Breckon Howe, Sleights Moor, Sleights, North Yorkshire

Tumulus:  OS Grid Reference – NZ 85374 03406

Also Known as:

  1. Brakken Howe
Breckon Howe on 1853 map

Getting Here

Along the A169 road between Sleights and Pickering, some two miles south of Sleights at the highest point on the moors just above the west side of the road, you’ll see a large mound with what looks like a standing stone on top of it.  A minor road turns off the A169 at this point, heading southeast, and the large mound is 150 yards from the roadside. You can’t really miss it!

Archaeology & History

Shown on the first OS map of the area in 1853, this conspicuous prehistoric tomb surmounted by a relatively recent boundary stone, sits at the highest point on the moors in these parts.  Despite this (as with others on these moors), very little has been written about the place and it has received only minimal attention in archaeology tomes.  Even the renowned pen of Frank Elgee (1912; 1930) gave it only passing mention.  Perhaps it aint a bad thing to be honest.

Breckon Howe, from the south

As well as being conspicuous, it’s large.  Rising some six feet above the natural ground level, it measures 26 yards across its east-west axis, and 29 yards north-south, with a rough circumference of 88 yards.  The boundary stone that surmounts its crown sits in a hollow that looks like it was opened up a century or two ago by antiquarians (much like ourselves).  But its position of the tomb in the landscape that is most striking.  The view from here is considerable, having a clear 360º view for many miles around.  Other prehistoric tombs can be seen from here, but more importantly this tomb can be seen on the skyline from many others.  This was probably a deliberate feature intended by its builders–and it’s not uncommon, as many of our upland regions are crowned with ancient tombs like Breckon Howe.  In all likelihood this would have been the resting place of some important ancestral figure: a tribal elder or a shaman, whose spirit after death could view and travel across the landscape they inhabited in life.

Although the tomb presently sits amidst an endless sea of heather (Calluna vulgaris) typical of moorland across our northern lands, the name of the site ‘breckon’, according to George Young (1817) derives from the dialect word meaning ferns or bracken.  This is echoed in Francis Kildale’s (1855) local dialect study and subsequently in Joseph Wright’s (1898) unequalled magnum opus.

Folklore

In the early 19th century, one George Calvert who lived in the area, collected as much folklore as he could, as it was dying off with the coming of the Church.  One such piece told that there was once a hob who lived by this old tomb.  A hob is generally known as a supernatural creature, but in this area it can also be a medicine man.  Some hobs were good, others were malicious.  We know not what type of hob lived lived here, but Calvert simply told us there used to be “T’ Hob of Brackken Howe”.  Nowt more!  It would be good to find the story behind this old character, if it hasn’t been lost entirely…

References:

  1. Elgee, Frank, Early Man in Northeast Yorkshire, Frank Bellows: Gloucester 1930.
  2. Elgee, Frank, The Moorlands of North-Eastern Yorkshire, A. Brown: London 1912.
  3. Kildale, Francis, A Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases Collected in Whitby and the Nieghbourhood, J.R. Smith: London 1855.
  4. Home, Gordon, The Evolution of an English Town, J.M. Dent: London 1905.
  5. Wright, Joseph, English Dialect Dictionary – volume 1, .Henry Frowde: London 1898.
  6. Young, George, A History of Whitby and Streoneshalh Abbey – volume 2, Clarke & Medd: Whitby 1817.

Acknowledgements:  A huge thanks to Lindsay Mitchell for getting us up to see this great tomb and its companion.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  54.418942, -0.685822 Breckon Howe

Spittal of Glenshee, Kirkmichael, Perthshire

Standing Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NO 10865 70201

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 29609

Getting Here

Spittal of Glenshee stone

Take to A93 road, north, between Blairgowrie and Braemar, keeping your eyes peeled many miles on, to turn left along the minor road as you approach the tiny Spittal of Glenshee hamlet. Just as you go over the ancient bridge, park up on your left, below the church.  Walk round the back of the church and you’ll see a large tree-covered mound.  Walk onto its top.

Archaeology & History

Stone marked on 1862 map

This quiet, almost hidden, six-foot tall standing stone on what initially seems to be a large fairy mound or tumulus at the back of the rude church, has been occluded from general view (in my opinion, deliberately) by the construction of the more debased christian edifice right in front of it.  But it detracts not from its gentle majesty once you reach its ancient body, atop of the old hill.

The stone is one in a cluster of prehistoric sites in and around this Glen of the Fairy Folk (as its name tells), where the rivers Shee and Beag converge.  If the church didn’t obstruct the view, some of the other sites would have been visible from here.

Folklore

The old stone, looking east

Folklore tells that when the christians came into the Glen to build a church—initially a half-mile or so to the east—the little people were much annoyed at the actions of the incomers, as it intruded on one of their sacred rings of stone close by.  By night they came out, and every stone that had been laid by the christians in the day was removed.  Each day the insensitive christians came and built their church without asking, and each night the little people removed it.  Eventually an agreement was made, and the fairies let them build the church next to this standing stone.  So goes the tale….

A veritable cluster of stories about Fingal, Ossian, Dermid and Grianne scatter this area, with many of them relating to ancient sites, but I’ve not found one directly relating to this stone.

References:

  1. Miller, T.D., Tales of a Highland Parish, Munro Press: Perth 1929.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Spittal of Glenshee stone

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Spittal of Glenshee stone 56.814728, -3.461654 Spittal of Glenshee stone

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

Dun Osdale, Dunvegan, Skye

Broch:  OS Grid Reference – NG 24162 46424

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 10832

Getting Here

Dun Osdale, by the roadside

From the A863 Dunvegan road, a mile south of the village turn onto the B884 road at Lonmore, making sure you veer right after a few hundred yards and head towards Glendale.  About a mile along, on the left-hand side of the road, note the small rocky crag that begins to grow just above the roadside.  At the end of this crag you’ll see a huge pile of rocks, seemingly tumbling down, just by a small T-junction to Uiginish.  You can’t really miss it.

Archaeology & History

Listed as one of the duns, or fortified prehistoric structures in Skye by the old writer J.A. MacCulloch (1905), the rediscovery of this broch was, said A.A. MacGregor (1930), one that “became historical only within living memory.”  I find that hard to believe!  The Gaelic speakers hereby merely kept their tongues still when asked, as was common in days of olde—and it was a faerie abode….

Looking at the SW walling

Looking at the SE walls

Once you go through the gate below the broch, the large boggy area you have to circumnavigate is the overflow from an ancient well, known as Tobar na Maor, where Anne Ross said, “tradition that the stewards of three adjacent properties met there.”  This well was covered by an ancient Pictish stone (now in Dunvegan Castle), which may originally have been associated with the broch just above it.  When I visited the site with Aisha and Her clan, we passed the overgrown well and walked straight up to the broch.

Despite being ruinous it is still most impressive.  The massive walling on its southwestern side is still intact in places; but you don’t get a real impression of the work that went into building these structures until you’re on top.  The walls themselves are so thick and well-built that you puzzle over the energy required to build so massive a monument.  And Scotland has masses of them!

Aisha in the broch

Small internal chamber

The site was surveyed briefly when the Ordnance Survey lads came here in 1877, subsequently highlighting it on the first OS-map of the area.  But it didn’t receive any archaeocentric assessment until the Royal Commission (1928) lads explored the area some fifty years later.  In their outstanding Inventory of the region they described Dun Osdale in considerable detail, although kept their description purely architectural in nature, betraying any real sense of meaning and history which local folk must have told them.  They wrote:

“The outer face of the wall of the broch for a great part is reduced to the lower courses, but on the west-southwest a section still maintains a height of about 7 feet; on the south-side, although hidden by fallen stones, it is about 4 to 5 feet high, and on the northeast there is a very short section 3 feet in height.  The stones are of considerable size and laid in regular courses.  In the interior a mass of tumbled stone obscures the most of the inner face of the wall, but on the south and northwest it stands about 8 feet above the debris.  The broch is circular with an internal diameter of 35 feet to 35 feet 6 inches, and the wall thickens from 10 feet on the north to 13 feet 7 inches on the south. The entrance, which is one the east, is badly broken down, but near the inside has a width of 3 feet 2 inches, and appears to have been 2 feet 10 inches on the outside; it has run straight through the wall without checks.  In the thickness of the wall to the south of the entrance is an oval chamber measuring 10 feet long by 4 feet 9 inches broad above the debris with which it is half-filled.  The roof has fallen in, but the internal corbelling of the walls is well displayed.  The fallen stones no doubt still cover the entrance, which has probably been from the interior.  Within the western arc of the wall, nearly opposite the main doorway, is another oval cell 12 feet in length and 4 feet 6 inches in breadth over debris, with a doorway 2 feet 9 inches wide; its outer and inner walls are 5 feet 9 inches, and 2 feet 6 inches respectively.  The roof od this chamber has also collapsed, but from the masonry which remains in position it must have been over 6 feet in height.  Immediately to the west of the cell near the entrance are exposed the left jamb of a door and a short length of a gallery 3 feet 6 inches wide in the thickness of the southern wall, which probably contained the stairs, as traces of a gallery at a higher level than the oval chambers are seen here, the inner wall being about 3 feet and the outer 8 feet thick. Parts of a scarcement 9 inches wide can be detected on the northwestern and southeastern arcs.”

Dun Osdale plan (RCAHMS 1928)

Dun Osdale on 1881 map

Measurements and architectural tedium aside, the broch is worthwhile for anyone interested in our ancient mythic past, not least because of its position in the landscape and its visual relationship with other sites of the same period nearby.  As well as that, there are unrecorded ancient sites still hiding in these olde moors…

Folklore

Tradition tells that Dun Osdale was used as a watch-tower by the tribal folk—which seems quite credible.  But the original inhabitants of Duirinish, the sith or fairy folk, were also said to live here.  It’s one of several places in Duirinish where the legendary Fairy Cup of Dunvegan was said to have come from.  Otta Swire (1961) told its tale:

