Sunday, 12 January 2014

Nith Stone

Here's a thing. I'm standing in a muddy field one late afternoon. I've been diverted from my walk along the main road from Penpont to Thornhill, (a walk necessitated by the unnecessary closure of the historic Volunteer Arms in Penpont, though I may have mentioned this before) by a monument that no-one seems to care about but is quite remarkable. I'm nearly always diverted by it, trying to catch it when the sun is sliding across it for good photos or to best make out the carvings, because there are carvings, amazing zoomorphic shapes of winged beasts. It's remarkable for a lot of reasons but one of them is that nobody seems to care about it. No protective glass panels for it like the Kirkmadrine stones, or interpretation boards to tell us what we're looking at or what we should be thinking. The locals tend to think it’s a monument to people who lost their lives in an accident here, on the ferry that used to run before the Nith Bridge was built.

The truth is also remarkable because it dates from the 10th century and is the Ruthwell Cross’ poor neglected scabby cousin, a Northumbrian cross shaft, its bestiary of carved symbols and bible stories being slowly eroded by wind and rain, its warm stone turning smooth as a plum.

What it's doing here I don't know, but this appears to be its natural location. Its neglect is a history crime, but I also can't help thinking how romantic and lonely and enigmatic it is standing here with its necklace of rusty fence, and a backdrop of fields and gentle slopes and torn pink and grey sky furling round the dark fortress of Tynron Doon. It seems a suitable sentinel for that strange quasi island between the Nith and the Scaur that I call home.

Leave the world between bridges:
the narrow one across the Nith
with its sentry box and the old
crossing at Scaur squatting on its Roman haunch.
There’s a shaded cup of fields between the bridges,
moss and trees darkened on every side by hills.
The royal holm is here where Bruce camped on his way
to heaven via Whithorn, and Penpont, still scratched
on maps after seven hundred years. Penpont,
an island, and The Nith Stone, totem of this pagan space.
Rain has swept the dogma from its sides
and smooth as a grape it stares from a bright clasp
of weeds, sizing up visitors and their burdens,
daring them to stay for a night here
in the blaze between the bridges,
below our thin, bright slice of moon.

It's also a kind of totem pole for the forgotten landscape. Children, let us do a creative writing workshop standing here, ankle deep in glaur. Place your hands upon this cold stone and trace the carvings. Take your earphones out, Daytona, there is a place for Pixie Lott but this is not it. Take a deep breath, extend your arms against this chill January sky, imagine, imagine, imagine.......

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