Hillfort: OS Grid Reference – NR 3486 9314
Bittova trek this one. Once on Colonsay, head out onto the B8086 road west of Scalasaig until you, past Machrins, and onto the gold course. Take the footpath across it (south), until you hit the little airstrip where you need to veer right (west) right onto the spur of the coast about 800 yards away. Your damn close!
Archaeology & History
Highlighted on the 1878 OS-map of the region, this site occupies a prominent position. Its summit is surrounded by a line of oval walling enclosing an area of about 90 square yards. There are also remains of of outer walling to the eastern and southern sides. The ‘cairn’ on the highest spot in the middle of the hillfort is a modern construction.
The great Scottish folklorist A.A. MacGregor (1947) narrated the tale behind this denuded fort on the western edge of the island. According to the islanders who told him the tale, they alleged it Norwegian in origin, though the fortress is much older than that. MacGregor told that, “in this fort there once lived an elderly and voluptuous tyrant named Grey Somerled, who is said to have been related to the first of the Lords of the Isles.
“Grey Somerled came to Colonsay, they say, in the capacity of factor. But he neglected his duties, imposed penalties and hardships on the innocent and defenceless tenants, and generally made himself so disagreeable that at last it was decided to take revenge upon him, previous warnings having been no deterrent.
“Like Rory Mor of Dunvegan, who slept best when he was within hearing of his ‘nurse’, the waterfall, Grey Somerled was wont to be lulled to sleep by the grinding noise of a quern placed near his head. When he retired for the night, one of the servants had to turn the quern-stone by his pillow, and keep on turning it, lest he woke.
“It was recognised that any attempt to surprise Grey Somerled during daylight was foredoomed to failure. So, a plot was laid to circumvent him during the night-time. His enemies entered into a conspiracy with one of the servants that she should allow them to invade Dun Gallain after he had fallen asleep. When they arrived, one of their number relieved the woman at the quern, and proceeded to turn the stone without intermission. But he was not too skillful at the turning; and his harsh and irregular grinding soon woke the sleeper. Ere Gey Somerled had had time to consider the matter of resistance, his foes were upon him. They carried him away from Dun Gallain; and tradition in the islands of Argyll has it that, in great privation, he spent the remainder of his days in a bee-hive house of stone, situated on the farmlands of Machrins.
“One night – so the story concludes – a huge boulder from the roof of the bee-hive fell in, killing its unhappy inmate. So as to identify the spot where this tragedy happened, the islanders raised on it the cairn now indicated on the Ordnance Survey Map as Carn Shomhairle Liath – that is to say, Grey Somerled’s Cairn.”
Interestingly, there is a long-cist burial at Machrins (plus small settlement) a few hundred yards east of the fort, and excavations here found them to date from the Viking period; though the Scottish Royal Commission thought that although the “small finds associated with the burial suggest that it is Viking, the plan-form of the houses is perhaps more likely to indicate a native tradition.”
- MacGregor, Alasdair Alpin, The Peat-Fire Flame, Ettrick Press: Edinburgh 1947.
- Royal Commission of Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Argyll – volume 5, HMSO: Edinburgh 1984.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian