Images of Hallow Hill, by Chris Arthur

Images of Hallow Hill

By Chris Arthur

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For me, Hallow Hill has two images so closely bound to it that it requires a special effort to see past them to the reality of the place itself. The first one is, in part, straightforward. It pictures gleeful children sliding down the hill’s gentle slopes on brightly colored plastic sledges. Bulky in their hats and gloves and insulated jackets, they clumsily run back up—the towed sledges pulled by cords knocking at their heels and sometimes making them stumble. But in my mind’s eye I see them sledging not just on the shallow covering of snow with which Hallow Hill is periodically clad in winter, but on a surreal mix of snow and human bones. The white of skeletons jutting their hard angularity from the ground sounds a discordant note amidst the softness of the gently falling snowflakes. Many of the skeletons are children’s, creating a shocking contrast as the sledging children weave their way around snow-rimed skulls and ribs and vertebrae that are no bigger than their own.

There’s no mystery about the children. They’re drawn from life. I’ve often seen them on Hallow Hill in winter; it’s the best spot locally for sledging and so draws them like a magnet anytime it snows. But I’ve never seen skeletons here. To understand where they come from and why, for me, they characterize Hallow Hill just as much as sledging children, requires a brief excursion into history.

Hallow Hill
Looking up Hallow Hill. When snow lies, this slope is a favorite place for local children to go sledging.
Photo by Chris Arthur.

Before making that excursion, though, I want to sketch out the second image that’s spliced and bound to my view of this place, doing much to determine how I see it. And before I do that, I want to make sure that the obvious provenance of the sledging children, the bright primary colors suggested by their play, isn’t allowed to diminish the skeletons. Since the skeletons aren’t really there, since I’ve never seen them in the way I’ve seen the children, it would be easy to let the bones fade, become shadowy and indistinct, something merely imagined, eclipsed by the raw, urgent presence of the children in their cheerful winter clothes. It’s important to recognize that my image of the children isn’t some super-realistic depiction beside which the bones are rendered secondary and subsidiary. In the crucible of memory and imagination, where skeletons and children have been forged together into a single image, each has equal value. It’s not as if my picture of the children is like a finished portrait in which no detail has been omitted, whilst the bones appear only in spectral fashion as a shadowy and incomplete impression. When I stop to examine it, the way I see the sledging children approximates more closely to a mosaic which has many pieces missing. It’s a patchwork of pieces drawn from memories that were laid down on different occasions. For all the apparent simplicity suggested by describing it as “children sledging in the snow,” the image is something vaguer than a set of photographs held picture-perfect in the mind. None of the children’s faces in my image is clear. I don’t know how many of them there are or their names or ages, or whether there are more boys or girls. Details of their bright apparel are indistinct. If I try to focus on them they dissolve into uncertainties. In the same way, the soundtrack of shouts and cries and laughter is no faithful transcription of real utterance, contouring precisely the rise and fall of actual children’s voices. Rather it’s a pastiche based on remembered noises and augmented by the imagination. “Image” can suggest something framed, precise, clear-cut. Closer examination suggests a far less definite—but no less powerful—thing. Since they exercise so strong an influence on my understanding of Hallow Hill, it’s important to try to keep in mind what these images actually are, rather than allowing unexamined assumptions about their nature to take root. For all that their provenance is different, the sledging children and the skeletons have become inseparably conjoined. They’ve coalesced into one of the lenses in the compound eye through which my view of this place is mediated.


The second image is one I’ve transposed from elsewhere. Unlike the sledging children—and the skeletons—it’s drawn from something that has no immediate connection with Hallow Hill and would never be found there. Yet, despite its alien imported nature, it’s become instrumental in how my view of this place is calibrated and framed.

Picture a yellowed grass stem growing in sandy ground near the sea. It’s golden, dried out, holding the ripe grains of a seed-head bleached almost white by the sun. About midway between the seed-head and the ground, the narrow stem has a tiny swelling invisibly stitched to it—a pouch that’s as long as the first joint of my little finger but only half as wide. It looks as if it was made out of waxed parchment; it’s papery but tough, thickened yet translucent. It’s almost as if the grass stem’s single vein had grown varicose and bulged out to make this tiny pocket. It’s affixed so beautifully it’s hard to see a join; it almost seems like a natural part of the stem. Delicately engineered so that it’s well within the grass’s carrying capacity, it doesn’t bend or break the stem. The pouch is empty, deflated. Closer examination reveals that it’s been torn open. It has the air of a broken eggshell abandoned in a bird’s nest, its contents gone. Although it’s empty, the absence encircled by its structure suggests a recent presence.

When I was growing up in Ireland, my family visited Murlough Sand Dunes every summer. It’s a stretch of undulating sandy ground laced with marram grass and wildflowers that runs down to the sea between Dundrum and Newcastle on the northeast coast of County Down. These little parchment pouches clung to many of the grass stems there. They are empty pupa cases; the remnant of the chrysalises of six-spot burnets, which we often saw flying in the unmistakable livery of iridescent red and black that characterizes this striking daytime-flying moth.

Just as my image of the sledging children is an incomplete mosaic put together from many sources, rather than a facsimile drawn with point-by-point exactitude from specific scenes, so with the pupa cases. To describe them as an “image” is misleadingly simplistic, it suggests something straightforwardly pictorial; it gives them a singularity and clarity that doesn’t correspond to the way my mind draws them out of memory and attaches them, emblem like, to the new setting of Hallow Hill. My “image” of them is as much a thing of textures, tempos, moods as it is a set of visual markers. Implicit in it is the whispering rattle of blown sand grains peppering the empty pupa cases, the parchment feel of them between the fingers, the smell of seaweed, the seemingly boundless duration of a childhood summer, the taste of salt on skin after swimming in the sea. The burnet pupae on the grass stems are held in a complex cocktail of sensations rather than being a purely visual and easily delineated thing. They’re linked to—part of—a whole network of memories. But integral to this second image—that may be as much an idea, or a symbol, or the braided interplay of memory and imagination—is a sense of absent presence; of something gone, something vacated.


These, then, are the two images that, for me, have become so closely bound to Hallow Hill that whenever I think about the place or visit it, they are there, somewhere in mind, governing my outlook. Children sledging on snow laced with skeletons, and emptied six-spot burnet chrysalises may seem a curious choice of framing for what is quite an ordinary scene: a grassy rise of land with a scattering of trees that runs down to a stream crossed by a little metal footbridge. There’s a narrow graveled path along one side of the hill. The place is frequented by walkers, often with dogs, and sometimes by runners. It offers a little oasis for birds and, every summer, wildflowers. But just to list these bare components of the place, what’s immediately apparent about it—however much they may appear to constitute its reality—would be to offer so diluted a version of how it strikes me that it would incline more to deception than to documentary. To convey something of the flavor of my sense of Hallow Hill it’s necessary to foreground it with these two images which do so much to mold my understanding of this place.

