Part 5 – The 12 Apostles

Standing stones 5 – The 12 Apostles

I travel south of Glasgow to the town of Dumfries. Before I go to visit the the standing stones near the village of Holywood I give three presentations in two libraries. The Ewart Library and the Georgetown Library. Here I talk to around 200 children about the stone circles in Scotland and how they can be a starting point for a story. The children formed their own creature and starting thinking about their own story.

We also talked about asthma. James, the boy-hero in my Peck Chronicles has the affliction. Yet he has amazing adventures despite this. Asthma can be controlled by using inhalers. Athletes like Paula Radcliff and football players like David Beckham had asthma yet still managed to reach the very top of their sports.

On my way home, I visit the final stone circle in my trip – The 12 apostles, as they are known, are just outside Dumfries and at 86 meters in diameter, they form the largest stone circle on the mainland of Scotland. To me they didn’t stand out as much as the other sites, or have that feel of somewhere mystical but when you look closer, there are some very interesting traces of our ancient ancestors. These are indentations known as cup marks. These were made by our ancestors anywhere between 3000 and 5000 years ago. People have tried to work out their meaning, suggesting that they may be some standard megalithic measurement, but no one really knows. What we do know is that these markings are found over a wide geographical area and that they are often accompanied by concentric rings. Here is a stone from Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy.
On my way out of the field where the Apostles sit, I spy a stoat. Long and sleek-coated, it races over a stone dyke and disappears into a deep hole.

Features and Creatures

Today’s feature is Ewart Library.
Situated in Catherine Street in Dumfries, the Ewart Library is a two story sandstone building that was built in 1904. Commissioned by a very rich Scotsman called Carnegie, it was suggested that the library should be named after William Ewart. He was a parliamentarian from Dumfries who introduced the Free Libraries Act of Scotland in 1853. It’s thanks to Mr Ewart that our libraries are free to the public.

Today’s Creature is the Stoat.
The stoat is a member of the weasel family. It eats small mammals including rabbits and differs from the weasel itself by having a longer tail with a black tip. Some stoats can turn white in the winter. Their offspring are called kits and a fully grown stoat can live for as much as five years.
There is a silly saying that goes – ‘weasels are weaselly distinguished but stoats are stoatally different…’

Just a reminder that Strident Publishing will be sponsoring a children’s book pack which will be delivered to the school that produces the best story. The story must use a ring of stones as it’s starting point and be about a page long. Any school that has taken part in my trip or that has tuned into this video diary can take part. Good luck.

I will post some of the stories and poems produced by the children in this trip on

Here are today’s challenge questions

1 What can you use to control asthma?
2 How many stones form the the ancient ring near Dumfries?
3 Who was William Ewart?
4 Apart from a weasel and a stoat, name another member of the weasel family found in Scotland?

All answers to the challenge questions over the five video diaries will be posted on my website.

A huge thank you to GLOW, especially Jen McKay. To Keith Charters at Strident Publishing and to all the schools who took part and joined in on the fun.

Until our next big adventure – Bye for now.

Part 4 – Kilmartin

Standing stones 4 – Kilmartin

I leave the isle of Harris via the ferry port at Tarbet and sail over to Uig, a small town on the Isle of Skye. The sea is calm and I watch a manx shearwater skim across the surface of the North Minch. These birds are nesting just now but in July they will start their migration to the shores of South America, almost 5500 miles away. I stay with a friend in Uig and then drive down to the Crinan Canal, a man-made stretch of water that cuts out the need to go all the way round the Kintyre peninsula.

The next day I visit Kilmartin Primary School, where the four children in the primary seven class tell me about the ring of stones a mere 500 yards away from their school. They show me some of the artefacts found around the stones. Axe heads and arrow heads from almost 5000 years ago. Here are some of the children telling me about these amazing finds in their own words…

We also looked at some of the poems from the isle of Lewis. The children there produced a bilingual book of poems inspired by the Callanish stones. The poems are set out in English and in Gaelic. Here is one of the children at Kilmartin reading a poem. This inspired the children at Kilmartin to work on their own poems, which they will send on to me later.

The children at Kilmartin had already prepared some stories based around the standing stones theme. Here is one called the 13 men and the thief. read by Nina, let’s listen to one of their own stories, this time inspired by their own stone circle at Temple Wood.