“One midsummer night a MacLeod, searching for strayed cattle, stayed late on the moor.  In the moonlight he saw the door of Dun Osdale open and the little people come out, a long train of them, and began to dance on the green grass knoll nearby.  Fascinated, he watched, forgetting everything but the wonderful dance. Suddenly he sneezed.  The spell was broke.  The dance stopped.  MacLeod sprang up to fly, but the fairies were upon him and he was dragged, willy-nilly, into the dun.  Inside, as soon as his eyes grew accustomed to that strange green light associated with fairyland, he beheld a pleasing sight.  A great banquet was spread on a large table carved from a single tree: on it were vessels of gold and silver, many of them set with jewels or chased in strange designs.  His fairy ‘hosts’ led him to the table, poured wine into one of the beautiful cups and, giving it to him, invited him to toast their chief.  Now this man’s mother was a witch, so he knew well that if he ate or drank in the dun he was in the Daoine Sithe’s power for ever.  He lifted the cup and appeared to drink the required toast, but in fact skilfully let the wine run down inside his coat.  As soon as his neighbours saw the cup was half empty, they ceased to bother about him but went off on their own affairs or to attend the banquet.  Thereafter MacLeod watched for a chance of escape and, when one offered, slipped quietly through the door of the dun and away, carrying the cup with him.

“The fairies soon realised what had happened and started in pursuit, but he was already across the Osdale river and in safety.  He hurried home, told his mother the story, and showed her the cup.  Being a wise woman she realised the peril in which he undoubtedly stood and at once put her most powerful spell upon him to protect him from the arts of the Daoine Sithe, warning him seriously never to leave the house for a moment without getting the spell renewed.  But she forgot to put a protecting spell upon the cup also.  The fairies soon discovered the exact state of affairs and immediately laid their own spell upon the cup, a spell so powerful that all who saw the cup or even heard of it, were seized with an overmastering desire to possess it, even if such possession involved the murder of the holder.

“For a year, all went well and thanks to his mother’s care the young man went unharmed.  Then he grew careless and one day ventured out without the protecting spell.  A one-time friend, bewitched by the cup, had been awaiting just such a chance and immediately murdered him and went off with the prize.  The fairies, their revenge achieved, took no further interest in the matter, but MacLeod of MacLeod did.  The boy’s mother hurried to him with her story, and he at once gave orders that the murderer be found and brought to justice.  He was duly hanged and the trouble-making cup, now free of enchantment, passed into the possession of the chief and can still be seen in (Dunvegan) castle.”

References:

  1. Donaldson-Blyth, Ian, In Search of Prehistoric Skye, Thistle: Insch 1995.
  2. MacCulloch, J.A.,  The Misty Isle of Skye, Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier: Edinburgh 1905.
  3. MacGregor, Alasdair Alpin, Over the Sea to Skye, Chambers: Edinburgh 1930.
  4. Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the Outer Hebrides, Skye and the Small Isles, HMSO: Edinburgh 1928.
  5. Swire, Otta F., Skye: The Island its Legends, Blackie & Sons: Glasgow 1961.

Acknowledgements:  Eternally grateful to the awesome Aisha Domleo and Her little clan for getting us to this ancient haven on Skye’s endless domain of natural beauty.  Without Her, this would not have been written.  Also, accreditation of early OS-map usage, reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  57.424152, -6.596830 Dun Osdale

Fiscary (4), Farr, Sutherland

Cairn:  OS Grid Reference – NC 72858 62620

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 6437

Getting Here

Approaching Fiscary 4, north

Approaching Fiscary 4, north

A mile east of Bettyhill on the A836 road, watch for the large piles of rocks up on the hill on your left (north).  Turn left on the tiny road past the first house for 150 yards and then on the track past the sheep-fanks through the gate and up the small hill.  The cairn is the smallest of the pile of rocks in front of you.

Archaeology & History

Of the four giant cairns clustered here at Fiscary, a mile east of Bettyhill, this one has received the least attention.  It is found amidst a massive cluster of archaeological remains running from the 19th century all the way back into the neolithic period. Quite impressive!

Sitting on top of the cairn the view is impressive: looking 360º with the Orkney islands s to the northeast, Durness and the rising mountains west and southwest, and endless craggy moorlands peppered with lochans driving in all directions to the south countless miles away.  This panorama of wilderness is something to behold…

Looking west out to sea

Looking west out to sea

Looking southwest

Looking southwest

The tomb itself, with the acceptable scatter of fallen rocks to the edges, is nearly 50 yards in circumference, measuring more than 12 yards east-west and nearly 14 yards north-south, with the Earth covering the older rocks to the edges with more and more vegetation as the years pass.  It stands about 5-6 feet high with the typical internal mass of thousands of stones making up the cairn.  No known excavations have ever been made here.

In the otherwise superb Royal Commission (1911) survey of Sutherland, they only had scant information to say about this tomb, telling that,

“The fourth cairn…measures 28′ to 30′ in diameter and is about 6′ high.  There are no signs of chambers visible and the cairn has been a good deal dilapidated.”

Even when R.J. Mercer (1981) came to give this area greater attention, he passed by the Fiscary 4 cairn with equal brevity, noting simply its dimensions, elevation above sea level and the fact that it is a “circular cairn on crest of hill.”

The tombs of Fiscary 12 and 3 are very close by some beginning some 257 yards (235m) to the east.  I cannot recommend this entire complex highly enough!

References:

  1. Henshall, Audrey S., The Chambered Cairns of Sutherland, Edinburgh University Press 1995.
  2. Mercer, R.J. & Howell, J.M., Archaeological Field Survey in Northern Scotland – volume 2, University of Edinburgh 1981.
  3. o’ Reilly, Kevin & Crockford, Ashley, What to See Around Bettyhill, privately printed 2009.
  4. Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Second report and inventory of monuments and constructions in the county of Sutherland. HMSO: Edinburgh 1911.

