Camster and the Cailleach?

While Ness of Brodgar may yet prove to be older, as things stand Caithness' Camster Cairns show the 'Scottish' Megalithic sequence developing from as early as 3,600BC. Tracing the connections between the Neolithic in Caithness and Orkney are problematic, as there are both significant differences and key similarities. Whatever the pattern that emerges through further archaeology the Camster Cairns mark a very significant point of arrival for the European Neolithic bundle, as the site has monumental cairns, passage chambers and is set within a naturalistic liminal landscape.

Ashley Cowie's video takes a look right inside the cairns . . . the camera is necessarily a touch shaky, but the video seems well worth watching. The commentary is certainly interesting/ covers a few intriguing points. For example, the location at the source of the region's river system; the notion of a Neolithic 'abundance'; a 'tomb' where figurative 'rebirths' took place. Taken together much of this commentary is quite consistent with the information we have in terms of the careful choice of site within a broader naturalistic and conceptual framework.

The site raises familiar questions, which archaeology is starting to unravel:

  1. Why was the monument situated with such care within the broader community?
  2. Why was so much effort put into the construction?
  3. What meaning did it have in terms of being such a focus for communal effort?
  4. Was it constructed or conceived as a single monument?
  5. What was the site used for/ what went on there?

Nevertheless, we can see some of the complications involved in interpreting ancient monuments, as we try to fit our understandings of what might have been going on to the archaeology - and find it tempting to go well beyond the known archaeology.

For example, it is not known with any certainty whether or not the Camster Long Cairn was built in one phase or more and we have limited information on early systems of belief. At the same time the same Neolithic culture is related to Ness of Brodgar, Brú na Bóinne in Ireland and later Callanish - and so we might reasonably look for points of comparison or contrast between the sites.

Callanish

For example, at Callanish, (built in about 2,600BC), we find standing stones aligned to allow the moon to process over the top of the stones at 18.5 year lunar standstill. At the same time this transit is matched to the figure of the Veiled One/ Cailleach envisaged within a hillside lying behind the standing stones. The figure certainly resembles the form of a reclining female - and so serves as a compelling backdrop when the moon moves over the standing stone. Essentially, the human monument, the actions of 'the heavens' and the totality of the living landscape are being brought together or synchronised.

As shown in the video below the lunar standstill event is a compelling sight to see - you may wish to turn the sound down/ choose your own soundtrack, as the music isn't to everyone's taste.

What might that have to do with Camster . . . on the basis Camster is part of a cultural bundle, including the Veiled One, that at least in part carries on through to the development of Callanish . . .

This is a (composite) image of Callanish at the lunar standstill as the moon descends into the face of the notional Veiled One, Cailleach or - in the context of abundance - the Girl in the Wheat.

And this is an image of the Long Cairn at Camster . . .

So, both locations use rebirth metaphors; both sites share the same Neolithic bundle; both sites are related to the naturalistic worship of the landscape . . . and both monuments take a quite similar and quite distinctive form.

Unfortunately, much as it is appealing to see a potential consistency of design between the two monuments we don't have any archaeological evidence to back up an appealing but largely visual connection. Equally, while the identification of the landscape with a 'feminine sovereignty' through the Cailleach/ Girl in the Wheat is ubiquitous across Scotland to this day, (from the Pap of Glencoe over to the prudish Victorian relabeling of Lochnagar from Beinn Chìochan (mountain of breasts), we can't assume that an early point of origin for the Neolithic bundle in Caithness included any connection to the Cailleach.

Consequently, the apparent visual correspondence of face - breasts - mound - thighs found at Callanish cannot be considered as tracking all the way back to the earliest developments of the Neolithic across Britain. The similarity could be no more than a coincidence. That said it is possible to look at piecing together more of what went on within the Neolithic to continue to build-up a picture of how communities and cultures connected-up. And in the context of investigating developments it is reasonable to state that it would be well worth keeping an eye out for more pronounced examples of possible architectural or geographical links to the elusive Girl in the Wheat.

The Neolithic and the Girl in the Wheat will be featuring large in Scottish Media Lab's next course:

Ancient Scotland - Standing Stones and Stardust