Orienteering for Archaeology at Cochno

Planning for her next green belt walk, a treasure hunt for Neolithic rock carvings at Cochno, near Faifley, Kat discovers they are under threat from a large Battery facility.

If you are reading this on, or before 21st February please click here for information on how to object to the 25 acre battery facility and substation on designated green belt land that will impact on one of the Central Belt’s densest and most accessible accumulations of cup and ring marked rocks, as well as core paths, and an area for access to the Kilpatrick hills.

I’ve been looking forward to the section of my green belt walk around Cochno for a while. It became quite a special place for me during lockdown, one of the places that was less than 5 miles from the city boundary, and therefore somewhere I could access, with wonderful walks both up onto the Kilpatrick hills, and through the farmland and woods at the foot of the fells.

On one occasion, while exploring with my husband and our younger daughter, we set off from Cochno along the Clyde Coastal path on a warm sunny day. After about half an hour we passed a family picnicking on a rock. I noted how large and smooth the rock was, a raised dome of bedrock with a scooped top, and I thought how wonderful it would be to picnic on that rock. I admit that’s a pretty strange thought to have, and an even stranger one to remember, three years later. But I did feel particularly drawn to that rock.

Instead of continuing along the obvious path from this point, we turned off into a small woodland. The hazels growing along a rocky spine between well curated fields had an ancient feel which drew us in. There was something about the place, with the rocky outcrops, and twisted trees that made me think that this place had been like this for a long time. As we clambered up a little rocky step I glanced to the right and was completely astounded by what I saw. A large area of bedrock was exposed among the moss and leaf litter, polished clean. And carved into the rock were concentric ring marks, and large dimples about 5 cms across. I felt a rush of adrenaline – I’d discovered a piece of neolithic rock art, a cup and ring-marked rock.

Image of Whitehill 4 – image from Canmore.org.uk

Was this how it felt for Howard Carter discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun? After a year of lock-down I couldn’t imagine anything could feel better. When I ran my finger around the rings I thought about the person who carved it thousands of years ago.  

Cup and ringed marked rocks were carved by people with only stone tools to work with between 6000 and 4000 years ago. Their meaning is still a mystery to archaeologists, but they would have taken days and weeks to carve by pecking with a river pebble and so must have had incredible significance to the artists who created them. I had seen them before in Kilmartin Glen but it was a complete surprise for me to see them here.

The feeling didn’t leave me the whole day, I was glowing.  ‘I knew this was a special place – I had a feeling that we’d find something here’ I said to no one in particular, marveling at my own intuition. “Look mum” said my teenager, matter-of-factly, “I’d have more sympathy for that point of view if you had told us that you thought the place was special and ancient before you found the cup and ring marked rock and not afterwards”.

(As I write this my colleague asked whether I meant the cup and ring marked rock that was marked on the OS map…. In my defence it was not marked on the 1:50,000 map that I had with me at the time).

Back at home I googled the cup and ring marked stones and discovered that the kilometre square around the north of Faifley has no fewer than 16 cup and ring marked rocks, one of the densest accumulations in Scotland. And that picnic rock? It was no surprise at all to find that the glacial erratic which caught my attention was also one of this group of cup and ring marked rocks.  If I were to choose a stone to carve, it would definitely have been that one.

Since that visit, I have thought often of how certain landscapes can make you feel, and how that landscape, around the Whitehill stones, so close to Glasgow, somehow brought a connection with the deep past.

I recalled that I had vaguely heard about ‘The Cochno Stone’. Which is also nearby, at 8m x 13m, it is one of the largest and finest examples of neolithic cup and ring marked rocks in the UK1, it was excavated in the early 1960s and again in 2013, but it had been covered over in turf to protect it from erosion and vandalism.  

The Cochno Stone during the excavation of 1964 – paint was used to highlight the carved markings. Photo from https://theurbanprehistorian.wordpress.com

The stones are all named for the nearby farm, Whitehill Farm. I had found Whitehill 4 in that hazel wood, the picnic rock was Whitehill 2.

So Cochno had become a destination and a special place of enchantment for me. It is only metres from the edge of Faifley, and close to Drumchapel and Bearsden, but it is a landscape where the ancient lies just below the surface.