Remember, there is a competition to find the best one-page story using a ring of stones as a starting point. Strident Publishing will supply a pack of children’s books to the winning school. This story was written by…

The children quiz me about my own story – Talisman, which begins at an imaginary stone circle called ‘The Jesus Rocks’. In my series of fantasy adventure books –The Peck Chronicles, a mystery vandal repeatedly daubs the the main stone with the words ‘Jesus Saves’,

hence the name given to the stones by the locals in the book. This actually happened to a large stone on Carman Moor above my house in Alexandria, and I thought it would be interesting to incorporate this into my adventures. Writing about things you have actually seen is sometimes easier.

After this truly amazing visit to Kilmartin Primary I see a hare racing across the field before I reach the Temple Woods circles.

At the stones themselves, I am surprised to see that the centre of this circle is filled with much smaller stones.

There are two stone circles at Temple Wood. From the northern one you could watch the midwinter sunset and from the southern you could observe the winter full moon.

Features and Creatures

Today’s feature is Flint a hard form of quartz found as nodules in much lighter limestone or chalk. It splits into very thin, sharp shards which can be used for all manner of cutting tools. When struck against steel it can produce a spark and even start a fire.

Today’s creature is the hare
Hares are related to rabbits but live more solitary lives. They typically have longer ears and can run very fast, almost 50 miles per hour. They don’t have burrows but live in a nest above ground called a form. A young hare, less than a year old, is called a leveret.

Here are today’s challenge questions

1 I visited the Crinan canal. Name another canal in Scotland?
2 The children at Kilmartin showed us some axe and arrow-heads. What were they made of?
3 There are two types of hare in Scotland; can you name them?
4 What is a young hare called?

Part 3 – Calanais (Callanish)

Standing stones 3 – Calanais

I push on to Ullapool but stop for a forest walk in Rosehall where I see my first ever Sika Deer. Introduced from Japan over a hundred years ago, three female descendants cross my path, but soon blend in to their surroundings. We have three native species of deer in Scotland: Red Deer, Roe Deer and Fallow Deer, unlike the Sika deer they established themselves in Scotland 10,000 years ago after the ice age. A great spotted woodpecker flies past, swooping up and down until it lands on the trunk of a birch tree a few yards away. There is so much going on if we just take the time to wait and watch.

The ferry to Ullapool has a massive viewing gallery at the front of the boat. The bow is the proper name for the front of a boat and the stern is the name for the back of a boat. Port is the left side when facing forward and starboard is the right.

I reach Stornoway around 8’oclock and settle into another campsite in Laxdale, only a few hundred meters away from my first school.

It’s great to have some time to explore Lewis and Harris. Two of my favourite Scottish islands, they are part of the Outer Hebrides. I visit Port Ness in Lewis and remember that I’ve been to the Primary school there in the past. The children told me all about hunting and eating Gugas, gannets to you and me. Now, this may sound a bit strange but people have been eating gannets for hundreds of years in Lewis. Apparently they are quite salty, taste of fish, and are particularly nice with boiled potatoes. Each to their own…
I watch some artic terns feeding off the harbour wall and then return home via a fairly unknown stone circle called Steinacleit. They think it’s probably the remains of a prehistoric settlement, with an outer ring to keep animals. There’s certainly still sheep and lambs here today. An on the small loch there’s more evidence of habitation from long ago.

The next day I make a bit of a pilgrimage to one of my favourite beaches – Huishnish Bay. Now, a few years back I wrote a book called Windscape which features this very place. I call my beach Hushwish Bay, and tell the tale of a girl called Jenny MacLeod. Living alone with her father people turn up to protest about a wind farm but Jenny’s father collapses with a heart attack and she has to stay with another family. All is not as it seems and she is soon on a perilous adventure to save her father and their farm. The whole story was inspired by Harris and its wonderfully rugged landscape. The book examines wind farms, the pros and cons using an adventure story.

I walk another mile north and end up opposite Scarp, a deserted island. The beach I end up is even more stunning than Huishnish – and its here that I see a flock of golden plovers and dunlins and get an amazing view of a golden eagle. More about that later.