© Paul Bennett,  The Northern Antiquarian 2016

 

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  58.533039, -4.185383 Fiscary 4

Fiscary (3), Farr, Sutherland

Cairn:  OS Grid Reference – NC 73222 62484

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 6446
  2. Pict’s House

Getting Here

Fiscary 3 giant cairn, looking west

Fiscary 3 giant cairn, looking west

Along the A836 road from Bettyhill to Thurso, a mile east of the village keep your eyes peeled to your left (or to the right if you’re coming the other way!), looking north, and you’ll see some very large piles of stones a few hundred yards away. Go through the gate onto the rough grasslands and the first one you reach is the cairn in question. Y’ can’t miss it!

Archaeology & History

On 1878 OS-map as Picts House

On 1878 OS-map as Picts House

Close to the Fiscary 1 and Fiscary 2 tombs, this is the third and southernmost of the three giant cairns on this moorland hillside and is the second largest of the trio.  Curiously it was the only one highlighted by the Ordnance Survey lads in their cartographic analysis here in 1873—they somehow missed the others—when they told it to be a ‘Pictish House’, or broch.  A few years later when the Royal Commission (1911) fellas got their noses up here, they said that this,

“which is the most easterly, is circular in form, is about 68ft in diameter, and 15ft 6in to the apex, on which a small pile of stones has recently been erected.  The cairn does not appear to have been excavated, but the stones in several places have been pulled out, probably in attempts to discover the chambers or in pursuit of rabbits.”

Looking into its centre

Looking into its centre

Long stone at southern edge

Long stone at southern edge

Considering the size of this giant cairn and its close association with is neighbours 150 yards northwest, I’m surprised at the lack of attention it’s been given.  Within the collapse of stones on its southern-side we find an elongated stone which seems to have stood upright at some point in the past, either at the very edge of the cairn, or just inside it.  It may even have been a covering stone to a collapsed entrance, but without an excavation we’re not gonna know for certain.

The fact that this cairn is on the slopes south of the crowning cairns of Fiscary 1 and Fiscary 2 implies that this was built some centuries later than them.  Also notable here is that the view to the north is blocked and we are instead only looking across a panorama east, south and west.

Folklore

Looking across into the east

Looking across into the east

Local tradition told that this was a Pict’s house, or broch (it may well have been) and is shown as such on the first Ordnance Survey account of the region in 1878.  Otta Swire (1963) told that this landscape was once peopled by giants who made the land and played a part in the creation of some of the giant tombs around here.  One time local school-teacher at Bettyhill, Alan Temperley (1977) also told us how the fairy folk lived close to the giant tombs of Fiscary.

References:

  1. Gourley, Robert, Sutherland: An Archaeological Guide, Birlinn: Edinburgh 1996.
  2. Henshall, Audrey S., The Chambered Tombs of Scotland – volume 1, Edinburgh University Press 1963.
  3. Henshall, Audrey S., “The Distant Past,” in The Sutherland Book (edited by Donald Omand), Northern Times: Golspie 1991.
  4. Henshall, Audrey S., The Chambered Cairns of Sutherland, Edinburgh University Press 1995.
  5. Lelong, Olivia C., “Writing People into the Landscape: Approaches to the Archaeology of Badenoch and Strathnaver,” University of Glasgow 2002.
  6. o’ Reilly, Kevin & Crockford, Ashley, What to See Around Bettyhill, privately printed 2009.
  7. Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Second report and inventory of monuments and constructions in the county of Sutherland. HMSO: Edinburgh 1911.
  8. Sutherland, George, Folk-lore Gleanings and Character Sketches from the Far North, John o’ Groats Journal: Wick 1937.
  9. Temperley, Alan, Tales of the North Coast, Research Publishing Company: London 1977.

Acknowledgments:  HUGE thanks to Aisha Domleo and for getting me up here.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  58.531911, -4.179048 Fiscary (3)

Fiscary (2), Farr, Sutherland

Chambered Cairn:  OS Grid Reference – NC 73112 62604

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 6445
  2. Carn Chaoile

Getting Here

A mile east of Bettyhill along the A836 road, watch out for the large piles of rocks up on the hill on your left (north).  Go through the gate, past the Fiscary 3 cairn and 150 yards northwest you’ll reach the crowning cairn on the hilltop itself – the Fiscary 2 cairn.

Archaeology & History

Fiscary 2 cairn, looking NW

Fiscary 2 cairn, looking NW

The second of the three giant chambered cairns on this moorland hillside is the largest (only just!) of them all.  Positioned right on top of the small hill, this great mass of rocks stands out from the roadside a quarter-mile to the south quite blatantly, yet it somehow evaded the eyes of the early Ordnance Survey lads in their visit here in 1873 (though the nearby Fiscary 3 cairn was plotted).  Odd…

Aisha against the size of the cairn

Aisha against the size of the cairn

When I came here with Aisha and her clan a few weeks ago Nature was blasting us with full gales and so half her bunch returned after a short while, leaving us to get thrown about in the winds!  Even just trying to stand upright on this and its associated tomb proved difficult.  But despite this and the low grey clouds—typical of northern Scottish weather—it was obvious that the views from here would be superb, seeing far into the distance with a 360º view.  I have little doubt that other important prehistoric sites would be speaking with this giant neolithic cairn, but there is nothing in the archaeology accounts to help us on such matters.

