Ribigill Souterrain, Tongue, Sutherland

 

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  58.457583, -4.431551 Ribigill Souterrain

Souterrain (missing):  OS Grid Reference – NC 5821 5471

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 5354

Archaeology & History

The Royal Commission (1911) lads paid a visit to this site in June, 1909, after an earlier report—allegedly by James Horsburgh—told there to have been one close to the right-hand side of the road, but it has long since been forgotten.  The Commission lads told us simply,

“In a park about ¼-mile north of Ribigil farm-house is the site of an earth-house which was closed up many years ago.”

When I asked a number of local people about the place, they knew nothing of it; so I wandered around in the hope that I might find something.  All that I came across, close to where it was described, were two large flat stones covering a hole in the ground on the other side of the fence from the road.  A number of reeds were in the same field and I thought it must have been a well, but when I laid my ear to it, could hear no running water whatsoever.

References:

  1. Horsburgh, James, Notes of Cromlechs, Duns, Hut-circles, Chambered Cairns and other Remains, in the County of Sutherland“, in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 7, 1870.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Pitcur Souterrain (3), Kettins, Perthshire

Souterrain:  OS Grid Reference – NO 2529 3738

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 30539
  2. The Cave
  3. Pitcur II (Wainwright)

Getting Here

Pitcur souterrain entrance

From Coupar Angus, take the A923 road southeast for nearly 2½ miles where you reach the crossroads.  Keeping walking along the A923 for just over 300 yards, then where you come to the second field on your left, follow the line of fencing the slope until you reach an overgrown fenced section.  It’s in there!

Archaeology & History

This is a mightily impressive site, which I’ve been looking forward to experience for many an age.  And—despite Nature covering it in deep grasses—it was even better than any of us anticipated.  Souterrains are ten-a-penny in this part of Scotland, but this one’s a beauty!  Here, dug 6-8 feet into the ground are at least two long curvaceous passageways, linked by another stone-roofed passageway—with the longest central passage leading at one end into a completely covered stone hallway, whose end is blocked by a massive fall of earth.  Outside this entrance, laid on the ground, is what looks like a possible old stone ‘door’ that may have once blocked the entrance, now fallen into disuse.  It is too small to have been a roofing stone.  In the walling just outside the entrance, on your left, you will see a faint cup-marked stone (Pitcur 3:5) and a larger cup-and-ring stone (Pitcur 3:6), both just above ground-level.

Inside looking out (photo by Frank Mercer)

Outside looking in (photo by Frank Mercer)

The site is evocative on so many levels: not least because we still don’t know what the hell it was used for.  The over-used idea that souterrains were cattle-pens makes no sense whatsoever here; the idea that they were food storage sites is, I suppose, a possibility; that they were possible shelters for people during inter-tribal raids is another; and equally as probable is that the deep dark enclosed construction was used by shamans, or neophytes enclosed for their rites of passage.  Iron Age archaeology specialist Ian Armit (1998) thought there may well be some as yet undiscovered “timber roundhouse” associated with this souterrain, awaiting excavation.  He may be right.  When we came here the other week we found previously unrecorded cup-and-ring carvings, at a site already renowned for decent petroglyphs.  A post-winter visit will hopefully bring us more finds.

The general history of this strange site is captured in Wainwright’s (1963) survey of souterrains, in which he wrote:

“Pitcur II was discovered in 1878 when a large stone, hit by a plough, was removed to reveal an underground passage.  Mr John Granger, tenant of Pitcur farm, excavated the souterrain himself, and twenty-two years later his son, Mr A. Granger Heiton, said that the only objects found by members of his family were ‘a small red clay bowl of Samian ware in pieces’ and ‘a Roman coin.’  The latter, according to David MacRitchie, ‘has been lost sight of’.  Mr Granger Heiton also told McRitchie that ‘one or two other coins were reported as having been found’, but were not seen by his father.

“As an excavation, Mr Granger’s effort seems to have been unsatisfactory by any standards, and it was followed by a ‘supplementary excavation’ conducted by Mr R. Stewart Menzies.  This was more successful as a relic-hunting operation, if not as an archaeological excavation, for between one hundred and two hundred finds are reported, including ‘a bronze pin’ and ‘a quantity of stones, beads, etc.’  But these too ‘seem to have been mislaid.’

