Easter Nether Urquhart Cairn, Gateside, Fife

Cairn (destroyed): OS Grid ReferenceNO 1886 0890

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore 27787

Getting Here

The easiest way is to turn south off the A91 at Gateside onto Station Road, and the site of the cairn is in the third field to the left over the railway bridge. I accessed the site walking along the old railway line and climbing up the embankment.

Archaeology & History

The site of the Cairn on the 1894 25 in. OS map.

In the shadow of the Lomond Hills of Fife, what was once a very large pre-historic cairn, officially described as of ‘unassigned’ period, was quarried to destruction around two hundred and twenty years ago, presumably to provide stones for dykes (stone walls), at that time of enclosures of common land and what the landowners liked to call ‘agricultural improvements’.

In the early nineteenth century, this part of the Eden Valley between Gateside and the Lomond Hills was what would now be called a ritual landscape. There were, according to Miller:

nearly in a line between the two Laws ( Lomond Hills) no less than eight “druidical temples” (Stone circles) close together

and a number of impressive burial cairns, of which Easter Nether Urquhart seems to have been the largest. There were in addition large numbers of graves containing masses of cremated of human bones. Nearly all this archaeology has been subsequently destroyed by the farmers.

Two local antiquarian writers proposed that all these human remains had been buried there following the battle of Mons Graupius between the Roman Invaders under Agricola, and the Caledonians, and went on to argue that the Eden Valley was the site of this historic defeat for the ancient Caledonians defending their homeland. Whatever and whenever the origins of the cairns and human remains, subsequent researchers disagree with these nineteenth century arguments in favour of the Eden Valley, and tend to favour a more northerly location for Mons Graupius. Nevertheless we have these two historians to thank for leaving us descriptions of the cairn.

One of the antiquarians, Rev. Andrew Small wrote in 1823:

‘The Slaughter here seems to have been so dreadful, that even after the lapse of 17 Centuries the Common tradition of the Country bears, and seems to be as fresh in the Mouths of both old and young as though the battle had been fought only a hundred years ago, – that after this battle the River Eden ran red with blood for two days…’

It seems more likely that the event remembered was part of the campaign by Roman Emperor Septimus Severus and his son Caracalla to subdue the Caledonians around 209-210 CE. Modern writer, Simon Elliott:

‘Archaeological data is now emerging to show ….. a major depopulation event, indicating something close to a genocide was committed by the Romans in the central and upper Midland Valley.’

Andrew Small describing the cairn and some of the cremation remains in 1823:

There was also a very large cairn laid upon these ; and the proprietor lately told me that when removing the stones, besides the ashes already mentioned, there was also a pit of pure fine sand by itself, about as fine as is usually put into sand-glasses, which he thinks had been used for regulating the fire in burning of the dead. This cairn stood a little north of an ancient Druids temple, only one stone now remaining, out of ten of which it formerly consisted ‘.

Lieutenant – Colonel, Miller writing in 1829:

‘Farther west ….a very large cairn stood, containing upwards of two thousand cart-loads of stones. Upon removing it about thirty years ago, a pit six feet long, two broad, and of the same depth, was found, quite full of burnt bones; and near it another, two feet square and two deep, full of the finest sand. An urn was also found, near the surface of the cairn, full of bones. A very fine Druid’s temple stood on the south side of it, consisting of seven very large stones…’

As the builders of the cairn didn’t have access to carts, and that the stones all had to be moved by hand, it gives an indication of the manpower needed to build the cairn, and the status of the individuals whose remains were buried there. And we have to question why a special chamber been built into the base of the cairn to hold fine sand, and what was the purpose of this sand?

Left – View of Cairn site looking north, centre of the field beyond the tractor tracks.
Centre – View looking south. Right – The cairn recycled? Walling on the south side of A91 at
Gateside

Folklore 

While not writing specifically of the cairn, Revd. Small recounts these tales of the surrounding land, relating it to his belief that it was the site of Mons Graupius:

‘I cannot forbear to mention here, also, a singular circumstance I had from the landlord and landlady, both yet alive, — viz. that before parking or inclosing took place, they were accustomed to have folds built of feal or turf for the cattle lying in at night ; but that, when the folds happened to be in this place where the dead had been burnt, the cattle would never lie in them, but always broke through or leaped over the dyke ; that they were obliged to give a man a boll of barley extra to watch them, when they lay in this spot, which was obliged to be repeated every four or five years in rotation ; but that sometimes the man was not able to keep them in by all his endeavours, the cattle looking wild and terrified in appearance ; and sometimes it required the united efforts of all the hands that could be had to keep them in, oftentimes springing over the fold dykes close beside them, and frequently crouching and trembling as if they would have fallen down with terror, although nothing appeared visible to the visual organs either of the man or those that occasionally assisted him. However, after the discovery of so many ashes and fragments of human bones, the man declared that, had he known of these being so near, he would not have been so fond of watching.’  

