Prehistoric Rock Art

– in the Scottish Parliament on 19 February 2020.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-20055, in the name of Gil Paterson, on the Cochno stone and the social value of Scotland’s prehistoric rock art. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament congratulates Dr Kenny Brophy of the University of Glasgow Archaeology Department on the extensive work on prehistoric rock art throughout a wide expanse of West Dunbartonshire; notes that this includes numerous excavations in the Faifley area of Clydebank, including, in particular, the Cochno Stone; understands that this is one of Europe’s most important examples of rock carvings, and that this was entirely uncovered and intricately documented, including a full digital scan and recording; notes that this important work by Dr Brophy and his university team was assisted over many months by volunteers from far and wide, including local people and school pupils, and considers that this project is a model for collaboration between experts, well-practised helpers and a very supportive, well-informed community that wants to bring to the wider world the iconic art that is there to be exposed, enjoyed and celebrated by all.

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party

I welcome many folk to the gallery. I thank

Dr Kenny Brophy, Alison Douglas and their colleagues from the University of Glasgow; Pierre De Fence and Sandra Love from Knowes Housing Association; Jonathan McColl, leader of West Dunbartonshire Council; Auchnacraig nursery school; St Joseph’s primary school; and Edinbarnet primary school. They are all in the gallery to listen to the debate. Everyone I have mentioned—and will mention—has been involved in the Cochno stone project. I am sorry that the pupils from Clydebank high school archaeology club have been unable to attend, but they have also been heavily involved in the programme.

What is the Cochno stone and why do I know about it? Every year, I produce a calendar, on which I explain and highlight something unusual or special in my constituency. That something is not me. In the spring of 2016, a West Dunbartonshire Council official showed me a huge stone with a cup and ring mark, which is an ancient carving that goes back to the stone age. I thought that it would be a great idea for my next calendar, so I went back in the late summer of that year to take a photograph. However, I was unable to find a trace of the big slab, because, by that time, the undergrowth had reached to 3 feet above my head.

Undeterred, I went home and googled the location with a search that contained “Celtic rings”—I now know that they are not Celtic rings but cup and ring marks. To my astonishment, the details of the Cochno stone came up. I knew about cup and ring marks, because I have witnessed them throughout Scotland, but I had never heard of the Cochno stone. Subsequently, I found out that the local people were well aware of its existence. The Cochno stone is not just any stone with cup and ring marks; it is one of the finest examples of its kind anywhere in Europe, which, in that case, probably means the world. It is 100m2 and cup and ring marks of a wide variety of sizes and formations are carved over its entirety. Are the markings ritual, religious or astronomical? Do they describe a place or are they good, old-fashioned graffiti? That is for someone else to say, but I do not think that they are graffiti.

I have always been extremely interested in things that humans have left or placed under the ground, particularly anything that could be described as art. I am afraid that I am an art buff. I also have a deep interest in antiquities. For the past 20 years or so, my interest has been drawn to China, where some of the world’s most fabulous buried sites exist. They stretch back to prehistory. I even ventured on my own into an disused mine where the stone was quarried that made the world-famous Chinese fine porcelain, near Jingdezhen—the town where Ming and Qing priceless porcelain treasures were made and painted and are made to this day. Jingdezhen is off the tourist map, except for anoraks such as me with a passion for oriental art.

What does that have to do with the Cochno stone? I can hear Kenny Brophy in the gallery thinking that, even from here. Let me explain. Typically, the Chinese will take a site that has been buried, expose it, then cover it up with a building. They will probably have people like Dr Brophy and his team headquartered in the building, and they will also excavate the surrounding area. At the same time, they will set out everything in such a way that the general public and local community can view and experience what is available in their own backyard. Local people will always be engaged in the excavation and they will deal with the commercial opportunity that always comes with such places to benefit the local economy.

Some sites that I have seen are truly gigantic and phenomenal in scope. The biggest site that I have experienced is in Xian, where the terracotta warriors are housed. It is hard to describe the sheer size of the place to people who have not witnessed it. The parliamentary chamber would fit into in 50 times and more. It is enormous.