The two images described, the power of their impact noted, let me explain the provenance of the skeletons. This will also make clear why empty burnet pupa cases became as tightly attached to my view of Hallow Hill as they were to their golden grass stems in those vanished childhood summers at Murlough Sand Dunes.

Hallow Hill is in present-day St. Andrews, Scotland’s ancient ecclesiastical capital but more famous now as the home of golf. There are no skeletons on the hill today—unless the archaeologists missed some. But go back far enough in time and the ground was thickly seeded with them. There are thought to have been around 500 burials here, most dating from the seventh century. The graves were stone-lined and lidded with sandstone slabs brought from the coast a mile or two away, a style of grave known as a “long-cist” that was characteristic of the Picts, a people who inhabited Scotland at this time. They were direct descendants of the country’s indigenous Iron Age population. In a rough timeline of human occupancy of Scotland—stretching from the Mesolithic (c. 8000 BC) to the present day—the Pictish period (sometimes dubbed “Early Historic”) emerges around 500 AD and gradually fades into the Medieval period about four centuries later.

Uncertainty and conjecture surrounds the issue of who exactly the Picts were and what sort of a culture they created. Even the name by which we know them is not the name by which they knew themselves. If they had such a name it’s lost to us. “Pict” is thought to derive from the Latin, “Pictii,” or painted. This is a likely reference to what the Roman invaders of Britain viewed as an outlandish practice of the aboriginals—namely painting or tattooing themselves. The Irish name for them is “Cruithni,” meaning “people of the designs”—though whether this referred to body art or the striking patterns they carved on stones is uncertain.

No Pictish writing survives. Our only written sources are in documents about them, written by those who viewed them as enemies or barbarians, which is hardly the best stance from which to derive accurate knowledge. The most striking material remnant of their culture, graves apart, takes the form of large stones carved with intriguing swirling symbols whose meaning no one has yet convincingly deciphered. It’s thought that the Picts spoke a form of Celtic language, perhaps similar to that found in Cornwall, Wales, and Brittany. It’s clear they didn’t speak Gaelic. When Columba (c. 521-597), the famous Irish missionary saint, took the Christian message into the territory of the Picts, he needed interpreters to translate his message into the local tongue. Their territory covered an impressive area of what is now Scotland, bounded in the south by the Forth and stretching north as far as Shetland and west to Skye. Yet despite the geographical extent of Pictland, and the ancientness of this people, the Picts disappeared. Their culture was absorbed into—swamped by—the emergent kingdom of the Scots.

The traces of the Picts that remain today seem fugitive, spectral, often mysterious. About twenty miles from St. Andrews, just outside the village of East Wemyss, there are caves that have been in human use for thousands of years. They contain carvings from Mesolithic right up to modern times, but by far the most striking and numerous of these carvings are Pictish in origin, dating from around 300-850 AD. There are abstract symbols, human figures, and beautifully realized animal studies. The people who drew them would certainly have known Hallow Hill—perhaps some of the artists were buried there. Several of the caves have been left open and are entirely unprotected, despite their archaeological significance. The cave walls are scrawled with contemporary graffiti. Empty bottles and beer cans litter the ground. In one cave there are the remains of a recent campfire. It seems somehow appropriate—if also lamentable—that a people who vanished from history, their identity melded into the surrounding milieu, their beliefs engulfed by Christianity, should have their remnant symbols at East Wemyss left vulnerable to the casual overlays of modernity.

Cists at Hallow Hill
Cists with interpretive sign at Hallow Hill.
Photo by Chris Arthur.

Hallow Hill was an important Pictish cemetery. A small excavation was carried out there in 1861 by Charles Howie—who, two years previously, had discovered a Bronze Age cremation site at a nearby location (most of the 20 cinerary urns he discovered there are now in St. Andrews Museum). Attracted by what was then named “Halyhill”—having previously been known as Alhallowhill, Hallahill, and Hallhallowhill—Howie thought this would be a good site to search for ancient graves. He uncovered five long-cists in the first instance. Three of the skulls recovered from them were presented to the St. Andrews Literary and Philosophical Society, but have since been lost. Howie proceeded to unearth 15 more long-cists. One of them contained Roman objects beside the remains of a child. Like the skulls, these objects too are now lost, although descriptions of them survive.

For the next century, Hallow Hill (as its name became and stayed after Howie’s excavations) was in use as farmland. But at the beginning of the 1970s, in response to St. Andrews’ growing population, a development was proposed for residential housing on the hill. Public objection was so great that the area earmarked for development was significantly reduced in size and some of Hallow Hill became the public park that it remains today. But the rest—including part of the summit—was turned over to new housing. In the course of the building work an unknown number of cists were destroyed. Finally, alerted by the owner of one of the new houses to the presence of human bones in his garden, it was decided to organize a large-scale archaeological excavation of what remained of the site. This ran from 1975 to 1977 under the direction of Edwina Proudfoot. She and her team found 150 surviving cists, from an estimated total of 500.

The long-cists on Hallow Hill lay undisturbed for more than a thousand years. It’s the knowledge of that long tenancy that makes me think of children sledging on snow that’s underlain by bones, as it must actually have been for generations of the children who have sledged here. Seven cists have been left open to view. Six are adult-sized—though their occupants must have been of modest stature—the other one is obviously scaled to hold an infant. The sandstone slabs that would have sealed them have been removed and the contents are gone. Like the bones from all the excavated cists, they’ve been taken into museum storage. All that’s left are seven shallow stone-walled indentations in a dip of ground at the top of the hill. Beside them there’s an information board headed “Hallow Hill Pictish Cemetery.” It gives some details about the site and its excavation, together with an artist’s impression of what the area might have looked like 14 centuries ago.

Hallow Hill interpretive sign.
Closer view of the Hallow Hill interpretive sign. Click image to view larger format.
Photo by Chris Arthur.

Any place is ancient simply by virtue of being part of Planet Earth. Scrape away whatever meets the eye, the immediacies of the familiar scene, any contemporary structures we’ve built upon it, get down to the bedrock and a scale of time that dwarfs our usual measures soon becomes apparent. There are aeons woven into the plainest stones beneath our feet—a point made beautifully by Jan Zalasiewicz in his remarkable book, The Planet in a Pebble. Taking a pebble from a beach, Zalasiewicz shows that, once we learn to decipher its cargo, the pebble—as his title suggests—contains no less than the story of the planet. His book is a master-class in how extraordinary the ordinary things around us are.

