A cycle ride to the outer edges of Glasgow finds stones, myths, floating saints, plane twitchers and echoes of one of London’s strangest landmarks.
‘Behold. It’s the Holy Stone of Clonrichert,’ said the Glasgow Chronicler with one of his sardonic laughs. ‘You know – Father Ted.’
There was an element of Irish farce about this.
We had cycled out from Glasgow and crossed the Clyde via the Renfrew ferry to stand in the grounds of the Normandy Hotel and look at two mossy boulders encased in Victorian gothic cast-iron. They were just stones. In a cage. Or, stones imbued with legend, myth and sacred properties.
I gazed at the concrete behemoth of the hotel. Once, in another era, the hotel was regarded as glamorous, where the “airline pilots commandeered the bar, no doubt downing late night brandies and seducing their cabin crews”1. As sunshine shafted through the trees we could hear the whine of jet engines and smell the burning fuel from the nearby Glasgow Airport.
Glasgow: Argyll Stone and St Conval’s Chariot
The Argyll Stone and St Conval’s Chariot are located near the confluence of the River Cart and River Clyde. It is a strange terrain of scrapyards, woods, golf courses, abandoned old warehouses, yards and tumbleweed housing estates. The Argyll Stone was named after the 9th Earl of Argyll who was reputedly resting on it when he was captured and eventually executed for leading a failed uprising against James VII of Scots (King James II of England) in 1685.
The legend for St. Conval’s Chariot starts in sixth century Ireland. St. Conval is resting on the stone thinking of where to found a church when it starts to float, carries him across the seas to the Firth of Clyde, and eventually lands at Renfrew. St. Conval founded his church at nearby Inchinnon and became a follower of St. Mungo, the founder and patron saint of Glasgow. The miracle stone that conveyed a saint across the sea became the base for the church cross. The rainwater that gathered in its hollow was said to have healing properties.
St. Conval’s original church was demolished in 1828 and replaced by another church. In time the site was eventually absorbed into the expanding Glasgow Airport. The stones were moved here in 1836 but the rest of the cross has since disappeared
‘Not the Holy Stone of Clonrichert, something else but I can’t think what,’ I replied to the Glasgow Chronicler. But he has wandered off, his attention drawn by the striking bright red A-listed White Cart Bridge.
London: London Stone
And then I remember. Another stone in another city. An innocuous piece of limestone also protected by a grille, embedded in an unlikely place near key transport links. Another stone that is also absurd, neglected, profound, sacred, and significant all at the same time. It reminds me of London Stone, found in the wall of a crumbling WHSmith in the City of London.
In both London and Renfrew / Glasgow commuters and travellers rush by oblivious to these sacred stones. There are similarities but London Stone possesses grander myths. Down the centuries a parade of charlatans, poets, modern psychogeographic writers, alchemists, historians and eccentric clergymen have enriched the mythology of London Stone. Like the chariot London Stone may look ordinary but King Lud, Blake, Sinclair, Shakespeare, Dee and Ackroyd, they’ve all had a go. London Stone is linked to Druid sacrifice and occult significance. It is a Roman milestone. It is the talismanic stone bought back from Troy by Brutus, the legendary founder and first king of Britain. Brutus of Troy who founds a city on the banks of the River Thames, which he calls Troia Nova, or New Troy. The city that becomes London.
London Stone, like the chariot carrying an early Christian holy man, carries a city. “So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish”2. These are words with echoes of Glasgow’s motto Let Glasgow flourish, inspired by St Mungo.
London will not fall because of London Stone. Others argue that there is no shred of evidence for any of these claims. It doesn’t matter. Who would want to solve these mysteries, or debunk such myths? The faith in our stones still lingers despite and because of the secular age.
We crossed the River Cart and walked along the perimeter fence of the airport. Here the airport is an empty expanse of grass, concrete and lines of lights seemingly protected only by a rusty fence. Up at the main terminal there is digital security, CCTV, suicide car bomb barriers, metal detectors, screening, scanning. Here, whispers an enticing challenge: ‘go on, have a go. See how far you get’. The cameras are not obvious but they must be there and we are on them. The wanderings of the Glasgow Chronicler always attracts interest from authorities, security guards and site guardians who can’t quite believe his innocent motives to archive an entire city.
Planes roar and howl overhead as they land and take-off. It’s an exhilarating sight. Plane twitchers lurking in lay-bys jump out of their cars and balance precariously on posts to seek a good photography angle. There is much excitement when a large Boeing lands only metres away in a scream of power defying the void, the modern day miracle.
And then the thought struck me. Did they site the airport here for the nearby presence of a holy stone? A little extra insurance from harnessing the energies emanating the miracle properties of levitation? Maybe at every airport the bones and relics of saints are discretely buried at the end of the runway. Exploiting the old discredited ways. Just in case.
The things we do with our stones.
PS Just announced (12 March 2016): London Stone will be relocated to allow for development of its current site.