The Chinese also do the same thing with sites that are of the same size as or smaller than the Cochno stone. They use the magic mix of archaeology, science, academic study, economic development, learning and pride, all wrapped in the one venture. The Cochno stone is now covered for its own protection, and I believe that it could and should be uncovered and re-covered with a purpose-built functioning space, as is used in the Chinese model.

Members might be thinking that this is Paterson with pie in the sky, but the process has already started. Dr Brophy and his team have already uncovered the Cochno stone, thoroughly examined it, documented it in every way, including digitally, then covered it over again in a much safer way that means that it can be easily uncovered in a much better way than has happened in the past.

To his credit, Dr Brophy has gone on to uncover a whole series of other huge carved outcrop slabs over a wide area. I guess that the whole site is at least 10 square miles, and I would describe it as being plastered with slabs with ancient carvings. In his endeavours, Dr Brophy has persisted with great humility and encouragement, and he has brought the local people well and truly into the operation. He has visited schools, set up school projects and done numerous local presentations at evening meetings—too many to mention.

Dr Brophy has struck up a particularly good working relationship and partnership with Knowes Housing Association, which is the local housing association right in the middle of the site. It is active in developing a site for public use.

The Knowes Housing Association has gone above and beyond supporting and assisting the project. What a joy for me to see a team of professional and semi-professional archaeologists in fair numbers being matched with many schoolchildren, and all of them engaging in archaeology, with the children then voluntarily taking their interest on to high school. I cannot thank Dr Brophy and his team, along with Knowes Housing Association, the staff and volunteers, enough for what they are doing and the way they are doing it.

Presiding Officer, excuse the pun, but we are just scratching the surface. We have something of real significance that needs to be explained, shown to the public and, in the best possible way, exploited for the benefit of all, especially the local people in Faifley. I hope that tonight’s debate will help us to realise the true potential of the Cochno stone and the wider site. The way to do it is the Chinese way. Dig and scrape the dirt away, protect it, take pride in it, show it and then make a living from it with a new facility. Surely that will be the best outcome. [



The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I say to guests in the public gallery that it is lovely that you have clapped, but we do not permit applause from the gallery. No more applause please—only the applause from other members of the Parliament will be permitted.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

First, I thank my colleague Gil Paterson for bringing this fascinating debate to the chamber. The Cochno stone lies about a mile north of my home and I feel pretty ashamed that I have to admit that I was unaware of it until a few years ago. To have one of Europe’s most important examples of rock carving on your doorstep is really something, but all too often, that is what happens—history can be right on our doorstep and we know nothing about it.

As we have heard from Gil Paterson, who has been working to raise awareness of this amazing piece of our heritage for several years, the work that is being done on the Cochno stone is of enormous importance to Scotland’s heritage and equally important on a global archaeological scale.

At this point, I will apologise to any of the experts who I know are in the gallery today—if any of my research facts are wrong, I happily stand to be corrected. Here goes: the bronze age Cochno stone measures 42 feet by 26 feet and was documented in 1887 by the Rev James Harvey. It features around 90 carved indentations and is considered to be one of the finest sets of neolithic or bronze age cup and ring markings in Europe. The cup and ring marks on the stone, which are believed to date back to 3,000 BC, are accompanied by an incised pre-Christian cross set within an oval and two pairs of carved footprints. Each foot has only four toes. The stone was reburied in 1965 to protect it against vandalism.

In 2015, the Cochno stone was partially re-exposed for investigation during a three-day dig by a team involving archaeologists from the University of Glasgow, and a more complete re-exposure followed a year later. Following a larger excavation in 2016, archaeologists have used 3D imaging technology, as Gil Paterson outlined, to make a detailed digital record of the site. More than 100 prehistoric carved symbols—more than had previously been recorded—were identified on the Cochno stone following analysis of laser scans and the photographs that were taken in 2016. There are many theories as to what they might mean, which range from an ancient form of writing, to markings with religious or spiritual significance, boundary markers, star maps, or simply decorative markers.