If they had sensation, the stones on Hallow Hill would have felt the reverberation of the tread that long extinct life-forms once laid upon the ground above them. The stones that are threaded through the earth of this Pictish cemetery are mute witnesses not just to how a vanished people disposed of their dead 14 centuries ago but to the millions of years that preceded human beings. And they will remain here long after all of us have gone. It’s easy to imagine a place only within the ambit of our use for it, so that Hallow Hill appears simply as a quiet place to walk or run or exercise a dog, a patch of common green surrounded by private housing that allows access to a riverside path and a shortcut into town. But this place, like every place, has a history that’s on a scale which makes all our comings and goings seem miniature, recent, and short-lived. It’s hard to get a proper grasp of its ancientness. Even thinking back to when it was being seeded with long cists only encompasses a tiny fraction of its age. Hallow Hill long predated them; human agency represents only the tiniest fraction of what has happened here.


The seven visible cists, and the information board about the Pictish cemetery that they’re part of, will clearly have a profound impact on the way in which people see this place, myself included. If these cists had been covered over again post-excavation—like the scores of others which surround them and now lie unseen, buried again beneath the earth and grass—and if no information board had been erected, it’s unlikely I’d have seen Hallow Hill as anything more than the modest rise of land that meets the eye. The sledging children in their bright apparel that I associate so strongly with this place would have been playing on ordinary, bone-free snow. The image of the empty moth pupae would never have occurred to me. It was drawn from memory and battened onto Hallow Hill only because of the empty cists. However different these stone chambers might seem to the papery husks of the burnet chrysalises, it was the vacated nature of both that called up this linkage and made it seem an apt, even necessary association. Shorn of any knowledge of its past, Hallow Hill would have struck a quite different resonance. I’d have seen it, understood it, according to a different set of images—and these might have had almost no resemblance to the ones that I’m describing here. I’m reminded of something John Berger says about how strongly words can impact on how we see things. On one page of his book, Ways of Seeing, Van Gogh’s painting, “Wheatfield with Crows” is reproduced with only the painting’s title and the artist’s name and dates written beside it (and of course name and date will themselves already exert an influence). On the next page, the same painting is shown—but this time with the caption: “This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself.” Berger comments:

It is hard to define exactly how the words have changed the image but undoubtedly they have.

Likewise with the information board at Hallow Hill. I don’t think I could describe how I saw the place before and after reading it, or list the differences between those two seeings one by one. But looking at the board brought a significant change to my reading of the hill. It’s as if its words lent their weight against the raw visual lineaments and bent them into different shapes, tuned them to a different key.

"Wheatfield with Crows" by Vincent Van Gogh
“Wheatfield with Crows” by Vincent Van Gogh, July 1890.
Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

I began this exploration of the meaning of a place by saying that two images have become so closely bound to Hallow Hill that it requires a special effort for me to see past them to the reality of the place itself. But already in that statement there’s a nub of complications. How do images become bound to a place? How do they affect our perception of it? What are “images,” in any case, and is it possible to see past them? I’ve become suspicious of the concept of “the reality of the place itself” and increasingly doubt whether it’s possible to reach it. Thinking in terms of seeing past images to a reality beyond them seems to downgrade the former to something illusory and privilege the latter with some kind of singular correctness. It’s easy to slip into assuming that images are unreal, secondary, merely imagined—that they’re removed from “the place itself” and act only to obscure the truth of the matter from us.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m unsure about the way in which a place lays its nature upon us, or what that nature is, or whether we’re equipped to grasp more than a fraction of it. And if we each do that grasping in our own particular way, Hallow Hill—like anywhere—will strike different individuals very differently, we will all interpose our own particular images and memories and associations, coloring the lenses of perception. How then could we ever presume to know who has grasped “the reality of the place itself?” Perhaps the complete inventory of different people’s views of it over time would better approach an apprehension of what’s there than any single point of view, however much that point of view may lay claim to being rooted in plain facts, unadorned by individual imaginings. Is it possible that our favored model of accuracy—taking it to be a kind of uncompromising solitaire, adamantine in the precision with which each facet of its certainty is cut—may be misleading and that something cloudier, softer, more malleable and plural better contours the way things are? Perhaps we each contribute to “the reality of a place” rather than it being a single unchanging stratum to be discovered underlying all our individual perceptions.

Maybe answers to some of these interlocking questions—or at least the beginning of answers—will suggest themselves along the way. But rather than trying to resolve them directly, I want simply to acknowledge their existence and concentrate on what’s personal and particular—the way Hallow Hill appears to me and how I’ve come to understand its nature over a period of years. I make no pretense to reveal “the reality of the place itself.” My concern is simply to lay down on the page the way this place strikes me. The emphasis on the single thread of one person’s perception will, I hope, cast more light on the fabric of the place than a depersonalized description would do. Such a description might claim universal validity because it privileges abstraction over specificity and tries to purge the individual from its outlook. The objectivity such an approach supposedly offers may be alluring, but it seems ill-suited to showing with any subtlety the actual textures that are woven when place and person interact.


Sometimes when I walk there now, it seems as if the hill is hollow. I picture it as a giant chrysalis, honeycombed with individual cells, each one emptied of its occupant. Only the parchment casing is left to ring drum-like under my tread, my steps sounding out a haunting tattoo of emptiness. This sense of absence, imagining that the hill is no more than a kind of husk, that its grassy slope is just a thin integument stretched over empty chambers, clearly doesn’t tally with the actual nature of the place. The ground here is as solid as it is elsewhere. From a commonsense perspective, my imaginings of hollowness are fanciful. Whatever credibility they can claim is rooted not in the solid substance of the ground as it lies reliably supportive underfoot, but in what’s suggested by the empty cists left open on display and the knowledge that all of the graves in this ancient necropolis have been systematically emptied.

As well as drawing a measure of metaphorical validity from the emptied cists, the sense of hollowness that attends this place is also strengthened by something more wide-ranging—the knowledge that Hallow Hill represents not just the vanishing of a few hundred skeletons, but of an entire people. The Picts who filled this place with their dead 1400 years ago disappear from the historical record in the ninth century—precisely when Hallow Hill fell into disuse and was abandoned. The Picts’ disappearance didn’t come about with the dramatic abruptness of extermination or extinction. It was more a case of their gradual assimilation into the races and cultures that were flourishing around them. Nonetheless, for all that they blend into the emergent milieu rather than being violently excised from it, their disappearance adds piquancy to the sense of emptiness and loss that Hallow Hill engenders (a sense that summoned, and is fed by, my memory of the empty burnet chrysalises). The abandonment of this cemetery is symbolic of cessation on a far larger scale than the discontinuance of burials at one local site; it’s emblematic of the way in which the Picts were washed away by stronger currents in Scottish history. However much its immediate impact is simply one of unremarkable presence—a grassy open space, a gentle gradient running down to a stream, the feel of firm ground underfoot, the sound of running water, birdsong, leaves moving in the breeze—Hallow Hill for me is underlain by an almost tangible sense of absence. For all that their occupancy of this part of Scotland extended over centuries, the Picts were a passing feature of the landscape, not a permanent part of it. Their transience is a reminder of our own.