Soon it’s time to visit my first school, Laxdale Primary School. I help launch the school’s reading focus week and speak to a packed assembly of P1-P7. The children are totally engaged but there is a frightening moment where I’m almost turned into stone. The whole school tries out a spell from my book Talisman – Wwwstonewwwrightwwww!

I get to learn much more about the stone circle at Callanish. Here is the circle’s name in Gaelic, the first language of the school.

There are also a few legends and ideas surrounding the stones. Here are some of the children.

After the school I visit Callanish and stand in wonder at this amazing special. Thousands of people travel from all over the world to see this site.

Then I visit Braesclete School. The school is only yards away from the stones at Callanish and the children have produced some amazing poems inspired by the stones. We use these in a lesson at Kilmartin a few days later.

We begin a story as a class and I leave them to finish this off as I make my mad dash for the ferry to Uig. A good way to progress a story is to ask yourself some open ended questions. Questions that you can’t simply answer with a yes or no. e.g. Questions beginning with How, Why, What, Where, When and Who.

Features and Creatures

Today’s feature has to be the stones at Callanish themselves.
The stones at Callinish are some of the oldest in the whole world. The rock they are made of is known as Lewisian gneiss (pronounced ‘nice’) they were laid down as the Earth’s crust was cooling about 3000 million years ago. There are legends that a great king came to set up the stones. Helped by dark-skinned men, the king was always accompanied by a flock of wrens.

Here is another amazing story, by Sandy Widdup. A P4 student at Braescliete Primary.

What a great story. Here are a few other theories about Callanish from the children of Braescliete.

Today’s creature is the golden eagle.
The golden eagle is one of the most majestic birds I have ever seen. The female is almost twice as big as the male and can weigh as much as 6.35 kg. I once held one on my right arm at a falconry display and it took all my power to keep my arm straight. They have a wingspan of almost 8ft and have a hunting territory of 200 square kilometres. In some countries they are used to hunt grey wolves. They can carry off animals twice their own body weight.

Here are today’s challenge questions…

Part 2 – The Ring of Brodgar

Standing stones 2 – The Ring of Brodgar
I stick to the smaller roads heading north, via Inverness and Bonor Bridge. Thick banks of gorse line the single track roads, a profusion of mustard yellow. Gorse, often known as whin in Scotland was crushed and used as a winter feed for cattle. Highly flammable it was used in bread ovens to raise the baking temperature. Gorse looks very similar to broom, but broom lacks the unforgiving thorns and tend to flower a little later.

I know I am touring round some of the oldest stone circles in Scotland but I visit an old cemetery and find a very sad reminder of a more recent times. Often know as the Great War, the first world war which took place between 1914 and 1918, reaped a grim harvest of young men from Scotland. Whole families and sometimes whole villages were decimated.

Pushing on I spy a bit of a folly in Lairg. Everyone dreams of having their own house on an island; well, someone has just that in Lairg. Said to belong to the Broons, it might just be a bit on the small side for me.

I’d never driven the wonderful road between Lairg and Bettyshill before, but what a magical find. I spot a black throated diver, a kind of diving bird known as a loon in Canada, due to its haunting cry. I also come across another blot in our history. While the Great War took its toll a hundred years ago, a hundred years before that, around 1816, the Highland Clearances were well on their way. People were forced off the land to make room for sheep. I spoke to a class this week who were looking at the good and bad aspects. I presumed there were only bad implications, but the children decided that some people who left, although sad to leave their homeland, gained many more opportunities abroad than they would have done here.

The Ring of Brodgar is situated in the Orkney Isles. Which means a ferry trip over one of the roughest pieces of water around the British Isles. However, today it is almost flat calm and I get to see all kinds of wildlife on the 1.5hr trip. Puffins scuttle across the front of the ship and there are razorbills, guillemots, giant skuas, fulmars and gannets everywhere. I even get a glimpse of a Minkie Whale.
A crowd gathers as we pass the Old Man of Hoy. A giant stack of red sandstone that today, stands proud of the mist like some monster of the deep that’s risen from its lair. It looks like something out of a King Kong movie.

Once safely into the port of Stromness, I grab my bags and walk to the Primary school. Again, I want to see if I can spark the children’s imagination and harvest some legends. The school is just three years old and Neil MacIntosh, the head teacher, shows me round. The building is amazing and the classes have an uninterrupted view of the sea and the ferry port.

