Sithean Mor, Shian, Iona

Cairn Circle (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NM 2721 2371

Also Known as:

  1. Angel Hill
  2. Cnoc nar-aimgeal
  3. Sithean More

Archaeology & History

There have long been rumours of stone circles on the druid’s isle of Iona, but many are dismissed as little more than errors on behalf of antiquarians, or false descriptions of hut circles and settlement remains.  The stone circle of Sithean Mor however, does seem to have existed until only a century or two ago.  It was first mentioned by the great traveller, Thomas Pennant (1776), who visited Iona more than once.  He told us:

“On my return I saw, on the right hand, on a small hill, a small circle of stones, and a little cairn in the middle, evidently druidical, but called the hill of the angels, Cnoc nar-aimgeal; from a tradition that the holy man had there a conference with those celestial beings soon after his arrival.  Bishop Pocock informed me that the natives were accustomed to bring their horses to this circle at the feast of St. Michael, and to course round it.  I conjecture that this usage originated from the custom of blessing the horses in the days of superstition, when the priest and the holy-water pot were called in: but in latter times the horses are still assembled, but the reason forgotten.”

Site of the Sithean Mor on the 1881 OS-map

The day of the “feast of St. Michael” that Pennant mentioned was our indigenous heathen New Year, or Halloween, now usurped and misrepresented by countless plastic pagans and christians alike. It would appear from Pennant’s description that the circle in question was more likely a cairn circle.  The fact that the heathen islanders celebrated annual rites here at Samhain, strongly implies there was once a hero-myth and a creation myth in evidence, but I am unaware of any remaining tales that may help confirm this.  The coming of St. Columba may be responsible for this lack of oral tradition.

More than a century after Pennant’s visit here, the ring of stones had been destroyed.  We know this from the description given by Archie MacMillan (1898) in his fine text on the antiquities of Iona, where he said,

“Angel Hill, called in the vernacular Sithean More. There was, not so very long ago, a circle of standing stones on the top of this hillock. They have been used for other purposes.”

Folklore

The most commonly recited tale of this grassy rise is that when St. Columba brought christianity to the island, he communed here with the angels.  This is a simple displacement tale: of a new faith replacing an older one. The old name of the hill, Sithean Mor, tells that the littlepeople or fairy folk once held influence here.

References:

  1. Cumming, C.F.G., In the Hebrides, Chatto & Windus: London 1883.
  2. MacMillan, Archibald, Iona: Its History and Antiquities, Houlston & Sons: London 1898.
  3. Pennant, Thomas, A Tour in Scotland, 1772 – Part 1, Benjamin White: London 1776.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.326934, -6.414231 Sithean Mor circle

Dun Bhuirg, Iona, Argyll

Hillfort:  OS Grid Reference – NM 2649 2462

Also known as:

  1. Canmore ID 21638
  2. Dun Cul Bhuirg

Getting Here

Take the road that cuts across the island, west, until you reach the stupid golf-course.  Walk across it, heading for the coast (not the building at Culbuirg), then follow the little footpath up until you reach the large rocky rise about 500 hundred yards north.  That’s it!

Folklore

Dun Bhuirg on 1881 map

Shown on the 1881 OS map of the region, the small remains of this Iron Age hillfort was said to be the place where St. Columba saw a rain-cloud which he predicted would bring a plague of ulcers to the people of Ireland. To prevent such a plague, Columba thence dispatched a monk called Silnan to Ireland, armed with some bread which he’d blessed. This bread was then dipped in consecrated water and given to those afflicted with the plague, who were thereafter cured.

Wee-ird……

Another tradition told that this old fort was once an important meeting place for the druids, though Geoff Holder (2007) writes that this is little more than a “spurious nineteenth century tradition” which he dismisses as without foundation. Though a short distance from here, he also told how one “Fiona MacLeod” (real name, William Sharp) one night watched the ghost of the Culdee, Oran, a couple of hundred yards away, “and so he never went that way again at night.”  In truth, traditions of druidism tend to be animistic traits: legends remembered from pre-christian days, and blanket dismissals of such folklore are themselves untrustworthy—especially on this Isle of the Druids.

References:

  1. Holder, Geoff,The Guide to Mysterious Iona and Staffa, Tempus: Stroud 2007.
  2. MacLeod, Fiona, Iona, Floris: Edinburgh 1982.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.334709, -6.426904 Dun Bhuirg

Tobar na H-aoise, Iona, Argyll

Holy Well: OS Grid Reference – NM 2839 2525

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 21613
  2. Pool of Healing
  3. Well of Age
  4. Well of Healing

Folklore

Although ascribed as a holy or healing well, this site is actually a curious natural water-filled depression near the top of Dun I, on the northern side of the island.  It is one of three magickal wells to be found hereby.  F.M. McNeill (1954) described this Well of Eternal Youth as having a fame that had spread far and wide, saying,

“Here, through ages past, pilgrims of each generation have lingered at the enchanted hour of dawn, ‘to touch the healing water the moment the first sun-ray quickens it.'”

In doing so, devotees would recover the energies of youth once more and live a longer healthy life.