East Wemyss cave entrance
Entrance to one of the caves at East Wemyss.
Photo by Chris Arthur.

Looking around its present-day environs, I try to get a sense of the slow shift of centuries that has happened on Hallow Hill between the Pictish burials and now; between their time and mine. Over that small fraction of its history, what has been hosted on the stage this place provides? The pages of time’s score that represent the centuries between the bodies being laid in the long cists and their excavation by archaeologists may seem to bear upon them only sparse notation, a few long, repetitive notes that issue in a kind of monotone, the low-pitched drone of mere continuance—more like a background hum than any tune that we can sing along with. But this would be to assume that the music of being plays no notes other than the melodies and discords of our presence. If we attune our imaginative ear more keenly, learn to listen beyond the trills and variations of our human noise, there are notes of orchestral complication sounding here. For vast spans of its history the harmonics of this place were set at pitches and timed to rhythms that we normally don’t register. Think of the deep liquid breathing sounded by the seepage of water, ton by ton, as it slowly sluiced through the earth. Within this gigantic inhalation and exhalation there’s the harsher note of erosion, as particles held in the liquid embrace of droplets gently abrade whatever they flow past. Threaded through with sediment, it’s as if the water bears within it invisible teeth that chew and grind the land, sculpting it into shape. Rain’s metronome sets the beat. The annual carpeting with autumn’s leaves feeds a gradual leeching of minerals into the earth. Snow adds its cold constriction, magnifying the pressure that’s placed on these few acres with the weight of ten million snowflakes compacting on the earth. There’s a millimetric shift and settling within the earth as seeds grow, roots stretch, bodies decompose, insects burrow. Listen, and you can also hear the soulful chant of repeated nightfall as the dark embraces Hallow Hill at the end of every day. Alongside the sound of wind in trees there’s the stealthy note of air passing through the muffling barbules of owls’ feathers as they fly deadly through the dusk. The soft impact of a pounce as an owl falls upon a mouse sends a tiny shiver vibrating through a patch of earth, below which snowdrop bulbs are wakening to life. The talons’ puncture adds its cadence to scores of moments through the centuries as generations of owls and mice collide in their ballet of predation and prey. Over 14 centuries what weight of owl feathers, owl excrement, mouse bones would have accumulated on Hallow Hill? A leaf falls, a feather floats gently to the ground, a twig drops from a bird’s nest, dandelion seeds soundlessly pepper the grass—such little impacts have been a regular soft staccato keeping time to rhythms that long predate our advent. Has blood shed here—by owl or kestrel, fox or stoat—trickled redly to the ground and penetrated far enough to stain for a moment the white bones of the Picts laid out in their long cists? As the clustered corpses are dismantled by the processes of decay, as bacteria and insects orchestrate the changes we rely on, they add their own themes to the music playing here. Listen, and you can hear the tremor of a fox’s stealthy tread, its nighttime hunting resulting in bones and fur and blood that add minutely to the substance of the hill. Listen, and you can also just make out the voices of the roots of grass and flowers and trees edging incrementally through the earth, their woody veins and capillaries suckling from there the substances they need. The weather conducts its movements year by year. Night follows day. Time passes, weaving its skein of events around Hallow Hill.


The seven cists left open to view each trace out narrow rectangular shapes, contoured to fit the dimensions of the bodies they once held. They range from infant to adult size. The excavation found a far higher proportion of children and infants among the dead than would be the case in a modern cemetery; a reminder of how much shorter an average lifespan was and how much more precarious life used to be. These seven cists lie in an untidy cluster in a shallow dip of land at the top of Hallow Hill, close to the garden of one of the houses whose building caused such archaeological havoc. The presence of the cists is explained by the information board that’s been erected beside them. But, for me, these emptied sepulchers act not like real-life illustrations obedient to what’s written on the board. Instead, they’re like opaque mirrors that reflect back their own mute emptiness, announcing the fact that what they held is gone. Their nullity of reflection exerts a kind of magnetism, pulling me into a blankness that sparks an insistent curiosity about what they once contained. Notwithstanding the actual shape and arrangement of the seven open cists you can see today, I often see the little dip of land they occupy as emblazoning the hill’s summit with a flotilla of question marks. What were the names of the individuals who were laid here long ago? What ideas flickered through their consciousnesses? What were their hopes and dreams, their favorite foods? What paths did their lives follow? Had they visited the caves in East Wemyss, looked at the carvings there that we can still admire today? What were their last thoughts before they died? Did they believe that death was the end or had the missionary efforts of St. Columba instilled a hope of life to come? Who shed tears for them? Did the hands that buried them do so with anguish, or disgust, or fear, or simple workaday practicality? How did Hallow Hill appear to them and their friends and families; what images did the place spark in Pictish minds?

Many of these questions would find answers readily enough if we could travel back in time and just observe, if we could talk to the Picts in their own language, understand their words. But alongside the quotidian questions about the fine detail of their vanished lives, the seven open long-cists are loaded with a different category of question, a type whose posing makes me think that the opaque mirrors that they hold up to existence are like black holes. They swallow every possibility of answer. Like any grave, however recent or ancient, these ones can interrogate anyone who walks past them, make them wonder about how and when they’ll meet their own quietus, what they believe about consciousness, if there’s anything beyond our mortal end, whether our lives and deaths can claim any meaning beyond whatever can be gleaned from the repertoire of daily experience that’s acted out in the span of days we occupy.

If you do a Google image search for “Hallow Hill St. Andrews,” one of the pictures that comes up features some girls in brightly colored jackets lying in the open cists. It’s as if they’re trying on a kind of Cinderella’s shoe or play acting at a future state they know they’ll occupy but that is, for the moment, far enough away to hold no terror. They look like tourists, perhaps visiting for the first time. I wonder how Hallow Hill appeared to them, what images they brought to it, what images they took away, how the place struck them compared to how it strikes me. And what would the Picts have thought of these young bodies light-heartedly japing death in the cists in which they once laid real corpses?