Unsurprisingly, the children are fantastic and the P 6 and 7’s are really engaged, drawing their new creatures and telling me some of the local legends that surround Brodgar. Here are three crackers from the children of Stromness Primary School. Listen out for Aiden’s ‘Witchcraft – Stone’ story. He had the class in fits of laughter.

After the school, I grab a bite to eat and then catch the bus to Brodgar. I pass the ring of Stennes on the way down the peninsula and stand beside a stone that must be almost 20 feet high. One of the stones has graffiti on there from the 1800’s.
I pass a newly excavated Neolithic palace and reach the Ring of Brodgar. This is a ring of stones with a diameter of 104 meters. Only 27 out of the original 60 stones remain in place, but it is still a very awe inspiring and magical place. The ring of stones sits in the epicentre of a huge basin, the hills of Orkney forming their own outer ring in the distance.

Features and Creatures

Today’s feature has to be The Old Man of Hoy.
Almost 500 feet high, this tower of stone sits off the coast of the island of Hoy. It was only created, by erosion, about 260 years ago and may, in fact, fall into the sea at any moment. It was first climbed in 1966 by Chris Bonnington, Rusty Baille and Tom Patey. Sir Chris Bonnington became the Old Man of Hoy when he climbed that stack again in 2014. He was 80 years old.

Today’s creature is the Minke Whale. I spotted one on the ferry over to Orkney but the last time I did the trip, which was many years ago, I spotted a Killer Whale. Killer Whales sometimes hunt Minke whales, so I hope this one will stay safe. Our second smallest whale, the Minke grows to about 8 meters in length and they can live for as much as 60 years, assuming they avoid predators and whalers.

Just a reminder that Strident Publishing will be sponsoring a children’s book pack which will be delivered to the school that produces the best story. The story must use a ring of stones as it’s starting point and be about a page long. Any school that has taken part in my trip or that has tuned into this video diary can take part. Good luck.

Part 1 – Tomnaverie

Part 1 of the Standing Stones of Scotland – with Paul Murdoch

After winding my way up from Glasgow, through Perth and Dundee, I veer off the main A90 and meander over the hills that lead down to the River Dee and the town of Aboyne. I want to visit the stone circle at Tomnaverie the day before my first school visit. See where they sit in relation to the surrounding countryside. Fairly close to the town of Tarland, the Tomnaverie Stone Circle is situated at the top of a small hill that has an excellent 360-degree view of the whole region.

Smaller than I imagined, Tomnaverie is still very neatly set out with the main feature being two tall pillars that flank a huge horizontal block. There is evidence of previous fires around this block and it has been suggested that it was used for burial rites or even human sacrifice. Scary stuff, but the weather is warm, and I spot a kestrel (Picture) hovering over the fields beside the car park. Skylarks sing their hearts out and supply a wonderful soundscape, only interrupted by the occasional call of a cuckoo (Picture), somewhere off in the distance.

The site seems to have been built at the edge of cultivated land and the earliest recorded feature is that large recumbent stone that follows the crest of Lochnagair, a hill about twenty miles away. This great stone would have highlighted the full moon around midsummer’s day, so there may have been some kind of link with the skies.

It is thought that humans inhabited Scotland as much 750,000 years ago. But their time here was intermittent. Extreme weather and climate change often forced them back out again. Eventually, between 14000 – 12000 years ago the great sheets of ice that marked Scotland’s last Ice Age were melting away; and people, who looked pretty similar to you and me, began moving into the newly uncovered areas. Sea levels were much lower and the UK was still joined on to the rest of Europe right up until about 8000 years ago. At this point the sea level rose enough to separate us from the rest of Europe. A thousand years after this, 7000 years ago, the people who inhabited Scotland, changed from being hunter gatherers to farmers. They became more settled and organised. It is somewhere between this point and 5000 years ago that the stone circles were erected.

The next day I visited Aboyne Primary School and addressed a packed assembly of P5,6 and 7s. I am no historian. Certainly not an expert on standing stones, but we all had great fun talking about them.