Newly-found Pitcur 3:2 carving

Curiously Mr Wainwright made little mention of the impressive petroglyphs within this complex, save to say that “they were too heavy to be removed and ‘mislaid’.”  There are at least seven of them at Pitcur-3: four complex cup-and-ring designs and three basic cup-marked stones (described individually in separate site-profiles).  They have all been incorporated into the walls and roofing stones. At least one of these is so eroded (Pitcur 3:2) that there is little doubt it was re-used from a now-lost neolithic structure; the rest may have been from Bronze Age sites (also lost) and their respective lack of erosion shows they have been inside this Iron Age structure, away from Nature’s wind and weathering effects. It is likely that the re-use of these carvings in Pitcur-3 was of significance to the builders; although we cannot be sure as to what their function may have been within the souterrain.  It’s quite possible that some form of ‘continuity of tradition’ as posited by David MacRitchie (1890) was in evidence, over that huge time scale from the neolithic into the Iron Age, relating specifically to the animistic plinth implicit in all early agrarian cultures.

But the first real overview of the site was written at the end of the 19th century by David MacRitchie (1900), over twenty years after its rediscovery in 1878.  His account was a good one too:

“The Pitcur house consists of one long subterranean gallery, slightly curved throughout most of its length, and bending abruptly in a hook shape at its western end. From this western end a short broad gallery or room goes off, curving round the outside of the ‘hook.’ The length of the main gallery, following the medial line, and measuring from the extreme of the entrance at either end, is almost 190 feet; while the subsidiary room is 60 feet long. For most of its length, this subsidiary room is 10 feet wide, measuring at the floor level. On account of this unusual width, it is reasonable to suppose that its roof was of timber; for although the walls slightly converge at the top, reducing the intervening space to 8 or 9 feet, the span is still so great that a flagged roof would scarcely have been practicable. To be sure, the walls might have been raised several courses higher, in the usual ‘ Cyclopean arch,’ and thus the interval to be bridged would become sufficiently narrowed at a height of say 12 feet. But there is no indication that the walls of any portion of this earth-house ever rose higher than the present level of their highest parts. Thus the inference is that this subsidiary room may have been roofed with timber.”

Modern groundplan (after RCAHMS, 1994)

MacRitchie’s 1900 groundplan

It may, but we have no remaining evidence to tell us for sure. MacRitchie cited possible evidences from elsewhere to add weight to this thought, but had the humility to leave the idea open, telling simply how “no vestige of a roof is visible at the present day, and the whole of this side room is open to the sky,” as with the majority of this entire souterrain.  In my opinion, more of it would have been roofed in stone slabs, but these would seem to have been robbed.  Certainly a well-preserved cup-marked stone (Pitcur 3:3) laying up against one of the walls appears to have slid from its topmost covering position into where it now rests in the passageway (near ‘b‘ in MacRitchie’s plan).

Continuing with Mr MacRitchie’s account, he (like most of us) found the underground section most impressive, telling:

“This covered section is unquestionably the most interesting and instructive of the whole building; for, as already stated, the other parts are more or less ruined and roofless. A few remaining flags lying in the unroofed part of the main gallery show, however, that it once possessed the usual stone roof throughout its entire length. This was rendered possible by the comparative narrowness of the main gallery, the width of which on the floor averages about 6 feet. The greater breadth of the subsidiary gallery will be realised by glancing at the cross section, a-b in the plan.

“The Pitcur earth-house had at least three separate entrances, namely, at the points hi, and j.  The subsidiary room appears also to have had an independent connection with the, outside world, at the point g, and perhaps also f, though the latter may only mark a fireplace or air-hole, for the condition of the ruin makes it difficult for one to speak with certainty. The entrance at i, which slopes rapidly downward, is roofed all the way to d; and consequently this short passage remains in its original state.

“Within the covered portion, and quite near its entrance, a well-built recess (e in the plan) seems clearly to have been used as a fireplace, although the orifice which presumably once connected it with the upper air is now covered over.  Another and a smaller recess in the covered portion (k in the plan) can hardly have been a fireplace, and it is difficult to know what it was used as.