I had been planning the walk for a weekend, when my teenage nephew and niece will be visiting, so I started to plan a Neolithic scavenger hunt. They are both orienteers (which is, surely,  a type of competitive scavenger hunt) and, who doesn’t love a treasure hunt anyway? I printed out detailed maps showing he locations of each of the stones. I knew some of the them had been covered up for their own protection like the Cochno stone, but we should be able to find the rest – and even if they were covered up, we could look at the position of the stones in the landscape, and have a race finding them all.

While pondering the rules of this Neolithic orienteering, in quite a coincidence of timing and serendipity, an enquiry came into the APRS inbox. It was from a group in Faifley and Cochno, which had set up to oppose a huge battery storage facility in the green belt. They were asking for advice and assistance in navigating the complex realm of Energy Consents. Together Nikki, our Green Belts Project Manager, and I looked up the exact site of the battery facility, which would occupy around 25 hectares of land on Whitehill farm. We compared it with the map of the stones I had made for the orienteering. The site was right in the midst of the cup and ring marked stones, with seven of rocks just along the boundary or within 10m of the boundary.

The red area denotes the proposed site and grey circles are cup and ring marked rocks, scheduled ancient monuments. Map from Canmore.org.uk

I’d been planning our walk at the weekend to go along part of the Clyde Coastal Path, and that seemed to cut right across the site.

I felt like Lance and Andy in the third series of ‘the Detectorists’ when they discover that a solar farm is planned for the fields they detect in (an episode which was fresh in my mind, having been my evening escapism of only a couple of nights before).

It is far more than the individual stones, it is also the setting in which they sit, the importance of the Neolithic landscape. NPF4 says that development proposals affecting scheduled ancient monuments should not be permitted if they have ‘significant adverse impacts on the integrity of the setting of a scheduled monument’. This proposal couldn’t get any worse on that front – the scheduled ancient monument being the Cochno Stone and the setting the many many other cup and ring marked rocks in the landscape around.

A more detailed view showing the position of the 7 closest cup and ring marked rocks to the proposed development, all within 10m of the boundary. Whitehill 2 was the rock I saw the family having a picnic on, and Whitehill 4 was the one I ‘discovered’

I immediately emailed Margaret, who had contacted us from the local community campaign against the development, to arrange to meet before we start our walk on Saturday and started some research.

Meeting the local campaigners

Ahead of our tour of all the stones we could find I met up with Margaret Hamilton and Gordon and Jane Forbes at the site of the proposed development.

Jane pointed out to me the extent of the site, which stretched across the green fields to a band of woodland nearly a kilometre from where we stood.  We were on a single track road looking over fields which were proposed to become entirely covered with, what the company are claiming would be on one of the biggest facilities of its kind in Europe.

“Only five houses were notified of the development” said Jane. “It arrives on a flimsy piece of paper through the door and I almost threw it away and then I realised how significant it was”.

The fields were bought by a local golf course 30 years ago, as they planned to move the course from their current position, Gordon explained. But they couldn’t get planning permission because of the size of the lane and the access not being sufficient. “Now imagine the size of the lorries that will need to come up and down this lane during the construction and running of the Battery plant” he said. 

As far as I could understand from the proposal, the battery farm element of the proposal consists of hundreds of metal containers at least the size of shipping containers, each of which will need to be brought down the lane which has nearly a 90 degree bend. There will also be a substation on the site. The size of the traffic that would need to come down the lane was just mind-boggling. “if they turned it down for a golf course because of traffic, how could this be allowed?” asked Gordon.

“So the farmer doesn’t own those fields then?” I asked incredulously, looking at the farm which would be surrounded by the battery storage plant. There is a narrow wedge out of the proposed development site which would hem in the farm. “He still owns land around here, but not the field directly behind the farm buildings.” said Gordon.

We walked up to the top of the field as I chatted with Margaret. She has lived in Faifley all her life and is devastated by the effect that this development would have on her area. She pointed towards the edge of the field – “This is such a special place for local people – especially the Druid Stone” she said pointing over to a large smooth rock visible on the edge of the field. We walked over to the very same cup and ring marked rock I had seen on that visit during lockdown which had the family picnicking on it.

“I’ll tell you some stories about this rock” said Margaret, giggling to herself. “we used to come and play truant here”. Margaret pointed out some of the ancient carvings and then said, “I think my name is written somewhere on this rock too”.

The fence which would be the boundary of the new development was almost up against the edge of the area of exposed rock. They took me up into the small wood nearby, also right up against the boundary of the proposed development, and we looked at two other rocks. There was a small fire ring showing that people come to this wood to camp and the path was evidently very well used, but there was no litter. “There’s so many people use this space to picnic and to camp, sometimes they leave litter but we just come and pick it up,” she said. 

Later on in my walk, while looking for one of the cup and ring marked rocks that is right on the edge of Faifley, I met Alan. He was emerging from a tangle of scrub with a bin liner – a regular litter picker in the area. Alan said the whole community were up in arms about the development. “we don’t want it” he told me, “ I was at a meeting last week about it and there were councillors, MSPS, and so many people  you couldn’t get another person into the room”.

In fact in my whole visit to the country park behind Faifley and the stones, I hardly saw any litter at all – this is unusual for a place so close to a population and so well used. It just shows how much the local people care about this area and how well-loved it is, that this is the case.

I got in touch with Kenneth Brophy, the Glasgow University academic who conducted the excavation of the Cochno stone in 2016. His blog ‘The Urban Prehistorian’ has a lot of information about the rock art in the area. This blog about the hiding of the stones and burying the Cochno stone in 1967 is really informative about how the stones have become a secret, even though local people know where they are. This might explain the total lack of interpretation or acknowledgement that they exist, even when they are blatantly obvious to any passer-by (such as myself).

He emailed me the following:

“The collection of prehistoric carved stones on the north side of Faifley including the Cochno Stone represent the best opportunity for people living in central Scotland to be able to visit and enjoy these fascinating ancient sites. The Cochno Stone itself is one of the most significant sites of this type in Britain and has a rich modern history that many people locally and who grew up in Faifley have an emotional attachment to.

“Making sense of the carvings and being able to appreciate carvings that are over 4000 years old are very important aspects of how we engage with our prehistoric past. So, the sites at Faifley are unique in their location beside a large urban population that can be reached on foot and by bus. “

We walked back to Jane and Gordon’s house across the field again. “We took out a tree recently and exposed a rock in the garden which we think might have a cup and ring marked rock on” she said.  Our neighbours think they might have one too. “There could even be carved rocks in those fields” said Jane. It definitely wouldn’t surprise me if that were the case.

To read more about the application and the impact on access and the stones – and for advice on objecting (on or before 21 February) please click below for information on how to object to the huge battery.

The Cochno Stone was buried after the 1967 dig and uncovered again for an excavation in 2016. Using photos from the most recent dig, I was able to locate the stone using the position of the trees behind.
Ariel photo of the Cochno stone during the 2016 excavation – from http://canmore.org.uk/collection/1550826.

Note: APRS Role in Responding to Planning Applications

APRS offer advice for people who are opposing unsustainable and unallocated2 development in their green belts – we have lots of online resources people can use and some online training to watch to help get your head around the planning system. We also support campaigners through the Green Belts Alliance.

We ourselves do not generally get involved in objecting to developments unless they are likely to be a key test case or nationally important for determining future policy.

We decided to get involved with this one as, until recently, we very rarely saw applications for large scale energy infrastructure on designated green belt. This is changing fast in response to changes in energy policy and commercial incentives.  The National Planning Framework 4 is now a year old and we are keen to see how the new policies, including on energy, green belts and nature are interacting to influence development in the green belts.

This is a useful case to get involved with as a case study because it is a site of huge importance for public access and amenity, and the landscape is the setting for some of the most accessible cup and ring marked rocks in Scotland. However it is also only 500m from one of the main substations for Glasgow, meaning it is an extremely attractive site for energy infrastructure, due to the economics.  

  1. ‘The finest set of cup and ring marks in existence’: the story of the Cochno Stone, West
    Dunbartonshire’ Kenneth Brophy http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/158755/1/158755.pdf ↩︎
  2. Meaning unallocated in the Local Development Plan – ie sites that have been designated as green belt in the most recent local development plan. ↩︎ ↩︎

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