References:

  1. Hannan, Thomas, Iona and some Satellites, W. & R. Chambers: London 1928.
  2. McNeill, F. Marion, Iona, Blackie & Sons: Glasgow 1954.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.341894, -6.395803 Tobar na H-aoise

Clach na Glaistig, Iona, Argyll

Legendary Rocks:  OS Grid Reference – NM 262 222

Also Known as:

  1. Glaistig’s Stone

Folklore

One of the best known supernatural creatures in the Scottish Highlands and Islands was one called the Glaistig: an elemental described variously as, “a thin, grey woman with yellow hair reaching to her heels and attired in green raiment”; or a deity both beneficial and dangerous, “often described as half-woman, half-goat.”  Katherine Briggs (1979) wrote that sometimes this creature

“sometimes has the attributes and habits of the Cailleach Bheur, sometimes assumes animal form, often that of a goat, but more often she is described as half-woman, half-goat.”

Something decidely shaman-like!

In many of the places where she was found, she would tend for the cattle and in order to appease her, local people would pour milk into the hollowed stones by which she lived (at some places these were cup-and-ring stones).  The Iona Glaistig was no exception.  The great Scottish writer A.A. MacGregor (1947) mentioned this creature and its stone in one of his classic books, saying:

“In the shieling days of Iona when, during the summer months, the inhabitants of the east end and of the west end of that island were wont to pasture their cows alternately for fourteen days on the common grazing at a spot known as Staonnaig, a Glaistig dwelt in a hollow rock near at hand. For this Glaistig, the Iona women at milking-time each evening poured a little milk on what is still pointed out at the Glaistig’s Stone.”

This “pouring of milk” onto hollows in stones is a custom found in cultures from Europe eastwards into India and, no doubt, even further afield.  The precise whereabouts of this sacred stone remains hidden.

References:

  1. Briggs, Katherine, A Dictionary of Fairies, Penguin: Harmondsworth 1979.
  2. MacGregor, Alasdair Alpin, The Peat Fire Flame, Ettrick Press: Edinburgh 1947.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.313159, -6.428428 Clach na Glaistig

Tobar na Gaoithe Tuath, Iona, Argyll

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – NM 275 252

Also Known as:

  1. Well of the North Wind

Folklore

A sacred well site that appears to have gone missing sometime in the 20th century — as has its compatriot, the Well of the South Wind.  F.M. McNeill (1954) wrote that,

“this is one of the magic wells of antiquity. It lies north of Cnoc nam Bradhan, not far from the Hermit’s Cell. Here, in olden times, sailors and others brought offerings to charm up a wind from the north.”

No doubt this heathen water source is known to a few old locals.  The magickal act of invoking the wind both here and at its compatriot seems to hint at ancient pre-christian rites that have thankfully been recorded before they were finally vanquished. (the grid-reference cited above is an approximation)

References:

  1. McNeill, F.M., Iona: A History of the Island, Blackie & Sons: Glasgow 1954.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.340817, -6.410362 Tobar na Gaoithe Tuath

Clach Brath, Baile Mor, Iona

Bullaun Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NM 286 244

Also known as:

  1. Clacha Brath
  2. Clachan-nan-Druidhean
  3. Day of Judgement Stone
  4. Druid’s Stone
  5. World’s End Stone

Folklore

On this curious, broken, basin-shaped rock — thought by some to have at one time played a part in an old cross whose remains are in the Abbey Museum — are two deep cup-shaped hollows, in which were once “three noble globes of white marble” that were used for oracular purposes and were said to have originated in druidical rites.  In Miss McNeill’s (1954) survey of the island, she tells that:

“near the edge of the path leading to St. Oran’s Chapel, there lies a broad, flat stone, with a slit and a cavity on its surface. Here there used to lie some small round stones which pilgrims were wont to turn sunwise within the cavity; for it was commonly believed that the ‘brath’, or end of the world, would not arrive until this stone should be worn through.”

The small stones that were once in the Brath were ordered by the Church to be thrown into the sea; but local folk replaced them with three other small stones, maintaining the traditional rites of this stone until they eventually stopped sometime in the 19th century.  But in Major-General James Forlong’s (1906) study, he tells of a somewhat earlier mythic origin to this old stone, saying:

“In Iona the Druids are said to have made the flat altar stone called Clachan-nan-Druidhean, or Druid’s Stone, the stone of fate or of the last day, with round stones fitted into cup hollows on the surface, which the pious pilgrim turns round.  The world will end when the stone is worn through.  The Culdee monks preserved this monument.”

And what little is left is still preserved to this day.  The curious “end of the world” motif was something that was grafted onto an earlier mythos: what Mircea Eliade called the “myth of the eternal return”, wherein Nature’s annual cycle —from birth, life to death and subsequent renewal, endlessly, through the seasons—was the original status, later transmuted by the incoming judaeo-christian cult of linear time and milleniumism relating to a literal “end of the world” when their profane myth of Jesus returning to Earth occurs.  We might also add that the stones which once rested into the hollows of the Clach Brath would likely have possessed divinatory and healing qualities, as comparatiove studies suggest.

References:

  1. Eliade, Mircea, The Myth of the Eternal Return,
  2. Forlong, J.G.S., Faiths of Man – volume 1, Bernard Quarithc: London 1906.
  3. Holder, Geoff, The Guide to Mysterious Iona and Staffa, Tempus: Stroud 2001.
  4. McNeill, F. Marion, Iona: A History of the Island, Blackie & Son: Glasgow 1954 (4th edition).

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.334085, -6.393157 Clach Brath