The giant tomb is almost linked to its companion—Fiscary 1—by a low scatter of rocks running between them, with only a yard or two separating their disturbed masses.  Several archaeology students have posited that the two seemingly separate sites were, many thousands of years ago, perhaps one elongated chambered tomb, just like the ones found nearby at the Coille na borgie and Long Skelpick cairns; but it seems unlikely in this case…

Fiscary 2 Cairn, looking SE

Fiscary 2 Cairn, looking SE

Fiscary-2 on 1908 OS-map

Although Adam Gunn (1893) mentioned the “four large cairns” at Fiscally (the fourth and smallest is 262 yards to the west), the first real description I can find of the place comes from an article by a local man called Cathel Kerr (1892) who told us it was “about 220 feet in circumference, and 15 or 16 in height”; but most of his article dealt with his excavation into the adjacent Fiscary 1 tomb, which he noticed was connected by a stone platform that ran between the two sites.  This was the first mention of such a connecting platform—and a curious feature it is indeed.  When the Royal Commission lads came here in May 1909 they also noted this connecting platform.  They found that the cairn itself,

“does not appear to have been excavated.  It is circular with a diameter of about 52ft and is some 10ft high to the top of the modern pile of stones on its apex.  It presents a peculiar feature.  At the north end is clearly visible a broad platform of stones extending to a distance of 25ft from the base of the cairn and, though largely overgrown with turf, traceable by the outline of stones almost entirely around it.  This platform has been described as a neck connecting the two cairns (Fiscary 1 and 2, PB), but in reality it stops 7ft distant from the adjacent cairn.”

Henshall's ground-plan of Fiscally 1 & 2

Henshall’s ground-plan of Fiscally 1 & 2

Holding onto her hat at Fiscary 2

Holding onto her hat at Fiscary 2

Indeed, this “platform” seems to have been either deliberately constructed with the hilltop cairn positioned on top of it, or has been set around the tomb.  It’s difficult to say with any certainty.

The great Audrey Henshall (1963; 1995) wrote extensively about this ancient monument in her works, finalizing her site entry in The Chambered Cairns of Sutherland (1995).  After describing in some detail the archaeological association this site has with Fiscary 1, she turned her attention here and wrote:

“The larger south cairn (Fiscary 2, PB) is bare, steep-sided, and has been little disturbed.  The diameters are between 19.5 to 21.5m, and the height is 5.5m measured from the NW.  The edge is clear for about half of the circuit.  The surrounding platform is quite low and is partly covered with peat and deep heather which in places obscure the edge.  The platform varies in width from 4.8 to 7.3m.  On the SE side the cairn edge is clear and there is no sign of the platform.  It appears on the NE side where it is largely free of heather, and the cairn material merges into its stones.  This part of the platform is edged by a rough kerb which fades away westwards into the spread of stones which links the two cairns.  In the area between the cairns the stones are mainly covered by peat on which grow turf and heather.  The spread of stones appears to be thin, but on the NW side of the cairn, where there is evidently a drop in ground level, breaks in the peat cover show that here the stone spread has considerable depth.  Round the W side the platform is heather-covered, and along the SW part, where the hill drops away steeply, there is a rough kerb at a lower level than elsewhere, within which the surface of the platform rises to the base of the cairn.  The S end of the platform, which here is bare stones, seems to turn sharply towards the S edge of the cairn, though the actual edge of the platform is indefinite.”

The likelihood is that this cairn is the oldest of the cluster of three found here, most likely constructed in the neolithic period.  Its position in the landscape would indicate that the site would have been built to commemorate the spirit of a local tribal elder, a King or Queen.  It’s a superb site and I’ll be visiting it again very soon indeed!

Folklore

Bouncy elven sprite rushes by

Bouncy elven sprite rushes by!

Otta Swire (1963) not only told that this landscape was once peopled by giants who made the land and played a part in the creation of some of the giant tombs around here.  The one time local school-teacher at Bettyhill, Alan Temperley (1977), also told us that the fairy folk lived close to the giant tombs of Fiscary.

References:

  1. Gourley, Robert, Sutherland: An Archaeological Guide, Birlinn: Edinburgh 1996.
  2. Gunn, Adam & Mackay, John, Sutherland and the Reay Country, John Mackay: Glasgow 1893.
  3. Henshall, Audrey S., The Chambered Tombs of Scotland – volume 1, Edinburgh University Press 1963.
  4. Henshall, Audrey S., “The Distant Past,” in The Sutherland Book (edited by Donald Omand), Northern Times: Golspie 1991.
  5. Henshall, Audrey S., The Chambered Cairns of Sutherland, Edinburgh University Press 1995.
  6. Kerr, Cathel, “Notice of the Excavation of a Chambered Cairn in the Parish of Farr, Sutherlandshire,” in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 26, 1892
  7. Lelong, Olivia C., “Writing People into the Landscape: Approaches to the Archaeology of Badenoch and Strathnaver,” University of Glasgow 2002.
  8. o’ Reilly, Kevin & Crockford, Ashley, What to See Around Bettyhill, privately printed 2009.
  9. Sutherland, George, Folk-lore Gleanings and Character Sketches from the Far North, John o’ Groats Journal: Wick 1937.
  10. Temperley, Alan, Tales of the North Coast, Research Publishing Company: London 1977.

Acknowledgments:  To the beautiful Aisha Domleo, for her images, bounce, spirit and madness – as well as getting me up to see this cluster of sites. 

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  58.532963, -4.181047 Fiscary 2

Fiscary (1), Farr, Sutherland

Chambered Cairn:  OS Grid Reference – NC 73102 62629

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 6445
  2. Carn Chaoile
  3. SUT 29 (Henshall)

Getting Here

Fiscary 1 cairn - from Fiscary 2

Fiscary 1 cairn – from Fiscary 2

A mile east of Bettyhill on the A836 road, watch for the large piles of rocks up on the hill on your left (north).  Go through the gate, past the Fiscary 3 cairn and 150 yards northwest you’ll reach the crowning cairn of Fiscary 2 on the hilltop itself.  Fiscary 1 is just a few yards in front of you.

Archaeology & History

Although this is the smallest of the Fiscary cairns, it is the one that has had been investigated more than the others in this cluster—and you can tell as it’s been dug into.  However, saying that, when Aisha and me were here a few weeks ago, the wind was blowing with such strength that we could give it little more than a cursory overview, as we were both getting blown about like a pair o’ puffters in the gale that was raging in from the sea!  Twas quite overwhelming…

Fiscary 1 to the rear

Fiscary 1 to the rear

One of the first things you notice is how this cairn is inextricably linked, both physically and otherwise, to its close partner on the hilltop only yards away: the Fiscary 2 cairn.  Fiscary 2 reaches outwards towards where we now stand—slightly below the larger tomb immediately north (the airt of Death itself): almost as if an ancient Queen and Her King were resting still hand-in-hand in their respective burial sites.

Aisha on top!

Aisha on top!

…And although such romance may seem nothing more than that, recall that we are probably looking at two giant archaic monuments whose birth emerged in the neolithic: when time was measured by night, not day; when the Moon was Prima Mater’s aide and portender; and patriarchy had yet to be borne…. Giant hilltop cairns were the places of our ancient shaman-kings, queens and tribal elders, whose integral relationship with the cycles of the world to which we are (still) bound, were culturally very different in some fundamental ways, before rites of passage were disposed of…. But I’m moving away from the modern history of the Fiscary tomb…. Soz!

Around the time when some of the indigenous northerners up here were seeing the fading lights of their animistic cosmology disappear into the emergence of ‘history’, when the traditional tales were ebbing, Fiscary 1 was at least being written about—albeit in a detached way, as a museum piece, a piece of architecture.  It’s the way things have become.  The tomb was excavated by a local man called Cathel Kerr in the latter half of the 19th century, although he reported that it had already been dug into a few years earlier.  Kerr told that some of the stones had been taken by an unnamed local for building purposes (not good!).  “It had been opened from the top” he said—continuing:

“and there was abundant evidence around the cairn, that large slabs of stone had been removed from the interior.  A little observation showed that there was the appearance of an internal chamber… The…cairn is about 150 feet in circumference and about 9 or 10 feet in height, and between it and (Fiscary 2) there is what seems to me to be a neck of stones joining the two cairns… Most of the neck joining the two cairns is covered over with turf, but a very slight observation reveals the fact that underneath it the mass of stones is continuous.  The apparent depth of stones is from 3 to 4 feet. It is most unlikely that this neck could have been formed by stones falling from the top of the cairns.

“The chamber, when opened, proved to be tripartite.  The entrance is from the west or northwest side, between two upright stones, with a large heavy slab thrown across them.  The passage is only 3 or 4 feet long, and about 3 feet high, and nearly the same in width.  This leads into a small chamber measuring about 6 feet by 3 feet.  In front of it, on the north side, a large upright slab projects, and helps to form part of the end of the inner chamber and a division between the two on the south side.  In all likelihood the stone corresponding to that one has been removed, so that there is nothing to mark the division between the chambers on that side.  The larger chamber measures 6 feet 4 inches by 7 feet 9 inches.  The sides are made up of large upright slabs and masonry, built up between the slabs.  The corners are all rounded and there is the appearance of vaulting by the stones overlapping one another.  The height of this chamber at present is about 5 feet.  The end of the chamber is made up by two upright stones, with nearly 2 feet of an entrance between them, leading into the innermost chamber.  This chamber is a very irregular oblong; indeed the ends are rounded.  On an average it is 5 feet 9 inches long, by 33 inches wide, and 3 or 4 feet in height.  It had the appearance of being covered over with slabs, some of which stood on edge inside; but of this I am not very sure, as the roofing of all the chambers has been interfered with.

“Inside there lay on the floor a large quantity of broken stones and black earth.  Underneath there was what seemed a mixture  of ashes and earth, with numerous pieces of charred wood, but no charred bones as far as I could see.  Underneath that layer there was ordinary gravel.  I found some fragments of bones on the innermost part, and some in the larger chamber.  They do not appear to me to be of very great antiquity.  A small vitrified mass was found on the floor.”