When they reported on their excavations of the long-cists, the archaeologists numbered them and described what each one contained. So I know that cist 26—since covered over—held the skeleton of a female, aged between 35 and 39. Her bones were marked with evidence of leprosy, though whether this disease caused or only hastened her death is uncertain. Standing at the open cists, I sometimes wonder about this afflicted individual whose bones used to lie just a little distance away. All the building blocks of flesh and blood and breath that made her have long been tumbled from the intricate arrangements that built her unique personality; all the intimate combinations of organic parts and processes that interlocked to make her the person that she was have been separated, dissolved, destroyed. So is she—as appearances so strongly suggest—lost forever, utterly gone beyond any hope of retrieval? Or is it possible that some spark or soul or splinter—some essence of her—somewhere survives and carries with it, coded into some mysterious interstice of being that we’ve not yet discovered how to decipher, the precise gleam of intelligence that once twinkled in her eyes, the exact set of her shoulders expressing the pain and humiliation of the disease that disfigured her? As with all of us, the weather of her experience will have eroded the landscape of her person into a highly particular set of plains, gullies, gradients, and other features. Does anything of that topography survive, safely jettisoned into some unknown realm, or has it all vanished as completely as her breathing? Is there any trace left anywhere in the universe that would correspond to the “I” she thought of as herself? Is she still in existence somewhere, somehow? And, if so, is she purged of the suffering she carried with her, or was it sutured to her so tightly, so much a part of who she was, that any preservation of some essential remnant must preserve it also? Or, far from any such incredible survival, has the individual in cist 26 been annihilated, rendered into the anonymous building blocks of matter, lost utterly and forever?


The archaeologists’ numbering of the long-cists on Hallow Hill makes me think about numbering on a far wider scale. If every grave there’s ever been was given a number, is it credible to suppose that of the billions there would be, every individual could have the fleeting uniqueness of who they were protected and preserved? According to Worldometers—a website that plots world population—when I was born I was the 76,136,299,830th representative of Homo sapiens to appear on Earth. Is it possible that the thoughts that arced through all the brains of those who came before me, that will arc through all those who have and will come after me, all the feelings that have coursed through this enormous multitude of bodies, the catalogues of memories that all of us have garnered, could each single one be kept, distinct and individual and safe, forever?

Sometimes when I stand on Hallow Hill, I think of it as a microcosm of the world—the globe of Earth, like this small acre, seeded with the dead and walked on by the living; a catafalque spinning honeycombed in space, bearing countless bones within it, and all of us who live upon its surface—like my image of the sledging children—stepping our way over ground that’s thickly threaded with the skeletons of those who came before us. And in the anonymity of gigantic numbers—the fact that our planet is 4,600 million years old, an infinitesimal part of a universe that came into being over 13 billion years ago and that contains hundreds of billions of galaxies, the fact that each one of us consists of innumerable cells, innumerable atoms, that there are seven billion of us now—it seems inconceivable that nothing will be lost; that all of humanity’s teeming plethora of complex selves will somehow trump time and death and history and survive, intact, complete, whatever we hold most precious preserved.

The woman in cist 26 has gone; there is no way that I could ever meet her, smile and talk, reach out my hand to touch her, ask her name. She and her people have disappeared from history, as I will, as we all will. I wish the image of the burnet pupae suggested resurrection, eternal life, but I fear it points only to the lifecycle that we’re part of. The seven empty cists on Hallow Hill don’t indicate any escape or miraculous transformation. They are, rather, potently suggestive of our humanness—the fragile continuance of life, and our sadness when it ends. The individuals who bear that life across the generations, through the centuries, for whatever purpose, perish; none of us is made for permanence.


Sometimes now I go to the exact spot on Hallow Hill where I know that under the grass and earth beneath my feet cist 54 is buried. There’s nothing to show where it is. I rely on the archaeological maps to find my way to its location. This was an unusual two-tiered grave that the archaeologists thought might be particularly important, perhaps marking the first interment; a kind of centre point or pivot around which the graveyard grew. Nothing remained in the upper tier, but in the lower one the bones of a child were discovered, together with a collection of artifacts. These are described in the published records as being “found close together, lying across the pelvis and left thigh of the child in a manner suggestive of a purse or drawstring bag or pouch.” Standing there, I try to imagine the scene that was played out so long ago in human terms, so recently when measured against the chronology of stone. Of course it’s impossible to retrieve the actual texture of the moment, to unearth the exact detail of what happened. There is much we can never know, much that is mere supposition. Who was the child? What caused so early a death? Did he or she have siblings who flourished, who may even have left a trace in a long line of descendants stretching from their time into mine. What’s certain is that a child of five or six years old was buried here at this precise spot where I’m standing, its body laid to rest in a stone-lined grave not far beneath the grass whose stems, 1,400 years later, are temporarily flattened by my weight. To express their love and loss, someone—most likely parents—collected an assemblage of little objects to bury with their child. These were surely invisibly imbued with personal meaning and meant to stand proxy for a hand held tightly, a hug, a farewell kiss upon the brow. The objects lay undisturbed for centuries. There are some childish treasures, no doubt favorite things—pebbles, a piece of quartz crystal, some cow’s teeth—and items of adult value—a ring, a brooch and a seal box.

Echoing the finds made at the child’s grave excavated by Charles Howie in 1861, the three items in cist 54 were of Roman manufacture and date from the first to third centuries AD. This means they were already 400 or 500 years old by the time they were buried on Hallow Hill. How they came into the Picts’ possession is unknown. Perhaps a Roman galley once called in for provisioning at St. Andrews or another nearby port and the seal box and other items were traded. Perhaps they were plunder from piracy. The Roman occupation of Britain lasted for close to 400 years—from AD 43 to 410. But for the most part the northernmost frontier was marked by Hadrian’s Wall and Roman incursions into Scotland were few and of relatively short duration. We don’t know how Romans and Picts interacted in the periods when both had a presence in Scotland. Maybe the artifacts originated from the large military camp at Carpow in nearby Perthshire. Maybe they were part of a bride price or dowry. They could have been stolen, given, sold, or part of a ransom. Whatever their provenance, to use as grave goods what must surely have been valuable heirlooms suggests both wealth and the depth of sorrow that this child’s death occasioned.

Seal box
The seal box discovered in a child’s cist at Hallow Hill.
Photo by Chris Arthur.

Because it is so well preserved and so intrinsically appealing, and because it lay buried on a child’s lap for 14 centuries, I find the seal box a particularly potent object—so much so that it’s become a kind of triangulation point for Hallow Hill, pulling it into focus and gently nudging my thoughts and feelings into their particular alignments. The seal box almost acts like a compass, though one that doesn’t point unerringly to the True North of what happened. Instead it swivels uncertainly between that and my reading of the evidence; it provides a hinge, opening a tiny portal into the history I imagine happening in this place.

A description of its appearance doesn’t remotely catch this object’s gravity. The seal box is like a chasm, a sinkhole in time, a crevasse in the ordinary passage of the days, disrupting their routine chronology with another sense of duration. I miss my footing at its brink, stumble, and am drawn into other times, other places; into other lives and fates.

