Along the B880 glen road that cuts Arran roughly in half, known as The String, could once be seen a stone circle that one early writer told was quite impressive. Today It seems that all trace of the circle has gone. The earliest mention of it seems to be in James Headrick’s (1807) work, where, in discussing what he thought were “Druidical” remains of obelisks and cairns in the area,
“A more entire circle of this sort is seen on the rising ground at the mouth of Glen Shirreg, towards the west.”
But he tells us no more. Shortly afterwards—according to reverend Allan McNaughton in the New Statistical Account of the 1830s—it was destroyed. He said that,
“about twenty-four years ago, a very complete circle at the mouth of Glensheraig was removed, in clearing the field in which it stood for the operations of the plough.”
Despite this short remark, eighty years later we had J.A. Balfour (1910) inform us that,
“On the right of the String Road going west in Glen Sherraig is a small ruined monument of which three small standing stones alone remain, so disposed as to suggest that the original structure was a double circle.”
However, Balfour’s site may be an altogether different one to that mentioned by Headrick and McNaughton.
Aubrey Burl (2000) lists it in his major work; but its ancient life was, once again, brought to end in these recent years by those of less sound minds than our ancestors.
Balfour, J.A., The Book of Arran – volume 1, Arran Society of Glasgow 1910.
By whichever way you come (be it from Brodick on the east, Lochranza to the north) ask any local the way to Machrie and they’ll point you the road onto the west side of the island, roughly halfway. You’re after the hamlets of Blackwaterfoot or Auchagallon. From either of these spots, take the road to Tormore. From here, the dirt-track east close to the Machrie Water is where you need to walk. About a mile along this well-defined track you’ll see the large barn ahead of you. Hereabouts you’ll begin to notice some very tall standing stones. Keep walking on the track, and the first double-ring of smaller stones to your right is the place yer after!
Archaeology & History
This is one well-preserved stone circle in a superb setting with other large megalithic rings all close by—at least 12 of them!—set upon the flat open moorlands on the west side of Arran, with views in all directions sending the enquiring nose tasting for more wherever the eyes gaze…. It has been written about by many many writers over the last few centuries—which aint surprising! But it was in recent times that the place was said by Aubrey Burl (1981) to be “holy ground,” because although there are many prehistoric settlement sites and other remains scattered across this landscape,
“it is noticeable that the dozens of huts whose ruins litter the moor were built well away to the west, none of them near these powerful and lonely stones.”
It’s a fair point.
Fingal’s Cauldron was first defined in an archaeological context by James Bryce in 1863, who named it the ‘Machrie Moor 5’ stone circle (MM5)—and it was he and several others who dug into the ring, to see what it might be hiding!
“Excavating at the centre we found a small cist at less than a foot in depth, and lying about north-east. It was covered by a small lid, and the dimensions were 2 feet 2 inches in length, 10½ inches in depth, and 11 inches in width. Inside there were several bone fragments and black earth. A flint implement was found in the stony soil above, and three other flint fragments, but nothing of this kind in the cist itself. This was of much ruder structure than any we had seen before (Ed. – i.e., in the other Machrie circles); it was cut out of the sold sandstone rock, but with little care or exactness; the sides however, were nearly perpendicular. The difficulty of excavating without iron tools may account for the smaller size and ruder form of this cist. No other cist was found, nor remains of any kind, though a trial was made at several points around the centre. A deep opening was also made on both sides of the upright stone, but nothing was met with worthy of being recorded.”
Described thereafter a number of times by different historians and antiquarians, Fingal’s Cauldron (and its associates) was then recounted in the Machrie Moor survey of Mr Balfour (1910) in his magnum opus on the Isle of Arran. Although he gave more attention to the other stone circles in this multiple megalithic complex, he did thankfully make note that,
“upon higher ground free of peat, and immediately to the south of the farmhouse, is the celebrated double circle of granite blocks known popularly as Fingal’s Cauldron Seat. The inner ring consists of eight and the outer of fourteen blocks. The diameter of the inner circle is 36 feet and of the outer 57 feet. The largest stones are in the inner series; they are more or less round-topped blocks, about 4 feet high. One of the stones of the outer ring has a ledge which is perforated by a round hole, with the edges worn smooth.
“In the centre of the inner ring, only a foot from the surface, a ruined cist was laid bare. It had been previously disturbed, and was represented by two stones only, lying parallel to one another. There was no capstone, and no relics were discovered.”
More recently in the 1960s, another survey of Fingal’s Cauldron was undertaken by A.E. Roy and other archaeologists. They found nothing new of any value, but gave us the ground-plan we see here (sadly it seems that Alexander Thom didn’t bless this site with his theodolite and survey). Aubrey Burl re-examined the site again during his own survey in the 1980s.
There are other curious features to this ring that aint generally talked about amongst the archaeo-fraternity, out of fear of sounding inspiring perhaps… In the 1980s, a chap called Paul Devereux and a number of physicists organized volunteers from across the country to monitor electromagnetic anomalies at many megalithic rings, in order to explore the validity, or otherwise, of the idea that there were ‘energies’ at stone circles. The study was called The Dragon Project and went on for many years. The Machrie Moor complex was one of the places where examinations of electromagnetic fields were undertaken—Fingal’s Cauldron being one of them. Devereux (1990) tells us a small part of the story:
“In May 1983 Dave and Lynn Patrick monitored several of the Machrie Moor circles, including MM5, with a geiger counter for the Gaia Programme. They also took background control readings and monitored a non-megalithic ‘dummy site’ for comparisons.