When the Royal Commission (1911) lads turned up to see the site in 1909 they reported—in a rather exaggerated manner—that the cairn “is now completely destroyed” and then in the next sentence said,

“The chamber is half filled-up with debris and only two or three large slabs remain, the others having disappeared.  Its diameter has been about 46ft, and its height 4ft to 5ft.”

If the Royal Commission believe that’s an example of something being “completely destroyed”, they should turn their eyes and attention to sites like the Nixon’s Station cairn on top of Ilkley Moor which, when I was young, was larger than any of the Fiscary cairns; but somehow under the watchful eyes of the regional archaeologists in the 1980s and ’90s, was levelled to the ground – i.e., properly destroyed!

Audrey Henshall's ground plan

Audrey Henshall’s ground plan

In more recent years the cairn has received the honourable attention of the great Audrey Henshall (1963; 1995) who, in her updated site profile of Fiscary 1, told us not much more about the site than her predecessor Kerr.  Contextualizing the place with its partner Fiscary 2 and the platform upon which it rests, she wrote:

“The paired cairns appear to be independent structures 8.5m apart, though a platform extending beyond the base of the south cairn, which has no internal features exposed, spreads to the base of the north cairn, which contains a ruined chamber… The north cairn is of bare angular stones with turf and heather only encroaching over the edges.  Its limits are well-defined and give a roughly square plan with short diameters of 16.5m… Kerr exposed the roofless tripartite chamber, and most of the structure which he recorded was visible in 1955 (Henshall 1963).  Less could be seen in 1992 as the chamber had been largely filled by loose stones…”

Much like the situation as it is today.  More recently a small pile of stones has been added to the top of the cairn, from whence the view is excellent to the north, east and west.  The larger Fiscary 2 cairn blocks the view directly south.

Folklore

Otta Swire (1963) not only told that this landscape was once peopled by giants who made the land and played a part in the creation of some of the giant tombs around here.  The one time local school-teacher at Bettyhill, Alan Temperley (1977), also told us that the fairy folk lived close to the giant tombs of Fiscary.

References:

  1. Eliade, Mircea, The Myth of the Eternal Return, RKP: London 1955.
  2. Gourley, Robert, Sutherland: An Archaeological Guide, Birlinn: Edinburgh 1996.
  3. Gunn, Adam & Mackay, John, Sutherland and the Reay Country, John Mackay: Glasgow 1893.
  4. Henshall, Audrey S., The Chambered Tombs of Scotland – volume 1, Edinburgh University Press 1963.
  5. Henshall, Audrey S., “The Distant Past,” in The Sutherland Book (edited by Donald Omand), Northern Times: Golspie 1991.
  6. Henshall, Audrey S., The Chambered Cairns of Sutherland, Edinburgh University Press 1995.
  7. Kerr, Cathel, “Notice of the Excavation of a Chambered Cairn in the Parish of Farr, Sutherlandshire,” in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 26, 1892
  8. Lelong, Olivia C., “Writing People into the Landscape: Approaches to the Archaeology of Badenoch and Strathnaver,” University of Glasgow 2002.
  9. o’ Reilly, Kevin & Crockford, Ashley, What to See Around Bettyhill, privately printed 2009.
  10. Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Second report and inventory of monuments and constructions in the county of Sutherland. HMSO: Edinburgh 1911.
  11. Sutherland, George, Folk-lore Gleanings and Character Sketches from the Far North, John o’ Groats Journal: Wick 1937.
  12. Temperley, Alan, Tales of the North Coast, Research Publishing Company: London 1977.

Acknowledgments:  Huge thanks to beautiful Aisha Domleo again, for help with some of the photos – and adding your elegant spirit and energy to the place – as well as getting me up here in the first place! 

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  58.533190, -4.181226 Fiscary 1

Butter Well, Dollar, Clackmannanshire

Sacred Well:  OS Grid Reference – NN 9610 0018

Getting Here

The marshland of the Butter Well

The marshland of the Butter Well

Take the long uphill road to Castle Campbell and park up at the top.  From here, bear to your right and walk up the footpath onto the hills.  A few hundred yards along you’ll reach a gate and you have the choice of continuing along the path, or dropping down into the small glen and up the other side, towards the ruins of an old settlement called Craiginnin, whose walls you can see from here.  Head there, keeping to the path that leads you to it, going through the first couple of gates and out the other side.  Just above the burn, some very overgrown walling is evident (possibly Iron Age in nature), where excessive Juncus reeds are growing. Amidst this is a boggy pool.  Unless the boggy-land across the burn is the place in question, this is probably the spot!

Archaeology & History

The boggy waters of the well

The boggy waters of the well

There’s very little to see here today other than a murky boggy pool, indicating it hasn’t been used for a long time; although when we visited the place there were several animal tracks into the edge of the pool, indicating that they still drink here.  This implies it has/had some medicinal virtues, but even I wasn’t going to try drinking this!  If there was ever a stone trough here, it too has gone (probably nabbed by a farmer in bygone years) and there seems to be no archaeocentric reference to the place.  The well was described in place-name and folklore accounts, where its waters were used by the people living at this settlement to clean and prepare the butter made by the farmer.