How it meets the eye is pleasing, but the voltage that the seal box carries is invisible. Made of bronze and the appealingly named millefiori—meaning “thousand flowers”—a technique of using colored glass, this beautifully worked artifact would once have held a seal, used to imprint the owner’s mark on wax. Only 30 millimeters in diameter and eight millimeters in depth, this little round container fits easily in the palm. When it was retrieved from the child’s grave on Hallow Hill it was empty, a fact revealed by x-ray since the box is too fragile to risk forcing open, the iron pin securing the hinged lid fused with rust. Made by a Roman craftsman, most likely in Italy, I sometimes think how astounded he and all the owners of what he crafted would have been had they glimpsed the seal box’s story. Its journey through space is astonishing enough—ending up on the very periphery of Roman influence, on or beyond the outermost edge of what its makers and owners would have regarded as civilization. But its journey through time is even more incredible. Buried on a Scottish hillside several centuries after it was made, lying there for over a thousand years, as life unfolded in all its intricate complexity above it, then found, cleaned, and studied before being catalogued and hoarded within a museum’s cache of treasures, where the bright colors of the millefiori—blue, yellow, red, white—can still delight the eye in the 21st century. They are as vivid today as when they were seen through the tear-stained eyes of those who mourned the child and put this token in its grave.

For me, the voltage the seal box carries, the electricity that flows through it, the charge of significance it holds, only becomes properly apparent when I think of it not in terms of sight but of touch. I like to picture the moment when, after lying cold in the earth for centuries, the seal box was once more warmed by a human hand. It’s an item which, after its manufacture, would have been kept about the person, taking on the body-heat of whoever owned it. Thinking of its last blood temperature moment, when it was placed by a living hand into the pouch tied around the dead child’s waist, and its being warmed again by the archaeologist who found it, the seal box takes on the guise of a stitch closing the wound of time, bringing together—despite the gulf of years that separate them—the person who last held it in the seventh century and the person who first held it again the 20th. It seems like a kind of suture stitched across a gash of centuries so that time’s flow is momentarily staunched, frozen, and we can tentatively walk across the ice of healing that it offers. In one sense I know that this is fanciful. I’m not sure of the identity of the person who dug it up, let alone that of the person who buried it. They are both strangers to me. But it is an indubitable fact, diamond hard in the durability of its certainty, that there was a last person to hold it, to warm it in their hand in the seventh century, and a first person to do so in the 20th. Though it bears upon it nothing perceptible that gives testimony to either of these—or any other—holdings, I’m as sure of both as I’m sure that this little object is a solid not a liquid. So when it lies cupped in my own palm and my blood slowly warms it again, I feel a fleeting sense of fugitive connection, even though I know the narrative nerve that links everyone who’s ever touched it can’t be reconstructed or resuscitated beyond conjecture and that any imagined impulse coursing through it is no more than that: imagined.


In order to hold the seal box, I had to make special arrangements. It’s kept in a secure, low-humidity store and is not on public display. But museum staff were happy enough, when I explained my interest, to withdraw it temporarily from this protective environment and let me examine it. In the clinical surroundings of a museum workroom, the curator and I handled it as delicately as if it was a rare bird’s egg. It’s small enough to be one, though the shape is wrong. Circular rather than oval and instead of the round fullness traced out by an eggshell’s curve, the base of the seal box is flat. It sits on the bench without rolling. The top likewise lacks any swelling out into an egg’s ripe curve. But it is rich in a sense of what can hatch from it and the decorative glass with which it’s inlaid makes it as appealing as the colored patterns on any bird’s egg. I asked some questions and examined the seal box closely, admiring the millefiori work and the skill with which the glass has been set into the metal. It’s amazingly well preserved for something that lay buried in the earth for so long. But alongside this rational examination—and out of place, I know, in a museum context—I also felt a kind of shamanic current emanating from this little archaeological find.

Was it superstition, or sentiment, or a desire to close some intangible circuit, or to symbolically return an egg to the nest it had been raided from that led me back to Hallow Hill straight after my museum visit? I made my way to where cist 54 is situated and placed my hand on the grass above it, as if in benediction. Three feet below my reach was the rock-lined earth cradle that had held the child’s body. The seal box and the other tokens and treasures that were put in the drawstring purse that was tied around the little waist lay here for 14 centuries. Now the bones are gone, bagged and boxed and labeled in a museum store, along with all the other skeletons from Hallow Hill. The drawstring purse is long decayed and its trove of objects taken, catalogued and cached. My hand has nothing in it. But even if somehow it held the seal box, I know I could not restore it. The nest is empty. The birds have flown. Time has moved on.


It’s unlikely I’d ever have discovered Hallow Hill if it hadn’t been for the fact that when I moved to St. Andrews in 2010 the house I bought there just happened to be near it—in fact on the road whose route an ancient cobbled road made by the Picts once followed to the coast. It’s strange to think that 14 centuries ago carts laden with sandstone slabs to roof the long-cists would have passed close by what’s now my garden, the people with them speaking a language I wouldn’t understand, looking out upon a world I’d only recognize in part. They would have had viewpoints that, if I could share them, I suspect I’d find an unnerving mix of alien and familiar. The fact that Hallow Hill was there, right on my doorstep, wasn’t something I realized to begin with; I discovered it by chance. But now I know it’s there and what it represents, it’s become a place I walk to often. If the distance were not so slight, I’d be tempted to say that I make regular pilgrimages to it. For there’s something about the place, or how I see it, that suggests my visits are prompted by more than a desire for fresh air and exercise. If I simply want to walk, St. Andrews is full of more appealing routes and destinations than the muddy paths that take me to this modest little hillock.

My ordinary vision, what meets the eye any day I go there, only registers a quotidian scene of dog walkers, children, birds, grass, and trees. But I see Hallow Hill quite differently from anything suggested by them. Or do I mean I think of it, or imagine it, quite differently? It’s hard to know the best locution to describe the operation of that inner gaze which the mind’s eye lays upon the purely ocular and which does so much to determine how a place lays its presence upon the psyche. Whatever name is given, it acts like a secret catalyst on plain seeing, resulting in outlooks that could never be predicted merely by describing the catalogue of shapes, colors, textures, and movements that fall immediately upon the eye. Every present-day dog walker and runner, like every Pict laid to rest here, will have their own store of images, associations, information, memories, and experience out of which the unique torque and cut and tincture of their outlook will be fashioned. But however carefully I might attempt to make word-cists to hold them, I know that none of these individual intimacies of outlook can be preserved for long.