“One other point of interest is the presence of two cup-marked stones (p and q on the plan). Of these, the former is lying isolated on the surface of the ground near the entrance i, while the latter forms one of the wall stones beside the doorway c.”

‘Fireplace’ near the entrance

The internal ‘cave’ section has that typical damp smell and feel to it, beloved of underground explorers.  As we can see in MacRitchie’s old photo of the site, the seeming ‘fireplace’ that he mentions is very obvious. Frank Mercer posited the same idea about this underground alcove when he first saw it, and it makes a lot of sense.  On the left-upright stone in the photo (right) you can just make out a single cup-marking (Pitcur 3:7) which we found when we visited; another one may be on the inside edge of the same fireplace.  If you climb up on top of the souterrain close to where the opening of the fireplace would have been, you’ll see the impressive Pitcur 3:5 petroglyph; whilst the Pitcur 3:1 carving is difficult to see (though Mr Mercer noticed it), just above ground-level, beneath the covering stone ‘m‘ in MacRitchie’s plan.  All in all, a bloody impressive place!

Folklore

In earlier centuries the site was known locally as The Cave, yet considering how impressive it is, folklore and oral tradition seem sparse.  Even David MacRitchie (1897) struggled to find anything here.  But in one short article he wrote for The Reliquary, he thought that stories of little-people may have related to Pitcur-3:

“A tradition which a family of that neighbourhood has preserved for the past two centuries, has, in the opinion of the present writer, a distinct bearing upon the “cave” and its builders.

“This is that, a long time ago, a community of “clever” little people, known as “the merry elfins,” inhabited a “tounie,” or village, close to the place. The present inheritors of the tradition assume that they lived above ground and do not connect them at all with this “cave,” of whose existence they were unaware until a comparatively recent date. But, in view of a mass of folk-lore ascribing to such “little people” an underground life, the presumption is that the “tounie” was nothing else than the “cave”. This theme cannot be enlarged upon here; but a study of the traditions relating to the inhabitants of those subterranean houses will make the identification clearer.

“It may be added that the term “Picts’ house” applied to the Pitcur souterrain, is in agreement with the inherited belief, so widespread in Scotland, that the Picts were a people of immense bodily strength, although of small stature.”

References:

  1. Armit, Ian, Scotland’s Hidden History, Tempus: Stroud 1998.
  2. Barclay, Gordon, “Newmill and the ‘Souterrains of Southern Pictland’”, in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 110, 1980.
  3. Mackenna, F.S., “Recovery of an Earth House”, in The Kist, volume 4, 1972.
  4. Mackie, Euan, Scotland: An Archaeologial Guide, Faber: London 1975.
  5. MacRitchie, David, The Testimony of Tradition, Kegan Paul: London 1890.
  6. MacRitchie, David, “Pitcur and its Merry Elfins,” in The Reliquary, 1897.
  7. MacRitchie, David, “Description of an Earth-house at Pitcur, Forfarshire,” inProceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 34, 1900.
  8. Neighbour, T., “Pitcur Souterrain (Kettins parish)”, in Discovery & Excavation Scotland, 1995.
  9. Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, South-East Perth: An Archaeological Landscape, HMSO: Edinburgh 1994.
  10. Wainwright, F T., The Souterrains of Southern Pictland, RKP: London 1963.
  11. Warden, Alex J., Angus or Forfarshire: The Land and People – Descriptive and Historical – 5 volumes, Charles Alexander: Dundee 1880-1885.
  12. Young, Alison, “Cup-and ring Markings on Craig Ruenshin, with some Comparative Notes“, in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 72, 1938.

