The Cursus of Crieff – More of Our Incredible Past !
We have looked at in previous Blogs , the considerable number of known Neolithic or New Stone Age sites around Strathearn and indeed Crieff . The numbers seem to grow by the year and are an increasing part of our heritage . They are relevant not just in a local sense but on the national and indeed international archaeological stage . They date back some 6 000 years and are older than many of the pyramids of Egypt ! Apart from the ancient tomb discovered 150 years ago on the ancient site of the Stayt of Crieff on Broich Road , most recent discoveries include the timber circle at Pittentian and the habitations at Forth Cottage at Fendoch at the entrance to the Sma Glen .
Perhaps however the most incredible was the realisation that we had in our own back yard on the site of the new Strathearn Campus a Neolithic cursus . No , a cursus is not some celestial finger of doom pointing at our fair town and predicting pestilence and disaster ! A cursus can be described in numerous ways . To be honest even now archaeologists are somewhat uncertain as to what its purpose or function was those 6 000 years ago . The following was written by Kenneth Brophy , the Photographic Liaison Officer with the Scottish Royal Commission dealing with historic sites .
Cursus monuments are among the most impressive yet mysterious prehistoric sites in the British Isles. Their sheer size - gigantic even by today's standards - exceptionally early date, and apparently inscrutable function make them a particularly fascinating subject for study and speculation.
These long, narrow earthwork structures date from the Neolithic - many from the early part of the period about 6,000 years ago - and are thus some of the oldest monumental buildings in the world. They have been found across the country from southern England to north-eastern Scotland, and stand beside some of the most famous archaeological sites in Britain and Ireland, such as Stonehenge, Newgrange, and in Argyll's celebrated Kilmartin valley. Cursus monuments are essentially very long and relatively narrow rectangular enclosures, with a near continuous boundary of an interior bank and an exterior ditch. The only breaks in this boundary are the `causeways', or possible entrances. The ends of a cursus are either squared-off or rounded. In Scotland, about half the known sites (which now number over 50) have a boundary of pits or post-holes which held large upright timbers, rather than earthwork perimeters. A few sites have a single mound running along their centre, rather like a bank barrow.
But what were cursus monuments for? Initially, they were regarded by antiquaries such as Stukeley as Roman circuses or race-courses. However, by the middle of the 20th century Neolithic ritual explanations had taken root. Theories have varied around the theme of ritual processions (first suggested by Richard Atkinson in 1955), although there have been other ideas. These range from pathways linking a series of events in the night sky, and representations of snakes, to enclosures marking the pathways of prehistoric tornadoes!
In general, however, most ideas have developed the processional theory. Recently, some archaeologists have suggested that only certain people may have been allowed in the cursus to take part in such rituals, and that these sites may have represented planned-out pathways joining natural and ancestral places together to form a ritual experience. Brophy wrote the above in 1999 long before the Crieff Cursus was discovered .It runs in n east to west direction for more than a mile starting in the area where the new houses of Strathearn View have been built as far as Duchlage and the Market Park . This “symbolic river “ was linear with earthen walls on either side thus making believable the theory that our Neolithic fore fathers might walk in meditation in a westerly direction . The dramatic views of the towering peaks of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a’ Chroin lend credibility to the powers of nature on man’s mind .Indeed Brophy in his discourse on cursus sites comments on a similar experience with Cleaven Dyke near Blairgowrie
Walking along beside the 6ft high mound, I could see the low hill on which the cursus ended. The wide ditch on my right-hand side and the mound on my left encouraged me to look, and walk, straight ahead. I could not see what was on the other side of the mound - but I could hear everything going on over there.
As I got closer to the end, the land beside the ditch began to rise up in a long natural spur, until I could see nothing on either side because of the mound and spur. It even became hard to tell which feature was natural and which artificial. Then I reached the hill-top and the end of the bank, and the view ahead stretched down to the River Isla ahead, and the mountains beyond.
To walk along a cursus in this way may well have been a rare experience for Neolithic people, and perhaps some were never allowed in this strange enclosure, which had been extended again and again by the ancestors. It could perhaps have been a mysterious experience, where the outside world was blocked out to one side, or even both. These enclosures leave you with the impression of being in a special place, removed from the world. The archaeologists investigating the Crieff site prior to the opening of the Campus were Alder Archaeologists and discussions with them did indicate that a younger cursus was found passing the Stayt site and extending down to the Earn and beyond to Bennybeg . We clearly have much yet to find out !