“Five of the circles…gave average site readings 2 to 13 per cent higher than background, but MM5 gave a site average of 33 per cent above background. A non-megalithic ‘dummy site’ was 5 per cent above background. The Patricks had taken 20 readings within MM5—one hour of monitoring time—plotted onto the ground-plan. There was no mystery about why the site gave a higher average than anywhere else, and a third higher than background—the stones are radioactive granite, and there are 23 of them. But one stone, the tallest, and the most westerly of the upright stones in the inner ring, is particularly energetic, giving readings 16 per cent above the next most radioactive stone in the double ring, and more than that for the other 58 stones monitored in the Patrick’s study on Machrie Moor.
“I took measurements at the site myself in April 1988, using new equipment, and confirmed that the MM5 stone did indeed give a moderately high naturally radiation count (about 33 per cent above normal).”
This rather hot “Cauldron of Finn” certainly does throw off more heat than its compatriots nearby, as scientific analysis has shown! It turned out to be the type of stone which our ancestors used in constructing the site. Fascinating…
Although this is one of the smallest of the megalithic rings on the moor, it’s the one that has the main legend. In line with its folk-title, twas said to have been the place where the Irish giant and hero-figure, Finn, “assigning to the encircling stones the purpose of supporting the cauldron of the giant,” with the inner ring being where it was placed and he cooked. Finn also used another part of the circle, as James Bryce (1863) said:
“A block on the southeast side of the outer circle has a ledge perforated by a round hole, which is well worn on the edges, and said to have been formed for the purpose of fastening the favourite dog Bran.”
Shortly after this, John McArthur (1873) wrote his work on the ancient remains of the island, giving additional elements to the myths of this ring; firstly telling that the perforated hole which Bran was tied to,
“was probably associated with some old superstition or religious ceremony, now forgotten. The hole is sufficiently large to admit the two fingers, and runs perpendicularly through the side of the column…
“The perforated column of “Fiongal’s Cauldron Seat,” on the Mauchrie Moor, was believed to contain a fairy or brownie, who could only be propitiated by the pouring of milk through the hole bored in the side of the stone.”
The animistic tradition of pouring milk into stones is more usually found at bullauns and some cup-and-ring carvings, so we need to look closely in good weather conditions at the uprights in the circle just to make sure we aint missed anything here… Carvings are found on some of the other Machrie stones.
Regarding the small hole through the stone which Bran was tied to, Gareth Weston (2007), in his otherwise terrible book, tells that,
“The middle of the perforated stone and the geometric centre (of the ring) are in line with the sharp summit of Goat Fell, Arran’s loftiest peak and the highest point in southeast Scotland.”
Over the years I have slept at many prehistoric sites in Britain—stone circles, chambered tombs and cup-and-ring stones all—hundreds of times, in all weathers. Sadly in recent years I’ve been neglecting this duty. However, during the winter of 1986 I spent a few nights in the snow on the Machrie plain, between this circle and the taller uprights a short distance away. On one dark freezing February night, shortly before we hit the sack,
“a bright orange glow was seen on the summit of the mountain (Ard Bheinn), three miles away. A second or two later a ball of light rose up from the snow-clad hills and into the clouds, a hundred feet above. A few minutes later we saw the same ball of light again; on both occasions the ball of light was visible for two seconds at the most.”
Several times when sleeping rough at Machrie I got talking with an old farmer who had grown up round here. He told that he’d “seen strange lights around the moors a few times” down the years. With the moorland scent and feel of the place round here, that surprises me not one bit!
From Brodick, walk up the Glencloy dirt-track towards the friendly Kilmichael Hotel but turn off on the left shortly before hand, up another footpath, crossing the stream until you eventually reach the derelict house which was built into the edges of this old tomb. Upon the small rise above here, at the edge of the forestry commission trees, you’ll notice the overgrown ruins of the old tomb.
Archaeology & History
The remains here are somewhat overgrown and ramshackled, but I still like this place and in my younger days used to spend a lot of time here. It can get quite eerie in some conditions and seems to validate some of the folklore said of it. The site was described in Balfour’s (1910) magnum opus as:
“Situated in Glen Cloy, on the moor above Kilmichael House, close to a cottage called Glenrickard. There are no traces of a cairn or of a frontal semicircle. The chamber is formed of rather light flags, with their upper edges nearly on the same level, so that the monument is more like a series of cists than a chamber. The roof and end stone have gone; there are two portal stones, but the gap between them is only 7 inches. The chamber is directed N and S, with the portal to the south. There have been three compartments, but they are rather smaller than usual, the third from the portal being only 3 feet 10 inches long by 2 feet 2 inches broad. Two feet 6 inches from this compartment is another cist, which is possibly a short cist representing a secondary interment, and 10 feet farther north is a second ruined cist placed at a different angle. This last has the appearance of a short cist, but it is not carefully constructed and differs little from the component compartments of the chamber. The structure is anomalous, and may perhaps be regarded as representing a phase of degeneration in the transitional period.”
Audrey Henshall (1972) later descried the site in greater details in her own magnum opus and told that “two rude clay urns of the primitive flower-pot pattern (were) found in the chamber”, along with “calcined bones, said to have been in the two vessels.”
Said by local people to be haunted, the spirit of the tomb was said to have been disturbed upon the building of the derelict house below it. Ghosts of a middle-aged couple and young child have been seen in the house; whilst the spirit of the site can generate considerable fear to those who visit the place when it is ‘awake.’ To those who may visit this out-of-the-way tomb, treat the site with the utmost respect (and DON’T come here and hang a loada bloody crystals around the place in a screwy attempt to “clean” the psychic atmosphere of the place. If you’re that sort of person, don’t even go here! The spirit of the place certainly wouldn’t want you there).
Balfour, J.A., The Book of Arran: Archaeology, Arran Society: Glasgow 1910.
Henshall, Audrey Shore, The Chambered Tombs of Scotland – volume 2, Edinburgh University Press 1972.