Acknowledgements:  This site profile would not have been made possible were it not for the huge help of Nina Harris, Frank Mercer & Paul Hornby.  Huge thanks to you all, both for the excursion and use of your photos in this site profile. 🙂

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Pitcur (3) souterrain

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Pitcur (3) souterrain 56.522520, -3.215835 Pitcur (3) souterrain

Overlee, Clarkston, Renfrewshire

Souterrains & Settlement (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NS 577 572

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 43802

Archaeology & History

Overlee Farm in 1896 – no remains highlighted

This was an astonishing-sounding place, little-known beyond the pages of specialist historians.  It has been described in modern terms as simply “subterranean structures”, “weems”, or “prehistoric underground houses”; but were this site still in evidence it would be a huge attraction!  From the literary descriptions we possess, the extensive remains found and destroyed sound very much like the much-visited fogous found throughout Cornwall, or more commonly known as ‘souterrains’ in Scotland—although there’s no mention of the place in Wainwright’s (1963) singular study on such monuments.  Despite this, here, on the south-side of modern Clarkston, it seems we once had a Renfrewshire equivalent to the prehistoric Cornish village and fogous known as Carn Euny.

The first known account of this site was written by James Smith (1845) in the survey for the New Statistical Account, who thankfully gave us a reasonably lengthy account of what was once here.  He told:

“About thirty years ago, on the farm of Overlee, which lies on the north bank of the river Cart, in the south-west angle of the parish, Mr Watson, the proprietor, on removing the earth from a quarry which he wished to open, discovered a great many subterraneous houses ranged round the slope of a small swelling hill. Each house consisted of one apartment, from eight to twelve feet square. The sides, which were from four to five feet high, were faced with rough undressed stone, and the floors were neatly paved with thin flag stones which are found in the neighbourhood.  In the centre of each floor was a hole scooped out as a fire-place, in which coal-ashes still remained, and seemed to indicate that their occupiers had left the place on a sudden.  That coal and not wood or peat had been employed as fuel, seemed at first an argument against the antiquity of the houses, until it was remembered that many seams of coal crop out on the steep banks of the river in the immediate vicinity, which may have been picked out for firing by the aboriginal inhabitants, as is still done to a limited extent by a few of the poorer classes in the neighbourhood. Near the fire-places were found small heaps of water-worn pebbles, from two to three inches in diameter, the use of which it is difficult to conjecture. They may have been used as missiles for attack or defence in the rude warfare of ancient days, or more probably they served the purposes of an equally rude system of cookery, by which meat was prepared for being eaten by heated stones placed round it, as is still done in many of the South Sea islands.  The floors of the houses were covered to the depth of about a foot with a rich black vegetable mould, which was in all likelihood the decayed remains of the roofs mixed with soil filtered from the surface.  As was gathered from the different appearances of the soil, in and over them, the houses were partly excavated from the hill and partly built above ground, and a level approach to the entrances was dug out of the slope.  The number discovered amounted to forty-two, of which thirty-six formed the arc of a lower and larger circle, and the remaining six, also circularly ranged, stood a little higher up the hill.  The writer is informed that the ruins of villages of a similar description have been discovered in several parts of Scotland; and there is an account of one very much the same as the above, recorded in the third volume of the Transactions of the Antiquarian Society of Scotland.  About twelve querns or small hand-mills were found near the site of these houses, and a grave lined with stone containing a rude urn filled with ashes.  These latter relics, however, may have belonged to a still distant but less remote antiquity. The old castle of Lee or Williamwood was erected near the place, and it is not improbable that, in procuring materials for the building from the freestone, of which the hill consists, the soil, which for so many centuries concealed the remains of the village, was thrown down upon it. Several years ago, the proprietor, in clearing away the old foundations of the castle, which interfered with the rectilineal operations of the plough, found within the square which they enclosed many human bones, which he avers were of almost superhuman magnitude.

“If the natives of the village, described above, deserted their homes hastily, as may be conjectured from the fact of the fuel remaining on their hearths, it may have been in terror of the Romans—one division of whose invading army must have passed not far from the place. In a direct north-east line from this hill, without any intervening eminence, and at the distance of about two miles, there are still very distinct traces of a small Roman encampment on the summit of a hill, the name of which, from the circumstance, is Camp Hill…”

Although the modern official description of these remains is simply that of “a settlement”, the idea that some of the remains here were souterrains seems beyond doubt.  The comparison James Smith makes with remains that were found shortly afterwards that were “very much the same”, unearthed at Cairnconon—or the West Grange of Conon, as Canmore call it—northwest of Arbroath, confirms this idea.

