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by Philip Coppens South of Edinburgh, between the villages of Dolphinston (Garvald) and West Linton, sits, near a Roman road, one of the more intriguing – and unknown – prehistoric fields of Scotland – if not Britain. A small path that runs near the ancient cairns does not seem much and is largely only used for walking enthusiasts taking in the scenery of the Scottish Borders, but it is truly one of the oldest routes in Britain. Millennia before the Romans constructed a road parallel to this path, this ancient route was one of the principal roads that connected the northern parts of England with the Lothians. There are two main cairns, dated to ca. 2500-2000 BC. The main – though largely completely unknown – attraction of the area is the so-called “Nether cairn”, a structure 15 metres in diameter and 3.7 metres in height, which sits along this path. Around the cairn are traces of an enclosing ditch. The cairn is the best preserved of its kind in the county, and is, as far as cairns go, very large and very interesting, if only because the parallels with other cairns, like Maebh’s Grave in Ireland, are quite apparent. However, unlike her majestic cairn, these cairns have no surviving legend or folklore attached to them, no doubt one of the primary reasons as to why they are largely unknown outside of archaeological circles.
Seven hundred metres to the northeast is the Upper Cairn, which is slightly higher (4.2 metres in height) than the Nether Cairn, but has unfortunately been the victim of stone robbing in past times. It is known that there were other cairns in this area, and some experts, like JR Baldwin, have argued that the Nether Cairn is one of nine round burial cairns clustered around the 280 metres contour of the North Muir, the hill upon whose slopes these two cairns sit. To understand what happened here, we need to look at the landscape and how mankind, for millennia, has tried to get from A to B. The A702 connects Edinburgh to Carlisle and is but the most recent of a series of roads, running largely parallel to each other, that tried to make this connection; the Roman Road lies just west, and our prehistoric road a bit further west – the oldest of all of these and likely dating to the 3rd millennium BC.
Baldwin argued that these cairns and the road were intimately linked. He argued that they might form a chain of cairns linking an important prehistoric route from the upper Clyde valley to the Forth estuary: “It would have left the Clyde at its junction with the Medwin water, skirted the southwest of the Pentlands and then followed their southwest flanks before cutting across to the River North Esk – where similar cairns existed near Roslin and Rosewell.” Indeed, the area around the cairns traverses a pass between the North Muir and Mendick Hill, known as “The Garral” and as any modern walker will appreciate, it is beautiful countryside. As any modern walker who strays off the main path will realise, it is also notoriously difficult to traverse. Covering a hundred yards off the main path takes so much more time and effort than strolling along the path. It’s a realisation our ancestors will have had too, and why they will have felt, very early on, a need for a “bypass”. However primitive the path might seem, even for a modern walker, it is a godsend when getting from A to B, as part of a leisure walk, let alone if one were “on business” or transporting goods. Apart from the Nether and Upper Cairn along this part of the route, there were two further cairns near Dolphinton, which no longer exist. In one of them was found a short sword and a stone urn containing ashes, both of prehistoric date. Another cairn existed near the Ferniehaugh farm. It is still visible as a level circular patch of fine grass, but the stones itself have disappeared. Indeed, all along the path, there are several more, small cairns. From the North Cairn, a “cairn field” made up out of fifty-off small cairns can be seen. Another cairn, sited 400 metres north-east of the Upper Cairn, still stands about one metre high and nine metres across. Furthermore, to the right of Mendick Hill, is a ring enclosure, measuring thirty metres in diameters. All of these finds and cairns highlight the fact that along this road, extensive human activity occurred. And it is known that such cairns were often memorials for the dead. In ancient times, the dead were often buried along roads, so that travellers would remember them as they went past. The cairns are therefore linked with the burial field on the slopes of the North Muir. Near this ancient bypass are two further points of interest. At the eastern edge of the village of Dolphinton is a conical mound. The mound sits right next to the A702 and is most visible when driving south. On its summit is a First World War monument. When digging the foundations of this monument, the workers uncovered an early Iron Age stone cist containing bones and fragments of iron. Interestingly, popular tradition has it that the mound was created by Michael Scott the Wizard of the Borders, working with the Devil himself. A stream at the foot of the hill is named the “De’ils Tears” and a nearby passage between two hills is called “The Nick”. It suggests that the hill once had importance to the pre-Christian community of the region; conical hills such as these were of paramount importance and it is therefore likely that other features in and around Dolphinton are part of a local, prehistoric sacred landscape, aspects of which are no doubt there to still be uncovered.
The second site of interest is near West Linton, on a small knoll, right next to West Linton Golf Course. This is a reconstructed Bronze Age Cist Cemetery. The original burial site was exposed at low water in 1993, at the edge of the West Water Reservoir, a mile to the North East. Excavation revealed an assemblage of nine stone-lined burial chambers. Inside the tombs were some early decorated pots, worked flints and two necklaces buried with a child. One necklace was made of lead, the earliest example of worked lead to have been discovered in Britain, underlining once again the historical importance of this area. That it should be found here, is however not that surprising, as lead occurs naturally at West Linton and the pieces found took the form of beads. These were combined with shale disks, to form a necklace for a child. There are other Neolithic ruins nearby. There is the small, sandstone Gowk Stane just east of Auchencorth Farm on the east bank of the river; it is also on a direct link between the respective groups of round cairns. Moreover, the ruinous remain of an earlier Neolithic long cairn survives as a low ragged mound, nearly 58 metres by 14 metres by under one metre high on Harlaw Muir. This long cairn lies half-way between West Linton and the Gowk Stane, some ninety metres west of the minor roads north-east through Auchencorth Moss – evidence perhaps of the even greater antiquity of our bypass. When we walk on this ancient road, we can see the hills that formed part of the ancient sacred landscape as it was perceived by our ancestors. One hill to the north is named the King’s Seat, and the nearby Little King’s Seat. Tinto Hill, the “Hill of Fire”, dominates the southern skyline and we know that this hill was a very important hill for our ancestors, dominating the landscape and offering spectacular vistas to anyone who has climbed it – in sunny weather. It also has one of the biggest cairns in Scotland, 45 metres in diameter and six metres high – hence coming close to Maebh’s Grave in Ireland in several aspects.
To the southwest, many archaeological remains have been recovered, suggesting that the area had a settlement. Was the North Muir seen as a cremation field for these villages, or is reality more complex than such straightforward conclusions? Either way, this ancient road takes us 5000 years back into time, and reveals to us an almost forgotten dimension to the landscape of the Borders and how our ancestors migrated along it. And today, we can still walk in the footsteps of our ancestors. Practical information
To walk the ancient “bypass”, you can either park near the West Linton Golf Course (signposted from the A702) or in Garvald (signposted from the A702 in Dolphinton). From the West Linton Golf Course, take the road that guides you through the golf course and onwards into the hills. A much shorter walk to reach the cairns is when you go to Garvald. At Garvald Farm, situated at the end of the village, turn right towards Ferniehaugh and Medwynbank, where you can park too if you want to make the walk as short as possible. At the small lake, keep to the left (straight on). The cairns are less than a thirty minute walk from here.
The entire walk – depending from where you park and go to – is roughly four miles, hence ca. eight miles to get back. There is firm footing from the path to the cairns, however, if you want to experience the full force of nature, try walking between the two cairns off the path, but be careful for hidden small rivers and like. I have not found anyone so far who has made the trip without falling at least once. Not recommended therefore for children or the infirm, and to be done with extreme care by anyone else. But when you stay on the path, it’s easy. Thanks to Chris Norman for bringing this location to my attention.