I’m on a hillside above Dundee with a man named George who used to play lead guitar in the 70s doo-wop band Darts. We’re looking for prehistoric rock art, and finding it too. (George – George Currie – knew it was here; he found it before.) He pulls back a flap of turf from a rock to reveal what is known as a cup mark, a round depression in the surface. “Can you see that wee circle?” he says, brushing away the soil with his hand.
I can. And I’m not going to lie: in my – admittedly inexpert – opinion it doesn’t compare to the Altamira or Lascaux cave paintings. Nor am I having a Tutankhamun moment, suddenly seeing “wonderful things”. What I’m seeing is a dent in a rock, with a barely discernible ring round it. Made by a person, some time around 3300BC.
Actually, that is interesting, and now I’m thinking of Mr or Mrs Neolithic, right here on this hillside, same view (minus the big transmitter mast), bashing away at this very rock with another, smaller one.
There are similar cup and ring marks on rocks all over the world, from Australia to Korea, Africa and Europe. Which is also interesting, given that these people weren’t in contact. It’s not entirely surprising, says George, and he calls on his musical background for a comparison. “There’s only so much we like,” he says. The same musical scale is used all over the world. “Culturally, we’re wired similarly.”
But is it art? “The term is a modern concept, from just before the Renaissance,” he replies. “So whoever was doing these wouldn’t have considered it artistic.”
If not art, then what? The purpose of neolithic and bronze age petroglyphs is much debated and disputed, with theories ranging from the plausible (they mark births, deaths, possibly paths), through doodling and the warding off of evil, to the properly bonkers (energy lines, UFOs, aliens etc).
George is careful not to speculate, and has no time for “hippy bollocks”, even if he was once a hippy himself. He’s uneasy about me mentioning that rock art is sometimes found near pylons, because people might start talking about energy (he mentions someone who thinks Stonehenge was a power station). It’s for the simple reason that pylons are often built on rock, which is also where you’re likely to find rock art.
The thing you can say for sure about rock art is that it indicates human presence. “Kelly was here,” he says, meaning Kilroy, I think, unless he knows of a neolithic or bronze age graffiti artist called Kelly. “The bottom line is it tells us someone was here at some time, marking rocks.”
George – from Dundee originally, now 67, fit as a fiddle from wandering the hills a couple of times a week in search of rock art – has always been interested in prehistory and archaeology, but has no formal training. He pretty much left school at 14 to do music, grew his hair down to here, was in a blues band, then Darts, who did well in the 1970s and early 80s, and had a load of hits (“Come back my love, don’t go away,” remember?). Good rock’n’roll behaviour stories too, but he doesn’t want me to put them in either.
He left the band to teach a bit (still does – guitar and music theory), but mainly to hillwalk. He found some rock art that hadn’t been logged before, and that got him started. There is something of the male, obsessive-collector thing about it, he says. He has a friend whose thing is photographing trains.
Of the 3,000 or so known carvings in Scotland, he has found around 680. He has a GPS to mark the positions of his finds. Now his work is part of a £1m, five-year project organised by Historic Environment Scotland, which will provide a digital database of Scotland’s neolithic and bronze age rock art.
Is there not a seen-one-seen-’em-all element, I wonder? Again, he dips into his other passion for analogy: “It’s a bit like the blues – it all sounds the same to everyone else but, to anoraks, it’s like, ‘Wow!’ ” He still gets it, the wow? “Most definitely. And there is that element of discovery, the first time anyone has seen this for x thousand years.”
I’m worried George has picked up on my initial underwhelmedness. It’s not the best day for seeing the art, he says. Winter is better, when the sun is low, and the rock wet … God, I’m sorry. And wrong. Because the more he talks about it, the more I want to know and see.
The next is more ornate, with markings all over it, including what looks like an acid house smiley face. George says it fits the bill to be the cover of a cist, an ancient burial chamber. He’s not saying it “is”, of course – just that it fits the bill, in terms of size. He says it’s “as good as it gets” and should be in a museum, and I’m beginning to agree.
The following day, we’re at another favourite haunt, inland up the Tay valley in Perthshire, above the town of Aberfeldy. We’ve walked for an hour or so, up through woods, chattering chaffinches, a distant cuckoo, burbling skylarks, to a moor where the only sound is the sad whistle of a curlew and the occasional embarrassed posh chuckle of grouse. It’s magic, a little secret, no other people around.
There were once, though, thousands of years ago. After faffing around for a while, re-consulting the GPS, walking in circles, we find what we’re looking for. Kneeling down, George pulls away a tuft of heather and turf, and brushes away (he’s brought an actual brush today) at the rock beneath to reveal a cup mark with an incomplete ring, and a long tail. Like a question mark, an ancient mystery, in the rock.
Sam Wollaston was a guest of Visit Scotland, travelled with Virgin East Coast and stayed at Malmaison Dundee. 2017 is Scotland’s year of history, heritage and archaeology