Wednesday, 21 September 2011

On the way to March Stone 55 ABD. The Five Roads and Ashgrove

Regular readers will know that we’ve been tracing the line of Aberdeen’s ancient boundaries. Skip the first few paragraphs if you’re already familiar with the background...


Confirmed in his Great Charter of 1319 (an ancient document which founded the real-estate and political power regime which prevails over the polity in Aberdeen to this day), in 1315 Robert the Bruce endowed the Burgesses of Aberdeen with a huge estate of land - known as “The Freedom Lands”. The medieval burgesses were a powerful group of men: police and army and lawmaking body and local authority all rolled into one, With a royal mandate behind them, their monopoly on force enabled them to enforce a monopoly on trade. They were the burgh. How our concept of freedom has changed.

The extent of this "gift" of land from Bruce (which required an annual rent to be paid to the crown - heh, some gift!) can be seen around Aberdeen today. Often mistaken for milestones, the engraved numbered stelae which lie hidden in plain view around Aberdeen mark the boundary between the gifted estate and the hinterland beyond - Kincardine to the south, Mar to the west and Buchan to the North. Bruce had occupied Aberdeen in 1307 and 1308 while he laid waste to a large part of that hinterland.

The Harrying of Buchan was a devastating event for this area, characterised by its (surprisingly modern) ruthlessly systematic nature. This was a policy, managed and executed with businesslike efficiency; entire towns like Ellon were completely eradicated, livestock and crops were burned in the fields, infrastructure was dismantled and dissipated. Some historians say that so complete was the destruction that the innate and potential wealth of Buchan was damaged for centuries after. A terrible and exceptional act of vengeful spite, unparalleled in these islands before or since. 
Small wonder the Aberdonians cowered and offered Bruce whatever he wanted. The fearful and pusillanimous capitulation of Aberdeen's burghers (who had been loyal to the English crown until the pogrom in the hinterland) no doubt, in time, pricked Bruces' conscience and lead to his eventual largesse. According to the Aberdeen City and Shire website, the ordinary people of Aberdeen also "furnished" Bruce with "large supplies" of cash, food and other goods. Under what levels of terror and sword-edge compulsion was this "furnishing" obliged? In this context, the "gift" of the Freedom Lands more than a decade later might be seen as a form of belated conscience-stricken compensation from Bruce to Aberdeen's craven burghers.


Quarry-spoil heritage
on Rosehill Drive
These numbered stelae boundary markers which show the edges of the Freedom Lands are known as March Stones ("march" being the Old Scots word for "boundary”. Between March Stones 52 and 54 we traversed a psychogeography replete with history and prehistory; redolent of stories known and unknown; stories in the process of being forgotten: strongmen and poets, industrialists and the ordinary-folk workers who made them their fortunes. This time, on our way to March Stone 55 we descend from the prominence of Rosehill, down first Rosehill Drive, then down the curiously-named Back Hilton Road following the one-time line of the Powis Burn with leafy Ashgrove to our right (south) and formidable (some say) Cattofield to our left (north) on its route from the quarry-ridge granite heights to the sand-flat estuarine lands of the seaside links.

The boundary line, from where we last left it at Rosehill’s March Stone 54 all the way to its end with the “Omega Stone” close to the mouth of the River Don, largely marks the route of this ancient watercourse, its tributaries and distributaries. Sloping down along Rosehill Drive and Back Hilton Road, it was long-since tamed into rod-straight ditches. And then, more recently - just outwith living memory - it was subsumed beneath flagstone, then concrete and tarmac. Once an important, prominent and known boundary between the jurisdiction of one burgh and the next, between one thing and something else, where the rights and obligations of one gave way to the rights and obligations of another; in this area, the boundary has long also been a thoroughfare. It’s almost as if the power of those rights and obligations was apt to be discharged latitudinally via the path-of-least resistance desire-lines represented by the boundaries and marked by boundary features; a surface effect - an edge phenomenon; like lightning striking water. This psychogeographical power of edges is remarkable in its longevity - for instance, the medieval western boundary of the Burgh of Aberdeen - the western edge of Bruce’s Freedom Lands; the estates marked by all these “March Stones” - remains the boundary of the modern entity City of Aberdeen to this day. And (if and when it is ever built) the proposed Aberdeen bypass motorway will, between its crossing of the River Dee to its circumnavigation of Kingswells, follow the arbitrary line of this ancient edge.