Just over a decade after Mr Smith’s initial account, the Glaswegian historian James Pagan (1856), in his huge History of Glasgow, included another description of the place from the pseudonymous 19th century writer “J.B.”  In what were called Desultory Sketches, much of what he wrote merely echoed the original notes by Smith, but they are still worth repeating:

“Specimens of the winter houses, or weems, were to be seen, till recently, in our own district, at Cartland Craigs, near Stonebyres, on the Clyde; and one very interesting example of the pit-houses was revealed in 1808, on the farm of Overlee, near Busby, in the vicinity of Glasgow.  The following particulars regarding these were communicated to the writer of this sketch, by the parish minister of Cathcart, who had his information from an eye-witness.

“While the farmer was removing soil to get at freestone, for building a new steading, he came on a cluster of subterranean aboriginal huts. They were forty in number, and ranged round the face of the hill on which the farm-house of Overlee now stands. These huts were of the most primitive kind. They were mere semicircular pits, cut out of the hillside, with a passage to the door, also dug out of the slope, on a level with the floor, as indicated by the different colour of the soil. Each consisted of one small apartment, about twelve feet square, five feet high, and faced with stone. The floors were neatly paved with thin flag-stones, found in the neighbourhood. In the centre of each was a hole for a fireplace, in which ashes were still visible. Near the fireplace were small piles of water-worn stones, two or three inches in diameter, probably for cooking food, by placing heated stones round it, as is yet done by some of the islanders in the Pacific Twelve hand-querns of stone for grinding grain were found in the houses. At a short distance, a grave was discovered, lined with stone, and containing rude urns filled with ashes, thus indicating that the inhabitants of this primitive cluster, near what is now Glasgow, burned their dead. Unfortunately, the whole of these curious pit-houses were ruthlessly destroyed.

“In some of the weems and pit-houses, small groups of pretty oyster-shells have been found, perforated with small holes, as if they had been strung together, and formed an ornamental necklace—shall we say for the lady-savage of that distant epoch?  In others were discovered bodkins and skewers, made of horn, probably to hold together the folds of the wild beasts’ skins forming the savages’ winter covering; the bones of oxen, neatly notched, as if for ornament; bowls made of stone, the hollow having been drilled out by the circular action of another stone, sharper and harder, aided by the grit of sand (one of which is now before me); arrow-heads and lances formed of flint or bone, some of the former of which I happen to possess; —nay, swords have been found, fashioned from the bone of a large fish! Heavy oaken war-clubs, too, must not be omitted from this curious catalogue.”

Although highly unlikely, there is the remote possibility that some remains of these underground ‘houses’, or souterrains, could possibly still be unearthed hereby.  In recent years we’ve encountered a number of good farmers and land-owners who’ve told us about souterrains beneath their fields that are not in any record-books.  Intriguingly, each one asked us, “who are you working for?” – and when we’ve assured them that we have nothing to do with the ‘official’ bodies, they’ve opened up and showed us.  In one instance, a land-owner in Angus told us how he was farming the field as he’d always done, “when my tractor fell into a huge hole in the ground – and there was another souterrain!”

Why am I telling you this?  Well, if you’re a local, maybe get round to Overlee and ask around some of the olde local people.  You never know what you might find!  And we could perhaps try find more about the other souterrain which the pseudonymous ‘J.B.’ said was “at Cartland Craigs, near Stonebyres, on the Clyde.”

References:

  1. McBeath, H.D., Walks by Busby and Thorntonhall, with Historical Notes on the Area, EKDC: East Kilbride 1980.
  2. Pagan, James (ed.), Glasgow, Past and Present – volume 2, David Robertson: Glasgow 1856.
  3. Ross, William, Busby and its Neighbourhood, David Bryce: Glasgow 1883.
  4. Smith, James, “Parish of Cathcart,” in New Statistical Account of Scotland – volume 7: Renfrew, William Blackwood: Edinburgh 1845.
  5. Stuart, John, “Notice of Underground Chambers recently Excavated on the Hill of Cairn Conan, Forfarshire,” in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland – volume 3, 1862.
  6. Wainwright, F T., The Souterrains of Southern Pictland. RKP: London 1963.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  55.787536, -4.270462 Overlee souterrain

Dunvarich, Tongue, Sutherland

 

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  58.477954, -4.420205 Dunvarich Souterrain, Tongue

Souterrain (lost):  OS Grid Reference – NC 59 57

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 5341

Archaeology & History

Site of the lost souterrain

There are a number of souterrains—or “earth houses” as they used to be known—in Sutherland that have been lost.  Many have simply fallen prey to being filled-in or covered over.  This is one such site, found in the fields between Tongue village heading out towards the sea-bridge crossing the Kyle.  In a brief excursion I made to the area a few days ago, I couldn’t locate the site and no one I spoke to seemed to know anything about it.  I’m assuming that the site has simply been blocked-up and overgrown, hiding beneath the green pastures above the sea-line.

Its exact whereabouts is difficult to ascertain, for when it was described in Mr Horsburgh’s (1870) excursion to the area, the location he gave for it was somewhat vague, telling:

“Between Tongue House and Kirkiboll, in a field on the right of the road, there is an Eirde house, which I opened for examination (it had often been opened before); it is now about 25 feet long, 2½ feet broad at the entrance, and widens to 4 feet at the far end, where it terminates in a circle; the sides are built with small stones without mortar, and the top covered with large flat slabs.”

This places the location of the souterrain anywhere in the fields between grid-references NC 5904 5815 to the north (near Tongue House) and NC 5901 5678 to the south.  If anyone knows anything about this site, please let us know.

References:

  1. Horsburgh, James, Notes of Cromlechs, Duns, Hut-circles, Chambered Cairns and other Remains, in the County of Sutherland“, in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 7, 1870

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Deanside, Tongue, Sutherland

 

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  58.465707, -4.418783 Deanside Souterrain

Souterrain (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NC 591 556

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 5343
  2. Dionaite

Archaeology & History

Location of Deanside souterrain

Nothing now remains of the prehistoric underground chamber, “eirde House” (as they were called) or souterrain, that was reported by the northern antiquarian James Horsburgh when he was exploring the sites here in the 1860s.  Found near Deanside a couple of miles south of Tongue, alongside the edge of the Allt an Dionaite (Deanside Burn), even in his day there wasn’t much of it left.  It was one of a number of souterrains in the region that he was shown, presumably by local people, telling us briefly that,

“Near Deanside, there were remains of the end of another (souterrain) on the bank of the burn, but it has since been washed away in a flood.”

In an exploration up the side of the burn today, I could find no remains whatsoever; although I didn’t walk too far up and have a feeling that its position would have been further up than where I got to.  In a brief chat with some of the old people living in the neighbourhood, they told me they had no memory of the site.

References:

  1. Horsburgh, James, Notes of Cromlechs, Duns, Hut-circles, Chambered Cairns and other Remains, in the County of Sutherland“, in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 7, 1870

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Borgie Souterrain, Tongue, Sutherland

Souterrain:  OS Grid Reference –  NC 6762 5929 

Getting Here

 

The Borgie souterrain

From Bettyhill village, take the A836 road west towards Tongue.  Several miles along the road, keep your eyes peeled for Borgie and Skerray on your right.  Go down here for half-a-mile or so until, a hundred yards or so before the Borgie Hotel, a dirt-track on your right takes you down into some trees.  As you enter the edge of the woodland, right by the trackside on your left, a large stone lays in the grass.  A few yards from this is the hole in the ground.

Archaeology & History

When I was first shown this place, I could find no previous description of it in any of the archaeological records.  I was fortunate in being taken here by one of the land-owners hereby, who told me that it had been known about locally for some years – but informing the archaeologists (patronizing as they were to the people hereby, as can be the case sometimes) was the last thing on their minds….