‘The late farmer of Upper Orquart, a most respectable man, with whom I was well acquainted, and upon whose farm the principal part of the battle was fought, told me also that always when the folds happened to be both at where the Caledonians were burnt as well as the Romans — but particularly he specified the spot where the Romans had been burnt, or the Witch Know or Knoll — the cattle would never lie in the fold, but were always breaking ” the fauld,” as he called it, except when they were particularly watched ; and even that was not always effectual for keeping them from doing it either. This would insinuate as if the spirits of these departed heroes of antiquity sometimes visited and hovered about the places where their ashes had been deposited ; though invisible to the more refined visual organs of the human eye, yet obviously visible in some shape or other to the more gross visual organs of the irrational or bestial tribe, else how can these forementioned occurrences be accounted for? This hypothesis seems to be borne out by Balaam’s Ass perceiving the Angel twice, when he himself could not do so till his eyes were supernaturally opened.’

Afterword

Although the cairn no longer exists, its stones were probably reused for local walling, and it’s likely, but not provable, that the wall on the south side of the A91 past the Station Road turning is built from stones removed from the cairn.

References:

  1. Elliott, Simon, Septimus Severus in Scotland, Greenhill Books, 2018.
  2. Miller, Lt. Col., “An Inquiry Respecting the Site of theBattle of Mons Grampius“, 1829, published in Archaeologica Scotica vol. IV, 1857.
  3. Small, Andrew, Interesting Roman Antiquities Recently Discovered in Fife, John Anderson, Edinburgh, 1823

Links:

  1. Battle of Mons Graupius

© Paul T Hornby 2020

 

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  56.265629, -3.311587 Easter Nether Urquhart Cairn

Wester Nether Urquhart Stane, Gateside, Fife

Standing Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NO 1862 0799

Getting Here

Wester Nether Urquhart Stane

To find this stone take the A91 to Gateside and turn into Station Road.  Follow to the end, then turn right.  200 yards on there is a parking spot for the Bunnet Stane, and a track to follow.  As you go up this track towards the Bunnet, approximately 280 yards on is this beauty.

Archaeology & History

At over 6ft high, this previously unrecorded standing stone has quite a presence on this slight incline.  It’s hard to tell the true height as he is set in a grassy bank with a drystane wall behind.  It has obviously been used as a gatepost at some time in the past, but there’s no hint of being moved for that purpose.  There are many ancient relics in this area and there used to be a stone circle across the road and behind Nether Urquhart Farm, along with several burial cairns.  I reckon there is a lot more to be found, and we fully intend to go back there.

© Maggie Overett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.257414, -3.315181 Wester Nether Urquhart Stane

Easter Nether Urquhart Circle, Gateside, Fife

Stone Circle (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NO 18873 08865

Remaining standing stone of Easter Nether Urqhart stone circle on 1856 map
1856 map showing stone of Easter Nether Urquhart circle

Also known as:

  1. Canmore ID 27809

Getting Here

Turn off the A91 road at Gateside and go down Station Road, crossing the old railway line at the bottom.  From here, cross the fields to your left and the site of the circle will be found in the field to the north east of Easter Nether Urquhart Farm.

Archaeology & History

65 years after last stone was removed, its position is evident in crop-growth
Position of the circle, evident in crop-growth

Marked on the 1856 6″ Ordnance Survey map as a “standing stone,” earlier references record this as being the survivor of a stone circle.  Not listed in Aubrey Burl’s (2000) magnum opus, this circle was on the edge of the site of a major battle between the Romans and the native defenders, and large amounts of human remains have been found in the vicinity.  Referring to an adjacent cairn, Lieutenant-Colonel Miller wrote in 1829:

“A very fine Druid’s Temple stood on the south side of it, consisting of seven very large stones. All these were blasted with powder and removed, except half the one of them, which still marks the spot.”