Telecoms network infrastructure at
the Five Roads
Walking the two long straight segments of the line down from March Stone 54 to March Stone 55 takes us on a dog-leg angled procession first down Rosehill Drive with its mid-20th century bungalow-boulevard suburb townscape; pleasant and mannered sitting in the sun on its south-facing slope, this suburb was suburban not for long before being encircled and obsolesced by the major social housing scheme developments beyond. Then we come upon the “Five Roads” roundabout knuckle, a confusing interchange. Confusing - firstly because the junction accommodates motor traffic flow from six roads, not five. Secondly, because approaching the nexus on foot presents the pedestrian with a Gordian Knot of you-can’t-get-there-from-here choices, as he or she may well be able to see the desired destination but is thwarted by seemingly arbitrary labyrinthine barriers and is inconveniently and frustratingly directed here and there against the desire-line flow: Make the right choice in the first instance or be diverted farther ever farther from where you want to walk to.  A handful of shops somehow survives at one of the junction’s apexes, despite the surrounding car-dominated environment which is unpleasant; polluted, noisy, smelly and fraught.


He’s trying to organise the bags, trying to get the shopping sorted out and into the rucksack that he brought. But the dog’s playing up, barking and growling at strangers, pacing about and getting her chain tangled in her legs and just getting in the effing way. And the kid’s wailing, wanting that bloody toy.  He tries and he tries to organise the bags of shopping into some sort of order and he just doesn’t have enough hands. He can’t control the dog cos the traffic’s too loud to make himself heard - to shout down her barks - and he can’t comfort the kid cos he’s shouting at the dog. And every time he shouts at the dog the kid gets more upset and the more upset the kid is the more agitated the dog and the more agitated the dog the louder he has to shout and the pavement’s just so narrow here there’s just not the room and the noise ohmygod the noise and he just doesn’t have enough hands.

God! The bloody noise! He sooooo doesn’t like it when the staffie starts playing up - things get a bit, em, unpredictable. Gotta get the dog out of here. Gotta get across the road, and then follow the barriers and another pelican crossing across another road. Ats it, now he’s getting somewhere: he’s got the kid on his hip - the toddler’s sticky face - tears and toffee - smirching his tracktop. Nevermind - it’ll go in the machine at the missus’s and, while he waits in his vest, it’ll dripdry quickly - it’ll have to. He’s got the plastic carriers and the dog’s chain and the kid’s toy (a nasty cheap plastic trike on a long handle for pushalong - oh my god how the kid had insisted - grat and peenged and grat until he got his way) he’s got the long bright plastic handle of the toy in his other, his right hand, dragging it behind him like the carcass of some rigoured animal. So, no hand free to push the button for the pedestrian crossing. Fuck. A gap in the traffic, sightlines are poor - risk it? No don’t be daft. Someone else, a middle-aged couple, at the crossing now, one of them pressed the Push Button for Crossing Signal Opposite thank god, he gives a smile and a nod of thanks. "WAIT", says the lit up box. WAIT... WAIT... Beepabeepbeepabeepbeepabeep. Swiftly across in front of the couple. And follow the pavement behind the barriers down a bit more. Good, quieter here - the pavement a bit wider here, good. A yank a damned good hard yank on the staffie’s chain and that - to know that there’s a big boss at the other end of the lead - calms her down a bit. Calms her down a good bit. She immediately flollops herself down, almost comically, ungainly, like a very powerful and muscular sack of tatties, on the pavement and starts licking at her bits. Nice. But it’s OK, though - she’s not going to cause any trouble while she’s at that. Now for the shopping. Squatting on haunches, eye-level talking quietly and soothingly to the kid, one carrier bag goes inside another, both into the rucksack. OK, the words to the kid have worked, and the kid rubs his eyes and sniffs up the snotters, swallowing and, literally looking up - chin out resolute, the upset is forgotten. Now to get the kid and his toy together...



