Towards the end of September last year, on a warm mellow day when it was already beginning to smell of autumn, we wended our way down to the Crinan Canal at Cairnbaan. A short walk through some conifer woods brought us out onto the hillside above, with views across moors and farmland; but for once we were not looking at the distant landscape, but at the ground beneath our feet.

In Kilmartin Glen and the surrounding area, there is a wealth of cup-and-ring marked rocks: we’ve seen them at Achnabreck, at Baluachraig and at Ormaig, overlooking Loch Craignish. They have even been spotted on a couple of standing stones, such as those at Nether Largie. Exactly who carved them and when, and what purpose they served, is still an absolute mystery. Here, on a gently sloping grassy bank, were some more.

Because of the profusion of lichen, the patterns were not immediately obvious; crouching low sometimes helps, to see the contrast as the light catches them. They occur in apparently random groups of shallow depressions; some are surrounded by concentric rings, and some have straight-cut lines connecting them with natural fissures in the rock face.

A nearby information sign explained that there were about 66 symbols in all.

“The Neolithic people who created the rock art may have chosen these outcrops for their views over an important route into Kilmartin Glen. Particular rocks may have been selected for their patterns of cracks that were possibly seen as divine designs.”   (Historic Environment Scotland)

From discoveries made at other sites close by, it is believed that the cup-marks were picked out using quartz hammer-stones. Modern attempts to replicate them suggest that each one took some 30 to 90 minutes to create.

About fifty yards up the slope is a second exposed rock face, bearing larger and more distinguishable markings. The sign here describes it as one of the finest examples of rock art in Scotland. In 1830 it was visited by a schoolmaster named Archibald Currie, who suggested that the concentric rings could represent planetary orbits around the sun. The markings were also inspected by Sir James Young Simpson, physician to Queen Victoria. Having examined several such sites, Simpson observed: “They all evidently indicate, wherever found, a common thought of some common origin, belonging to a common people.”

Nearly 200 years later, we are really none the wiser: these enigmatic symbols appeal to our imagination just as much as they always did. The idea of the place sitting at the entrance to Kilmartin Glen suggests to me the possibility of a map, telling visitors or newcomers where to find places of special ritual significance or even of particularly potent energy; I have no more idea than anyone else, but I do think that our ancestors ‘saw’ the earth in a more organic way, and could interpret its energy field with precision. But they could just as easily be places of healing, or social gathering, or education, or astronomical recording.

The nice thing about cup-and-ring markings is that you can actually trace them with your finger, feeling the grooves and ridges in the same way, presumably, as their creators did some 5,000 years ago. They become a tiny labyrinth, inviting your mind to stop analysing and embrace the present moment. It would be somewhat ironic if history’s biggest lesson to us is that time is irrelevant. Meanwhile, on our walk back down through the woods, the shapes and textures of nature were everywhere: in delicate fungi emerging through the moss, in heather bells and hawkweed, and ripening rose hips.

Cup-and-ring marks are not unique to this region, but the fact that they crop up here so frequently speaks volumes about the ancient significance of Kilmartin Glen, with its abundance of burial cairns and megalithic monuments. Many more may still lie undetected beneath layers of soil and vegetation.

Further reading & reference:

Images © Colin & Jo Woolf