The Autumn Equinox Run is well established now (and what a hoot it is!), so I thought it would be nice if its young upstart the Vernal Equinox could get in on the act. So I organised a run. My thoughts when doing this were that by the time it came around on Monday, 20th March, we would be looking at warm sunlight uplands, possibly going topless and sipping sparkling mead (that did happen) under birdsong. However the weather was Baltic (but it stayed dry, to be fair) and the next day saw snow blanket much of the north of Britain, so maybe we angered the Gods somehow. Digby had also pointed out (in his imitable style) that the clocks weren’t going to change until this Sunday, so we’d be better to delay it a week. But I was keen to make it on the day of the Equinox.
I decided on Cairnpapple, as it one of the most important Druidic sites in Scotland, and has an impressive structure on its top to prove it. More of that later. My only experience of the hill was running to its (almost) summit with Neil B when we did the comically-named Bathgate Highland Games Hill Race. I remembered it as basically a road race that had a bit of a climb. However, run leader Lisa assured me we’d be getting all down and dirty through woods and stuff, and so it proved.
I had hoped that someone from the Druid community in Scotland might come out to the hill to meet us, but they seemed very shy, but Jean, a lovely lady from the Pagan Network Scotland got in touch and sent me some words, which I read out on the run:
Most if not all of these belief systems celebrate the “ Wheel of the Year” which encompasses 8 festivals beginning on 31st October with Samhain/Halloween and ending with the Autumnal Equinox around 21st September.
The significance of Cairnpapple to most Pagans is that it is a burial mound. As modern day paganism is based on pre-christian beliefs, most Pagans would view Cairnpapple as perhaps a place to commune with the spirits of the pre-christian peoples whose remains are buried there. It was obviously a special place where the ancient people of Scotland may have held celebratory or funerary rituals. Pagans cannot and do not claim to know the exact format of these rituals, they can only guess. However the site has quite clearly been a fairly important one in pre-historic times.
And so to the run.
Lisa led the way up the hill from the Station into the wilds of the Linlithgow suburbs. We came to the edge of Beecraigs Country Park, where things got more interesting. There was lots of (gradual) climbing and it wasn’t long before we stopped to regroup and found ourselves pretty high, with good views over West Lothian.
Given the distance and time involved we were swithering at this point abut actually making it to Cairnpapple, as it’s a fair stretch from the start, but Jeff had stashed some sparkling mead in the gorse bushes near the summit that lunchtime, so that clinched it. In the end we adjusted our route to take in Witchcraig and Cairnpapple and we missed out Cockleroy.
The running was a mix of hard-packed trails through the woods, country roads, but also some minor hill climbs and mud. A good mix and Lisa kept the pace high. I think we all felt that we’d had a good workout by the time we sat down to eat. The Star & Garter were very accommodating and the food and service was good. A great evening and it’s been suggested we re-run the route in the summer again, perhaps taking in Cockleroy this time.
Some notes on Cairnpapple:
Cairnpapple Hill is a hill with a dominating position in central lowland Scotland with views from coast to coast. It was used and re-used as a major ritual site over about 4000 years, and in its day would have been comparable to better known sites like the Standing Stones of Stenness. The summit lies 312 m above sea level, and is about 2 miles (3 km) north of Bathgate. In the 19th century the site was completely concealed by trees, then in 1947–1948 excavations by Stuart Piggott found a series of ritual monuments from successive prehistoric periods. In 1998, Gordon Barclay re-interpreted the site for Historic Scotland.
Neolithic rituals began about 3500 BC with signs of small hearths, and precious objects left on the hill, presumably as offerings, including fine pottery bowls and stone axe heads imported from Cumbria and Wales. Probably around 3000 BC a Class II henge was constructed with the hilltop being surrounded by a bank outside a ditch about 12 ft (4 m) wide cut over 3 ft (1 m) into the rock, with wide entrances from north and south. Inside this an egg-shaped setting of 24 uprights (thought to have been timber posts, or possibly standing stones) enclosed an inner setting of similar uprights.
Some time later a Bronze age ritual added a small stone and clay cairn just off centre inside the monument, with a 7 ft (2 m) high standing stone to the east and a setting of smaller stones. Also aligned to this cairn were sockets for three upright stones at the centre of an arc of seven small pits, six of which contained cremated bones and two contained remains of bone skewer pins. Under the cairn traces were found of at least one burial, with wooden objects (perhaps a mask and club) and beaker people style pottery which indicates a date around 2000 BC. This cairn was later covered by a second much larger cairn about 50 ft (15 m) across and several yards (metres) high, with a kerb of massive stone slabs, which incorporated Bronze age burial cists, one of which contained a food vessel pot. Subsequently, more stone was brought in to increase this cairn to about 100 ft (30 m) diameter, enclosing two cremation burials in inverted urns and now covering the original ditch and bank, making the whole site a tomb monument. Lastly, inside the ditch to the east four graves considered Iron age are now thought to be early Christian because of their east-west alignment, and are dated to around 500 to 1000.
Interior of modern cairn:
The site is open to the public April to September and has a small visitor centre. The 1940s excavations have been partly covered by a concrete dome replicating the second cairn (although the dome is much higher than the cairn) so that visitors can go inside what was once a solid cairn and see the reconstructed graves, and outside this the surrounding post holes and graves are marked by being filled with colour-coded gravel like an archaeological plan, with the red gravel indicating upright pits, and the white gravel denoting the alleged Christian burials. The current display attempts to show all the main phases of the site at the same time.
Cairnpapple Hill is the 445th highest Marilyn (sub 2000′ peaks) in Scotland (Out of 571 total Marilyns)
Derivation of the name
Although there is still some confusion about the origin of the name Cairnpapple Hill, or the alternative Cairniepapple, its meaning can be guessed to a certain extent. It is uncertain whether the name comes from a Brythonic language, related to Welsh, a Goidelic one, such as Scottish Gaelic, or a mixture of the two. The first part, cairn- means cairn, either from Brythonic (e.g. Welsh carn) or Goidelic (e.g. Gaelic càrn or càirn). The second part -ie-, means of the, as in Welsh y or Gaelic a’. The third part is the most problematic, possibly meaning any of tent (Welsh pabell, Gaelic puball), people/congregation (Welsh pob(o)l, Gaelic pobull), or even eye (compare Old Welsh pubell). Thus, Cairniepapple is most likely to mean Cairn of the tent, Cairn of the people, or Cairn of the eye. Another meaning, put forward in the documentary Before Scotland (written and presented by historian Alistair Moffat), is Priest Rock.
Chronology (a different interpretation in a nutshell)
Late Neolithic: cremations (placed in an arc)
Copper Age: beaker burials and henge
Early Bronze Age: food vessel cairn
Middle Bronze Age: enlarged cairn with large cinerary urns
Early Iron Age: inhumations