What we do know is that the stone is evidence that, back in the day, the Clyde was an important artery, possibly connecting sea and islands, perhaps around the coast to Bute and Arran. Huge credit must go to Dr Kenneth Brophy from the University of Glasgow, who led the digs in 2015 and 2016, for his on-going work. He and his team have been the driving force behind documenting and raising awareness of this fantastic wonder of our world. Of course, I need to mention the army of volunteer diggers, two of whom are my constituents from Lenzie, Jean and Tom Tumilty.

Praise must also go to Faifley Rocks!, which is a project researching prehistoric rock art that has done a huge amount of work on the stone using excavation, survey, oral history and archival research. The group does so much to promote our wonderful heritage and it aims to make archaeology fun and accessible to all.

It is great to see the old stereotype of fuddy-duddy archaeologists finally being consigned to the history bin. I honestly believe that, if there were more groups throughout Scotland doing that type of work on a contemporary basis, that would greatly enhance our knowledge of history and it would engage future generations to delve into our amazing past.

In conclusion, I again thank Gil Paterson for bringing this fascinating debate to the chamber and the many people involved in reviving the wondrous Cochno stone.

Photo of Maurice Corry Maurice Corry Conservative

I congratulate Gil Paterson on bringing this excellent and interesting subject to debate. It is wonderful to see so many people in the gallery, particularly young people from our schools, as well as teachers and councillors, in support of the debate. The efforts of Dr Kenny Brophy and many others to make Scotland’s prehistoric rock art more well known are commendable. It is an example of dedication to the preservation of Scotland’s rich history, as well as a commitment to educate others on the significance of our rock art.

The term “rock art” is an overarching one that is defined as meaning prehistoric man-made markings on natural stone. Petroglyphs, or rock carvings, are the most common type of rock art found throughout Scotland. Most of our rock art dates back thousands of years to the bronze and neolithic ages. Experts believe that those stone carvings could have been made to show land ownership, chart stars, mark ritual places and map landscapes. However, many experts also believe that the carvings never had one fixed meaning and that their purposes changed over time, depending on the new generations that discovered them.

Dr Brophy’s focus on Scotland’s prehistoric rock art has brought thousands of examples of it to the attention of not just experts and students of archaeology but the public. One of Dr Brophy’s most recent endeavours—a project to uncover and digitally scan the Cochno stone in West Dunbartonshire, which is in my region—has received particular attention. The Cochno stone is a massive panel of rock that was first documented in 1887. As has been said, the stone features various cup and ring carvings that are considered to be one of the finest sets of petroglyphs in Scotland. After the stone’s initial discovery, it was studied and mapped by various experts and was visited by an intrigued public. Following several instances of vandalism, the decision was made to rebury the stone in order to protect it, which, thankfully, preserved the stone for future study.

In 2016, Dr Brophy uncovered and studied the Cochno stone with the help of a group of dedicated experts and volunteers. Working with the Spanish heritage company Factum Arte, Brophy digitally scanned the stone. He and his team plan to use the scans to create a replica of the Cochno stone that will be placed near the original site, allowing the original stone to be preserved while still giving people access to the rock art.

The collaborative work on the Cochno stone project ignited further efforts to preserve and document Scotland’s prehistoric rock art. One example of those efforts is Scotland’s Rock Art Project, which is a community-based initiative that discovers, maps, scans and creates 3D models of Scotland’s prehistoric rock art. Archaeologists on the team are training volunteers across Scotland to record prehistoric carvings and upload them to the project’s online database. The database allows the project team to analyse the rocks in a more precise manner and to increase public awareness of the carvings. Before the creation of the database, contextual information about the many examples of rock art in Scotland was not available to the public. Through the collaborative work of many individuals, digital scans of Scotland’s rock art along with information on the location and age of the rocks and the types of carvings found there are now available to anyone who wants to see them.

I join colleagues in supporting the on-going collaborations that are producing valuable insights into Scotland’s past and promoting public education of the rock art in Scotland. Those projects are not only beneficial in educating the world about Scotland’s history; they serve as an excellent example of what can be accomplished through collaboration. Here in Scotland, we have a long and vibrant heritage to study and preserve. People from around the world come to experience our culture and history and we, too, should seize any opportunity to experience it. Many institutions in Scotland and elsewhere are contributing to the preservation of Scotland’s history and our future success. I support—as I hope we all do—the institutions that are working so diligently to maintain Scotland’s prehistoric rock art and their efforts to educate the world on its significance.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

I congratulate Gil Paterson on securing this debate and highlighting the work that has been undertaken in his constituency. Members’ business debates provide opportunities to give particular significance to issues that are important to local communities but which often have wider importance for the whole of Scotland. The Cochno stone is a good example of that, so I welcome this discussion of the relevance of its rediscovery.

It is fascinating to read about the history of the Cochno stone, such as its initial discovery, its intentional burial and its re-emergence into the public view and academic knowledge. The story from its creation to the present day is one of place and community. The involvement of volunteers and local schools in its current appreciation demonstrates the potential for our heritage to foster community cohesion and to give people pride in and ownership of the places where they live.

Archaeology is an important discipline and the work of archaeologists should not be marginalised. Although the number of archaeologists who are employed through local authority environmental and historical services has decreased as budget pressures have squeezed those services, the particular skills and expertise of archaeologists must be employed when needed.

It was interesting to read about the collaborative approach that was taken in Clydebank and the leadership that was shown by Dr Kenny Brophy and the University of Glasgow archaeology department in bringing together many partners to undertake the work.

In January, I was pleased to attend the parliamentary reception to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Archaeology Scotland. It was a great opportunity to hear about the value of Scotland’s archaeology and how important it is in developing skills, engaging young people, enabling community involvement and promoting lifelong learning. There were brilliant contributions from young people about how archaeology was a positive experience for them and about the knowledge, confidence and enjoyment that they got from their involvement in projects such as the new attainment through archaeology employability programme.

Maurice Corry mentioned Scotland’s Rock Art Project, which is a great way to make archaeology accessible and to involve communities in important research. It is the first major research project to focus on prehistoric rock art in Scotland. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities·Research Council and hosted by Historic Environment Scotland in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh and Glasgow School of Art. It is a fantastic project that aims to enhance the understanding and knowledge of Scotland’s extensive rock art through engaging with communities and encouraging their direct involvement in research. The project trains community teams to record prehistoric carvings and be a resource for people who find treasures in their communities. The information that is gathered by the public and the community teams increases the knowledge and understanding of the carvings and raises awareness of them locally, nationally and internationally.

The Scotland’s Rock Art Project website is fascinating, with many examples of mysterious carved symbols that were created on rock surfaces approximately 5,000 years ago. Those prehistoric carvings, known as rock art, are important to understanding our ancient culture. Although they are mysterious, they include some common images, symbols and marks that are found in various forms around the world in caves, rock shelters and open spaces. While some are figurative and feature animals or boats, others are more abstract and lead to theories of maps, astrological alignments and rituals.

Scotland’s Rock Art Project looks to answer some of those questions. The data that is collected will enable researchers to analyse the significance of the rock art to the people who made and used it, to examine how the importance of carvings has changed through time, and to focus on how and why people value the carvings today.

In my region of Mid-Scotland and Fife, there are many examples of rock art, and I know how passionate people can be about recognising the importance of their heritage and the need to not lose or neglect those remains of our ancient culture.

In Parliament, we have previously debated the significance of the Wemyss caves. I recognise the sterling work of local people who, through the Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society, have preserved, highlighted and made accessible the Pictish carvings and rock art in the challenging environment of the caves. I also recognise all their efforts that have resulted in the digital mapping of the artwork.

It has been an interesting debate, which I hope will encourage more people to become involved in the Scotland’s Rock Art Project, and to appreciate and value their important surroundings.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I, too, thank Gil Paterson for giving us the opportunity to debate this interesting subject.

We are talking about something that is very old, so it is entirely appropriate that the four oldest members of this Parliament are all present. I note that I am the fourth oldest of those four, but we are all of an age at which antiquity is of particular interest to us. [



The Cochno stone is of uncertain age. Some of my research says that it is 5,000 years since it was produced and other research says that it dates from the third millennium BC and, thus, is perhaps not quite as old.

Gil Paterson is ahead of me, as he has converted to the metric system. He said that the stone is 100m2

, while my notes say that it is 42 feet by 26 feet. I am a mathematician so I had to do the arithmetic, and he is absolutely spot on: 42 feet by 26 feet is 100m2

. I am glad that Gil got that right.

Something as old as the Cochno stone is always fascinating. People of all ages can realistically engage with anything that throws us back to a previous age and which has mystery around it. One of the first things that I wondered was where this name came from. It appears that it is from cauchanach, which is the Gaelic for “place of little cups”. When we look at what is on the stone, that is a credible explanation, although it is not a certain one; we will probably never have that. We know that the stone is named after a Cochnol house that was on the site before we found the stone, but that is not to say that the house was there before the stone. The stone was almost certainly there before the house was built by the Hamiltons, some 100 years ago.

Although the stone was buried, the locals continued to remember it over a long period of time and it was a source of stories and inspiration for stories, like many such ancient artefacts. The fact that it has been dug up, reburied and dug up again provides an interesting comparison with China, on which Gil Paterson, with his passion for all things from the east, threw light when he talked about it.

To come up to date, the University of Glasgow, Factum Arte and the local community are now involved in engaging with and protecting the stone, and in cleaning the area in which it stood and removing the ground around it so that we can actually see it. The fact that Gil Paterson could not find the stone, because of overgrowth on the site, tells us everything that we need to know about the previous neglect of the stone.

It is great that the modern technology in a 50 megapixel camera has been used to create 3D images, but in our modern arrogance, we must remember that the electronic world is quite an ephemeral one; the electronic images might vanish quickly and become inaccessible to us. However, the stone will probably outlive any of the technology that is being used—excellent as it is as a way of reaching out across the world to tell the story of this archaeological endeavour and creating a database that allows people across the world to study the carvings from the Cochno stone and see echoes of them in other areas.

It is interesting. I thought that the word “Cochno” came from cochlea, the Greek word for snail, because I had not properly looked at the stone. I then realised that the carvings were not snails and were much more like cups.

We have had an interesting short debate and it is tremendous to see so many of those who have been involved in the project in the public gallery. Just as I, in primary school, was given a little ammonite—a fossil that was billions of years old—that inspired me, I hope that this project will inspire many in the area where the stone is located. For Dr Kenny Brophy and his team, the schoolchildren who have been involved and the community, this is an important part of their history but it will also be part of their future.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I, too, congratulate Gil Paterson on lodging the motion and securing the debate. I will refrain from referring to mysterious antiquities in responding to the fourth-oldest member of Parliament, Stewart Stevenson, who is—just as well—not listening.

I add my congratulations to Dr Kenny Brophy and his team at the University of Glasgow’s archaeology department for their remarkable work in discovering and sharing Scotland’s archaeological story, and in demonstrating its social value by connecting it to our contemporary lives.

For those who were not previously aware of the Cochno stone in West Dunbartonshire—I was one of them—the debate has brought alive part of Scotland’s history that we should understand and appreciate. It will have been fascinating for members to hear about one of the most extensive neolithic rock art sites in Europe, and its unique history.

The decision in 1965 of the Ancient Monuments Board to rebury the stone to protect it from vandalism might seem to be strange today, as we work to support as many people as possible to access and enjoy our heritage. Not until 2016, when Dr Brophy led his team to uncover the stone to conduct an extensive examination and create a detailed record of the markings was it possible for the stone to be enjoyed and appreciated more widely.

Rather than working in isolation, Dr Brophy’s team recognised the social value of the discovery, so they shared their findings with local schools and the wider community. In doing so, they opened up a dialogue with people in the local community who, in turn, shared their memories of playing on the Cochno stone as children. In that way, the team used the project to collect additional data that has helped to develop our understanding of the location and the nature of rock art in the area.

Community archaeology is happening across Scotland. I will ask Historic Environment Scotland to share with interested members information about some of the interesting projects that are taking place.

The University of Glasgow’s archaeology department describes its approach as“ engaged archaeology”, which involves exploring how, through engagement with communities, archaeology can have relevance and be beneficial to society today.

Despite Dr Brophy’s clear focus on prehistoric monuments, he considers himself to be a contemporary archaeologist, which means that he is interested not in what we can learn about prehistoric society, but in what the traces of prehistory can tell us about the modern world. That is an interesting philosophical approach that we can all learn from. What is striking about his department’s work is the passion for bringing archaeology into people’s everyday lives in order to reach individuals who might not usually engage with heritage.

