The Watcher’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Watcher’s Tale

by Barney Kinsler

Who am I, that watches? What am I? Where am I? What do I do? What do I watch?

I am an ageless stone, the product of geological forces an inestimable time ago. I was fashioned by human hands – foreign hands, Roman hands – to serve a purpose. I am an Altar Stone. I have stood in central Scotland for 2000 years, forgotten by those who fashioned me and now an object of curiosity to those who follow.

Roman Altar Stone
Roman Altar Stone

A starling lands on me with a straw in its beak. Balanced on my ageless stone surface, it reaches out to hold the dead grass against me for a symbolic moment, before transferring it into its claw and flying off to its springtime nest.

Something inside my stone heart becomes aware. At my beginning, that heart was programmed by the priests to react to things laid on the cold surface. In Roman times, there was, in the depression on my surface, the warm blood of hares, birds, lambs or goats, offerings to the gods of the soldiers who marched along the narrow military road joining the forts guarding the main route into the north of Caledonia.

I stand at a high vantage point overlooking the marshes, the fort in the east, and the mountains to the north; there are island hills out to the west, there where began the mysterious and boundless western ocean. Passers-by now call these the Ochils, the Kilsyth Hills and, out to the west, the Isle of Arran.

There are now houses around, and passing people and their dogs. Few understand my purpose as a gateway between this world and the implacable, elemental forces which made it and still rule it – the wind and rain, the sun in the sky and the fires below. Their time-scale is enormous, marked by the hills which walk down into the waves as erosion gnaws them away, later to be pushed up in other places. One hundred thousand years are a second, and I, the altar stone, am made of the same elemental stuff.

The Romans worshipped the attributes of nature – Vulcan for the fires below , Neptune for the sea’s waves and other gods for other features of the world they lived in. The native Caledonians lived with the same relationship to nature, worshipping in stone circles which were aligned to the moon and stars and marked the passage of time over the wide country.

I who watch know that the old religions are gone and no-one will now come to lay offerings on me or to sacrifice animals or birds with the warm blood running onto me and a small life ended. Mankind now believes – if at all – in their Jesus, who had been hurried to his fateful sacrifice by a native Caledonian from Fortingall who, having joined the Romans, had changed his name to Pontius Pilatus – well, so runs the persistent legend. The Romans sent men to far parts of their Empire from whence they came. The soldiers who set me up as an altar were from the Roman provinces in Germania. They were Celts like the native Caledonians but hardened in the discipline and constant wars of the Roman Army. They had been sent to protect the Wall which the emperor Antoninus had decreed should be built to mark this limit of his Empire. So, they were sent to Caledonia, but Pontius Pilate was sent to Palestine.

That wooden fence along the Wall was more a customs barrier than a wall to hold back the northern warriors, who would be allowed through to trade their sturdy horses or garrons and the hairy red and black cattle from the mountain pastures. Sometimes there would be jewels such as the yellow Cairngorm stones and freshwater pearls from the River Tay, much valued by Roman matrons.

We altar stones watched while the Wall was built and then abandoned after the northern warriors had broken through, led by Grimus as the Romans called him, or Graham in the native tongue – at least that was the story told by wise old men round later camp fires who renamed the Wall as Graham’s Dyke. They also told of a battle which four Roman legions had fought in the far north and which they had won but strangely had retreated back south behind the great Hadrian’s Wall leaving the Antonine Wall unguarded after a mere fourteen years, and the altars abandoned.

The starling having wakened me, I think back through many similar awakenings as men and birds had laid offerings on my sensitive surface, consecrated by the Roman soldiers’ priest when I was first carved and set up for my sacred purpose. I stand now in the gentle spring sun, recalling events I have watched on this site, and later I shall watch the stars above in the black night before drifting back into my dormant state until the next offering is made. Like the stars above and the land beneath, I have all the time in the world to wait while the stars wheel round, and humans and their affairs dance in time to their brief presence here. Meantime I revisit my memories and continue to watch.

Barney Kinsler
Barney Kinsler

Barney Kinsler is Chairman of the Friends of Cumbernauld Community Park and has been instrumental in planning the development of this 85 hectare area of open space. He is also a folk singer and, at the age of 71, an active Karate participant.