Strangely, if we look at other parts of the world, the people around that time were building their own stone structures all over the place. The pyramids in Egypt (North Africa) are thought to be about the same age as most of the Scottish standing stones, as are the pyramids recently discovered in Brazil (South America). What was going on? Why all the fuss back then? We may never know, but we are left with some amazing structures to wonder at.

Anyway, I’m getting away from the main reason I am doing this trip. Yes… to inform, a bit, but it is mostly to inspire. You see, a ring of stones inspired me to write the first page of my first ever book – Talisman. And I am hoping that I can share some of my writing techniques with the children I visit; so that they, in turn, can write their own story using the standing stones as a starting point.

So, I soon delve into building up a character, something that may have come out of Tomnaverie. We used our imagination as a big group to make up a newly named monster. The children had great fun drawing this new creature of the stones and, in their classes, they added all sorts of features and special adaptations. Everyone was suddenly shouting out ideas and assigning their creature special powers. We talked about what it might eat, what it might smells like and even what it would sound like.

Here are some of the creatures the children at Aboyne came up with… All different. All inspired by the stones on Tomnaverie, and well on their way to being fully formed characters.

We also talked about some of the legends that surround the stones at Tomnaveri, and while doing this, I discovered that the children knew about a site that was even closer to their school. A place called The Devil’s Claw. Set in a forest, it seems to have a few of it’s own legends. Here are a few of the children telling us about those. ……..

The children also discussed how they might begin their own story. Here again, is a snippet of our discussion.

Later that same day I visited Braehead Primary School, next to the River Don, north of Aberdeen. Here the children discussed the stone circles again, and then, after hearing a reading from Talisman about a gargoyle, they began to design their own creature, give it characteristics and then think about their own stories.

A good tip when writing a story is to read it out loud. This helps you decide where the punctuation should be. I always think of punctuation as a way of letting the story breathe. It should flow as you read it. You should be able to tell your story without running out of breath. Where there is a short pause, insert a comma. In my opinion, a sentence that is too long can draw excitement away from the story.

Features and Creatures.

I always like to look at anything interesting along the way. Animals, birds, special places etc.

I’m going to tell you a little about the River Dee.

The river Dee runs to the south of the city of Aberdeen. By the time it reaches Aberdeen, it will have dropped over 3500 feet from the Cairngorm Mountains and will have travelled about 120 miles. It is especially rich in salmon and wildlife and the area that surrounds it it often known as Royal Deeside, because Queen Victoria loved the are so much and built Balmoral Castle on its banks.

Aberdeen is flanked by two rivers. Can you name the other river, to the north of Aberdeen?

The creature for this blog is the Kestrel.

My Tiffy and Toffy picture books for younger children feature a kestrel called Kenny Kestrel, but the real-life bird is just as clever and has a few interesting adaptations for hunting mice and voles. Kestrels can hover in one place, beating their wings fast and adjusting to compensate for the wind. They have fantastic eyesight and can see in ultra violet spectrum which lets them pick out the pee trails of their prey. Voles and mice are constantly urinating to mark their territory and this can, unfortunately, uncover their whereabouts. The male and female birds are very similar but the male has a slate grey head and tail, while the female has a brown striped head and tail.

The Challenges for attached to this blog are –

1. When did humans first inhabit the UK?
2. When did people start building great stone features all over the world?
3. What is the river called that runs north of Aberdeen?
4. What gender is the kestrel holding the mouse in the last picture?

An Introduction to THE STONES TOUR…

I will be visiting seven schools that are close to some of our most mystical sites. Local children will tell us what legends surround the ancient circles and how these places spark their imagination and drive their creativity.

I will cover over 750 miles of Scotland’s most beautiful countryside in my trusty, or should I say, ‘rusty’ camper-van. I’ll take six ferry journeys and spend 10 nights away from home.

I have my recording equipment, my camera, my books and enough food to cover the trip.

Like my Bali trip last year, I want to take note of any interesting features and creatures I see along the way. Scotland is a wonderful country with amazing wildlife and a fascinating history.

Part 1 of the video diary will be posted on the 23rd of May

Follow my video diaries here and on my Youtube site: Route 3

Cross-curricular fun and interaction, where children's author, Paul Murdoch, looks at some of the most interesting sites in Scotland, but then uses these as a starting point for original writing.

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