Six-spot burnet moths
Six-spot burnet moths.
Photo by AnemoneProjectors, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

History is as easily sloughed off the things that bear witness to its passing as the scales rub off a butterfly’s wings. Even those objects that are dramatically entangled with what happened tend to reach us purged of any trace of the specifics of their involvement. So, for example, if we hold a World War I bayonet in our hands we are helpless to establish beyond the uncertainty of reasonable conjecture the precise part it played in that terrible conflict. Unless something comes to us already documented, we cannot directly sense the story it is part of. But I sometimes wonder if what happens really does evaporate from things as quickly and completely as it seems to. Perhaps things have inscribed upon their deep structure, at an atomic level, invisibly tattooed into the protons and electrons and nuclei that constitute their fundamental core, an indelible record of the trajectories they have followed through time and space, and their involvement, if any, with our human stories. Maybe we have yet to learn how to access and read these automatic logbooks that keep meticulous account of all that passes and that when we do the Braille of the world’s substance will sing and speak and howl as we brush our questing fingers over it, everything made fluent to their touch.

Sometimes I dream of being given another sense, one that is as sensitive to the stories that are invisibly carved into things as the eyes are sensitive to light, so that I could tell from the touch of anything upon my flesh the history it had followed prior to that moment of revelatory contact. Such a sense could seek out the script that’s written in the interstices of the seal box’s deep structure, like strands of DNA carrying the genes of its existence, or a manifest recording all the occurrences that have happened, what time’s passing has brushed against it. It could touch the bones from cist 26 and cist 54 and render them into flutes that would play out the music of that nameless woman and child. But such an extravagant ability to sense the nature of things would place so great a burden of information on the psyche that it might fracture and perish beneath the weight. Fascinating though it would be to hold the seal box in my hand and listen to its voice, hear a complete account of the odyssey it has taken, the nerves of narrative that this would awaken would soon ignite into an unmanageable conflagration. The story of the box itself, from manufacture to burial and retrieval, would be complex enough, with every hand that ever touched it offering a route to follow into other lives and places, each replete with their own dense nexus of connections. But the raw materials with which it’s made—the copper and tin and iron and glass—would all have within them a cacophony of information.

This imagined sixth sense would be a two-edged thing indeed. Its blade might cut through the dumbness of things and afford us wonderful insights—but how would we staunch the flow of what would be unleashed from its incisions? And if, like our other senses, this one was at its most intense when making love, would we really welcome the depth of knowledge given and received? Would it heighten or hamper ecstasy to see a beloved’s history laid out in all its naked abundance, stretching back through successive generations to the moment life began (and to have our own timelines read by our partners in return)? Or what if our fingers happened to brush against a fossil that had been formed 400 million years ago? The terabytes of data that would flood out from it would surely carry a voltage as likely to annihilate as to delight or enlighten. Perhaps it’s just as well that we can see into the history of things only as far as the limits of our information and imagination. Were history directly readable by touch it would soon overwhelm the present.


Sometimes I think of the leprosy-afflicted woman whose body was placed in cist 26. Did she know the child buried in cist 54? Were they members of the same family, or neighbors, or were they strangers despite the small-scale communities in which the Picts lived? Of course, though they’re laid to rest only a stone’s throw apart, they may have lived at different times. Not all the skeletons have been dated, but it’s clear that Hallow Hill was in use for several generations. The patterns of kin and friendship that may link those buried here is one of many things it’s hard to reconstruct—at least with our current techniques for peering into the past and reading its secrets. Perhaps in another 1,400 years the bones stored in the museum vaults will be subjected to new techniques of inquiry that will yield such information.

I wonder how similar the outlook of the woman in cist 26 would have been to mine. Apart from obvious differences dictated by language, gender, point in history, might some things have seemed more or less the same, despite the gulfs between us? Pollen analysis shows, for example, that many of the plant species that meet contemporary eyes around Hallow Hill would have met her eyes too 1,400 years ago. Cold and clouds and leaves and rain and sunshine warm upon the skin surely form a kind of common vocabulary of experience that both of us would have learned, however differently we might name its constituents. I may not know her word for the tree we now call “alder,” or how she would have expressed her pleasure at a fine spring day, but the elements behind such things would, I think, be more likely to act as a link and bond and common ground between us than as a barrier. How we feel cold and love and pain, the pleasure of good food and company, the way fear can ambush us in the dark—such things would surely fall upon us without significant differences.

But that obvious insoluble puzzle of the everyday remains—how does another person see the world? It’s given an added savor of impossibility when so much time separates two individuals. A seventh century Pictish mindset would have been founded on such a different knowledge-base to ours that it’s possible everything that percolated through it would be so radically different that we’d find it hard to recognize any of the familiar handholds by which we take cognizance of our situation. Think of how cist 26 will have understood the leprosy that afflicted her—what she’ll have taken for cause and cure; think of her grasp of the size and shape of planet Earth; think of how little knowledge she’ll have had to hand about the origin and development of life. She will not have known Africa or Asia or Australia, let alone the solar system. She was innocent of electricity, TV, computers, atom bombs, genocide, and global warming. Who knows what ideas will have been fomented by the Christian teaching newly laid upon traditional beliefs? Coded into her network of perception will have been the Pictish words for “stream” and “hill,” for “snow” and “moth,” for “love” and “loss”—a whole catechism of categories in which the world was cupped and held, each carrying its own cargoes of association. Whatever web of perception netted her view of things, pulled in her harvest of impressions, it could as easily have been profoundly different from mine as similar, however much its threads ran over common territory. And of course she’d have known Hallow Hill as a burial ground, with all the sorrow that entails, not as a recreational space that happens also to possess an interesting archaeological dimension. The place would have appeared through a radically different set of associations.


If I kneel down and reach out my hand I can touch the stones on the open cists at the summit of Hallow Hill, the stones placed there by Pictish hands 14 centuries before I came to walk here. My fingers rest on the cold surface, momentarily warming it, as it would have been flesh-warmed by whoever made these stone chrysalises. But despite our proximity in space, the fact that I can occupy exactly the same coordinates as the ones those ancient grave-makers must have occupied, the distance in time between us mocks any sense of closeness, however much I might feel and desire it. Yet despite the icy centuries freezing out their isolating expanse between us, despite the fact that we leave so little trace of our lives, it sometimes feels as if there are some fugitive traces in this place of those who were associated with it for so long. It’s thought some local places still retain the ghost of Pictish culture in their names—those starting with “Pit,” for example, are said to retain an element of this vanished people’s vanished language. So Pitscottie, Pittenweem, Pitsligo, Pitlochry stand testament to territory the Picts once occupied (it’s tentatively suggested that “pit” may have meant a share or piece of land). Perhaps when the wind blows from a certain direction and at a certain speed, and hits Hallow Hill at a particular angle, the noises that it kindles contain ghosts of the words that were spoken here long ago; husks of sound that once carried meaning.

Given the extinction of which this place is so strongly suggestive, it’s no wonder that it should act as a memento mori. In writing about it here I’m following what is, I suppose, a natural response to the imminence and certainty of death and dissolution—a weaving of words to place upon the sharp blade of finitude in the hope of scabbarding it with some sense of sense; blunting the edge of nothingness with hints of meaning that it might not cut. But do the lifelines that language seems to offer really name anything beyond the intricately coiled knots of our own desires and utterances?