Diametrically opposite the terminus of Rosehill Drive at the Five Roads roundabout is Ashgrove Court, which we are told was Aberdeen’s first residential tower block or “’scraper”, as local usage would have it. The elision of “skyscraper” to “’scraper” is a telling piece of nominative determinism - nominative pre-determinism, in fact. The very word “’scraper”: something which “scrapes”, with its connotations of harsh friction, erosion, damage, injury, striation, denudation. Or is it the other meaning - the way that, if you were to live there, you might “just scrape by”; manage to live only with difficulty; scrimping and scraping; scraping a meagre living? In either case, our local word for residential tower blocks has determined that none should regard them as desirable places to live. Give a dog a bad name...

Un-underpass. Nonederpass. 
Ashgrove Court is, despite the nominative determinism, looking good on its age (which we guess to be perhaps approaching fifty years) standing proud and commanding a view south east to the town centre over first the former farm which was Ashgrove, where mental-asylum inmates toiled their captive days away, herded to the farm for their labours through a now bricked-up underpass beneath Ashgrove Road. Beyond Ashgrove Road, the view from the ’scraper encompasses the grounds of that lunatic asylum to which that underpass connected at Cornhill and then the vista widens to Rosemount and the town centre beyond and below. Those former fields of Ashgrove farm - though today forming a housing estate with mid-century council-house tenements, vacant shop units and the (almost obligatory) recently-closed and boarded-up disused primary school - retain the old farm’s boundary wall which somehow seems to lend the estate an identity of its own, curiously separate from the rest of Aberdeen.

Ashgrove Farmhouse
Occupied until quite recently.

That boundary wall forms the south side of Back Hilton Road which we walk down from the Five Roads roundabout. If you know where it is and what you’re looking for, and if you have sharp eyes, its possible to gaze down the entire length of Back Hilton Road from the roundabout and discern March Stone 55 ABD at the end. It’s just a tiny pixel-speck at that half kilometer distance, but it is visible.

March Stone 55 ABD

And as we approach the stone we hear a scrapey rumbling behind us, across the road - and a gurgling laugh, then a dog-bark - and another. More laughter as the rumbling gets louder. Turning round, we see again the track-suited buzz-cut young man accompanied by his status dog and toddler son. He’s got the toddler - feet splayed out sitting down - on a sort-of plastic tricycle which has a four-foot pole extending from the rear axle ending in a handle which would come to about the young man’s waist height. With his left hand holding the dog’s chain, his right hand is pushing down on the trike-pole so that the trike is wheelie-ing along - its front wheel up 20 centimeters from the ground. And he jogs gently, loping controlled and steady down the concrete pavement slope of Back Hilton Road pushing the plastic trike with his son on board in front of him. The toddler on the trike - being pushed far far faster (but safe, level and steady) than ever such a toy plastic tricycle was supposed to go - has his head thrown back laughing uncontrolled loudly in sheer delight and ecstasy. The pure glee on the pre-school boy's face is as bright as sunshine - looking up and back over his shoulder he can look into his dad's eyes, leaning over and laughing right back with him. WahayYayhay-aha-ahahahaha! And the Staffordshire Bull Terrier on her chain, in the young dad's left hand, appears anthropomorphically on her furry face to have a similar laughing grin, the same as her master's and his son's. Muscularly she trots, matching the man’s loping strides with her own elbow-out sideways-ish lollop, her front legs seeming to manage to travel far far faster than those at the back. Barkbarkbark. For joy. Man, boy, dog - an ancient family unit subset on an outing, getting in a bit of fun while getting in the shopping. Getting a thrill along with the necessary provisions - laying down a bonding substrate of happy time memory. A memory template which is held in common by men and boys and dogs since first men and boys and dogs went out together and came back with food; game for the table, serious play for the hunting unit. And now this family has a memory-bond which ties them not only together in shared experience today but which will also last them all their days together or apart - solid, pure, innocent - a tie which binds. Archaic and primordial, contemporary and eternal. Universal and personal. A timeless moment, that morning on Back Hilton Road, close to March Stone 55 ABD.


1 comment:

uair01 said...

Somehow "march stones" feel like something that should be connected to early spring. How should such an object look? And a "september stone", would that be different?