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?