Folklore

The hills, glens and burns of the Ochil range were well-known haunts of fairy folk—and Craiginnan was no exception.  In an early article in the Scottish Journal of Topography, a pseudonymous “J.C.” of “13 Dalrymple Place” (who was it?) told of several dying traditions and, amidst it all, the story behind the Butter Well above Castle Campbell:

“The meadow of Craiginnan, in the vicinity of these hills, was (and still is) famous for the quantities of hay it yearly produces.  Nearly seventy years ago, David Wright rented the farm of Craiginnan.  His servants on cutting the grass of the meadow, were in the custom of leaving it to the management of the fairies.  These aerial beings came from Blackford, Gleneagles, Buckieburn, etc., and assembling on the summit of the Saddlehill descended to their work among the hay.  From morning till evening they toiled assiduously.  After spreading it out before the sun, they put it into coils, then into ricks, when it was conveyed into the adjacent farm-yard, where they built it into stacks.  This kindness of the fairies David Wright never forgot to repay, for, when the sheep-shearing came round, he always gave them a few of the best fleeces of his flock.  He flourished wonderfully, but finding his health daily declining, and seeing death would soon overtake him, he imparted to his eldest son the secret of his success and told him ever to be in friendship with the “gude neebors.”

“The old man died and was succeeded by his son, who was at once hard, grasping and inhospitable.  The kind advices and injunctions given him by his father were either forgotten or unattended to.  Hay-making came round, but young Wright, instead of allowing the “green-goons” to perform what they had so long done (thinking thereby to save a few fleeces), ordered his servants to the work.  Things went on very pleasantly the first day, but on going next morning to resume their labour, what was their surprise to find the hay scattered in every direction.  Morning after morning this was continued, until the hay was unfit for use.  In revenge for this, he destroyed the whole of their rings, ploughed up their green knolls, and committed a thousand other offences.  He had soon reason, however, to repent of these ongoings.

“One day the dairymaid having completed the operation of churning, carried the butter, as was her wont, to the butter well on the east side of the house, to undergo the process of washing, preparatory to its being sent away to the market.  No sooner had she thrown it into the well, than a small hand was laid upon it, and in a second the bright golden treasure disappeared beneath the crystal waters!  The servant tried to snatch it; but alas! it was lost—irrecoverably lost forever! and as she left the place a voice said:

“Your butter’s away’
To feat our band
In the fairy ha’.”

“The horses, cows and sheep sickened and died; and to complete all, Wright, on returning from a Glendevon market, night overtook him in the wild pass of Glenqueich.  He wandered here and there, and at last sunk into a “well-e’e”, in which he perished.  After his death the farmhouse went gradually to demolition and its bare walls are now only to be seen.”

Butter Well site, looking west

Butter Well site, looking west

The place-name ‘Craiginnan’ is thought to derive from the somewhat banal “crags by the anvil-shaped land”, which is grasping at some desperate straws if you ask me!  But it’s also been suggested by Angus Watson (1995) to possibly derive from the “Gaelic Creag Ingheann, maiden crag”, which would acquaint it with the nearby Maiden’s Well and Maiden’s Castle a mile northeast of here—both of which are possessed of their own fairy-lore.  Makes a lot more sense too!

References:

  1. “J.C.”, “Rhymes and Superstitions of Clackmannanshire,” in Scottish Journal of Topography, Antiquities & Traditions, volume 2, Jul 1, 1848.
  2. Simpkins, John Ewart, County Folklore – volume VII: Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Fife, with some Notes on Clackmannan and Kinross-Shires, Folk-Lore Society: London 1914. p.312
  3. Watson, Angus, The Ochils: Placenames, History, Tradition, PKDC: Perth 1995.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.182946, -3.676236 Butter Well

Tobair na h-oige, St. Kilda, Outer Hebrides

Sacred Well (lost):  OS Grid Reference – NA 100 000

Also Known as:

  1. Well of Eternal Youth

Folklore

An old story told in previous centuries by the indigenous folk of Hirta (St. Kilda) described a long-lost well that was thought to be an abode of the little people, known as the Well of Eternal Youth.  Not to be confused with the Well of Virtues near the Amazon’s House less than a mile west, the rough whereabouts of this site is cited by J. Sands (1878) in the folklore section of his otherwise historical account on these faraway Atlantic islands.  He wrote:

“Once on a time an old fellow, in going up Connagher with a sheep on his back, observed a Well which he had never seen or heard of before.  The water looked like cream, and was so tempting, that he knelt down and took a hearty drink.  To his surprise all the infirmities of age immediately left him, and all the vigour and activity of youth returned. He laid down the sheep to mark the spot, and ran down the hill to tell his neighbours. But when he came up again neither sheep nor well were to be found, nor has any one been able to find the Tobair na h-oige to this day.  Some say that if he had left a small bit of iron at the well—a brog with a tacket in it would have done quite well—the fairies would have been unable to take back their gift.”

Explorations of old maps and texts has failed to show with certainty where this legendary well may have been (the grid-ref is an approximation), but it was reported in Mrs Banks’ Scottish Calendar Customs (1937) to have been “issuing out of the face of a rock on the north-side of the east bay…only accesible by the inhabitants, no stranger daring to climb the steep rock.” Some of us would try!

References:

  1. Banks, M. MacLeod, British Calendar Customs: Scotland – volume 2, Folklore Society: London 1937.
  2. Sands, J., Out of the World; or Life in St. Kilda, Maclachlan & Stewart: Edinburgh 1878.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  57.819254, -8.571844 Tobair na h-oige