Dr Brophy’s research in Balfarg in Glenrothes is another excellent example of that. There, he has monitored the relationship between the urban and the prehistoric for two decades, and has documented the various ways that the monuments have been used by local people. He consulted people in the community; he asked how much they know about the monuments, how they could be better used and how green spaces in the town could be improved. Through engaging local people in a discussion about their past, he was able to involve them in thinking about the future shape of their environment.

People have been creating rock art all over the world for many years. Like all good art, no single interpretation or meaning can be assigned to it—indeed, it might have meant different things to different people. As we have heard from Claire Baker, Scotland’s Rock Art Project was established in 2017, and is building on work that Dr Brophy and the team at the University of Glasgow have done in unearthing our prehistoric rock art. That major project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and is hosted by Historic Environment Scotland. It is the first major exploration of prehistoric rock art in Scotland and uses digital recording techniques and community engagement to record, preserve and understand our rock art heritage.

As part of the project, the team has collaborated with Dr Brophy on his current work, Faifley Rocks!, which uses the excavations and 3D imaging of the Cochno stone as a starting point for exploring the benefits and values that rock art can bring to the community, and confirms Faifley’s place as Scotland’s rock art capital. Directly after the debate, members of the Faifley community will gather in Parliament to speak about their experiences of being involved in the project, and about the ways in which their local archaeology has touched their lives. I look forward to joining them, because I expect it to be a powerful demonstration of how art—even art from several millennia ago—can connect people to their place, enhance participation and provide benefits for wellbeing and learning.

Rock art does not just have local significance; it can tell us about the evolution of our international relationships and our global sense of place. We know, for example, that cup marks and cup and ring carvings are also found in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and that the similarity of the motifs suggests that neolithic and bronze age communities were in contact.

International links are an important aspect of the University of Glasgow’s archaeology department’s work. The connections that have been built in the Mediterranean and near east help us to understand Scotland’s past in its European and international contexts, and encourage us to work with others in pursuit of solutions to shared challenges, such as those that are associated with our changing climate and landscapes. Gil Paterson’s reference to China and how challenging circumstances are used as opportunities made the case well.

A good example is work that the department undertook to create a story map in Cyprus to memorialise the heritage of the abandoned forest village of Karterouni, which was sadly lost in forest fires in 2016. The fires resulted in a huge loss to the heritage of the area, but the team collected the intangible cultural heritage—the memories, stories and activities that mattered most to local people—and used the information to map places of local importance, including a 100-year-old olive tree and locally significant religious places.

I have spoken in the chamber before about the importance to Scotland of intangible cultural heritage. Heritage is not only rooted in the physical, but is present in the ideas, beliefs, memories and values of our people. It is in the stories of places or stones that are handed down through generations. Intangible cultural heritage is a very important part of our cultural heritage. It is a living form of heritage that is continuously recreated, and which evolves as communities adapt their practices and traditions in response to their environments. In that way, it is inclusive, representative and community based.

Intangible heritage forms an invisible bond between people over generations and millennia, as well as connecting us in our shared sense of place. It is that connection to place, together with our strong sense of community and our rich shared history, that we are striving to protect, understand and celebrate in all our work on the historic environment. The importance of place is at the heart of our historic environment strategy, “Our Place in Time”, and it has been central to the development of our soon-to-be-published national culture strategy.

Dr Brophy and his colleagues have shown us that understanding our prehistoric art and past can have contemporary relevance by feeding our sense of place and the sense of self that arises from understanding who we are and where we have come from. We are very fortunate to live in a country with such a rich and vibrant heritage. Finding new ways to champion it and to inspire a new generation through involvement and understanding is, to me, an undertaking that is of immense value.

I once again commend Dr Brophy and his team for their insightful work, and I thank Gil Paterson for making sure that we have had the chance to recognise their achievements and the wider social significance of our prehistoric heritage and the Cochno stone.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes the debate, which has been on a very interesting topic.

Meeting closed at 17:46.