Of the same cairn, the Reverend Andrew Small wrote in 1823:

“This cairn stood a little north of an ancient Druids’ temple, only one stone now remaining, out of ten of which it formerly consisted.”

The Ordnance Survey Name Book for 1853-55 imparts the following:

“This standing Stone is about 13 chains on the South side of the River Eden opposite Edensbank but whether it is the remains of a druid’s temple or set up to mark something relative to the battle contested between the Romans and Caledonians according to Messrs. Miller & Small, it is difficult to determine. It stands about 4 feet 10 inches high and its sides are about 2 feet broad…many of the inhabitants consider it to have been a druid’s temple…”

A close-up of the site
A close-up of the site

J.S.Baird of Nether Urquhart informed an Ordnance Survey officer in 1956 that the remaining stone was broken up and removed around 1952, and measured 5 feet high with a girth of 9 feet at the base. Near the top of the stone, on the south-side were two slight cracks weathered to suggest a simple incised cross.

On the day of my November field-visit the winter barley was sprouting and it was interesting to see how much better it was growing at the place where the remaining stone had stood.

A standing stone at Wester Nether Urquhart, rediscovered by Maggie Overett in July 2020, can be seen a half-mile southwest.

References:

  1. Burl, Aubrey, The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale University Press 2000.
  2. Miller, Lieutenant-Colonel, “An Inquiry respecting the site of the battle of Mons Grampius (Read 27th April 1829 and 25th January 1830),” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Volume IV, 1857.
  3. Small, Reverend Andrew, Interesting Roman Antiquities Recently Discovered in Fife Ascertaining the site of the Great Battle fought betwixt Agricola and Galgacus, John Anderson & Co: Edinburgh 1823.

© Paul T. Hornby 2016 – The Northern Antiquarian 

 

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  56.265320, -3.311347 Easter Nether Urquhart

Our Lady’s Well, Gateside, Fife

Holy Well: OS Grid Reference – NO 18505 09169

Also Known as:

  1. Chapel Well

Getting Here

Access to the field - ask at the pleasant house!
Access to the field – ask at the pleasant house!

Travelling from Milnathort on the A91, in Gateside village, turn right down Old Town, and after the left bend in the road, park up.  Access to the field where the Well is situated is through the gate on land next to the easternmost house on the south side of Old Town.  Ask at the house first.  Walk down the field towards the Chapel Den burn, and the ruins of the Well will be seen next to the burn just before the line of bushes that cross the field.

Archaeology and History

In his brief description of Strathmiglo parish, Hew Scott (1925) wrote:

“At Gateside…there was a chapel of St Mary, with Our Lady’s Well beside it.”

It was described in the nineteenth century Ordnance Survey Name Books by an informant:

“A small spring well on the north side of the Mill Dam.  Supposed to have been used in the days of Popery as holy water and for other purposes when the building supposed to have been St Mary’s Chapel was in existence.”

Another informant wrote:

“…a Romish chapel is supposed to have been erected in this village and is borne out in a great measure by names of objects adjoining, namely Chapel Den, Chapel Well.”

And further:

“According to Doctor Small…it is stated, ‘The ancient name of this village called in old papers the Chapelton of the Virgin, changing its name at the Reformation.'”

Shown as Chapel Well in 1856
Shown as Chapel Well in 1856

This latter statement would seem to imply that the part of modern-day Gateside south of the main road (the north side was known as ‘Edentown’) was a pilgrimage centre of the Cult of the Virgin.  The chapel was erected by the monks of Balmerino to whom it was known as ‘Sanct Mary’s of Dungaitsyde’.  It was highlighted as the Chapel Well on the 1856 OS-map.

The ruined Well from across the burn
The ruined Well from across the burn
Nature takes back the ruined masonry at this magickal spot
Nature takes back the ruined masonry at this magickal spot

While no trace of the chapel remains, the Well is evidenced by some low ruins of what had once been a red sandstone structure, and it was just possible to make out in the field the line of the pilgrim’s path to the well. But what a lovely serene place next to the burn! An ideal spot to meditate or daydream… The spring no longer flows, and a manhole in the field probably indicates the water supply has been diverted, perhaps to serve the long since closed Gateside Distillery?

References:

  1. Scott, Hew, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae – Volume V, Oliver & Boyd: Edinburgh 1925.

Links:

  1. On Canmore

© Paul T. Hornby 2016 The Northern Antiquarian 

 

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  56.267972, -3.317383 Our Ladys Well