Review – The Old Stones: a field guide to the megalithic sites of Britain and Ireland

2 mins read
Andy Burnham (ed.)
Watkins Publishing, £29.99
ISBN 978-1786781543
Review Rob Ixer

‘Power to the people’ and all praise to ringmaster Andy Burnham! In 2012, veterinarian Olaf Swarbrick published his gazetteer of standing stones, which, although a heroic effort showing what a single researcher, standing outside the financially constrained academic ring, can contribute, lacked the ‘kerb appeal’ achieved by Burnham and his circle of friends.

This 400+ page field guide of over 1,000 sites does everything it promises and is another dedicated testament to the might of the ‘amateur’. It is not an academic book for archaeologists, with excavation details and cited references (it would be even heavier than it is, if it were), but one for the be-wellied, mobile petrophile. It is also sturdy enough to outlive the odd heavy rain burst or being thrown onto boggy ground in frustration (evidently luck is needed to find quite a few sites, especially in lush summers).

After Vicki Cummings’ succinct and really, really excellent overview of Neolithic and early Bronze Age monuments and monumentality, the gazetteer starts in the Isles of Scilly and sweeps westwards and northwards, geographically colour-coded area by area, to finish in Fetler in the Shetland Islands, and then does the same for Éire. Single stones, stone rows, cairn fields, barrows, circles (of course), and all manner of resting places are recorded, plus lots of rock art. Although it is not exhaustive, and there are some factual descriptive errors, truly there are ‘good stones’ near you.

There are more than just detailed travel instructions: best routes naturally, but also best views, best vibes (not too many of the latter), where best to hear skylarks, when to hunt for bluebells, blueberries, and bluestones (in all senses of the word), and even where to avoid polystyrene cartons and heavy bracken. But given the diversity of contributors, what a tightrope walk it must have been to keep it so remarkably down to earth. Aliens are not mentioned until page 159, and imaginary stone circles (just the one, Craigh na Dun) until page 294, with little or no mention of ley lines. Juggling for counter-culture balance, there is much recounting of the holiday bathing habits of stones, indeed counting and recounting of stones, accounts of dowsing for ceremony, potential loony poets, and golden antiquarian finds. This is such a fun book it seems wrong to use it seriously.

The production values are remarkable for a paperback. Cover and paper are high quality, and almost all of the many hundreds of photographs are colour-matched: soft greens, browns with grey-blue skies, and so making the few taken in snow dazzling (I wish there were more). A small niggle: it is not always immediately obvious which stones are being illustrated, as the adjacent text sometimes does not sit alongside the unlabelled photographs.

Like Swarbrick’s book, this guide has top ten lists. The joy of these is what is at the bottom of the list, after the expected ones, and that is true for this book a whole. The biggies – Stonehenge, Callanais, Newgrange, Machrie Moor – are dealt with (and almost dismissed) efficiently; many are used as pegs for short vignettes by archaeologists, and by some of the more respectable fringe workers. The value of these snapshots varies. Many should have been longer in order to make them more comprehensible and perhaps sounding a little less weird. It is the little monuments that make this book compelling, however, even when sitting warm in an armchair: the charming, the unexpected, but especially the displaced, those equally unhappy standing on street corners, centring housing estates, set in manicured fairways, or outside a McDonald’s restaurant stripped of dignity and meaning amid discarded spray cans. It is more than enough to make the most stone-hearted weep or sigh.

Tristesse apart, this is most definitely another for the Christmas stocking – alongside a pair of thick socks, sturdy boots, and gritty determination.

This review appeared in CA 345.

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