Entrance to an underworld
Looking out from inside

Immediately beneath the ridge where the Borgie chambered cairn once stood, the site was uncovered quite by accident when a local man went to move a large stone on the grassy embankment, to make use of it in walling or something similar.  But much to his surprise, the boulder covered the entrance to an underground chamber known as a souterrain – inside which, local lore tends to tell, the little people once stayed.  It’s an impressive structure!  When Donna Murray took me to see this a few months ago, she said it was only a few yards long – but once I’d got inside, found it to be much longer than this.  After dropping perhaps six feet down into the hollow, the very well-preserved wide chamber beneath – some 6-8 feet across – curved around to the north-northeast and into pitch blackness.  I walked perhaps ten yards into the chamber, completely upright, and as the chamber curved and went further into the Earth, the pitch black stopped me venturing more.

Looking into the darkness
Line of roofing stones

The walls of the souterrain were very well structured indeed and were made up of hundreds of good-sized stones, akin to those used to build old stone walling in our northern hills.  The floor was, typically, muddy and apart from a scatter of a few stones I could see little by way of a ‘floor’ beneath my feet (but it was dark!). However, the roofing was made up of large flat stones measuring 6-8 feet across, as wide as the structure itself, running parallel all along the chamber.  I did not walk to the end of the chamber – but would assume that this roofing continued to the end of the souterrain.

In a number of souterrains we find examples of cup-and-ring carvings (the one at Pitcur, Perthshire, being one of the very best), but I could discern no such petroglyphs inside this chamber.  However, considering how dark it was, another investigation with torches is necessary before any definitive remarks regarding internal petroglyphs can be made.

 

Curving into the darkness

It’s in damn good condition indeed and is well worth looking at if you venture this far north.  Other unrecorded prehistoric monuments are found all over this remote landscape – from cup-and-rings, to stone circles, to tombs, enclosures, cairns, you name it!  If anyone knows of any permanent rental properties up here – please let me know and get in touch so that I can spend the rest of my life working here meandering, discovering and recording the prehistory of this truly archaic landscape!  I’m serious!

Acknowledgements:  Immense thanks to Donna from Borgie, for showing me this ancient monument and other sites.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  58.501574, -4.273373 Borgie Souterrain

Fenton Hill, Airlie, Angus

Souterrain (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NO 3044 5040

Also Known as:

  1. Airlie II
  2. Canmore ID 32376

Archaeology & History

One in a cluster of at least seven souterrains that could once be found to the east of Alyth, this was first described in notes by David Whyte in the 1845 New Statistical Account as being “about a mile to the south” of those at Barns of Airlie.  Although Whyte told that the two places “are separated by a deep hollow but are within view of each other,” the explorer F.T. Wainwright (1963) was unable to locate the precise spot, despite several visits.  Three earlier writers (Anderson, Jervise and Warden) merely echoed notes of there being a cluster of sites hereby and made no personal explorations of their own.  Without the expertise of local people, the exact status of this underground chamber remains unknown…

References:

  1. Anderson, Joseph, Scotland in Pagan Times – volume 1: The Iron Age, David Douglas: Edinburgh 1883.
  2. Jervise, A., “Notice of Antiquities in the Parish of Airlie, Forfarshire,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 5, 1864.
  3. Royal Commission of Ancient & Historicc Monuments, Scotland, The Archaeological Sites and Monuments of Scotland: Central Angus, RCAHMS: Edinburgh 1983.
  4. Wainwright, F T., The Souterrains of Southern Pictland, RKP: London 1963.
  5. Warden, Angus J., Angus or Forfarshire – volume 1, Charles Alexander: Dundee 1880.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.640253, -3.135660 Fenton Hill souterrain

Brae of Airlie, Airlie, Angus

Souterrain (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NO 3102 5187

Also Known as:

  1. Airlie IV (Wainwright)
  2. Canmore ID 32383

Archaeology & History

This was one amongst a good cluster of souterrains that existed hereby, remains of which may still exist beneath the ground.  It was rediscovered in the 19th century through a series of most curious events—owing more to the local belief in spirits and witches than any archaeological rationale.  Mr A. Jervise (1864) told the story in his essay on Airlie parish:

“The circumstances which led to the discovery of one of these weems is curious.  Local story says, that the wife of a poor cottar could not for long understand why, whatever sort of fuel she burned, no ashes were left upon the hearth; and if a pin or any similar article was dropt at the fireside, it could not be recovered.  Having “a bakin” of bannocks, or oatmeal cakes, on some occasion, one of the cakes accidentally slipped from off “the toaster,” and passed from the poor woman’s sight!  This was more than she was prepared for; and, believing that the house was bewitched, she alarmed her neighbours, who collected in great numbers, and, as may be supposed, after many surmises and grave deliberation, they resolved to pull down the house!  This was actually done: still the mystery remained unsolved, until one lad, more courageous and intelligent than the rest, looking attentively about the floor, observed a long narrow crevice at the hearth. Sounding the spot, and believing the place to be hollow, he set to work and had the flag lifted, when the fact was disclosed, that the luckless cottage had been built right over an “eirde” house.  The disappearance of ashes, and the occasional loss of small articles of household use, were thus satisfactorily accounted for; but, unfortunately, although the site of this weem remains, as well as that of another near the same place, both were long ago destroyed, and the materials of which they were constructed used for a variety of utilitarian purposes.”

Or to put it simply: right beneath the fireplace, a small opening into the souterrain below appeared, into which all things fell.  F.T. Wainwright (1963) placed the position of the site “about 100 feet east of the road between Barns of Airlie and Brae of Airlie, about 200 yards from the former.”  On the 1865 OS-map, this spot is marked with a small unnamed building.  No excavation has ever been tried here

References:

  1. Jervise, A., “Notice of Antiquities in the Parish of Airlie, Forfarshire,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 5, 1864.
  2. Wainwright, F T., The Souterrains of Southern Pictland. RKP: London 1963.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.653632, -3.126560 Brae of Airlie

Barns of Airlie (2), Airlie, Angus

Souterrain (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NO 3052 5152

Also Known as:

  1. Airlie III (Wainwright 1963)
  2. Canmore ID 32385

Archaeology & History

There are no remains left of this old ‘weem’, earth-house, or souterrain as they are now commonly known.  It was one of at least seven separate souterrains beneath the fields between the Barns of Airlie and Brae of Airlie, but very little is now known of this one.  The first and only real note of the site was given in Mr A. Jervise’s (1864) essay on the antiquities of Airlie parish.  Nearly a hundred years later when F.T. Wainwright (1963) went to investigate any possible remains, he found very little, telling:

“A possible location for Airlie III…presented itself on 24 June, 1951, when Mr D.B. Taylor and I noticed a considerable number of boulders and slabs cast up in the field which lies over the wall from the entrance to Airlie I (souterrain).  The farmer was aware that there was a heavy concentration of stones spread over an area of two or three thousand square feet, but he could add no further information.  In 1951 we were not able to do more than record this possibly significant scatter of stones—it lies between 150 and 200 feet west from the present entrance of Airlie I on a bearing of 260º—and to note that it could very well indicate a souterrain settlement.”

Many of the scattered stone have subsequently been removed for use in walling and no trace remains of the site.

References:

  1. Jervise, A., “Notice of Antiquities in the Parish of Airlie, Forfarshire,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 5, 1864.
  2. Wainwright, F T., The Souterrains of Southern Pictland. RKP: London 1963.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

 

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  56.650324, -3.134742 Barns of Airlie (2)

Arnabost, Coll, Argyll

Souterrain (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NM 2096 6003

Archaeology & History

In Betty MacDougall’s (1966) short work on this history of the island she describes the finding and subsequent destruction of these fascinating underground prehistoric ‘houses’ (as some have called them), telling:

“The vestigial remains of an ‘earth house’, a subterranean dwelling, were uncovered here about 1856 when the road was being made.  The entrance was to the north of the road, under a now empty schoolhouse, and the passage stretched south-eastwards under the road, emerging into a roughly circular chamber, now laid bare in a gravel pit.”

References:

  1. MacDougall, Betty, Isle of Coll, John Miller: Glasgow 1966.
  2. Ritchie, Graham, “Early Settlement in Argyll,” in The Archaeology of Argyll, Edinburgh University Press 1997.
  3. Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Argyll – volume 3: Mull, Tiree, Coll and Northern Argyll, HMSO: Edinburgh 1980.
  4. Wainwright, F.T., The Souterrains of Southern Pictland, RKP: London 1963.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.648637, -6.553898 Arnabost souterrain