The more I reflect about the nature of Hallow Hill and how I perceive it, the more weight I’m inclined to give to a whole array of idiosyncratic coordinates by means of which we mark on our individual navigation charts the contour lines of feelings, interconnections, objects, and events that we associate with a place. I know my view of Hallow Hill has changed quite markedly from the first time I visited it. Initially, it was just part of a walk, one of the town’s green spaces. I hadn’t known about the Picts. I’d not noticed the cists left open at the summit or the information board beside them. Once I did, the whole ambience of the place shifted—making me wonder to what extent a place changes when our image of it changes. And I wonder, too, about whether this cemetery should have been excavated, whether it’s right to remove the human remains that lay here; whether the child’s bones in cist 54 should have been separated from the treasures laid beside them. Has time interposed enough years of buffering to overrule considerations that would make us stay our hand and shy away from visiting such despoliation on more recent burials? Has the sorrow evaporated so completely from the seal box that it’s acceptable just to treat it as a find—and inter it in the bland bureaucratic burial of a museum’s holdings, something to be signed in and out and examined with curiosity?

Cists at Hallow Hill
Primroses have been planted around some of the cists at Hallow Hill.
Photo by Chris Arthur.

I began this meditation on Hallow Hill with the two things that have come to frame it for me, so that this place has become inextricably entangled with images of children sledging on bone-threaded snow and the empty cases of burnet moth chrysalises. I’ve also tried to explain how the seal box has come to act as a kind of triangulation point or compass, a point of reference I keep touching. I don’t want to end with a conclusion. Conclusions sit smugly after the ritual of considering arguments for and against has been performed; their presence suggesting something cut and dried and final, something arrived at via processes that are linear, logical, well structured. Instead, I want to give the last word to two gestures that I find almost consoling. They bring a sense of humaneness, humanity—perhaps even hope—into a setting that often seems brutal in the absence that it brokers, bleak in its fealty to the unbending processes of time that govern it; the iron fist of mortality within every velvet glove with which we try to soften it.

The first gesture was made by the Picts themselves. In choosing a sandstone slab to be part of the roofing capstone of one of the long-cists (the archaeologists numbered it 69), it looks as if the stone was deliberately selected because it bore on it the imprint of a fossilized plant. Of course it would have been the immediate decorative potential lent to the slab by this eons-old tracery of leaf and stem, rather than any knowledge of what it was that led to its being chosen. For all the ignorance about fossils that would have accompanied its selection and use, I find it oddly reassuring to think of a human body laid to rest in a stone capsule that’s embossed with a naturally occurring emblem of this kind. It bears witness to an ancientness that makes the distance between me and the Picts seem negligible, and that speaks of the processes of life and death happening repeatedly, predictably, unwaveringly over so many millions of millennia that it instills them with a weight and momentum of inevitability that offers solace in the face of the tragedy of individual extinction.

The second gesture is one made by people today. Someone has planted primroses in some of the opened cists. Their blooms appear each spring and last for months. And, every now and then, posies of wildflowers, or—more rarely—bought cut flowers are left. Sometimes the cut flowers coincide with the scattering of human ashes. I warm to such flower-planting, flower-leaving, and the use of Hallow Hill as a place to lay the remnants of our modern dead. I know how vulnerable such things are to any assessment of their logic. Who is being remembered, if remembrance this is? Is it a gesture of sorrow, solidarity, or mere sentimentality? Why mark this patch of earth rather than some other with the gift of flowers? And why choose these ancient graves as the sepulcher for the contemporary remains from cremation? What do the people who do this hope to achieve or express by their action? No one can claim any real connection with the cluster of bodies once entombed here—which, in any case, are gone; transformed from the husks of individuals into archaeological specimens held in the clinical environs of a museum storeroom. No one knows the names of the Picts who were buried on Hallow Hill. No one knows what they dreamt of, what they hoped for. There is nothing of these people left. Yet to honor the unknown dead like this, to lay the ashes of our own dead among the empty stone pupae on Hallow Hill is to make a gesture that’s rich in respect and remembrance—even reverence—and that seems gravid with a sense of significance beyond the ordinary, even if the symbolism it draws on is hard to fathom, harder to justify. In the wordless eloquence of choosing a decorative rock as coffin lid and in planting or leaving flowers on the graves of ancient strangers, and scattering our own ashes here, is there perhaps a vein of meaning we might tap; a sense of connection with something that glimmers, pale as a primrose, with possibilities beyond the obvious?

The empty chrysalises of six-spot burnets are a potent memory from my childhood visits to Murlough Sand Dunes. I also remember what we took to be their equally eye-catching caterpillars, brightly striped in black and yellow. Sometimes there were scores of these fat tiger grubs feeding on the yellow-bloomed ragwort plants. But the caterpillars we took to be those of the burnets weren’t that at all. The black and yellow caterpillars belong to a completely different species—the cinnabar moth. We sometimes saw adult cinnabars flying, though rarely compared to the burnets. Cinnabar pupae are a dull red-brown. They’re swathed in a silk cocoon that’s placed just under the surface of the ground, or concealed amidst leafy detritus. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. The hidden nature of cinnabar chrysalises, discreet—secretive—compared to the obvious pouches that the burnets leave open to view on scores of grass stems, combined with the fact that the burnet caterpillars are hard to spot (they feed on low-growing bird’s-foot trefoil and are well camouflaged), perhaps excuses the muddle. It was years before I realized our mistake in pairing as two stages of one species the raucously striped cinnabar caterpillars shouting their existence from tall ragwort plants and the similarly loudly painted burnet moths. We simply failed to notice the utterly non-garish burnet caterpillars feeding unobtrusively at our feet, or the hidden chrysalises that cinnabars pupate into. Thinking about the vanished Picts, I wonder if, in a similar manner, I’ve linked the staring-me-in-the-face evidence of their absence and annihilation to obvious verdicts about human finitude, whilst missing subtler seams of evidence that might be suggestive of quite different meanings.


Author’s Note

I’m grateful to Edwina Proudfoot for giving up so much of her time to talk about the 1975-77 excavations on Hallow Hill. Thanks also to Jane Freel and staff at Fife Cultural Trust for allowing me to examine artifacts recovered from cist 54. The most detailed account of the archaeology of Hallow Hill is Edwina Proudfoot,, “Excavations at the long cist cemetery on the Hallow Hill, St Andrews, Fife, 1975-7,” Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 126 (1996), 387-454.


Chris ArthurChris Arthur is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow and author of five essay collections. He’s based in St Andrews, Scotland. For details of his writing see

Header photo of Hallow Hill by Chris Arthur. Photo of Chris Arthur by Lucy Arthur.

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