Friday, March 7, 2014

William Keith's "Stone of Strength"

We featured William Keith's "lifting stone" last summer in one of our "What is It? Where is It?" challenges, and since then have been contacted by a Scotsman named Peter Martin, who has spent many years researching stones such as these for a book he's writing, and who has provided us with a lot more information. Our experience on telling visitor's about the stone and Keith's use of it as a test of strength for workers he was considering employing, is that the stories are often met with doubt. Mr. Martin has provided us with a very detailed explanation of the cultural significance of these stones and their application to Sir William's background which has given us a more complete picture of what the stone is, why it is here, and how it was likely used.

While our stone is unique in America (it may be the only one, at least with historical affiliations), they were common in many other countries, and are especially associated with the Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland, such as Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, where Keith was born. Martin has compiled a list of nearly 100 such stones in Scotland, over 30 of which are still extant. The stones were used as "tests of manhood" or "clach-neart" (pronounced Clack Neersht or Clack Nyert depending on dialect - "stone of strength"). Young men between the ages of 10-14 were welcomed into manhood when they could lift the stone from the ground most likely just to the ankles (some contend to the waist). Men of the clan would gather and challenge one another to lift the stone as a form of entertainment and competition (Highland Games consist of many of these types of strength competitions). Stones were lifted for military purposes to determine the strongest men at arms, and they were lifted for remembrance (being remembered for being strong was inherent in Gaelic male culture). Many stones were traditionally located at the gates of great houses, which is in keeping with Keith's standing and with the legend that ours was originally located at the entry. Stones used by "commoners" were often located near churches. Martin feels absolutely certain that Sir William himself would have lifted our/his stone on a regular basis -- it was his part of his culture, it was his stone, and it was absolutely ingrained into the belief system of the Gaelic people that you did not ask someone to do what you yourself could not. The mushroom shape may have made the stone tricky to lift because of the effect of the shape on the center of gravity.

The idea of it being used as a test for employment is a little less clear. While the practice was more common in Sweden, it was not part of Scottish Gaelic culture. There were however strong ties between the two countries so it seems certain that the Scots would have at least known of the practice. The idea of it being used as a test of strength for slaves was practiced by the Barbary Coast slavers. It was not so much to see who was strong enough to lift the stone, but to examine the muscle tone of the slaves while the stone was being lifted. The early 20th century writers who identified Keith as having used his stone in this way may have had more knowledge of this aspect of history than of Gaelic traditions and just made an assumption that that was why he had it and what he used it for.

Martin contends that the stone is much more than just a test of strength used by Keith and his friends though. He believes it demonstrates Keith's class, religious and political leanings, which are also ingrained in the strength culture specifically of the Gaelic speaking areas of Scotland. Keith was baptized into the Anglican Church of England, and was therefore Episcopalian in his beliefs. Had he been a member of the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian, there would be no lifting stone at Graeme Park, as the Presbyterians loathed Gaelic culture and anything to do with it. Presbyterian church leadership revolved around a council of elders, while the Episcopalians retained a more Catholic form of a hierarchical leadership with the Bishop as the head. The Presbyterian Church leaders saw the Gael as Irish because of the shared language, and as the Irish were Roman Catholic the Gaels of Scotland were seen in the same light. Their desire was to wipe out this part of Scottish culture and make the country more English so a traditional Gaelic "stone of strength" would not have been used or owned by a Presbyterian. Furthermore, Keith was a Jacobite, or a supporter of the restoration of the Catholic Stuart King James II to the throne of England. The fact that there is a lifting stone at Graeme Park emphasizes Keith's Jacobite and Episcopalian views in that he retained an aspect of his Gaelic culture that was seen by the Presbyterians as "Irish" or "Popish". Keith's upbringing within the Scottish clan system, his religious, and his political views place him firmly within the cultural grouping of people who actively engaged in stone lifting.

Hopefully I've done justice in summarizing the rather complex bit of information Mr. Martin was kind enough to put together and send to us. The original paper is located in our files at Graeme Park if anyone should so wish to read it and gain further understanding.

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