive. “This may be important to people like you,” she says, “but what matters to us is what’s happening to our homes.”
Others, though, see the uprooting of the stones as representative of the destruction of the high rises and dispersal of the people. The circle, for them, is a focal point of anger and a symbol of resistance.
“The stones are part of the heart of the place,” says Elaine Ellis, an actress in her 40s who has lived in the scheme since infancy and is secretary of the community council. “The flats are going; we know that. Now it’s about what we can salvage, and hopefully that’s most of the park and the stones. It’s about keeping our identity alive, and not just our identity but Glasgow’s. If the stones go, if the park goes, that’ll be the death of Sighthill, it really will.”
The Save Sighthill Stone Circle Benefit Concert is at the Platform, Glasgow, on 27 July from 5pm-11pm and features various artists including Stuart Braithwaite and The Twilight Sad. For further information see www.sighthillstonecircle.net